Faith Matters: Discerning the will of God together

  • The Rev. Allan “Mick” Comstock, interim pastor, in the First Congregational Church of Montague. Staff photo/Paul Franz

Interim Pastor, First Congregational Church of Montague
Published: 2/28/2020 3:32:41 PM

The first answer I get to this question comes from observing how many of us church leaders and members are acting right now. It looks to me like most of us are merely taking our political opinions and decorating them with biblical or theological quotes ... like our politics are shaping our faith, rather than the other way around. The country polarizes left and right and so religious people polarize right and left. I see us adding a lot of heat to the struggle but not much light.

So, my real question is, is there any way that people of faith might create light rather than just heat?

Warning: I’m asking a question I don’t already know the answer to. And, I’m writing out of my own Congregational tradition in the UCC, and won’t be able to faithfully reflect other faith traditions. Which means this column is an invitation to a conversation among faith traditions about the part we might play together in discovering light.

We Congregationalists have a story about seeking light in a situation of distress that, when we remember it, makes us quite proud and might help here. In the years leading up to our American Revolution, congregations and their communities were polarized between those who were faithful to the king and those who felt they must rebel. To rebel against your king was a deeply serious matter, theologically, spiritually and politically.

Before the war, in the hills of Western Massachusetts, churches were pretty much all Congregational and the leaders of the congregations were also likely to be the leaders of their towns, so a church conversation was also a town theological conversation. Unlike most other denominations, Congregationalists understood their local churches to be the “Bearers of the Prophetic Office of Christ.” Others vest this office with bodies of Bishops or Presbyters, or other hierarchies beyond the local congregation.

That doesn’t mean that Congregationalists thought they were a bunch of little prophets running around their towns hollering, but that each congregation was the prophet in its community, caring for matters of justice and righteousness there, which included the theology, the spirituality and the politics of going to war against your king. Discovering the “Prophetic Word” was the work of the inspired congregation, not just inspired individuals.

As the time for decision drew near, in many of our towns, to the Sunday worship meetings and the Wednesday prayer meetings were added Thursday meetings for faith and politics as people tried to find their way together. The best of these were not voting meetings where a majority wins and everybody else loses. These were meetings where the congregation attempted to “become of one mind,” a practice now lost to most of our congregations except for Pastoral Search Committees. They were attempting to discover the will of God together.

Most congregations and towns didn’t end up becoming of one mind about the Revolution. They divided between Paul’s, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God” (Romans 13: 1), and Peter’s, “We must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29).

For those congregations that genuinely struggled together to discern the will of God, these were not just proof texts but hard-won convictions derived from months if not years of studying scripture, praying and talking together. The inevitable parting that the war finally required of them was a matter of sorrow and grief at the loss of good neighbors.

For those who didn’t do this work of discernment but merely gathered for up-down votes, the partings were cruel, with the winners bitterly casting out the losers, many of whom had to flee to Canada.

Now, with the help of this story, the question has become for me: “Is there any way that people of faith might gather together here in these hills to struggle to become of one mind in trying to discern the will of God and thus create some light in this time of distress?”

Let’s explore this question together

As a part of our South County Lenten series, a group of folks are meeting at the Conway Grammar School at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 4, to explore this question. Anyone interested would be welcome. The Conway Grammar School is on the north side of Route 116, east of Conway.

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