Paul J. Pastor: The Listening Day

Western alumnus (M.A. in Biblical and Theological Studies) Paul J. Pastor just released The Listening Day: Meditations on the Way, Volume 1, a distinctive collection of 90 (plus one) devotional meditations, with each entry including a pairing of two Scripture passages, along with Pastor’s response to them. As he puts it, each entry involves “a conversation between the Father and me based on those passages—what I hear him saying to me through his Word” (xiii). After spending some time with an advance copy of The Listening Day, Transformed caught up with Pastor.

This book is dedicated to your children. Why is that?

That’s for a few reasons. First, my deep desire that each of them learn to listen to God’s voice for themselves. Truly, I think that is the key element of life. Second, my own growing as a father has had so much impact on my life with the Father. I simply owe my kids. They are my expert teachers in the school of childlikeness. Third, I want to be a dad in the kind of strong, good, loving way that God is a dad. My gut-level prayer is that in some small way my kids can say that they saw an echo of their heavenly Father in their earthly one, and that it can shape their vision of life.

What’s different about this book from other devotionals?

Two main things, I think: a really rigorous commitment to the Bible, and a really rigorous commitment to beauty and creativity. I care so much about responsible interpretation and handle the Bible with profound respect. Value and reverence for the Bible? Central. Non-negotiable. But I also love poetic, distilled, meditative writing, and I hope that The Listening Day offers that. I worked to craft every entry that way—a well-made offering.

Where did you get the idea for this format (pairing two verses, and then reflecting on the associations that arise out of this pairing)?

I care very much about intertextuality and how the Bible uses the Bible, so it felt very natural to make that value the foundation. I knew that I had to keep an intuitive, open-hearted project like this tightly lashed to the Word. Maybe my gut just said, “Better have two passages, just so readers can’t forget the words that really matter here.”

Tell us a little bit about your process.

Verse pairing and selection happened with prayer, an open Bible, and the use of a few topical helps. The overall process was more intuitive than analytical (which in itself was a stretch for me, a gentle act of faith). Some meditations took under an hour, some I would return to over the course of days, weeks, months, wrestling with the words, the concepts, the living authenticity of those words and concepts.

Do you have a favorite meditation in this book?

They all are very personal to me, including many that I’d prefer weren’t. My favorite entries are the ones where God’s love and “severity” meet. “The Warbreaker,” and “On The Death of Boasting” are good examples. So often in the Bible, we see God’s raw, powerful “no” to evil as an expression of love. We don’t get that enough in a lot of modern Christian writing.

Devotional works are at times criticized for being less than theologically robust. Do you have any thoughts on this?

I don’t see a sharp divide between the “life of the mind” and the “life of the heart.” They are deeply integrated. But that doesn’t mean that growing in propositional knowledge about theology necessarily translates to a deeper relational life with God. Nor does it mean that a vibrant connection with the Trinity equates to orthodox, strong theology. We can all think of examples of Christian minds that seemed to lack heart, and hearts that seemed to lack minds.

How do you, personally, work to embrace devotional sensitivity and creativity, along with maintaining theological rigor?

As I better believe and integrate my life with the Good News of God’s restoration of all things, I can hold mind and heart in their natural symbiotic relationship. I am very far from perfecting that. But I am learning. On a practical level, I made a conscious decision to err on the side of theological strength and clarity if it ever seemed to pull against beauty. It hardly ever did, but there were a few places in the book where I rephrased, say, a lovely sentence to something that was a second choice in order to avoid some possible confusion or contention.

What classic devotional works have most influenced you?

I’m very influenced by writers in the Church who integrate theology with imagination and poetic expression in the service of pointing our hearts to God. A few stand out: John of the Cross, Elizabeth of the Trinity, the Desert Fathers, George MacDonald, the Inklings, (particularly Lewis and Williams), Flannery O’Connor, Frederick Buechner, Walt Wangerin, Jr, Robert Lax, Christian Wiman, Fleming Rutledge.

This book is ‘volume 1’. How many more volumes are planned? When can we expect those?

Well, The Listening Day project will end as a 365 day omnibus, either by releasing four 90-volume entries, or simply 1-2 teaser volumes this year, then the full project in 2018. But there’s reason and a sense of call behind the unconventional release. This first volume is able to be produced and sold for a very low price point. It is a slim little book too, with a beautiful matte textured paper cover—feels great in the hand.

That low price and classy, gift-y feel are pastorally intentional. We want people to read this in community. You can buy 2-3 of these for the list price of a normal paperback. We want people to easily share it, talk about it, and give it away. We really believe that through this creative approach to daily meditation on the Word of God, we’ll help form hearts and minds a little bit more in the image of Jesus.