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June 4, 2015, 10:21 AM

Who's In Charge?


“I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” John 14:25-26

One of my Sabbatical activities this summer will be a week-long residency that initiates a year-long course for clergy called “Going Deeper: Clergy Spiritual Life and Leadership.”  It is offered by the Shalem Institute; and it will be my second Shalem program.  Seven years ago, I completed their “Contemplative Prayer Group and Retreat Leadership” program.  It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life so far.   For two summers, I spent a week steeped in contemplative prayer—all different kinds of practices: some involved sitting still in silence, some used scripture in various ways, some used movement like walking or dancing, some singing or chanting or listening to music, some involved art, creating it or contemplating it.  All of the practices have a long history in the church.  Their purpose is to deepen the practitioner’s awareness of God’s presence, to build courage and integrity, and expand the capacity for love and compassion.  Among lay Christians, of every denomination, interest in contemplative practices has mushroomed in the past forty years.  In a denomination like ours, contemplative prayer should be the “rule” rather than the exception, because we make no distinction between “religious” and “lay.”  This summer’s “Spiritual Life and Leadership” program will be similar, but focused on spiritual practices for discernment and decision-making in faith communities.

In our church and in our denomination, the “locus of authority” is the gathered congregation.  The local congregation is “in charge” of its own destiny.  That is why we are called “Congregational.”  We have no Magisterium—no Pope, Bishops or hierarchy—dictating what we should teach or how we should organize ourselves or worship.  We are democratic in structure: our regional Associations, state Conferences and national Synod are elected by and are answerable to the local churches, in the same way that our town, state, and national government is elected by and answerable to the citizens of our country. 

There is an important difference, however, between civil government and Congregational church government.  The church’s “democracy” is based in our understanding that Jesus Christ is the only head of the church, and that “in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female.”  As Christ’s disciples, we are all equal and no intermediary is necessary—each disciple has access to Christ through the Holy Spirit dwelling within and among us.  So to say that the congregation is “in charge” is not entirely accurate.  The locus of authority in the church is the Holy Spirit moving in and among the gathered congregation.  Without that caveat, a church would be merely a miscellaneous band of personal egos fighting for control of a non-profit organization. I admit that, sometimes, church meetings look and sound like that; and when they do, it is because we have forgotten who’s in charge.  Civil government is all about freedom and rights and the “pursuit of happiness.”  Church government is all about loving God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves. 

Worship and prayer are the essence of the church. They are the center of our life together—not because God needs our worship or our prayer, but because worship and prayer open our hearts and minds to the Holy Spirit moving in and among us.  If in our hurry to finish a meeting at a reasonable time, we leave out prayer, we have silenced the Holy Spirit.  When there is controversy and people won’t be quiet enough to listen deeply to one another, we certainly won’t be able to hear the Holy Spirit.  Everything that we do together as the church, in small groups or large, should be steeped in prayer—in an active awareness of God’s presence.  

I know that I will be spiritually refreshed by the week-long intensive and I look forward to introducing some of the discernment practices that I will be learning when I return in September.

Grace and Peace

Pastor Cheryl

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