What is the 21st century version of the circuit rider?

I was reading John Wigger’s excellent biography of Francis Asbury tonight. Wigger argues that American Methodism took off after the Revolution because the Methodist church connected with the ethos of the country and the nature of the people. It was egalitarian and mobile. Its preachers were men who would have been farmers or laborers had they not preached — so they knew how to speak the language of the people. Thanks to Asbury, the church had a sense of revolutionary zeal of its own.

The account got me wondering what the ethos of our age is and what a church that connects with it would look like. In some ways, I feel like the least well-positioned person to answer this. My range of vision of the wider culture is pretty limited.

What would a church perfectly suited to penetrate American culture look like today?

Before LeBron James, we had ‘the decision’

John Stott sums up the evangelical case for the need to make a “decision” for Christ in his classic little book Basic Christianity:

I myself used to think that because Jesus had died on the cross, everyone in the world had been put right with God by some kind of rather mechanical transaction. I remember how puzzled, even offended, I was when it was first suggested to me that I needed to take hold of Christ and his salvation for myself. I thank God that he later opened my eyes to see that I must do more than face up to the fact that I needed a Savior, more even than admit that Jesus Christ was the Savior I needed; it was necessary to accept him as my Savior.

Stott uses the image of Christ waiting at the door, pictured here, to explain the need and the process by which a person receives Christ as Lord and Savior. He ends the chapter with one of the nicer versions of the sinner’s prayer that I have read.

As I read this chapter, two sets of questions that emerge.

First, as a Wesleyan, it still feels pretty mechanical — to use Stott’s word above. The prayer — which I have prayed myself — is treated in some ways like an incantation. If it is prayed, it is done. Stott even goes so far as to warn us not to worry about how we feel after we pray that prayer. Just be know that it is done and be grateful.

This runs directly in the face of Wesleyan assurance. The old Methodist teaching was that we would have a perceptible awareness of the Holy Spirit speaking to our spirit that we are children of God. It was not about feelings, so much, but it was about a palpable spiritual sensation. It is what Wesley referred to when he described his heart being strangely warmed.

The Methodists were also known for the tarrying that often happened between crying out for Jesus and receiving this assurance. The crying out was not conversion. It was not a sign of justification. The sign of justification was the faith that God gave to sinners that Jesus Christ had died for them and pardoned them. It was this faith and assurance that also marked the moment of pardon. I do not believe the old Methodists would tell a sinner that a single prayer without any sense of assurance should be taken as a token of salvation.

Whether we should side with the Methodists or with Stott — or neither — of course is not a settled question. But it helps to be aware of the differences.

Second, I find myself asking about those who cannot respond in the way Stott prescribes. This system of his is built upon a stack of cognitions and the use of language. What about those for whom such things are difficult to impossible? What about people with mental disabilities?

This is a place where I find Scripture does not help immensely. This troubles me at times. At other times, I am aware that Scripture was written for people who are literate — or in communities of literacy — and is mostly addressed to adults with what we call normal mental faculties. It is a means of grace for those who can receive it. But I’m not convinced that means it maps out the ways of grace for those who are not equipped to operate in the cognitive and literacy-based world of Scripture.

Interestingly, for me at least, in a Wesleyan context, it may not be that those with cognitive disabilities need to hear Jesus knocking at the door. It may be that they never shut the door. John Wesley, famously and controversially, argued that we are not condemned for Original Sin but only for actual sins. And for Wesley, actual sins were willful breaches of the law of God. Although Leviticus speaks of unintentional sins, Wesley argued that only intentional sins were actually sins.

In other words, those who cannot understand what they do in terms of God’s commands, are by definition not sinning.

Now, I know this opens a whole can of worms and is not easily dealt with in a simple blog post. Wesley’s notion has been criticized and dismissed by many learned Christians.

But I am not ready to dismiss him. Not, at least, while I struggle to understand what may, in the end, be too high for me to understand.

Time for new shoes

We noticed the other day that one of Luc’s little toes had a hot spot on it where his shoes were rubbing.

With his communication challenges, injuries and hurts are often a mystery to us. Some times he is so sensitive to even the lightest touch. Other times he seems to not notice at all something that looks quite painful. In many ways, I fear, he puts up with a lot discomforts that we never know about.

The worst, of course, is when he is clearly in distress of some sort and cannot explain it to us in a way we understand. This, thankfully, was not one of those times. This was just a sign that we needed new shoes.

We went to our favorite shoe store and discovered that there is this odd gap in shoe sizing for boys. The boys sizes go up to a 6 or 7 and the men’s sizes start at a 7 or 8, but — at least according to our shoe store — kids shoe makers don’t make many shoes at the high end of their range and men’s shoe makers don’t make many at the low end of theirs.

This seems bizarre to me given that every boy in America is going to need shows in that size gap at some point. Then I thought that maybe this explains why boys of a certain age seem to be tripping over their feet all the time. They can’t get shoes in their actual size.

We found some shoes that we think will work, but they need to be ordered to get the wide version. So we’ll watch that toe for a few more days. And we’ll get ready to hide his old shoes when the new ones come.

Indicted by scripture

These are not the kind of questions a pastor should be asking. Spiritual leaders are supposed to have worked these things out already. Perhaps it is okay in this case. I’m a part-time local pastor and a student, still. Maybe I don’t have to be a gleaming paragon of Christianity yet.

The readings from the gospel the last couple of weeks have been challenging for me.

I am not rich by the standards of America. But I am comfortable by the standards of nearly all the world. And while I would not consider my diet luxurious, my belly fat would indicate that I eat enough to support more than one starving child.

Of course, I don’t see these things about myself. Not at first. At first, I hear Christians and pastors talking about their sports cars and their expensive vacations and $10,000 wedding dresses and I cluck my tongue at their lack of gospel faithfulness. “They love money too much,” the voice in my head says.

And I feel pretty smug about it all.

Until I slow down long enough to study my own heart.

If I were a bachelor, maybe it would not be the case. I could live without much in the way of material comforts. But the life of a father and husband is not the life of a monk. So, how do you “earn all you can,” in Wesley’s terms without letting that get in the way of God? How do you do you trust enough in God to let go of anxiety about how your children will be taken care of or whether you’ll have somewhere to live that is clean and safe?

These questions remind me how far from Jesus I still am. By God’s grace I hope for wisdom and strength and faith.

Oh wait, that is next week’s gospel reading.

Forgiveness and new life

Eddie Fox and George Morris describe the good news of Christianity this way: “The good news is that God has acted uniquely and ultimately in the person of Jesus Christ and through this revelation has offered the gift of forgiveness and new life to those who respond in repentance and faith.”

I have heard this before, but I am reminded this week that too often we embrace only a partial version of this. We are offered forgiveness and new life. Often what we want is forgiveness and old life. We want the pardon, but we don’t want to change as a result.