It made me say ‘whoa’

From John Wesley’s journal August 10, 1788:

I was engaged in a very unpleasing work, the discharge of an old servant. She had been my housekeeper at West-Street for many years, and was one of the best housekeepers I had had there; but her husband was so notorious a drunkard, that I could not keep them in the house any longer. She received her dismission in an excellent spirit, praying God to bless us all.

Of all the things I’ve read in Wesley’s journals and other works, this is one of the hardest ones for me to swallow. To put this woman and her husband out of his house must surely have meant she would soon be near starvation. Her notorious drunkard husband surely would not be caring for her or earning money to buy them food. I infer from the wording that Wesley had tried to avoid taking this step for a time.

This summer, I’ve seen up close in CPE the carnage inflicted on families by drug and alcohol addiction. I’ve seen families forced to say to their sons and daughters that they cannot come home if they can’t get clean. So, I understand this aspect of it.

The short entry in Wesley’s journal reminds me that discipleship in the flesh is often not nearly so sanitary as the intellectual exercises in which bloggers, authors, and scholars so often engage.

The key question we can’t answer

Simon Sinek’s talk and book about the importance of starting with the question “why?” has a lot of fans and followers.

At the heart of his argument is the claim that very few people and organizations know why they do what they do. They don’t know their purpose or their reasoning for being.

Here’s the video if want more than my brief summary:

If Sinek is correct, it helps explain why the United Methodist Church’s mission and marketing slogans seem so uninspiring.

“Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

This operates more of less on the level of what we do and how we do it, perhaps getting to why at the end. The why, it turns out, is to transform this world, although we hide that part at the end.

Or how about: “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.”

That is a “how” statement, if I understand Sinek’s categories properly. Maybe it is a “what” statement. What I know for sure is that it does not tell us “why” we do what we do.

Here is my understanding of how John Wesley thought about and talked about what he was doing.

His purpose was to show people the way to happiness in eternity. Everything he did was motivated by the belief that each one of us is hanging over a great gulf and we will either fall into an eternity of pain and suffering and darkness or land on a happy shore of joy, peace, and light.

If you want to know the way to that shore, Wesley said, I can show you the way that the Bible teaches to arrive there. And here is the best news. It is not only something you arrive at after you die. You can taste it right now. You can see, feel, and experience today. It starts in this life.

Do you want to know how?

I don’t think I could point to any single place where Wesley put it precisely this way, but I don’t think this is an unfair example of how Wesley would explain the “why” of what he did. And — to Sinek’s point — I believe the “why” was always forefront in Wesley’s mind and actions.

I don’t think we today in United Methodism can begin to answer the why question — why do we do what we do — in any coherent or uniform way. And I don’t believe we really are aware of that. We can talk a good game about what we do. We have lots of support for how to be a United Methodist. All our metrics about “vital congregations” tell us what thriving churches do and offer some theories about how those actions create vitality, but we rarely talk about why any of that matters to anyone else. How many of us and how many of our people can answer the simple question: “Why do you do what you do?”

Do you see an answer to this “why” question in United Methodism today that I am missing?

O Captain! My Wesley!

On the list of movies guaranteed to make me cry, Dead Poets Society is firmly entrenched. It is right up there with the “Wanna have a catch” scene in Field of Dreams.

The scene below is not the one that makes me cry, but it is one that makes the creative writing oriented English major in me leap for joy.*

As a result of my love of DPS, it caught my attention when Stanley Hauerwas attacked the film in his book After Christendom. Indeed, he attacks one of the lines in the scene above: You must learn to think for yourselves.

I cannot think of a more conformist and suicidal message in modernity than that we should encourage student to make up their own minds. That is simply to ensure that they will be conformist consumers in a capitalist economy by assuming now that ideas are but another product that you get to choose on the basis of your arbitrary likes and dislikes. To encourage students to think for themselves is therefore a sure way to avoid any meaningful disagreement.

Hauerwas argues — or is it asserts? — that Christianity is not something you choose to be a part of, but a set of practices and skills you acquire in apprenticeship to existing masters of the art and craft of Christianity. In doing so, we develop the virtues that make it possible to have an intelligible conversation about morality as defined by the practice of Christianity. But you do not become a master at any craft by starting out thinking for yourself. You start out learning how to think — and act — as the master teachers do.

For my part, I know that I have been on a journey for several years now to understand Christianity as practiced by John Wesley. It would probably be better and easier to learn the craft from someone living today. For the time being, though, Wesley has been one of my primary teachers.

As I write this, I am reminded of an essay or talk William J. Abraham gave in which he argued that Wesley should not be viewed as a theologian but as a saint of the church — a man who shows us what it means to be a master Christian.

In the end, I’m not sure what to make of Hauerwas’ attack on a beloved movie, but I find and have long found the argument persuasive that being a Christian is less about beliefs than it is about a form of life.


*Although I loved the film when it came out, an English professor earlier this year attacked it strongly — echoing some of Hauerwas’ complaints — as a distorted view of the humanities.

Covenant: Crown or curse?

Have you ever read the full statement from which the Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition is adapted?

Directions for Renewing Our Covenant with God

In the second section of the pamphlet, Wesley lays out the choice in clear terms:

Turn either to the right-hand or the left; lay both parts before you, with every link of each; Christ with his yoke, this cross and his crown; or the Devil with his wealth, his pleasure and curse: and then put yourselves to thus: “Soul, thou sees what is before thee, what wilt thou do? Which will thou have, either the crown or the curse? If thou chose the crown, remember that the day  thou take this, thou must be content to submit to the cross and yoke, the service and sufferings of Christ, which are linked to it. What sayest thou? Hadst thou rather take the gains and pleasures of sin, and venture on the curse? Or will thou yield thyself a servant to Christ, and so make sure the crown?

Suffice it to say, Wesley was not schooled in seeker sensitive ministry.

Read the entire pamphlet for the full scope of the meaning of covenant in the Wesleyan tradition that is suggested and hinted at in the prayer from the United Methodist Hymnal.

Love through faith by grace

In his “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” John Wesley began with a definition of the “better religion” that he sought to introduce to the men and women of England. He summed it up as nothing more or less than love, love of God and love of all humanity.

This love we believe to be the medicine of life, the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world, for all the miseries and vices of men.

Here is a statement that I imagine most United Methodists would embrace. Whatever the forces are that pull and tug at us, we would all give a good “Amen” to the conference speaker that said these words.

The great challenge, Wesley discovered after many years of seeking this religion for himself, was that we cannot will ourselves to love in this way. No amount of effort on our part can sustain us for more than the briefest moments of true and pure love. We cannot grind our teeth hard enough to find our hearts filled with love, peace, and joy in God.

This was the lesson that Wesley learned after so much agony and frustration. The only way to the religion of love is faith.

But here again, we must be careful. Faith is not a decision to believe in spite of the evidence. It is not a leap in the dark, not for Wesley. For Wesley, faith has two essential attributes. First, it is a kind of spiritual perception — the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). Faith is the perception of God and the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. It is the opening of the eyes of heart to a truth we had not seen before (Eph. 1:18). Second, it is a gift of God, not something we do by our own power. We receive faith; we do not decide to have it. It is grace.

This notion of faith differs quite a bit from the idea of faith as trust. Or at least so it seems to me. I’m not sure how well we receive Wesley’s notion of faith, and therefore his description of the means to attaining the religion of love. I suspect many would argue with him on this definition of the word “faith.”

Does Wesley’s chain of thinking here — love, faith, grace — still ring true as an encapsulation of the heart of Christianity? Is he still relevant or an 18th century museum piece?