Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

The Necessary Place of Stillness

The end of any journey calls for some reflection. If we don’t, we miss what God wants us to take into our next chapter.

I am not so prone to give much time to deep pauses. I live in anticipation of the next moment, the next engagement, the next challenge. I thrive in a hyper-fast-paced world, one often of my own making. After traveling to seven countries these past few months, engaging with leaders, and giving my energies to twelve leadership conferences, I am realizing how necessary it is to stop, rest, and recover. I must let the jet lag carry out its work of getting me back into some rhythm. Above all, I keep finding I must embrace the stillness.

Only in the quiet can I look back and ask if objectives were met—

-do Jewish students have a clearer sense of the mission of God, such that it is changing their lives?

-are leaders in Nepal reframing their definition of leadership, determined to be servants?

-do the nine young men in my course in India have the confidence to step into leadership, even if those hanging on won’t let go?

-are Ugandan pastors surer of their task?

-are leaders in the Middle East convinced that character matters more than performance?

-have I come home with a more expansive view of God and his kingdom?

My proneness to measure my life by activity requires the occasional rebuke of the Spirit, the intervention and counsel of centering voices, as well as circumstances that force one to slow to a stop. One of these voices is the writer, Frederick Buechner. I find myself drawn to him in moments like the one I am in. His words are insightful for he challenges me to look for themes and patterns and signals—those that are so easy to miss. And this is necessary, for if we listen with patience and hope, we may hear the subtle voice of God. We might find a theme (God is doing far more than I imagined); a pattern (a tendency to believe God is more impressed with what we do than who we are becoming), and a signal (every wall is a door).

In my journeys, I sometimes sense God saying, “It’s okay to slow down. It’s African time and that can be life-bringing. It’s okay to wait. Dealing with multiple flights, I keep learning to adjust. Flights change; schedules change; seat assignments change. Enjoy the ride. Living in a Mideast culture given to hospitality, I work to get over this constant need to reciprocate. And now that I am home, I sense God telling me to revel in those days that have no checklist.

In his memoir of vocation, Now and Then, Buechner describes the latter years, when things shifted. He had moved from pastor to professor to writer. Movement to stillness. This has been my shift. What he found—and I am finding—is a loneliness. One is now without an institution, colleagues to draw support from, and routines to keep in step with (except those structures we impose upon ourselves). I too am a pastor without a church, a professor without students, and (currently) a writer without a publisher. There are times I am uncomfortably by myself.

Now that I am home, a self-examination of my soul tells me to sharpen my rule of life. The Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren describes such a rule as “an overarching plan governing your daily practices, habits, and routines.” I need to, in a fresh way, take stock of how I use my time, given that it is largely up to me.

I do have this rhythm—wake up at 5:00 am, spend time working through my One Year Bible, pray through my list, ride to the club, swim my laps, and give my day to what I believe God is summoning me to do. In these days, I am at a juncture. Is it writing a fourth book? Can I give it the life and energy good writing demands? Am I willing to invest six to seven hours a day for the next two or more years? Do I really need this? Isn’t walking the beach in Arch Cape with Heather on a sunny day enough?

My fear—and perhaps you can identify—is to wake up flat, feeling rather irrelevant. Doubts about myself and doubts about my calling are always circling me. Buechner refers to them as dark shadows that have a way of coming over and disrupting us. Perhaps I am drawn to Buechner because he has learned to pause enough to see that even in the boredom and the pain—no less than in the excitement and the joy—all of our moments are critical. If you keep your eyes open and your ears attentive, God may just sweep you away with a new revelation.

We are these transitory beings. Life goes so fast. Am I keeping up? How do we compare? Am I maintaining the pace of others?

At a critical turning point, when Jesus’s popularity was eclipsing John’s, the disciples of this forerunner came to him expressing concern that things were slowing down. More and more were attracted to Jesus. Had they run their course? Was John’s baptisms still relevant? One hears both fear and jealousy. To this, John had this simple, yet profound response: “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven” (John 3:27). These too are centering words. The best antidote to envy, writes Bruner, is the conviction of the sovereignty of God. The places, successes, and failures of our employments are under the sovereignty of a wise God.” Whatever we have is a divine gift. It is important to joyfully accept whatever it is.

What is necessary is to guard against the tendency—especially with age—to get tired and stale. I do believe God desires to make us new every day. Only then can we look forward to the next chapter with great hope, no matter how small or formidable.

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