The College of Bishops of the Southeastern Jurisdiction has had an annual learning time for the past several years. Recently we were led in an overview of American Methodist history, especially as it relates to the episcopacy, by Dr. Russ Richey of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He taught us something I had never noticed before.
Dr. Richey said that it was commonplace among the early Methodists in America to say, "It is desired that all things be considered in the immediate presence of God." They had learned this expression from John Wesley, and this is what is stated at the beginning of the minutes of the conferences of the Methodist Societies in Great Britain. Following this example, the very first Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1785 uses this expression at the beginning of the minutes of the first General Conference. Moreover, this expression became commonplace among the Methodists. Whenever they were together in fellowship or in a formal meeting, they would remind one another, "It is desired that all things be considered in the immediate presence of God."
It makes a difference if we are mindful that we live each moment of each day before the presence of God. What place is there for anger, resentment, judging, blaming, or cynicism if we are mindful that we are in the presence of the God of goodness and holiness? As the early Methodists stated, "While we are conversing, let us have an especial care to set God always before us."
A statement like this also is a call to prayer. Indeed, the early Methodists understood it this way. Because they were aware that we live in the presence of God at every moment, they said, "Let us give ourselves to prayer for one another, and for a blessing on our labour," and, when business was not occuring during a conference, "let us redeem all the time we can for private exercises" of prayer. When we acknowledge that we do indeed live before the presence of God, then we shall seek the opportunities to pray either by contemplation or petition, for our hearts yearn for communion with that presence which is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.
I think this wonderful statement is a clue to the spirituality of the early Methodists, and it should be a reminder to us as we talk about making our connection more real and our mission more fruitful. We can talk about connection with one another all day long, but if we do not see one another through the medium of God's immediate presence, then our connection will never be a true communion. And, we can work on our plans for being more fruitful in our mission, but if we think everything depends on our cleverness or abilities, then we shall be disappointed. It is by God's presence that the church of Jesus Christ lives, and it is in God's presence that we find renewal. It is also in God's presence that we learn both personally and institutionally that God's ways are not always our ways, and God's purposes cannot be directed by our self-seeking desires.
Discovering this distinctive Methodist language at the beginning of a new year was like receiving a special gift, and I wanted to share it with all of you.
In 2011, let us say,"It is desired that all things be considered as in the presence of God."