As the only student on my recent learning journey who was not seeking ordination as a deacon or elder in the church, it caused me to go deeper and seek confirmation from God regarding my call. I do remain confirmed in the path that I am taking, or that God has put before me. The path I am on is a path that seeks to gain trust and connect with people both inside and outside the walls of the church by pursuing my Certification in Spiritual Formation. Even after this journey with others on the ordination path, I feel confirmed as laity. I feel called to help people seek and find peace in their life amidst the turmoil and distress of this life both inside of and outside of the walls of the church.
I am not called to be the church; I am called to the parts of the church. I am called to help people find their hearts strangely warmed as John Wesley did when his experience with God went from a head experience to a heart experience at Aldersgate. I am called to help us return to the roots of how this church was brought to America. The irony here is that John Wesley was escaping church as he knew it to start a different kind of church. He wanted to offer healing and wholeness to people through a personal relationship with God. We must look at our history and realize that today we are the agents of change. This means answering the call of connecting people to their relationship with God, not the church. This was never the intent. I am called to take it from head knowledge to heart knowledge.
Ironically, I think my story and experience with God has been opposite of that of John Wesley. I feel like I came to know God through my heart first and now God has called me to learn more about him with my head. You see, both are important. The way of salvation is to have God in our hearts. Knowing God in our heads will not give us the kind of relationship we can have with God in our hearts. I believe that knowing about God makes knowing God in your life even more meaningful. Everything that happens in your life is Spiritual Formation. Opening your eyes to see it as such is what makes all the difference. I hope I can walk alongside that path with others whose eyes are being opened so they can too feel their hearts “strangely warmed”. We must stop doing church and just be God’s church. This may look like new ways of being the hands and feet of Christ. It may look like self care, covenant groups, social justice, Sabbath time, missions, or worship.
As I was concluding these thoughts, the word “United” on the front of my hymnal jumped out at me in a new way. We are United. We are a United church. The United Methodist Church is just the means in which I have chosen to accept and live out my faith. It is not my identity because my identity is that of a child of God. This time of learning was a reminder of why I have chosen to answer God’s call on my life to walk with people on their spiritual journeys. It reminded me of the importance of community and of learning from our mistakes. It gives me passion to rejuvenate God’s people in historical and ancient ways. The connection is essential. I look to our Lord for the hope to share that peace, for he is the lover of my soul.
Jesus, lover of my soul,
Let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide,
Till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide;
Oh, receive my soul at last.
Other refuge have I none,
Hangs my helpless soul on Thee;
Leave, ah! leave me not alone,
Still support and comfort me.
All my trust on Thee is stayed,
All my help from Thee I bring;
Cover my defenseless head
With the shadow of Thy wing.
Wilt Thou not regard my call?
Wilt Thou not accept my prayer?
Lo! I sink, I faint, I fall--
Lo! on Thee I cast my care.
Reach me out Thy gracious hand!
While I of Thy strength receive,
Hoping against hope I stand,
Dying, and behold, I live.
Thou, O Christ, art all I want,
More than all in Thee I find;
Raise the fallen, cheer the faint,
Heal the sick, and lead the blind.
Just and holy is Thy Name,
Source of all true righteousness;
Thou art evermore the same,
Thou art full of truth and grace.
Plenteous grace with Thee is found,
Grace to cover all my sin;
Let the healing streams abound;
Make and keep me pure within.
Thou of life the fountain art,
Freely let me take of Thee;
Spring Thou up within my heart;
Rise to all eternity.
“Jesus, Lover of My Soul”
Charles Wesley, 1740
As our church history course began to wind down, we headed to the site of the Battle of Gettysburg and gained a greater understanding for the stance of the church (or lack thereof) during this time in our country’s history. We learned about Methodists fighting on both sides for what they thought was true freedom. This visit to Gettysburg was overwhelming for me. It started early and rainy. Each of the days of our journey through Philadelphia, Baltimore and Lancaster had been clear and sunny. However, this day began with a very dreary (and appropriate) undertone. It was nice to enjoy an entire seat on the bus alone for the ride and have some quiet time after so much fellowship. I had so many more questions to process at the conclusion of my week of learning. These were not questions about salvation or dates of church history. These were questions that do not have answers. I began to ask God about the hurtful things we do to one another as humans as we journeyed toward the battlefield.
I was listening to Love Divine (Charles Wesley hymns) that morning as I journaled my thoughts. And, I was simply overcome with emotion. It was raining and cold. It was early and I was sad. I honestly didn’t (and still don’t) understand how we could miss something so wrong and fight to the death of thousands of men. And, yet we seem to still be doing it today. God, “deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13) was the only prayer I could think to pray. I thought of these solders who gave their life for what they believed and my thoughts brought me to asking God to have the confidence and the hope to give my all for what I believe, for allowing me to give my all to find peace in my own life with him.
Romans 8:24 says, “We were saved in hope, if we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see?” (CEB). Lord, I can’t see peace. But, you can see peace. You see it for our souls and for our world. I can only hope that I get a glimpse because your ways are bigger than my ways.
The words of Abraham Lincoln give me great hope also. Not long after the battle of Gettysburg in a public letter to James Conkling Lincoln stated this, “Peace does not appear so distant as it did. I hope it will come soon, and come to stay; and so come as to be worth the keeping in all future time” (www.millercenter.org). From the site of President Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address that day we experienced a powerful message. Our professor preached in Gettysburg and proclaimed the word to give us each hope on that somber day. He called us to wake up. Wake up! We must wake up from the slumber of our lives. But, in so many sad ways, we must also be thankful for the atrocity of Gettysburg. For as I’ve learned during this journey, life (and our history) may be painful at times, but each pivotal and painful experience we learned about during our travels has had a great impact on our lives today where we are all free to learn, worship and serve together. Wake up, wake up. It is up to us to wake up our congregations, our neighbors, the world and even ourselves.
Often times I reflect and ponder this question with God, why won’t you let me sleep Lord? It would be so much easier, wouldn’t it? Why can’t I just escape and not care about making a difference? Wake up, wake up, I hear his nudge. And, I am called to wake others up then. Wake up, wake up. My heart overflowed with tears that day of my sadness and they dropped down my face. I tried to hold them back but honestly, I just wanted to scream, to lament as the Psalmists. I was a mess this day and I only had more questions. I looked around the battlefield where the soldiers were buried in mass and pondered more questions, seeking that hope I cannot see. If the trees in that field could talk, what stories would they tell? I am sad because of the loss of life and for our broken spirits. I was overwhelmed by all I hadn’t taken the time to learn about those who fought for this freedom. Yet I was mad because of what we did and what we are still doing today. Wake up, wake up.
I think the trees were talking to me. It may sound odd, but it seemed like I could hear the moans. I felt the souls. There were no answers on that battlefield and indeed I am not the first to feel the pain, sadness and sorrow of fighting to the death for something you believe in and are willing to put your life on the line for at any cost. I wish the trees could tell me what they saw and what hope they have for what is to come. If they could talk, I think they may tell us of the soldiers who came to one another’s aid in times of crises those days. They may tell us of the townspeople who sheltered and cared for the wounded. I think they would tell us that today we can wake up and put down our weapons of destruction, weapons like words and arrogance and pride and hate and anger. We can wake up and pray for peace and love in eternity because this earth will not reveal it to us without hope for the future. Let us wake up and find understanding through our troubles. “We also have joy with our troubles, because we know that these troubles produce patience. And patience produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4 NLT).
Since I began studying Methodism in America and learned more this summer of the church's early roots from John and Charles Wesley, I continued to be drawn back to Susanna Wesley. As I heard hymns anew and listened to the teachings of John on my trip, I was intrigued by these men and yet still longed to know even more than I already have learned about this woman, their mother.
Her methods were precise. Her timing was intricate. Her patience was immeasurable. Her letters and journal entries model for us her life and the life of learning she encouraged for her children. I have a longing to connect with this woman who as a mother made a difference in this world in a huge way without being ordained in the church. She did what was before her. She answered the call to the nineteen children in her life. She trained her children in the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6). It seems the model she set in her home had a great impact on Methodism and the church we know today as the United Methodist Church. Many of the hymns we sing and the small groups that are formed in churches all across our country are also inspired by these men and their upbringing. The impact of this woman cannot be measured by her duty to the church as much as it can be measured by her duty as a parent. This is an important reminder to me as a parent serving in ministry. I can never forget that my greatest mission field is inside my own home.
Our group had our photo taken a lot together throughout our trip, but I can’t stop thinking about this particular photo. The sweet couple who hosted us at Boehm’s Chapel was so proud of our excitement while touring this historic little church. They truly appreciated our visit and were a joy to speak with. They were a bit anxious to get our photo from the moment we walked through the door. Honestly, most of us were just thrilled to be taking in the air conditioning (we were getting used to truly historic churches with no air - it was hot)! After just a moment of cooling off, they gathered us and sent us back into the heat for another group photo. And, indeed they captured our group’s presence on true film, not even with a digital camera. Maxine was our guide for the visit and she truly enjoyed and played her role of hostess appropriately in character. We learned much about this chapel built in 1791 and restored in 1991. Boehm’s Chapel claims to be the oldest Methodist structure built for Methodist worship (not in continual use) in Pennsylvania and the fourth oldest in America. There were many statistics, facts and figures. It was an informative and even entertaining visit with our kind guide.
But, my favorite moment to reflect on from this visit is this image of our group. If you look closely, you will notice that our image is framed up perfectly with our hostess looking out at our group from the window of the church. She was anticipating our arrival after the photo was snapped by her husband and this one was taken with a classmate's camera. Maxine couldn’t wait to share her good news about this place that is special to her family, her beliefs and her church. What excites you that you can’t you wait to share with the people just outside your door?
It seems that my reflections from this trip have an overwhelming sense of brokenness and sadness. The history of the church is not exempt from pain and suffering, just as people today are not exempt from pain and suffering. It is easy to get discouraged in a ministry of healing when there is so much brokenness seeking healing. So many are asking, "is hope and healing even available to me?". Even the prophet Jeremiah pondered this question when he asked if there was no balm in Gilead to heal his people. Maybe not using these same words, but we have all asked this question at some time in our life. We have each experienced in our own story a sense of hurt and lament. We cry out and ask in our own way, is there a balm in Gilead available to us today? We seek God amidst the turmoil, tragedy, loss, sickness, sadness, war and discouragement. We cry out and lament in new ways today for our families, our churches, and our world.
And yet, the song of the same title, “There is A Balm in Gilead” has captured so very much hope for me since returning home. The phrase “There is A Balm in Gilead” was part of my classmate Amanda’s message based on John Wesley’s sermon, “Inefficiency”. Amanda encouraged us to receive God's balm and then see and offer ourselves to others. We are also to share the balm in Gilead. There is hope for healing because we have God's balm offer.
At the conclusion of Amanda's sermon, we were led to sing this spiritual hymn together. The words were comforting amidst the discomforts of life. As we reflect on this story from the book of Jeremiah as God’s people seeking His balm of healing, we must have hope that the story of the New Testament delivered that healing for us and is indeed still very real today. We have received the only balm of healing we will ever need.
When we are asked in so many words, “Is there a Balm in Gilead”? Indeed there is! YES! There is healing and hope. It is available to us through the story of our savior, Jesus Christ. We are now called to share that balm through our love, our actions and our life. I believe the words of this hymn that has been sung by many before us seeking healing and wholeness speaks great truth and gives us hope. We are called to share the truth that Christ died for each of us to experience healing and wholeness through the ultimate sacrifice, his body and blood. We are called to seek and share this balm of healing as God’s people. And, when we just cannot see God’s presence amongst our own troubles, we can look back to the hymns of early Christians as reminders for the hope and healing that is still available to each of us today.
There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin sick soul.
Some times I feel discouraged,
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.
Don’t ever feel discouraged,
for Jesus is your friend,
and if you look for knowledge,
he’ll ne’er refuse to lend.
If you can’t preach like Peter,
If you can’t pray like Paul,
Just tell the love of Jesus,
And say He died for all.
“There is a Balm in Gilead”
Controversy was a thread that ran through our time of learning in Philadelphia. It was evident politically and culturally both inside and outside the walls of the church during these times of early America and the early church in America. My classmate, Carissa, offered a sermon on joining together as Christians entitled “Catholic Spirit”. She reflected upon John Wesley’s sermon based on 2 Kings 10:15 and the story of Jehonadab and Jehu reaching out and taking one another’s hand. We are called today to do the same. God wants us to reach out and take one another’s hand, right? Isn’t this what we are called to do as Christians? It is not about our denominations, but we often make it about our denominations by taking sides on social and political issues. Even in our own churches, we often refuse to reach out and take one another’s hand.
I was reminded of this the day we traveled to Lancaster for learning at First United Methodist Church. And, I was struck by the carpet in this church because of the clear signs and drippings of red grape juice stains on the carpet. My professor also noted the kneeling benches and small cup holders on the pews. These signs seemed to be contradictory since most congregations take communion in one form or another rather than having options (I have personally received both and do not find that the meaning is in the delivery method but in the action). From what I understood, some members of the church were insistent on receiving communion at their seats while others chose to receive it through intinction. I saw these drippings as just a small example of a missed chance to reach out and take one another’s hand. Carissa reminded us beautifully that Christ came for each of us and we are called to truly love one another, no matter our differences.
This concept is hard for us as Christians today. We may not all agree all the time. Actually...we often do not agree. But, I do believe we are called to take one another’s hand. What does it mean to you to take a hand of someone you disagree with? Does it mean posting your opinions on Facebook or being willing to enter into an open and honest face-to-face conversation with them about your differences and why you feel the way you do? The earlier is certainly easier, I'll let you decide which is more transformational.
A trip to Philadelphia would be incomplete without a trip to Independence Mall and the site of the Liberty Bell. One of my favorite images at the monument was this image of “Liberty” being spelled in many different languages at the site of the bell. It stood out to me the moment I saw it and warmed me with a sense of inclusiveness for all of God's people. Interestingly enough, at least one of my classmates was being moved by a very different image at the same time.
There are some moments after you share a time such as this trip that you just don’t forget. One of those moments was when one of my classmates, Jessie, shared in her sermon about seeing the photo of the Native American, Chief Little Bear, posing with the famous bell. She was overcome with emotion when reflecting upon the sadness of Chief Little Bear’s face. Jessie’s sermon that day was on “Scriptural Christianity”, a sermon written by John Wesley that was quite controversial at the time. Overall the message of the sermon was brought home by my new friend's emotional response to seeing the images below at the site of the Liberty Bell. It brings to the fronts of our minds that freedom in our country and freedom in this life is not free. Christ gave his life for us so that we may have eternal life (John 3:16). We are sadly reminded by this image and the sadness of this Native American’s face that freedom is far from being free both in this life and in the life to come.
I set out on my recent class journey to learn about the founders of the United Methodist denomination and the impact they had in early America as well as how they shaped who we are as a church today. I hoped and expected to return home more passionate about my denomination than when I left and that is true. Interestingly enough, who I found to be my favorite person of the history that we lived into and discussed during our time of learning was Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
If you are not familiar with the story of Richard Allen, he and other African Americans were asked to leave the balcony of St. George’s Church while on their knees praying. He and his friends chose to get off their knees and exit the church in a historic walk-out and later start their own denomination. It saddens me that the story of Allen’s walkout from St. George’s Church is such an identifying factor in the birth of the AMEC since it was a Methodist church they were asked to leave. However, history is shaped by moments such as these. Today both St. George’s and Mother Bethel (the birthplace of the AMEC) come together to heal from this past experience and celebrate together through worship and communion with one another. I appreciate the fact that this unfortunate event that altered the life of the Methodist denominations is not ignored but rather celebrated with Mother Bethel. The joint services among these churches and other symbols of connectionalism across denominational lines were refreshing to see take place among the churches. And, although we no longer are in the same denomination, our roots of Methodism are indeed the same.
It is interesting to think that history was shaped by famous AMEC members like Rosa Parks as mentioned by our museum docent at Mother Bethel. History was shaped not just in the church the day that Richard Allen and his friends got off their knees and walked out of that balcony at St. George’s church. For that, we can be thankful.
While worshipping at St. George’s the first Sunday of our trip, a young girl named Angel instantly connected with many of my classmates and me. She attends St. George’s with her grandparents although she explained to me that she lives with her mother and her father can’t see her picture on Facebook or he will come "looking for her". I am not sure I understand completely how her story fits into my synopsis of the trip. But, she has stayed with me since my return. I can’t help but wonder about the absence of a stable home life. During our short visit together, she drew some images that were disheartening and downright scary. I asked her what they meant and she referenced a movie that is indeed inappropriate for a young girl her age. This broke my heart. It saddened me because a mother who barely notices this little girl and pays no attention to what she watches on television does indeed have an impact on this life. This sweet little life that is being shaped by which way the wind blows between Sundays. On Sundays this little Angel is loved by her church family and her grandparents keep close watch to make sure that she is on her best behavior. But, what happens between Sundays is what saddens me the most as a mother. This must be why my heart continues to ache for sweet Angel and that my hope in the church and the impact it can have on a life is worth the effort and energy because we never know how a life may be changed by just a few hours a week. I can’t help but wonder if this type of Spiritual Formation is exactly what John Wesley had in mind with the start of Sunday School for poor working children in the 1780s in England. It is no doubt that his own home life was greatly structured with education and offering this to others who did not have such opportunities has proved to be a blessing for years to come.
An area of my life that I’ve been working on in the last few years is simplicity. I need more simplicity, from my closet to my daily bible study routine and even those nifty tools in the kitchen. I struggle with falling victim to gadgets and gizmos that claim to make my life easier. However, when I realize that a new gizmo only requires another washing and space to be stored, I’ve learned that I have fallen prey to missing out on the benefits of simplicity.
There really is a lot to be said for simplicity. I still struggle with the concept of simplicity, but I see the benefits and am beginning to understand them more clearly. One thing that really struck me during my trips to these historic churches was the beautiful simplicity of St. George’s Church. The wooden floors, the simple paned windows and the practicality of the wine-glass pulpit remind me that over the years, the efforts toward simplicity have remained a priority in this building.
My first impression of the pulpit was that it seemed of great importance in the sanctuary. It appeared to be overwhelming and I had no desire to preach my assignments from that location! But, as I settled into the space and heard sermon after sermon sitting in this simply beautiful room I began to see the pulpit in a different way. Not until I ascended the stairs and began to speak did I realize that this pulpit was indeed a humbling place. I was surprised that my voice carried throughout the room without too much effort. And, to see the names behind me on the wall of the pastors who preached God’s word hundreds of years before in this same space was very humbling. Yes, there have been changes and renovations. But, Freeborn Garrettson and other founding fathers of our Methodist movement spoke in that very room. And, while I do not know the complete details of the life of Freeborn Garrettson, I understand he was a radical in his day. I wish we could hear the words of wisdom that may have been shared in that very room hundreds of years ago. I can only imagine words were spoken in that room that encouraged a life of piety that Garrison is known for encouraging and supporting. And, while a life of piety may seem far from simple, I’m thinking it may be a little deceiving like the wine-glass pulpit.
A life of piety may seem overwhelming and larger than life. But, once you step into living a life of piety, it too is humbling and your voice carries louder than ever before. I think that piety may have a negative connotation because if you think of becoming pious, that is often defined as devoutly religious. Instead, I view a life of piety as John Wesley did by living life through the means of grace. A life of piety is the attitude that your entire life takes on. A life of piety is heart religion.
Is your life a prayer? Are you striving for constant communion with him or simply looking to fill up on Sundays? As we open up our lives to constant communion with God, our relationships often deepen as we become more aware of his constant communion with us. A pious life is a whole life committed to following God and I believe that the less distractions we have in our life, the more simply we can see God’s work and call on our lives. And, when you begin to see God’s work in your life, you are often humbled.
Whitney R. Simpson
• lover of the Trinity
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