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World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen, Baughan Publishing (Peterborough, NH), 2011, 367 pp.

world enough and timeI recognized the title line immediately, from Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” and loved the way the author had plucked it from its context of sexual seduction to entice us into a contemplation of slowness. McEwen’s World Enough and Time is a series of carefully considered essays on slowing down, and the necessary relationship between slowness and creativity. I see myself as a creative artist with both my preaching and my writing, and I know that neither one is possible without making a life that is spacious and slow. I struggle to preach on Sunday if I don’t have a quiet day off on Friday. The slow time matters, even if I am not working on the sermon itself. With that in mind, I was eager and receptive to read this book, which was given as an assignment by my Macedonian Ministries group.

McEwen begins with a basic case for slowness and a compelling indictment of modern American life, which she diagnoses with “hurry sickness.” Hurry sickness is a feeling of time poverty, so that life is lived in constant motion without the chance to linger, reflect, absorb or tarry. I have read many books on this theme, with corresponding statistical or theological or sociological analysis. McEwen offers none of those. She simply points out, with a poet’s care and sharpness, what we all know: a life full to the brim with activity is often empty of meaning, depth and relationship.

For the remainder of the book, she devotes a chapter each to a varied list of slow activities, slow gifts and slow ways of being. In each chapter, McEwen looks at the lives of artists and practitioners in those areas, combing their lives and art for quotations and insights about the process of creativity and slowness. She examines the gift of a long conversation with a friend, childhood experiences in nature, walking, reading, writing (especially reading and writing poetry), silence, sabbath, storytelling and meditation. Two of my favorite chapters were the ones on dreaming and on looking.

In “The Art of Looking,” McEwen talks about the cultivation of the eye in artists. A great work of art does not come from the technique of the hand, but from the eye of the artist that is able to see and illuminate something that the rest of us cannot. Such art requires enormous time spent observing the world with great care and attention, time that might appear idle and fruitless to others. I am not a visual artist, but I connected with this passage as a preacher. My sermons require a lot of time spent staring out the window, looking off into space, or letting my mind wander. It’s the only way I can “see” what I am supposed to say each week. McEwen quotes from several others who speak to the path to seeing something new:

“To learn something new,” said the naturalist John Burroughs, “take the path today that you took yesterday.” All professions have need of such devoted practitioners, willing to push past their own boredom, their own comfortable familiarity, in order to arrive at something new. As Proust once said, “The true voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having fresh eyes.” (121)

Every week, my journey with the Gospel is a quest to see it with new eyes. The stories are familiar and many are well-worn. Yet, when they are seen with fresh eyes, they give us new life.

In “Across the Bridge of Dreams,” she catalogs the relationship between creativity and dreams. I don’t usually share this, but this book has given me courage. Dreaming is a critically important part of my sermon writing process. I concentrate and work at the computer to research and think and analyze, but the mystical presence of the Gospel good news only comes to me when I sleep. I lay down in prayer with the sermon in my mind, and in that hazy place between dreaming and waking, the Spirit does its work to bind it all together for me. Sometimes, I will awake in the night to make notes. Other times, I dream it over and over again so that by morning it is all clear and ready to transcribe. According to McEwen, I am not alone. She shared that Samuel Coleridge, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabelle Allende, William Styron, and Robert Louis Stevenson all described writing in through their dreams, and included dreams in their process much the same way that I do. (245-249) It’s not simply paying attention or gaining insight or journaling about my dreams–the dreaming is an essential part of the writing process for me. I have to work it out in the dream. The same was true for them.

World Enough and Time was a rich experience from beginning to end. The book demands slowness in the experience of reading, so that you might contemplate and ruminate on all the things McEwen brings together. It also invites a re-reading, as a whole or just a chapter that piques your interest for a time.  It is a book that invites you to dive in and surface again, to splash around here and there rather than simply consuming it from one end to the other. If you ever needed a compelling case for slowing down and creating space in your life, especially if you are an artist in any way, McEwen’s World Enough and Time is just what you need.

The pastoral vocation is a way of life. Ministry is more than a job, it is an identity. I have never felt a keen distance between my personal and pastoral identity. My pastoral self is a natural outgrowth of who I am, and it does not feel like a role I pick up and put down with artifice. I am a pastor wherever I go, and I don’t turn it off when I go home at night or leave on vacation.

This sabbatical is as close as I’ve come to setting aside my pastoral identity since I entered seminary nearly 15 years ago. For one whole month now, I have not had any pastoral duties. No preaching, no pastoral calls, no church meetings, no professional conversations, no leadership of any kind. I pray daily, go to church on Sundays, read the Bible, read books about spiritual life, and live my faith simply as a person.

The greatest gift of sabbatical so far has been renewing my relationship to God, to the church and to myself as a person, not just as a pastor. Again—this is important and worth repeating—pastoral life does not separate me from myself, and certainly not from God and from the church. It enhances and deepens all those relationships. However, all of my interactions, whether with God, with the church and with myself, become attached to my work, into the tasks of proclaiming and producing and planning and perceiving and propagating. The work of personal spiritual seeking and growing is intertwined with the work of professional spiritual leadership and church-growing. A moment’s insight about the Ground of All Being makes me question whether I am supposed to pass on that image to someone else in a pastoral conversation. An experience of illumination makes me wonder if I am supposed to include it in this week’s sermon. Not during sabbatical. The Presence and its gifts, for now, belong just to me. I am free from discerning whether God is telling me something for me, for the church or both. Right now, I can relate to God just as me, not as a mediator or leader or visionary or teacher or preacher.

In the life of ministry, we must always be listening for God’s voice and praying to hear God’s direction not just for ourselves, but all those to whom and with whom we minister. When we hear a message, we immediately repeat it, to share the good news with others. God loves you! There is enough! You are welcome just as you are! You are forgiven! Love and serve with all your heart! Sabbatical has made me realize that I have been so busy hearing and repeating these messages as a pastor that I have sometimes forgotten to hear and hold them as a person. The good news is for me, too.

 

In this sabbatical space, I am reminded that God loves me not just as a pastor, but as a person. God loves me not because of the work I do, but simply because I exist. In separating from the pastoral part of my identity for a time, I simply receive the gifts of God and delight in them.

That is the true meaning of all Sabbath practice. God created the world in six days, and rested to enjoy creation on the seventh day. God commands us to abstain from work one day every week, to remind us that we are a part of that creation, which God has called “good” and in which God delights. We are loved not for what we do, but for who we are as children of God.

None of this is unique to pastoral life, however. All of us, as Christians, are called to the work of ministry, to share the good news and serve others and build God’s community. Pastors are not the only vehicles of God’s work. We are all conduits of God for those around us, which is why we are all commanded to work, but also to Sabbath. We all need to be reminded that the message of good news does not just come through us, but to us. God loves you! You are welcome just as you are! You are forgiven!


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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