Category Archives: Wesley

Of or pertaining to John and Charles Wesley, founders of the Methodist movement in 18th century England.

Think on These Things…

An earnest young woman begins to pray:

“Father God, we are so glad to be here. Thank you, Father God. We just want to give you praise…”

And somewhere behind it begins, the subtle under-the-breath comments:

“Here we go, ‘Father God?’”
“Oh, and add in a little, ‘I just wanna’…”

“Father God, we just want to express to you what is in our hearts…”

All the while, subtle critiques may continue of her theological articulateness or, perhaps worse, the appropriateness of her shorts.**

Or perhaps it is later on, in the sermon, when a preacher shares something akin to “Of course, we would never know what taking a day off is like, would we clergy?” or “but your church members think you only work a couple hours on Sunday, right?”

I would guess that these are not uncommon experiences. Likely whomever you are reading this can point to an experience – likely recently! – where some comment or conversation had a subtle, or not-so-subtle, negativity in it.

I learned somewhere along the way – whether I practice it well or not – that sarcasm is a form of (veiled?) violence. (I think it was in Stephen Ministry training, actually.) It is a way of couching negative, even hurtful statements, in a socially acceptable way. And yet I don’t think I can go a day without encountering – or, perpetuating – it.

I also routinely run in to cynicism, so prevalent in our age. The dictionary defines it as “an inclination to believe that people are motivated purely by self-interest; skepticism.” I heard a great definition of it recently; but unfortunately at that time I wasn’t carrying my journal and didn’t write it down, so it is lost in the recesses of my memory…

Actually, my journal is part of why I’m reflecting on this today. Before traveling to Oregon last week for a conference, I grabbed the journal that I used to regularly keep, but haven’t written in since the day Gracie died in 2010.

As in many of my other Journals, the first few pages are a selection of Scriptures to help focus my attention in meditation/prayer, as well as the General Rules of the United (Methodist) Societies, and The Desiderata (by Max Plank). Among all of these, on the first page, are five translations of Philippians 4:8, which have been influencing my meditation today:

“whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (NIV)

“you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse” (MSG)

“if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, all that is worthy of praise” (CEB)

In addition, one line in the Desiderata so wisely shares:

“Speak your truths quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even to the dull and ignorant;
they too have their story.”

(I am reminded, though I cannot find a source to cite whether it is true or not, that I once heard that John Wesley said or wrote that we should be willing to humbly listen to others, for we have something to learn even from the poorest of preachers.)

How often do I allow my own thoughts, opinions, or preferences to blind me to the earnest expressions of another? How often do I subtly or overtly criticize another? How often do I do violence to another through my choice of words, or tone, or how I respond to them?

As this annual gathering of clergy continues, one of the topics that has arisen between us is how to have conversations around difficult and divisive issues. What strikes me as imperative for such to occur – whether in our churches or anywhere – is to do away with the weapons of violence we all to often wield in order to win arguments or proselytize others to our perspective. Sarcasm and cynicism must needs be set aside if we are truly to talk with one another; we need to remember our first rule “first, by doing no harm” and live out the “higher calling” Paul reminds us of in Ephesians 4:2, being “humble and gentle… patient, bearing with one another in love,” to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Again, all citations at the front of my Journal – wise words to reflect on, from a younger me. Journaling is kind of like time-travelling, you know?!)

So let me close by sharing a short prayer I found myself writing earlier:

Lord, deliver me from these forms of subtle negativity, criticism, and cynicism
that masquerade as humor or critique.
Lead me to see the good and pure and holy, and encourage such in others. Amen.

**Just a side note, as I do realize that sometimes we oversimplify faith and/or God in prayer. I don’t know how anyone could do any better with skewering how our simplicities or preferences emerge in the language we might use than Will Ferrel’s prayer in Taladega Nights

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Don’t “Give Up” Something For Lent

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. I’m writing this a few days too late, I fear, but I also am saddened when a technology blog can make an important point about a spiritual tradition that is popularly celebrated in a fundamentally flawed way.

To that end, I want to encourage you: do not “give up” something for Lent. In this season intended for prayer and repentance, some folks wear their spirituality on their sleeve, broadly announcing some form of fast they have taken on to commemorate the 40 days of Lent. My problem with this popular phenomenon is that it misses the point, in essence losing the forest for the trees.

Yes, fasting is a traditional ascetical spiritual practice for the season of Lent. For two millenia, devout Christians have utilized the practice of fasting as a means of growing closer to God. For centuries, good Catholics have avoided meat on the Fridays of Lent in accordance with their church’s practice. For decades, modern Protestants have avoided chocolate or coffee or sugary soda to show they are commemorating the 40 Days of Lent. For years, spiritual progressives have opted to log off Facebook for Lent because it’s what you do…

Do you see what I did there? Granted, I’m being overly simplistic in my analysis, but I think that we’ve lost the true focus of a Lenten discipline being something that helps us to grow closer to God – and, specifically to this season, a discipline that helps us to be aware of our short-fallings and trust God’s grace for forgiveness! In an act that is eerily akin to the general critique of those who are “spiritual but not religious,” we’ve replaced the sincerity and relevance of the act with the ritual.

Frankly, I could argue that we need to “give up” far more than one thing in order to truly give attention to our relationship with God. We are so hyper-scheduled, over-programmed, non-stop-busy, that we actually need to fast and disconnect from many things, learning how to re-align our time with God’s presence and activity in our hearts and world… But I digress…

I am encouraging, asking, begging, even, you not to “give up” something for Lent. Ignore the empty austerity of “giving up” what generally tend to be insignificant things. Instead, I implore you to “take on” something for Lent. Make a commitment to something that matters.

That sounds a bit harder, doesn’t it? We’re all very busy. We’re over-scheduled. We can’t possibly add anything else to our day’s calendar of events…

That’s the lie we tell ourselves, perhaps the single greatest one that we should, in this season of true self-reflection and repentance, confess and repent of. Before our time is ours, it is God’s. We are stewards of what time we have, and to think that we haven’t the time to give attention to growing in love for God does great damage to our spiritual health.

So, don’t “give up” something, take something on to grow in love for God. Granted…

  • If Facebook is such a vice that it becomes a black hole for your time, perhaps you should consider logging off and spending some of that time with God in some other way. But I would encourage you, then, not to just stop there: log off all of your Social Networking or Social Media sites. But, again, it isn’t enough just to stop – you have to actively choose what you replace it with.
  • If you recognize you spend too much time channel flipping/surfing, then by all means a fast from television could be a positive experience for you. (Several years ago, Lynn and I realized this was true for us. Rather than going cold-turkey, we made the conscious decision we would only have the television on for two things during the week: (1) morning news and (2) Friends on Thursday night. In hindsight, perhaps we still missed the mark a bit; but we did find  that season we had more time to read and pray than we had been experiencing…)
  • If there is a fast that can be truly meaningful, and which can help you to connect to the presence of the holy in your life, by all means take that on.

But, generally speaking, I would encourage you to worry less about what you give up and focus more on taking on even just one thing that might help you know God’s love and forgiveness.

Worried you might not have the time? Or know what to do? Consider these options:

  • You can pray as you commute. Find an audio devotional book that you can listen to; check out the podcast for “Pray As You Go,” a ministry of Jesuit Media Initiatives; memorize a short prayer you can say as you sit at a stoplight, or when merging onto the highway, or when someone cuts in front of you…
  • Want to engage the Bible, don’t know where to start? Try a daily devotional. Resources such as The Upper Room or Moravian Daily Texts or even our own United Methodist Church have daily devotionals you can receive online or via email. (The UMC and British Methodist Church both have apps for your smartphone that include daily prayers/devotionals.)
  • Have a few minutes to engage a spiritual practice? There are many ancient practices that can help you grow in love for God and neighbor. Bible reading, daily prayer, spiritual journaling, meditation, Lectio Divina, contemplative prayer, Ignatian reading…. Find one that engages your intellect, touches your heart, and nurtures your spirit, and God will be present within and through it.
  • Want to go really deep? Get together with two or three Christian friends you truly trust. Engage together in a small group study about the spiritual practices, or use a book about them as the source for discussion and prayer together. Share about your successes and struggles and pray for one another.

In our tradition, we define such spiritual practices as “means of grace,” because they are the ways in which God works in our hearts, in our lives, and through us to transform the world. This Lent, I encourage you not to worry too much about what you will give up, but how you might engage a means of grace to grow in your love for God, for self, for family, for neighbor, and for the world.

Lazy Methodists?

UMC Cross & FlameTwo different thoughts are on my mind this week, related because both touch on what it means (or what people think it means) to be a Methodist.

First, there is an online blog about Methodism that’s been making the rounds – both my wife and Steve Manskar have pointed to an article I think worthy of sharing, asking the question “Are Methodists Lazy?”

It might be an interesting question to consider.

Years ago, I heard the now-tired cliché from denominational leaders that many people explained their choice to be Methodist by saying “I can believe whatever I want.” Although I think such a cavalier attitude toward sound theology is disingenuous to The United Methodist Church at large as well as our constituent congregations, the breadth and openness of our teachings do perhaps lend themselves to such a perspective.

I wonder if the same thing has happened vis a vis the openness of our churches; because anyone _can_ join, perhaps we’ve lost sight of what commitment we make when we do join. Considering the commitments embodied in our history and heritage – from the stories of personal commitment we read about in the Acts of the Apostles, to the many and quite honestly challenging “one another” exhortations of the New Testament, to the dedication to personal and social holiness demonstrated by the early members of the Methodist movement   – I wonder how we shifted to a perspective that it is “easy” to be Methodist.

Did our general perspective shift – that instead of viewing church as what we are together, we came to view church as where we go to see one another?

Did we, somewhere along the way, begin to expect that church should offer more to me than it asks of me?

And, perhaps more importantly, is it unreasonable to think that we can reclaim such deep commitment to God and others? The kind of communal commitment demonstrated by the “primitive church” of Acts (or even of the early Methodists)?

Honestly, I think many (if not all) of us grew up with some incomplete perceptions of the church. If my memory serves me well (which I will admit it may not), as I recall both I and many of my colleagues in seminary had trouble when it came to defining a healthy ecclesiology – that is, a theology of the church. (Some of this had to do with weak pneumatology – our theologies of the Holy Spirit who unites us together as the Body of Christ, the Church, but I digress.) Many of we who were “called out” from among us to be ordained as clergy also struggled with articulating a positive and compelling theology of the Church.

Likely it is a struggle every generation has to contend with – finding ways to overcome the systemic (and resulting theologic) breakdowns of an ever-changing institutional structure, and re-capture a theology of the Church: this one, holy, catholic (universal), apostolic, communal, we-are-all-in-this-together, Body of Christ united primarily by the amazing work and grace of God’s Holy Spirit rather than any mutual race or experience or belief or even creed.

Thankfully, as Genesis 1 reminds us, God speaks into chaos to bring new order, new life. Such is true for the church, as it seems generations repeatedly seek reform and renewal.

And among those efforts for renewal we often find renewed commitment to truly living out a new life in the community. The early Methodists did exactly this: rising to overcome what they saw as a listless religion in the Church of England, they committed themselves (after the example of the early church) “to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Through the evolution of the movement Wesley and the Methodists developed bands, classes, and societies in addition to the local churches where they retained membership and attended worship! Methodists were committed, again after the example of the early church, to living life together, to providing from their own resources for those who had need, and to spending much time together.

To be a Methodist initially meant one was committing to a radical life change (as evidenced in the three rules!): not only was one turning away from the sins and temptations that so easily trip us up (“do no harm”), one was actively committing to being in community to support, encourage, and help others seeking to do the same (“do good”) through the same means (“attend to the ordinances of God”).

Sadly, institutional decay and our human tendency to forget our past have contributed to where we are today, perceived as something that one can belong to and be lazy.

I remember, when I attended the School for Congregational Development for the first time back in 2000, that I heard repeatedly that that successful, growing, healthy churches often “raised the bar” regarding their expectations of members. At the time, churches that required more of members seemed to be growing more than others. Perhaps we need to revisit the nature of our commitment, re-articulate what we mean when we commit to being part of the church together.

In his article on the stereotype of “just another lazy Methodist,” blogger Kevin Alton points to some of the commitments our healthy churches are engaged in:

  • Community
  • Mission
  • Personal Growth (“moving on to perfection”)
  • Biblical knowledge

These are just some of the ways people live out their commitment to being a follower of Christ within a local church body. I would suggest they are part of what is an imperative, ever-present tension in a Christian, between faith and works (James 2:25); between pious acts of faith (personal transformation rooted in God’s Spirit) and merciful works of mission (social transformation rooted in God’s Spirit).

All of this leads to the second thought about Methodism rattling around in my head. This past Tuesday evening some members of our church and I watched and discussed a presentation by Rev. Adam Hamilton about “Leadership for the 21st Century Church.” In the midst of the presentation (given to the 2007 School for Congregational Development), Adam said:

“We are a church of the extreme center.
We hold in tension things that others tell you should be pulled apart.”

I’ve referenced this phrase a few times this week, and believe that it gets to the heart of the commitment of being part of a Methodist Church. We allow (invite, even!) different theological viewpoints to be “held in tension” within our churches – from conservative fundamentals to liberal progressive. We “hold in tension” different political or social ideologies – consider that both George Bush and Hilary Clinton were United Methodist! And we seek to “hold in tension” the ongoing reality of works and faith.

To me, true faith in Christ naturally leads to deeper commitments involving tension. To be a Christian is to commit to following one who, being both wholly-human and holy-divine, both illuminates our flaws (conviction) and guides us toward perfection (sanctification). To be a member of a local church is to commit to a communal life with others, connected by the deep binding of the Holy Spirit to strive both individually and collectively to accomplish works of piety and mercy after the example and guidance of Christ.

There are many, deeply life-affecting commitments inherent in being part of the church. But – and this is good news – our imperfection in following any need not alienate us from being part of the community. The wonder of the church, to me, is that beyond calling for and often bringing out our best, the church is also a means of grace. The church is a means by which God is at work in my world – transforming the community for the better, sure, but also transforming me through a constant cycle of calling, conviction, forgiveness, and empowerment.

If you’ve read this far, you might also want to check out “The United Methodist Way” developed by our General Board of Discipleship.

In which my subconscious convicts me of hubris…

…take heed, not to seek your own praise herein, not to desire any honour to yourselves. But let it be your sole aim, that all who see your good works may “glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

(Excerpt from John Wesley, “Sermon 24: Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 4.” Sermons on Several Occasions – Kindle Edition)

Today’s reflection starts with a dream.

Saturday night / Sunday morning, I had a vivid dream. This is not unusual in itself, as I often have such dreams. In fact, in the last few days I have had vivid dreams about being called back to London to teach, meeting my father poolside in an indoor Roman-bath-like structure, and that I was a wandering constable in His Majesty’s service in the 14th century seeking out my lost wife (who was herself half dryad) who had been abducted by a dragon in disguise.

As generally happens, only a snippet of the dream in question resurfaced in my conscious mind, but it did so as I was driving to worship. In this particular dream, I was preaching in a great and ornate building to a fair sized congregation. I set my scant notes on a music stand, with the prideful recognition that my upcoming delivery, with minimal reference to said notes, was going to impress.

As this image came back to mind on my drive to worship Sunday morning, I realized how much it spoke of my personal ego; my desire to “impress” when I preach (or teach); my subconscious need to excel. It spoke of pride. What a far cry from wanting to bring honor and glory to God! In short, my own subconscious convicted me.

I prayed; confessing and asking for forgiveness for placing too much emphasis on my own performance; and humbly asking that I might simply be a vessel for God’s word. And I went on with my duties more as I should, trying to stay centered in Christ and not self.

(It may almost be counter-productive to share this experience, since some might see blogging as bordering on ego nurturing narcissism! But I share in the spirit of honest self-reflection…)

I’ve been reminded of the experience throughout the week – particularly when I read today’s sermon from Wesley. And it occurs to me that in the last few weeks, my reflections on Wesley – from journeying where he once did, to re-visiting his theology and spirituality, to the direct reading of his published sermons – have given me both a reminder of the core of Christian faith and guidance for future preaching.

In short, my study in Wesley is helping me to recognize that perhaps I ought to focus on the four primary areas of our Christian life:

1) We’re incomplete

In Christian parlance, terms such as “depraved,” “sinful,” “original sin,” “fallen,” and even “natural man” have all been used to describe the same basic ontological dilemma we all face. Originally created “in the image of God,” we are now far from that image; and to some degree, in our innermost being we know it. As St. Augustine (who developed the doctrine of “original sin”) famously described it, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in [God].”

Early in the Sermons, Wesley expresses in various Biblical terms the existential angst which is the human condition. He details the sin and depravity, but one image that he particularly picks up and repeats is that we are, essentially, “asleep.” He further utilizes the analogy of a fetus in the womb, he shares how we have senses but are not yet using them (he goes on to share how, through faith, we “wake up”; how we enter the world and suddenly see and hear and feel…).

In more modern terms, I have heard that we have a “God-shaped hole” inside each of us; that we are “spiritually yearning;” or (the terms I appreciate most, and give all due props to Rev. Adam Hamilton from whom I first heard them) that we are all  “broken and messed up.”

All of these point out our situation; we are incomplete. Broken, even. And, in the midst of our brokenness…

2) God invites us to wholeness

Faith is, first and foremost, the work of God. Our faith is the work of God’s Holy Spirit within our hearts, inviting us to recognize that we are asleep; to realize that are senses are blinded. This is what we can the work of preventing or “prevenient” grace – the grace that goes before (e.g. pre-event).

Before what? In theological terms, we call the continuing work of God’s Holy Spirit to be justification and sanctification (which are #s 3 and 4 below, respectively!). But before any of that occurs – before we open our eyes to the wonders of God and the awesome possibilities of humanity – we first recognize our own inability to do much of anything about our ontological state. The Holy Spirit opens us up to the reality of our own situation, and our basic powerlessness.

And then the Holy Spirit opens us up to the good news, and by grace…

3) We experience God’s love (e.g. “justification”)

Wesley’s moment of coming to truly know God’s forgiveness is that of his well-known Aldersgate experience, of which he famously (for Methodists, anyway) writes:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death…

In doctrinal language, through Christ’s sacrificial death on a cross, the debt of “original sin” is eliminated; we are set free of the consequences of “the fall,” set free from both the guilt and power of sin.

In simpler, more modern terms, by faith we come to know that we are freely forgiven the consequences of our brokenness. We experience for ourselves the amazing love of God, a love of grace and forgiveness, a love that does not hold our imperfection against us. And that is not all, but God also begins a work of restoration – re-creation – within us. As the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts…

4) We respond by growing in love (e.g. “sanctification”)

As John said, “we love because He first loved us.” Indeed, all of what might be described as “Christian” life and ethics are bound up in the process of God’s work in our hearts and lives. Yet God’s work in us is not – sadly – instantaneous. We do not immediately become better, holier people; but God invites us to work alongside, in a journey of self-discovery and enrichment.

(Indeed, Wesley’s initial sermons on the Sermon on the Mount share a great explanation that the initial beatitudes of Matthew 5 are the work of God within us to burn away negative attitudes such as anger and pride.)

In this, I am reminded of Trevor Hudson’s wonderful little book comparing Christian spirituality with his experience in AA, One Day At A Time. Without grabbing the book off my shelf to double-check, as I remember he makes the analogy that growing in faith is much like the daily steps alcoholics take; that every day presents a new opportunity to go one step further toward the goal we have in mind.

And all of this is, essentially, the story that we have to tell. A story I hope to be able to share with humility, recognizing that it is a story we all share.

(I’m also reminded in all of this of a beautiful image from the movie Joshua, based on the book by Joseph Girzone. In the film, a woman’s husband, in a fit of rage, breaks a glass cup(? – I forget exactly) that Joshua had previously given her. She brings the pieces to him, and later she finds it, returned to her; the broken pieces put back together into a beautiful ballerina. I think this well captures the analogy of faith that Wesley so regularly preaches on: all we have to offer to God is our brokenness, but God takes it and makes something new and wonderful with it.)

Disparate Thoughts on Generals and Birds

Through the providential collusion of streams of my life, I find myself visiting London a few days prior to taking a week-long course on the spirituality and theology of the Wesleys; meanwhile, at the same time I am joining with others in “141 Days of Wesley” to read through all of Wesley’s sermons.

I think it impossible to consider the legacy of Wesley and not contemplate how events of his life contributed to the development of his faith and the movement he led. Indeed, throughout the week we have reflected on the likely lingering impact of his mother, Susanna, on John’s disciplined spirituality.

And throughout the week, I’ve contemplated what might “be next” for me. After all, part of our decision for me to attend this summer course was to consider Cliff College and the University of Manchester as a possible joint location to begin pursuing a PhD focused around Wesleyan studies. At one point, amid the flurry of mental questions and anxieties about such a change, a significant thought occurred to me:

If there had not been a General Oglethorpe to invite the two Wesleys to Savannah, would John have had the formative experiences he had (e.g. during the storm with the Moravians)? Without that invitation of another to lead him in the direction God was clearly going to inspire/move him, would the Methodist movement have ever been what it became?

We can not underestimate the importance of the sense of assurance that Wesley experienced because of his interaction with his Moravian brothers and sisters; nor would the famed Aldersgate experience have occurred for him as it did were it not for the continued mentoring relationship he had with Peter Bohler upon returning to London. And all of these were in one way or another connected to Wesley’s acceptance of Oglethorpe’s invitation to Georgia.

So I wonder if and from what quarter God may issue the next invitation to me to consider following…  Who and where might my general be?

***

It was evening, in that leisurely time between dinner and sleep, when a group of us gathered on the rooftop terrace. We sat around in conversation: me (the [at the time!] quiet American); P–, a retired commander from the Nigerian army turned preacher; M–, an evangelical Irishman; a woman from Sri Lanka; and a few Britons, Methodists and a Baptist.

I came to the conversation late, actually. P– and M– both seemed particularly and passionately engaged with one another in conversation. It seems it began rooted around the call of God and the care (particularly financial) of ministers. P– spoke passionately about giving up quite a bit, and trusting in God’s providence. M–’s conversation, however, seemed to be more cynical of the Church, and it actually struck me as a bit of self-promotion – especially when he spoke of having found favor with a former captain of the IRA.

All the while, there was a family of birds – sparrows or starlings, I think – nestling in under the eaves for the night. As the men’s conversation shifted from seeming to give witness to God’s providence to criticisms of the church and others, the birds chirped and sang.

And it reminded me of a lesson of St. Francis, how he once encouraged the birds of the air to go about their business, chirping and singing, as it was their act of giving glory to God.

As these two passionate and opinionated men talked – and most of us just sat by quietly during this time – it occurred to me that I would hope that my conversation might be more like the singing of the birds; that my words might give witness to God and not my own promotion or opinions…

…though, I fear, all-too-often my conversation is likely as vain or seemingly opinionated to others.

And then today, a few days after this experience, I read Wesley’s sermon 12, “The Witness of Our Own Spirit” based upon 2 Corinthians 1:12. And in this sermon, Wesley writes several related words that I thought I would share:

As soon as ever the grace of God in the former sense, his pardoning love, is manifested to our souls, the grace of God in the latter sense, the power of his Spirit, takes place therein. And now we can perform, through God, what to man was impossible. Now we can order our conversation aright. We can do all things in the light and power of that love, through Christ which strengtheneth us. We now have “the testimony of our conscience,” which we could never have by fleshly wisdom, “that in simplicity and godly sincerity, we have our conversation in the world.

Wesley writes that this is the true ground of a Christian’s joy – not only knowing holy conversation (and life) but being enabled, by the Spirit of God, to that very thing!

Once again, I am alerted to the fact that my journey is not complete, but that the commands and expectations of our Lord are also his promises! My conversation – and yours! – can become as glorifying to God as the singing of the birds.

A Dim Glimpse of God’s Love and Grace

Through the providential collusion of streams of my life, I find myself visiting London a few days prior to taking a week-long course on the spirituality and theology of the Wesleys; meanwhile, at the same time I am joining with others in “141 Days of Wesley” to read through all of Wesley’s sermons. The following is an insight that came to me during our experience of a Wesleyan “love feast” on the evening of Wednesday, August 22, at Cliff College.

“God is love. Can you share: what does this mean to you?

This is the question that was posed. And immediately upon hearing it, I began to think…

“well, that’s a great question, isn’t it? to contemplate the great mystery, the divine, the ineffable nature of God and divine love. At best, anything I might say or articulate would simply demonstrate the truth of Paul’s words:…for I only see dimly… I only see in part… (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12)I doubt that I have anything particularly worthwhile to contribute…”

But as the facilitator of the evening’s love feast repeated the question – “what does “God is love” mean for you?” – a particular image came to mind, and with it an inspirational insight not only into the love of God, but my present spiritual journey

This specific image came to mind: Just a few days before I set off on this journey, my little Kate – who has just begun preschool early because she is experiencing a bit of delay in speech – was beginning to say a new thing. Generally, on her own, it came out as “I va-you,” and, sometimes, “I va-you, daddy!” (her emphasis on the daddy!) As I sat contemplating “God is love,” this image popped into my head.

And suddenly, as though God sat beside me and whispered a comment into my ear, this image connected with some of my theological rumination from earlier in the day.

You see, we had begun just that morning to reflect on the theology and spirituality of John Wesley. For two days we have considered the historical perspective, now we were deep into Bible and theology. And as many will no doubt know, key to Wesleyan theology is his articulations of the work of the Holy Spirit via preventing, justifying, and sanctifying grace.

As we worked and discussed our way through these three foundational doctrines and their relationship to the journey of faith, I experienced both a sense of assurance, and a sense of conviction:

Assured… because I do know the forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ. Like Wesley, I can even point to a time when it settled on me in a powerful way. In the spring of 2001, as I drove from my parsonage to my wife’s, listening to a sermon by the Rev. Adam Hamilton, I truly felt the same “warm” heart that Wesley described of his Aldersgate experience. That day, when asked “how are you?” I was able with faith and truth to respond, “forgiven and free!” And since that day, though I may experience the internal witness to different degrees, still I hold to that assurance of knowing forgiveness in Christ.
Convicted… because I do not yet know that “holiness” or “purity” of heart described as the result of the work of the Spirit’s sanctifying grace. I still struggle with various elements of sin that seem insurmountable obstacles to truly knowing the witness of God’s Spirit within my own; more often than I care to admit, in place of the fruits of the Spirit I still know the fruits of my “natural state”: impatience, frustration, anger, instead of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control…. To me, the result of sanctifying grace is the very longing I began this blog somewhat focused upon: purity of heart, knowing and experiencing the elimination of sin within. And I remain far afield from that goal!

Earlier that day, I had come to reflect that it is this process of Christian perfection within which I still struggle, and within which my doubts as to the sincerity or integrity of my Christian faith arise…

And then came this image of my daughter, trying but stumbling to express herself. And all the while, as she does so, I knew that she would get there; I knew, despite her fits and starts, one day she’d be able to say it. And still, when she finally does fully say what she has been trying to express – “I love you, daddy!” – still I felt a deep sense of joy. And every time she says it, my heart lights up. “I love you, daddy!”

And there it was, in the image of her trying but stumbling toward expressing something within her own heart, that suddenly I understood – albeit as though looking through a dark mirror or window – I experience – although just in part – what it means that “God is love.” For not only does God desire holiness in my heart and life – and not only does the word of God promise that such is possible! – but God knows, despite my struggle; despite my fits and starts; God knows, I will get there. And the joy and love I know in little Kate’s struggle and eventual success is just a part of what which God knows as I struggle forward in my own journey toward holiness of heart and life..

Must All Christian Generations Work Through Adolescence?

Through the providential collusion of streams of my life, I find myself visiting London a few days prior to taking a week-long course on the spirituality and theology of the Wesleys; meanwhile, at the same time I am joining with others in “141 Days of Wesley” to read through all of Wesley’s sermons. (What I’m reading today: Ch. 3, “The Medium and the Message,” Methodism: Empire of the Spirit and Sermon 8, “The First Fruits of the Spirit”)

As we prepare to begin our first course in half-an-hour – “Wesley’s England,” focusing on the cultural and religious context of Wesley and the Methodist movement – I’m wondering and contemplating the nature of reformation and renewal and their possible relationship to adolescence. And, more specifically, I find myself wondering if the tendency to define ourselves by what we are not is inherent in our identity.

Whether we are talking about the Reformation and schism primarily associated with Martin Luther, or the renewal movement led by Wesley and its eventual separation into a distinct church, or modern renewal and reform movements among the Pentecostals or Assemblies of God, or the postmodern emphasis of “non-denominationalism” (a term that I abhor for its lack of integrity and truthfulness) – it strikes me that so many of the great and transformative eras of the Christian church are themselves characterized by the rejection of the established.

Luther and his theses; Wesley and Scriptural holiness; modern evangelical churches and their rejection of established denominations – they all defined themselves over and against elements of the established institution or doctrine. Indeed, one could argue that the very beginning of our Christian Church is itself rooted in the delineation between being a member of The Way and being a Jew (or being orthodox versus being Gnostic).

Today many churches define themselves by what they are not. Sure, as did Wesley, they go on to emphasize what they are or seek to be; but too often we start out by declaring ourselves antagonistic to some particular viewpoint, ritual, or affiliation. Even my own brother – who has his own challenges when it comes to being tactful – once offensively commented to me that his church does everything “more joyfully” than the Methodist Church (granted, in his parochial and limited experience this might be true). These tendencies to define over and against something else reek to me of an unholy arrogance (e.g. the underlying notion is “we are better,” whether that “better” is because our church is more holy, or more Biblical, or more joyful, or more relational, or more relevant, etc).

It all reminds me of human adolescence, when so many of us “rebel” and seek to define ourselves individually and apart from parental identities. And true to form, just as some individuals return to aspects of what their parents taught them, others find new identity through their personal journey but are able to find peace with parental figures and their influence, while still others linger on in extended adolescence, regularly rebelling and never really finding their own individuation…

This may just be anecdotal – though their may be a study to support the notion – but I have noticed that the most dramatically growing “new” churches within established traditions, and especially the non-denominational churches (which all but trumpet their independence), regularly emphasize (at least in their beginning) how they are different from what has gone before, unique, and “new” places for “new” people. Maybe it is simply the triumph of marketing – even Paul recognized that there are many with itching ears and longing for what is new and novel. But I have to wonder if such radically successful “renewal” movements are the equivalent of institutional adolescence.

Already, we see once vibrant and “new” movements – e.g., because of my week’s study, the Methodists, so characterized by the joyful and enthusiastic nature of their earliest gatherings and meetings that the “good” (e.g. established) citizens of Britain of the day characterized them with the negative euphemism of “enthusiasts” – lingering into old age; like dogged old individuals complaining about “those young whippersnappers”…

Is there an important link between reform (or renewal) movements and the rejection of the established? Not only in the sense of rejecting the excesses and errors of bygone ages (after all, both Luther and Wesley had good reasons [well, extremely bad situations, actually!] that deeply influenced their ministries and movements); but is this embedded in some sense within us? Some form of deep-seated human need to reject the old and embrace the new?

And, if so, I wonder: is this something to be embraced and built upon? Should we seek to identify first what we are not, rejecting the mistakes and mis-evolutions of institutional faith; and then articulate what we are?
Or is this tendency, in essence, a continuation of our sin of pride; an arrogant notion that we are more able to determine truth (or “holiness,” “spirituality,” “religion,” or what have you) then others before us?