26 June 2010

If we pay attention to God we won't stay inside the Church - says new Methodist President

The new President of the Methodist Church, Revd Alison Tomlin, emphasised that listening requires action in her inaugural address to the Methodist Conference.

Alison paused half way through her speech at The Guildhall in Portsmouth to demonstrate how people listen to God. She showed a series of images played to an eclectic mix of music in order to illustrate that paying attention to God can happen in as many different ways as there are people.

"If we pay attention to God we won't stay inside the Church," she said. "If we pay attention to God we will have to do the things God challenges us to do. And that will take us out to be among people who need to know that God loves them; the people who have no voice; the people who have doors shut in their faces. It will take us to that place where we become passionate for justice, passionate to be peace makers, passionate to make sure other people hear how much they are loved."

She explained that every time people look at each other they look into the face of God because God loves everyone.

"I pray that we will indeed become a Church paying attention to God in such a way that the passion of God for people, for God's creation, for our world enlivens us, enthrals us and energises us to be all that God created us to be before the world was made," she said. "I pray that in paying attention to God and each other we may be all that God desires."

Alison began her ordained ministry in Manchester 26 years ago. She trained in spiritual direction, accompanying people in prayer and quiet retreats, after discovering that many people wanted to discuss how they talk and listen to God.

In 2001, Alison was nominated as Chair of the Oxford and Leicester Methodist District (now the Northampton District) where she served for eight years. It was during this time that she was asked if she would allow her name to be put forward for President of the Methodist Conference.

The full text of Alison's address follows:

I need to start by being very clear that when I use, listening to God, listening for God, listening mostly to God, I'm talking about paying attention. I'm not talking about the need for - what's the equivalent of hearing, of 20/20 vision? Because I don't know. Anyway, I'm not talking about being… having incredibly healthy hearing. That's not what real listening is about. Real listening is about paying attention, real, total, authentic attention. You will have realised that I can't talk if you take my hands away.

Paying attention means noticing and if we are blessed with health and strength then yes, we use those things; our sight, our hearing. But if we are not blessed with those things, there are 101 other ways in which we can pay proper attention. And we celebrate that in this part of our Conference by the fact that we have a signer, that we have a lip-speaker, that we have translators for those for whom this language is neither first nor, often, second, but third or fourth. We need to use the collected gifts of us all if we are to pay proper attention to the God who loves us.

And for those of you who might give a different name to God for the one… from the one I use, and for those of you who might choose, for whatever reason, not to name God at all, when I talk about paying attention, really listening to God, I am talking about paying attention, also, to who we are in the depths of our being. I am talking about the fact that in all of us there is some centre of truth, of integrity, of love, and we need to pay attention to what is within us. Those of us who would call ourselves the people of God believe that God is within us as well as out there. And we use long words to talk about that but the vital thing is that, at the very centre of who we are, there is God.

So for those of us who call ourselves the people of God and particularly, given that this is the Methodist Conference, for those of us who call ourselves the Methodist people, but also for all our amazing and wonderful sisters and brothers who give themselves different names in different places. This is about how we make sure we really pay proper attention to God. Now, part of that means that we might be suggesting that God is at the centre. We talk about God being at the centre of our lives sometimes. We talk about God in our midst and we talk about God as central. Except, of course, that the God we serve tends to spend an awful lot of time on the edge, on the periphery, on the outside, not within our buildings, not within the places we might choose to call holy, but out there with those who have been discarded or rejected, those who are distressed and distraught.

So if we're serious about paying attention to God at the centre of our lives, we have to make sure that we're paying attention far wider than just ourselves. We have to make sure we're paying attention to others and to those who are perhaps far off. I was reminded fairly recently that if we choose to listen, to pay attention to God, we have to be willing to pay attention to those with whom we profoundly disagree. We have to be willing even to pay attention and listen to those we might choose to call enemy, because only then can we be sure that we are paying proper and appropriate attention to everything that is of God, for God said, love your enemies and do good. And we need to make sure that we are paying proper attention.

And there are so many ways of paying attention. For me, go back a huge number of years when I was a local preacher and I told somebody I was going on a silent weekend and they said, you'll not manage! You cannot possibly go 48 hours without talking. Interesting reputation one collects. But actually, for me, being somewhere where I do not have to talk to anybody and where nobody talks to me begins to be the place where I can pay attention to God. I go, these days, to a place in Wales and I arrange it so that I don't talk with another human being for eight days. Now, some of you will immediately think, yes, please! And some of you will think, argh, never! Because there are as many ways of paying attention to God as there are people in known world - for all I know, more than that. We all have our own way of reaching out, of listening, of paying attention, of discovering for ourselves how we might be able to listen to the God who loves us and cares for us and wishes to speak with us. We are offered a huge number of opportunities in our daily living.

I suppose, given that this is the Methodist Conference, I could start by saying, we'll use scripture, but I think we'll leave scripture on one side for just a moment because that's so obvious for the church, isn't it? And actually people pay attention to God through art, through music, through the art they create, through pictures they draw, through other writings, through other books, through their own writing, through their own activity. People pay attention to God through 101 different activities. I have a friend who finds that she can pay attention to God in a nightclub, and why not? They accused Jesus of eating and drinking too much. For me, that would be difficult but for her that is superb. We have so many ways, so many possibilities, so much that is offered to us.

If you think of the range of music, if I asked you to name one piece of music that you liked, that you really enjoyed, I guess we'd have, what - how many of you are there? I don't know. But, Una [?], some people would come up with the same thing, wouldn't they? Can we just do a hand-wave? How many people would go on the classical side? And how many really wouldn't? And if we started dividing it up, would you want to specify…? Those of you on the classical side, would you want to specify particular composers? Yes? And those of you who are definitely not classical, would you want to specify very particularly style and group and…? And it all speaks to us.

Or think of it another way; think about each other. Those of you who are sitting near the front, look round, please. Look how different we all are. Look how very different we all are. Thank you. And every time you look at each other, you look into the face of God because God loves each one, each person, each individual, and God loves the whole community of people round you. And for each one, that is an option to begin to pay attention to God. When somebody says something and it strikes a spark, when somebody says something and you feel good, when somebody says something and you feel cared-for or involved or challenged, just maybe God has something to say in that.

It goes on for all of us all the time in so many ways. I talked about how much silence, stillness, being on my own matters to me. For some, that would be adding insult to injury and for others it would just be deeply unhelpful. I am married to a man who will talk to anyone, anyone at all, but that means that, at his best, he will listen to anyone at all as well. But he experiences how much God gives in the conversation, in the talking, in the gathering, not, any more, in the dancing. We are invited, therefore, by God to pay attention and I will come to scripture. But I took a while to get there because…

Have you ever tried to count how many translations we now have of the thing we call the Bible? And if you add in all the ones that aren't really translations but are all sorts of other things as well, there's even more. And sometimes some people complain because they don't know what the… how the reading's going to sound but I actually think that's quite good for us because it helps us to stop and think. There are so many versions in so many ways and scripture, the Bible, the… whatever word you want to use, is a very profound way of God communicating again and again and again. We call it the living word. God's word is alive and active and if that is true, it means that each time we may find new meaning, new possibilities, new challenges.

And, again, I was reminded only last night that, although it wouldn't have occurred to me, actually for many of you here, the place to find God's word will be somewhere on the internet, various online sites. And since I can do the language even if I can't do the thing, try Facebook and Twitter and all the others and see what other people have to say about the words they've discovered there, even if they'd never heard them from a book in their lives. So many ways of actually paying attention to God, so much that is offered to us all that we might be able to open who we are, whether we're able to open our eyes and our ears or not, to open who we are to the God who loves us and longs to speak with us.

I want to invite you, those of you who are able, to look and listen. It may be that some of you don't want to and some of you aren't able to and I remind you that you have that great gift of God; your mind, your heart, your imagination. So if what we're about to show is not for you, don't let it worry you. That's fine. But try and sit and relax and be as comfortable as you can and as this is played, think about what helps you, what speaks to you, what might brighten your day, what makes you feel alive.

And why do we need to remember to pay attention to the God who loves us? Part of the reminder comes out of having been a co-superintendent for a year when it hit me again really hard how often - and I apologise to our partners if it's not true anywhere except Methodism - how often we make all our plans in our meetings and then ask God to bless it afterwards, and how often we hold a meeting where we do a sort of top and tail, a prayer but actually everything that happens in between doesn't make… isn't changed or amended or altered by the praying we've done. It's so easy to fall into the trap of being busy for God, doing good things for God, serving God in ways that we are quite sure are right without paying attention to God first.

And we're such a busy church, and rightly. But think of a meeting that found a dozen different ways of paying attention to God and then did the business, and see what happens. But more importantly than inside the church, if we pay attention to God, we won't stay inside the church. If we pay attention to God, we will have to do the things God challenges us to do. And that will take us out to be among the people who need us and the people who need to hear the message that God loves them, the people who need to know that they matter.

It will take us to the people who have no voice. It will take us to the people who have had doors shut in their faces. It will take us to people that others reject and despise. And isn't that an echo of what they did to Jesus? It will take us to that place where we become passionate for justice, passionate to be peacemakers, passionate to make sure that other people hear how much they are loved, how much they are cared for and how it is that somehow God wraps inside God's love for us the truth that sets us free.

We are called as God's people to put out our hand, both hands, to our neighbours, to our friends, to our enemies, to whoever we happen to meet, because we are called to put our hand in the hand of God. So I pray with all I am that we will indeed become, again, a church paying attention to God in such a way that the passion of God for people, for God's creation, for our world, enlivens us and enthrals us and energises us to be all that God called us to be before the world was made. I pray that in paying attention to God and to each other, we may be all that God desires.

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