Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection January 29, 2017
A Year of Discernment
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
Every church community, every Christ-congregation, needs to occasionally ponder where the Spirit is leading it. Now is the time for us as a beloved community gathered by the Spirit in the powerful name of Jesus Christ to see where we’re being led.
We are a small congregation and getting smaller. In roughly the past 12 months, we have lost five dearly loved people to the eternal embrace of God. It is very difficult to recover from such significant losses.
Our Board of Deacons is committed to exploring the various options that are open to us. We will also be again challenged to do all we can to bring more people into our beloved congregation. I will discuss this challenge on Sunday morning.
In last week’s Advance, I brought to us material about how the Spirit leads and guides us. I don’t believe we hear and learn as much as we need about the Spirit of the Living God and how this Spirit works in and among us. To that end I brought us material from one of the most prominent Christian theologians, Jurgen Moltmann. I hope and pray that we all had the opportunity to ponder and pray regarding that material.
In this week’s Advance, I bring to us some thoughts from the Disciple of Christ writer and professor, Kay Northcutt’s wonderful book, Kindling Desire for God. “… paying attention to God is like every other human competency (whether baking a cake, reading a book, or learning to feel empathy): it must be learned. Just like learning to ride a bike - first with training wheels and eventually with a loving adult running alongside providing balance - we also learn how to be with God.”
In other words, learning to be with God, learning to open our hearts and our souls to the Spirit of God, is something we must be taught. Ideally, our parents helped us with this most vital task when we were young. But I fear many of us did not have parents who were especially attuned to the subtle workings of the Spirit. Nor did we always have the best teachers in school or in church to help us become deeply sensitive to how God works within us and among us.
As American Baptists, we believe each of us has been given the godly grace to read and understand the Scriptures. We believe mightily in the priesthood of all believers. But every one of us - myself certainly included - need others who can serve as our spiritual guides.
We are not all equal when it comes to our sensitivity to the workings of God’s Holy Spirit. I freely admit I miss the daily assistance of my beloved Beth in helping me stay more closely connected with the promptings of God’s abiding presence. She was a master at discernment. With her passing, I have lost my guiding star. I have not lost my way but the way has become decidedly more difficult and lonely.
Those who are best at discerning the Spirit’s movement within and among us are those who pray the most. In our overly busy lives, prayer seems to become easily jettisoned. How many of us set time aside every morning and evening for prayer? Prayer seems to be something we do on Sunday mornings. Yet without daily and deep prayer, we’ll remain deeply confused. I believe the main task of every pastor is to be a person of prayer. Yet such pastors are, frankly, not easily found.
True pastors (and I hope I am one - but without Beth by my side - I am uncertain if I am a true pastor. Beth and I were co-pastors of this church. We both knew this even if our beloved congregation was not aware of this ministerial partnership!) --- true pastors “guide human persons in learning God: how to love and be loved by God, how to delight in God, and how to be hospitable toward God, how to suffer with God.” (Northcutt)
The famous French existentialist and Christian philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, (whom I read in my undergraduate classes) was asked once “How did you come to know God?” Marcel responded simply, “I came to know God by loving someone in whom God dwelt.” This is most assuredly the case with me. I suspect it is also the case with most every person who comes to God.
In the year to come, we will all need to come more deeply to God. I pray I’ll be ready to assist in this process. I also pray that our deacons will be ready to assist our beloved congregation in this process. We all have holy work and holy listening to do!
“Human persons - in whom God’s love is transparent - attract others to God.” (Northcutt) We very much need to attract new people to our beloved church. How do we do this? I have some new ideas that may help in this process.
Yet, ultimately, we attract people to our church by allowing God’s love to shine through us. This is harder than it sounds because we are all deeply human. We are all flawed. We are all in the process of being saved. We are not there yet. We all, myself included, need continued conversion to become the child of God and the disciple of Christ that we’re called to become.
Those who are married understand the primary need to cultivate and nurture their relationship. No other relationship in a family is as important and in need of as much care as the relationship between the spouses. There is only one other relationship that demands as much attention and care and that is every person’s relationship with our Almighty God. Every one of us needs to strike a balance between work for God and being present with God. Many of us who are pastors spend a great deal of time doing for God and, unfortunately, precious little time being with God. One thing that has come to me with Beth’s untimely death is the amount of silence and space I have in my evenings. I pray that - with God’s help - I will use this silence and space to deepen my relationship with my God and become more receptive to God’s promptings and divine graces.