Learn the Unforced Rhythms of Grace: An Interview with J.R. Briggs

Preacher 3J.R. Briggs is the Cultural Cultivator at The Renew Community and founder of Kairos Partnerships. The Washington Institute had the pleasure of talking with him on the topic of vocation and his work in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. This conversation has been edited for print.

TWI: We would love to hear your thoughts on the topic of vocation–what has formed how you come alongside of others amidst their vocations?

J.R. Briggs: Vocation is such a significant topic for me, an untapped area of the church in North America. I don’t know why we haven’t woken up to this sleeping giant, but one day we will.

Recently we did a sermon series on vocation in our church—“God at Work.” In our community we have businessmen and electricians, stay-at-home dads and moms. Our congregation runs the gamut of people who are asking, What does this “vocare” thing mean? What does it mean to be called?

Preacher2I think calling starts with listening. I’ve come to love a set of statues right behind the Philadelphia Art Museum, four statues in the North Terrace of the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial Sculpture Garden. These statues are, in my opinion, the perfect example of vocation lived out. The first one is the laborer, with the inscription, “He wrought miracles.” It depicts this steel worker with an iron mask. Next is the poet, which says, “He shaped our dreams.” Then it’s the scientist, “He weighed the stars.” The last one is Preacher, “He guided our ways.” I love the preacher statue. It depicts this preacher in his robes putting his hands up to his ear. He is listening.

About twice a year I go there and sit under that statue in a lawn chair and say, “Okay Lord, how does this become my posture, the posture of listening, and not just as a pastor. How can I imbibe that and teach our congregation to listen?” In other words, how do we listen to the Spirit? How do we teach others to do that? How are we listening to culture? How am I listening to my skills and talents and abilities and even my limitations? How am I listening to my spouse and my family? What are the things I should not be listening to? It’s a good spiritual exercise to ask “How do I embody this posture of listening in my life and how can I help others reproduce it as well?” However, I think all four are important in the topic of vocation—it’s more than just listening.

There is the laborer. Theologically speaking, in Luke 10, it says that we are all God’s workers. He sends us out into the harvest and he’s waiting for workers. He says, “I dare you to ask for more workers.” There is also a scientist side, where we deal with facts like the risen Christ, the virgin birth, and the resurrection. There’s also a poetry side where we don’t just spit facts out, but there’s an inspiration that leads others to say, “Man, your life is so appealing, not because you do something amazing but because you have a sense of cadence, and an anchoring, a willingness to enter into the story of Jesus and not run after the things everyone does. That is what freedom looks like.” I think all of those are important and work together. There is a resting part and a laboring part; there is a factual part but there is also a poetic part. So head, heart, mind, and soul are all engaged in those four statues.

TWI: It’s like a vocation quadrilateral.

JRB: I have created a graph that balances each other out and basically says we need to listen to the Spirit about where we are weak, where we have gone too far and where we need to draw back. There are seasons where the pendulum swings too hard on working, the bearing fruit of John 15, but there is also a season of pulling back and listening, which is abiding. It’s this constant swinging motion that happens in the ecology of how agriculture works and the ecology of how the Spirit works. So if we are “go, go, go” all the time we become exhausted and we are no longer abiding. If we are just abiding, Jesus says, “Get to work!” There’s that startling passage with Moses: “Stop praying. Go do it!” So, yes, literally, it is a quadrilateral. This metaphor rings true with me and with how I understand vocation. Those are the vocational postures.

TWI: You are channeling both the pastor and the poet here.

JRB: There are seasons for both, right? Poets can be beautiful but they can also be really off on the truth. And there are certain denominations that can be all about great truth and could not make the truth drier. How can we have the greatest story that ever existed yet bore people with it? I blame some of that on us, and I blame some of it on seminaries for focusing so much on the scientist and so little on the poet.

400px-Samuel_Memorial_PoetAgain, I’m coming from a theological perspective, but I think that the work of a good plumber is poetic. The work of a great stay-at-home mom is poetic. By poetic, I mean that people will observe how we live, and say, “I want your life, not your stuff. Whatever you’re doing is so inviting and freeing. I can’t wait to bring my kids over to be around your kids and let them play. What is it? What have you got?” That’s so important. The problem is we think vocation is just in the spiritual and theological realm. During a recent sermon series, I was practically begging our church community by saying: “You all have the greater opportunity for impact with the gospel and the kingdom in the world than I do. I’m not allowed to walk into your corporate office. I’d be arrested for trespassing. But you have a specific place. And my job is not to do it for you; my job is to equip you and unleash you.”

The most important part of the service in our community’s worship service is the benediction. Catholics might say it’s communion; Presbyterians might say it’s the sermon; charismatics might say it is worship or prayer. But I think that when we are thinking about being part of God’s mission, it is all about the benediction. The benediction says worship is not over. It says that the game is “out there.” The benediction is one of my favorite parts, if not my favorite part, of our gathering.

Eddie Gibbs says churches have great strategies for gathering but very few have strategies for scattering. I’d love to see more of an emphasis on the strategies for scattering among pastors and churches. It would take some truly secure pastors to do that because so much of the role of church and the professionalized pastor is based on people gathering. This needs to be turned inside out.

TWI: Speaking of pastors, can you tell us more about the Kairos Partnerships? It sounds like what you are doing in these meetings is the vocational development of pastors.

I was recently coaching a pastor who is asking questions like, how am I wired? What are my gifts? Sometimes those are answered with training, but sometimes what’s needed is stepping back and identifying idols and fear. As a coach, I encourage them to listen; like the Preacher in the sculpture garden, I help them put their hands to their ears. What is the Spirit’s intent with you, and what is the Spirit’s intent with your church? Those are the driving questions in a coaching setting.

As a trained life coach, my job is to listen 85% of the time, and then to ask questions, and only then at the end to offer some insights, mirroring back what I hear and sense. Then I recommend some resources or introduce them to a person who is also wrestling with this or has come out on the other side of this issue. It’s about sharpening people’s understanding of their vocation, learning to listen well.

John 10 is such an anchoring passage in terms of listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd. How would I know what to do if I’m not tuned in to listen? The ears are the most underdeveloped and underappreciated element of our spiritual formation. It is no wonder that when grappling with calling, people often say: “I wish Jesus would just tell me what to do.” Well, maybe he is, but we are so crowded with noise and distraction that we are unwilling to make the sacrifices to quiet down.

The story of Moses and the burning bush is illustrative on this point. That the bush was burning wasn’t what made it significant. Exodus 3 says the bush was burning but not burning up. There are some Jewish rabbis that have talked about how long it would take for you to watch a bush burn in order to realize its not being consumed. Thirty minutes? An hour? One rabbi even suggested that there might have been multiple people who noticed the burning bush but just kept walking. Perhaps it wasn’t until God knew that Moses was willing to slow down and pay attention that God showed up to speak. There is a lot to be gleaned about vocation and calling in this passage. Barbara Browning has a great quote on this: “Earth’s crammed with heaven; and every common bush afire with God; but only he who sees, takes off his shoes. The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.” Those blackberries are good things, but they can distract from those sacred moments.

TWI: Simone Weil says, “Paying attention is the highest form of prayer,” which seems to resonate with that rabbinical interpretation of Exodus 3.

JRB: Yes. Eugene Peterson has been a pen pal and mentor of mine for the last 12 years. I write him questions and he sends a letter back. Once, I asked him, “How would you define ministry?” I expected a long and brilliant answer. His reply was short and brilliant: “The role of the pastor is to pay attention to God and respond appropriately. Help your people do that.” I love that because it lowers the boom and takes the professionalism out of it. My job is not to do it for others. My job is to model that attention and appropriate response for others, to encourage them, and to plead with them to do it.

Of course, I can’t respond appropriately until I first pay attention, but I can pay attention and respond inappropriately. Think about Jonah. Jonah knew exactly what he was supposed to be doing. He had paid attention, but he didn’t respond appropriately. He just didn’t do what God told him to do. Pastors also need to articulate how they won’t ask anyone to do anything that they would not be willing to do first. Paul said this: “Follow me as I follow the spirit of Christ.” Pay attention to the Spirit, walk in obedience, and do the same.

When I get all angst-ridden and feel like I’m being a bad pastor, those words from Eugene Peterson center me. It really is about paying attention and responding appropriately.

TWI: It seems like listening is a huge part of your practices as a pastor, and that the activity of listening is how you serve the communities you are a part of. Would you make a distinction between the types of listening you do in the different settings and communities you find yourself a part of?

JRB: Prayer and paying attention are essential. Wisdom and discernment are irreplaceable in this process, although many leaders would love to give the equation for how to live faithfully. Our church gives people a form, but not a formula. We give people intention, not an equation. The moment I give formulas and equations is the moment I’m asking people to stop using their brains and just do what I’m telling them to do. But my job is isn’t to do that; it’s to encourage them to pay attention to God and respond appropriately to God.

Community has a huge role in this process, and vocation divorced from community can lead to a lot of justification and rationalization of the unwise. Two of the elements of the Wesleyan quadrilateral for discerning God’s will are Tradition and Experience; oftentimes they most tangibly comes out in the form of community. This community is the community one is involved in, as well as one’s roots, the shoulders of the women and men upon whom you stand.

I love what the Quakers do. In his book Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer tells a story of having members of his community sit around him when he was about to take a job as a college president. But he had already made up his mind to take the job. The committee asked him, “What do you like most about being president?” He started to answer all the things he wouldn’t like about it, and then he finally admitted that he really wanted to be president so he could have his picture in the paper with the title “President” under it. They suggested that maybe there was an easier way to get his picture in the paper. That is the role of community at its best.

My vocation involves my work with both the Kairos Partnerships and The Renew Community. However, I have to be careful that I don’t do both of them full-time. I’ve had to develop a community around me that helps me be very purposeful about my vocation and the stewardship of my time and my energy. I call them the “Time Discernment Team,” and it operates like the Quaker clearness committee concept we just talked about. Every speaking engagement or writing situation, I send to this team of six people—friends, family, one of our elders —and they function as sort of a board of directors in my head. I bounce it off of them, and they ask simple and purposeful questions. As a recovering people pleaser, their questions can help me say no. The team helps me with discerning not only my vocation but also the direction and rhythm of my vocation, which is just as important.

Prayer and the community around you are crucial. This might sound overly Socratic, but knowing yourself—your gifts, your passions, your abilities, your weaknesses, even your core sin—is vital. Part of my job as a pastor is to give fallible assessments, formal or informal, to help people know how they are wired and gifted, and how to use those gifts for God’s glory. God gives these tools, along with community, prayer, and Scripture, and using our own brains.

TWI: It’s always wonderful to hear how people are attempting to embody the theology they articulate. It’s clear from your practices that you believe that how you spend your time forms who you are, including what you spend your time on, and with whom are you in conversation. The shorthand you used for this—the direction and rhythm of vocation—is a great way to frame the relationship between vocation and time.

JRB: Peterson’s Message translation of Matthew 11:28-30 is unbelievably rich, and it closes with this beautiful phrase: “Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.” Every one of these words has such incredible weight. Learn: God is the master-teacher, not me. My job is to actively learn from him. Unforced: this should come naturally when I enter into what the Spirit is doing. If they are forced rhythms, it’s never about grace. Forced rhythms are always founded in legalism. If the rhythms are natural, then they create a pattern and not a rut.

Remember, what creates rhythm in music is not just the beats, but the pauses in between the beats. Jesus cares about rhythm. God cares about rhythm in how he creates the world: “There was evening; there was morning—the first day. There was evening; there was morning—the second day.” You are to work and have a to-do list for six days. Then you are not to work and have a to-don’t list for one day every week.

The Sabbath is very important for my wife and me, and for our family. We have a to-don’t list, and practice Sabbath religiously – no pun intended – not out of legalism but out of rest. After practicing Sabbath rhythms for the first six months, we realized what a gift it was. God is blessing us through this rest.

The Jewish people get this idea of rest and rhythm well. Their day begins at sundown. Scripture doesn’t say “morning and evening—the first day.” It says “evening and morning—the first day.” In the Jewish mindset, what’s the first thing they do when their day begins? They rest. They go to sleep. For us, it is the opposite. I sleep because it is a necessary thing that has to happen, but I would prefer not to. But the first thing one does in the Jewish day is nothing. You acknowledge this is God’s day by closing your eyes in rest, and saying, “You will be in control even though I’m not awake.”

Understanding how the Jewish day is conceived is beautiful, especially for the rhythm of vocation. Can we acknowledge that we “work from rest” instead of how we do it in the West, where we “rest from work”? That alone is going to create two different types of people with two different types of priorities in their rhythms, shaped by whether the first thing I do in my day is run and work for eight hours, or whether the first thing I do in my day is rest for eight hours. It matters.

Back to the words of Matthew 11. Grace: It is hard to watch a really forced dancer. But Jesus says, “Take my hand. I will show you how to do it, and it will be graceful.” When you watch someone dance gracefully, you can’t take your eyes off them. This is the poetic side, the poet who shapes our dreams. The Spirit invites us to take Christ’s hand and to learn from him, because he will lead the dance and he will show us how to do it naturally. That is the part that excites me, the dance part, not the mathematical/engineering part. Both are important but very different. “Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”

TWI: You described the vocation conversation as a sleeping giant. What communities are longing to wake up to this conversation? What are the material sites of the longing, in both your local context and in the larger North American context? What communities are you hopeful about?

JRB: I’ll start with the bigger context. As I said before, I think we design our churches to encourage the gathering and discourage the scattering. For people who work in a church, our salaries, our livelihoods, and our busyness are based on the gatherings. I would love to see spaces and places, especially in churches, where the leaders say: “At the risk of my own job and security, we are going to reorient how we think about this, to be more of an equipping center, rather than a filling station for people who were drained by their week.” That requires understanding church as equipping, training, and unleashing.

Ephesians 2 and 4 talks about this and about how we are God’s workmanship. Ironically, the Greek work for workmanship is poema, from which we get our English word “poetry.” We are created to do good works. We forget that the gospel is not against working but against earning. We are called to work. When the world says that you are loved when you work well, Jesus says, you are already loved, so go work well. These are two completely different motivations. I want people in our church to be unleashed and equipped, and we all have a part to play.

My desire for our congregation and for the church throughout the world is that people will know that we should all be light givers and tellers of God’s story. It should not be, “Come to our church because it is really good, and come to faith.” Instead it should be, “I want to equip you, the congregation, because I want to see people come to faith outside of our Sunday services.” We are shaping people for sending, not just telling them to invite their friends so the paid pastoral professionals of Jesus can do it for them. The vision is that people would enter into their gifts and would be equipped and unleashed.

Doug Moister, the other pastor I serve alongside of in our church, and I have something we call the school bus principle: If both of us were crossing the road and got hit by a school bus, what would happen to the church? If the church fell in on itself, then the church was all about us, and we have not equipped the members. But it would be different if people were able to say that they were equipped and confident to use their gifts and could step into the different roles. Admittedly, it a little morbid, but it’s a way of asking ourselves how we are doing. We want to build something that will long outlast us. I want to equip our people so that when I leave, they say: “Man, we are going to miss them, but we know what to do.”

My dream for our church and for the church of North America is that pastors will see themselves as pastor-equippers and not as pastor-experts. There is too much “expertise” and “professionalism” among lead pastors. Even our terms betray that fact. “Senior Pastor” reflects how professional clergy are just modeling off of the business world. This isn’t just me being a curmudgeon about names and titles. Language creates culture. Language creates expectations. Therefore, people come expecting to consume religious goods and services. But how can we as a church give people the gift of having one space in their week where they do not have to consume? Can we invite them to embrace their own place in God’s mission and story?

Sadly, pastors like me struggle with not being the center of attention. “Come hear the guy on the elevated stage where the microphone and the lights are centered on him!” The way we gather shapes us. The Renew Community deliberately meets in the round with the communion table in the center to communicate spatially that we gather around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It’s not about the performance of the speaker or the music. What a community does or doesn’t do speaks of what we care about and says what we think about God. Who is allowed to talk, who is not allowed to talk, and where do you invest space and time? As Winston Churchill said: “We shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us.” I think architecturally we need to be careful because even our church architecture shapes our thinking on vocation.

Photo Credit: J.R. Briggs

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