I experience life as a conversation between the Divine and myself. I am not merely acted upon. Nor do I live in isolation. Life is made up of a sharing of hopes, dreams, and ideas. It is a mutual act of creation.
This means that I need to regularly pause to listen, to reflect, to dream, and to wonder. I need to discern the course ahead.
One of the most important things in this process of living is to remember that I need to pause – to stop for a while. It is too easy to forget this. It is too easy to think that life is one-sided; made up of actions for which I am solely responsible.
Moving ahead in life without pausing to discern the way forward is like driving a car with one’s eyes closed. You turn the steering wheel and regulate the speed . . . but with no real sense of where you are or where you are going. It is a perfect formula for ending up in life’s ditches.
But, when I do pause regularly, when I take the time to be in relationship with the Divine as I make the choices before me in life, it makes for a life marked by beauty and joy.
What does it mean to listen to the Divine?
When I was younger, I often thought that this was something that must be difficult. Shouldn’t talking with God be hard? You are talking with the Creator, after all.
Even then, however, I had a sense that I was missing something very near and very much a part of who I am. In my efforts to pray and to listen to God, I was (figuratively) drowning out a clear voice with all my talking and deliberate efforts. It was like cranking up the volume on a recording of Gregorian chants in order to call forth God’s whispers that I could not hear on account of the ruckus.
I think we all have an innate connection with the Divine. God’s voice is always there. It can be heard in our intuitions, in our gut feelings, and in our dreams. Most of the time it is there with us in a calm way that does not blow trumpets and does not announce itself with thunder and lightning. (Though I do think there are times when God will use very dramatic ways of getting our attention – but that is not how I have experienced God’s voice from day-to-day.) What I need to do is ‘turn down the volume’ of many aspects of my life and focus on the gentle sounds and intuitions . . . very much like relaxing and listening to the wind in the trees.
Then, when I speak (pray), I do so quietly. God is not hard of hearing.
For a long time, I have had a conversational sense of prayer. Sometimes, when I need it, I will address God in more formal and structured prayers. But, most of the time I speak to God as I would to you. It is the informality of intimacy.
I also open myself to visual images and emotional feelings. What comes my way when I share my thoughts, hopes, and dreams?
In discernment it is usually a good thing not to rush. Yes, there are times when decisions need to be made quickly. But quickly usually does not mean ‘right now!’ Even a single moment spent discerning the right choices in a crisis can be beneficial to everyone. When there is less of a press upon time, it is often good to take more time and to be at peace with intervals of silence in the conversation with God.
We are always making choices. We are always in need of discerning the best choices to make. Especially when we feel stressed – it is important to recall that we are not living this life alone. Our best choices are made when we know that our life is part of the Divine Life as well.
This reflection upon discernment was simultaneously published on my personal website and blog at gamesser2.net
Many people like to say that Methodism has a weak sense of ecclesiology. It is pointed out that Methodism was a movement structured by the needs of mission and that there was little thinking that went into the oddities of structures and processes of the various Methodist churches that developed in the late 18th and 19th centuries.
I would agree that Methodism was shaped by the needs of mission. One of the most significant departures from the understandings of ecclesiology of the 18th century was Methodism’s claim that parochial boundaries (the dividing up of the map into specific parcels of land under the exclusive oversight of a particular cleric) did not apply when the needs of God’s people were not being met. It was a missional practicality that enabled Methodists to reach workers of the Industrial Revolution and travel at the same pace as settlers spreading Euro- populations into various parts of the world.
There were other variances with the accepted ecclesiologies of the churches of the late 18th and 19th centuries. Among those was the sense that much of the pastoral work of the church could, and should, be done by the laity. Also, there was a rejection of the notion that a preacher needed a university education in order to take up the calling to share the gospel with the people. Bishops (where Methodism chose to have them) were eventually cast as specialized elders set aside for the work of general superintendency. A form of conciliarism, that came to be called ‘conferencing,’ was the Methodist version of presbyterian church government — creating an interesting hybrid in which the governance of the church was placed in Conference with the bishops designated to carry out its will. None of these things was done without thoughtful reflection (if not forethought).
It was common for Methodist preachers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries to have to explain and justify Methodist ecclesiology to non-Methodists. Some of the more articulate preachers even gave public lectures to which non-Methodist Christians were invited (Timothy Merritt, 1775-1845, was a Methodist in New England who engaged critics in open discussions and debates during the first decades of the 19th century, for instance). And there were a number of pamphlets and books published during the 19th century in both America and England that gave account of how Methodists saw their ecclesiologies as being in line with early church precedents. One of these books was written by Bishop Elijah Hedding in the early 1840s.
The lack, when it comes to ecclesiology among Methodists, is in terms of awareness that logical and articulate explanations were made for well over a century. It is a 20th and 21st century phenomenon that Methodists have become forgetful of their own ecclesiology and identity. Some of this is because of ignorance. Some of this is because of the desire of many Methodists to be more like Christians in other denominations.
I wholeheartedly disagree with those who say Methodism has a weak ecclesiology. What is at stake, I think, is whether Methodism wishes to walk away from its ecclesiology and mission or reclaim both for the sake of a new day.
When looking at restructuring plans for United Methodists general boards and commissions it is important to keep in mind that there is more involved than efficiency of governance. One of the most important functions of these boards has been to educate United Methodist leaders.
It didn’t seem obvious to me before I gained first-hand experience of the General Boards and General Commissions. Prior to working at the general church level, I’d taught United Methodist polity for a number of semesters. Wading through the then-current Book of Discipline was a shocking experience. Why so many people on the boards of directors? My students asked this and I could not give them a solid answer. My co-instructor noted that even the large boards could hardly give adequate representation to church membership spanning the globe. My instincts led me to think all-expense-paid trips had more to do with it; a manifestation of patronage.
My co-instructor’s explanation was, of course, part of the logic behind the old board sizes — representation. And, the criticism of patronage is not unwarranted. But there is something else to keep in mind . . . especially as several of the restructuring proposals going to General Conference 2016 would trim or eliminate the boards that remain: the role of agency boards of directors as means of practical education of church leaders.
I’ve heard the comment several times since coming to work at the general church level. It goes something like this — ‘My time on the board was transformative of my whole understanding of The United Methodist Church. I gained a practical understanding of our church as a global connexion. I realized how much bigger the reality of our ministry is than that with which I’d been familiar in my own, limited context.’
Indeed, many of the bishops and other church leaders of today had some of their most important lessons about United Methodism in the context of service on boards of directors of our general agencies. As an educator, I am given pause by these testimonies and I have been brought to think again about my assumptions in reading disciplinary passages or looking at mere numbers. Educational opportunities are difficult to quantify in terms of value; but they should not be missed when considering changes to our structures and processes.
If we are going to continue to centralize governance in the hands of a few, if we are going to trim away broader representation, and if we are going to eliminate an important setting for practical learning, where do we intend to make up for these losses? The ‘bottom line’ in structures and processes includes considerations beyond efficiency and cost. Representativeness and education are aspects of boards that need to be taken into account.
I am travelling with colleagues from the Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City, Utah. I have been looking forward to this event for a long while. I’ll be sharing with you about my experiences at the Parliament in future posts on this site.
Beginning on 6 October 2015 I will begin publishing a series of articles about Dr. La Roy Sunderland (1802-1885). These articles will be issued in a newsletter that is a companion to this website, Methodistica Journal. Please click on the link in this post or on the subscribe link under the header Newsletter on the sidebar.
La Roy Sunderland has long been a subject of interest to me. I have promised to write a biography of this man who began his adult life as a Methodist preacher in New England, became an anti-slavery activist, and then a physician and scientist of the soul. These articles are a warm-up to my finally writing the book.
A few words about the articles and the new Methodistica Journal: The articles are all designed to be appropriate for anyone interested in history, biography, and Methodism. They will be short — approximately 600-700 words each. They could be used as supplements to classroom studies at a variety of levels and as material for Christian education in local churches. The newsletter will be published weekly and is devoted to similar subject-matter as this website; but in greater depth.
In all, there will be eleven weekly articles on La Roy Sunderland. The last of these will be published on the 130th anniversary of his death.