Would I make John Wesley’s grade?

My Lord, give me leave to say once more, I willingly put the whole cause upon this issue. What are the general consequences of our preaching? Are there more tares or wheat? more good men destroyed (as Mr. Church once supposed,) or more wicked men saved?

– John Wesley, 1750

In this letter to a critic and bishop of the Church of England, John Wesley brings forth his ministry for examination and defense. If the bishop can refute the evidence of men and women being turned from wicked and God-denying ways of life toward lives of holiness, then Wesley will relent.

How will are we prepared to put our ministry to the same test?

One of the greatest failings I feel in our denomination is that it has put me in a pulpit with little expectation and zero coaching about how to spread scriptural holiness. We raise up preachers to manage the system we have not to reform the church and nation by spreading scriptural holiness.

And so, by Methodist standards, we have no way to tell whether we are doing well.

The old Methodist way to do this was to look around at the state of life in a town before and after the Methodists started preaching there. Were open sinners repenting and crying out to God? Did drunkards put away their drink? Did profane men cease their cursing? Were the poor clothed and fed, and were their children put in schools?

I will confess that I don’t know how to do this in the United States in 2014. I don’t know how you get heard. I don’t know what words to use to rattle sleeping sinners awake.

But I don’t get the impression anyone actually cares that I am not competent for that work.

Will Willimon in Advent preached a sermon about John the Baptist calling the people a brood of vipers. He ended that sermon by talking about the way his church had tried to reach out to a family that lived near the church. It was a family in distress, and so they had invited them to church and tried to extend care. Nothing came of it.

Willimon said that he ran into the father of the family some time later. He was cleaned up so much that Willimon did not recognize him. The man said a Pentecostal preacher had burst into his house one day, grabbed him up beneath the chin, and lit into him with hellfire and damnation. “Anybody’s done what you done to your wife and children is going to hell.” And the man said he got redeemed right there on that sofa.

Willimon said he felt bad that his church could not do what he needed. The man said, “You Methodists were offering me aspirin. I needed massive chemotherapy.”

I can preach a decent sermon. I care about people. I pray well enough with those in distress. I listen. I can teach a Bible study lesson. These are good enough for what we seem to want and need.

The United Methodist Church will have me. But would John Wesley have allowed me to preach in his connection?

Faith, love, and hope

We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3, NIV)

The Pauline emphasis on the triad of faith, hope, and love is better known from 1 Corinthians 13, but here we see it in what is considered by many to be his earliest letter.

Faith produces work.

Love prompts labor.

Hope inspires endurance.

These are the marks of the church for which Paul is thankful.  The fact that the church has faith, love, and hope is indicated not by its mission statement or preaching, but by its work, labor, and endurance.

This list also bridges some of the supposed divide between Paul and James. We see here as well as in James the linkage of faith and works.

And so, these outward things become for us signs of the inward character. A church that has faith produces works. A church that loves labors. A church that has hope endures through difficulty and trials.

For these marks Paul thanked God for the Thessalonian Christians.

Do we exploit small churches?

Wendell Berry probably does not consider himself a mentor of pastors. He has been one for me, though. His writing about farming and marriage and poetry constantly brings me to reflect on the practice of pastoral ministry.

So, it is no surprise that his essay “God and Country” would do so. The essay, found in his book What Are People For?, is largely concerned with the ways in which the organized church is co-opted by the economy. Much in the essay is of interest, but for the moment, I want to raise up something Berry has to say about rural churches and the practice of using them as training grounds for student pastors.

No church official, apparently, see any logical, much less any spiritual, problem in sending young people to minister to country churches before they have, according to their institutional superiors, become eligible to be ministers. These student ministers invariably leave the rural congregations that have sponsored or endured their educations as soon as possible once they have their diplomas in hand. The denominational hierarchies, then, evidently regard country places in exactly the same way as “the economy” does: as sources of economic power to be exploited for the advantage of “better” places. The country people will be used to educate ministers for the benefit of city people (in wealthier churches) who, obviously, are though more deserving of educated ministers.

Berry goes on to note that in 50 years he has seen many young pastors called to serve as student pastors in rural churches, but he has never seen one called to stay in such a setting.

Of course — and playing right into Berry’s point — this is about economics. Small, rural churches cannot pay the salary of a full-time pastor. Because we pay pastoral salaries out of the offering plate of local congregations, only the larger and wealthier churches are ministered to by those whose pastoral vocation is their only vocation.

As a bi-vocational local pastor these last 7 years, I feel this. The churches I have served are used to seeing pastors come and go. They have come to accept the fact that I live in another county and have a full-time job that means I won’t be around much Monday to Saturday. They expect at some point, I’ll be moved away.

That is the way the system works.

Wendell Berry has me wondering — not for the first time — if this system reflects the kingdom or the economy.

Of course, that dichotomy is simplistic and probably, therefore, intellectually and spiritually lazy. We reflect both the kingdom and the economy. We live the already and not yet life of every Christian. But Wendell Berry does call me to look at the balance we have struck and ask if there are other ways — more faithful ways — to be the church in rural places and small towns.

It certainly calls me to examine my own heart and mind.

‘Finish, then, thy new creation’

Talbot Davis asks whether conversion or childhood has more of a shaping effect of who we are as Christians.

[I]n more than a few of those “new creation” situations, I’ve watched with despair as people fall back into unhealthy patterns of ungodly living.

The same folks who emerge triumphantly from baptismal waters later descend painfully into cycles of addiction and abuse.

The same people who pray for salvation in my office end up paying a bail bondsman to free them from a DUI arrest.

And people who come forward in a rush of commitment sometimes fall away in a haze of apathy.

The thread that connects those instances I cite?  Childhood.  People develop patterns of behavior as adults that — knowingly and unknowingly — serve as coping mechanisms for traumas they endured as children.  

Davis’ post reminds me of all the ink and energy John Wesley spent getting people to watch over each other in love and to watch over themselves, being constantly aware that the sin that no longer reigns in them still remains in them.

The old Wesleyan-Methodist wisdom was that we could slide back into old patterns and ways if we did not continue going on to perfection. To read a sermon such as “On Zeal” is to see Wesley’s concern for creating new habits in us to counter the bad old ones that Davis sees.

Justification — as Davis’ experience confirms — is the start of something not the end. It is a birth — a new creation. We have much growing to do and there is much danger if we abandon the new creation to the not-so-tender mercies of the sin that is jealous for its old place in our hearts and lives.

This is why Charles Wesley wrote in the hymn the plea “finish, then, thy new creation.” Being new and being finished are not the same thing.

Are you a Bible moth?

Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. (Psalm 119:105, NIV)

The glories of the law of God are praised nowhere higher than in Psalm 119, which I have been reading the last couple of days in the morning and evening.

Verse after verse, the psalmist praises the commands, instruction, statutes, and precepts of the LORD. They are a source of hope, a guide to life, and a shield against the many foes and troubles of the psalmist’s life.

What is remarkable to me — as a Christian in the USA in 2014 — is how clear the law is to the psalmist. The psalmist writes of meditating upon the law and pondering God’s precepts, but never puzzling over them. He does not cherish fuzziness. I often feel that our instincts run in the opposite direction. We seem to exalt obscurity when it comes to the law of God and the commands of Christ. We spend great energy looking for ways to stretch meanings or find loop holes. We do not meditate on the law so much as argue with it.

The psalmist does not argue with the law. He argues with God. He calls God to do what God has promised. He asks how God can let so many law-breakers run about with impunity. But all these questions appear to be so pressing precisely because the psalmist glories in the law of the LORD.

I suspect he’d be called a biblicist today. Or perhaps — to bring up an old epithet used against the first Methodists — a Bible moth.

In the preface to his sermons, John Wesley wrote:

To candid, reasonable men, I am not afraid to lay open what have been the inmost thoughts of my heart. I have thought, I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God and returning to God: Just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing — the way to heaven; how to land on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: For this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. Give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God!

His passion to know and do the will of God remind me of the voice of the Psalms.

Would that people heard such passion in my voice and saw it in my life.

'An arrow through the air'

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