Missing tools

If anyone refrains from reproof and correction of ill-doers because he looks for a more suitable occasion, or because he fears that this will make them worse, or fears that they will hinder the instruction of others … in such case their action seems to be prompted not by self-interest but by counsels of charity. What is culpable is when those whose life is different and who abhor the deeds of the wicked are nevertheless indulgent to the sins of others, which they ought to reprehend and reprove, because they are concerned to avoid giving offense to them, in case they should harm themselves in respect of things which may rightly and innocently enjoyed by good men, but which they desire more than is right for those who are strangers in this world and who fix their hope on a heavenly country.

Augustine of Hippo, City of God, Book I, Chapter 9

I wish my seminary class on pastoral care giving had spent several hours on this passage alone. I wish the hours I spent during Clinical Pastoral Education included training and coaching about moving into and through conversations like the ones Augustine envisions.

We spend so much time in clergy education working on our listening skills and bedside manner, and very little equipping us to enter into hard conversations that are necessary for the salvation of souls.

In the mainline church, of course, we are hampered in having such conversations because so many of our seminary professors and clergy find talk of salvation, heaven, and hell as missing the point.

Developing skills in listening and learning how to be an empathetic and compassionate presence are good things, but if these are the only tools in our pastoral kit, we are missing something fundamental to the work.

Our Three Main Doctrines

Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three — that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these w account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; and the third, religion itself.

John Wesley, Principles of a Methodist Further Explained

With the exodus of a great bulk of traditionalist clergy from the United Methodist Church, we are in a season of people making claims about what it means to be Methodist and what the future of the United Methodist Church should be.

I write now as I did much when I began this blog, mostly for myself. There was a brief time during the height of my writing here when I had a fairly substantial audience — at least among blogs writing about Wesleyan theology and the United Methodist Church. But now most of my previous audience have taken their leave of the UMC.

But even though I expect little hearing for my words, I feel it is important for someone to share them.

When we speak about what makes Methodism different from every other tradition within Christianity, we cannot look to non-Methodist mystics, liberal academics, or the progeny of the Social Gospel movement. All these sources may have interesting and useful things to say to us, or at least may pose interesting questions for us, but none of them speak to what makes Methodism Methodist and what makes our tradition something to retain.

If we wish to know what it means to be a Methodist, we really need to go back to the beginning of the movement. We have to seek to understand what the Holy Spirit was doing in those early days in the 18th century when the Methodists stirred into existence. After all, there was plenty of Christianity around when John Wesley started preaching. If there was no need within the Church catholic for Methodism, the Spirit would have had no need of John and his brother.

I would submit that in this moment what Methodists need to be talking about is what Wesley meant when he wrote that our three main doctrines were repentance, faith, and holiness. What did those terms mean for the early Methodists? How do we speak of these things, teach and preach them, in the language of today? In what ways do these doctrines make us distinct from other traditions within Christianity? In what ways do we need a deeper commitment to these central elements of our tradition?

It has become increasingly awkward to call ourselves “United” Methodists in recent years. Fortunately, we have the resources available to us to still lay claim to the name “Methodist” if we will avail ourselves of them. We need to do so now more than ever.

A plea for Methodism

In the wake of our great division, the United Methodist Church is struggling to find its identity. We have lots of voices projecting visions of the future of United Methodism and articulating the things that unite us after division. A number of people are planting flags in various places and inviting the church to rally around this or that set of priorities or shared values.

For me, the place to look for the answer to the question “What is a Methodist?” has always been John and Charles Wesley.

United Methodism, I believe, has always struggled to hold on to its Methodist identity. The pull of Mainline Protestantism, a gaunt and dying creature that still has an odd attraction for many, has always conflicted with our origins when we were derided by respectable Christians as too boisterous, too insistent on our discipline, and too expectant that God would actually do great things among us.

Fortunately, we still have the words of the Wesleys to help remind us who we are. Here is a gem that I don’t hear often sung, but I share it with you as one entry point into the heart of Methodism.

Let Us Plead for Faith Alone

Let us plead for faith alone,
faith which by our works is shown;
God it is who justifies,
only faith the grace applies.

Active faith that lives within,
conquers hell and death and sin,
hallows whom it first made whole,
forms the Savior in the soul.

Let us for this faith contend,
sure salvation is the end;
heaven already is begun,
everlasting life is won.

Only let us persevere
till we see our Lord appear,
never from the Rock remove,
saved by faith which works by love.

These four short stanzas could sustain a great deal of discussion, but allow me to share a few observations about the contours of a Methodist Christianity found in these words.

First, faith is not something we will into being, but we receive. Let us “plead” for faith. Let us ask for faith. God, give us this faith. From first to last, our faith is a gift from God, not something we accomplish or create within ourselves.

In a recent survey I was asked to fill out of the United Methodist Church about clergy wellness, it asked me how much I agree with the statement that when I am struggling I can find within myself resources to help me through difficult times. My impression was that a “positive” answer to that question would be seen as a good sign, but I struggled to mark an answer because my commitment as a Methodist is that the source of my help is not “down inside me” but with God. We are not called to get through hell by drawing on our own inner strength, but by admitting our weakness and relying on the strength of God, who gives us the faith to stand even when the earth shakes.

Second, our concern for this faith is tied directly to our concern for salvation. We want this faith so that we can be justified by God’s grace, we can overcome the power of sin and death, we can be transformed into the image of Christ, and we can experience the joys of heaven both today and in eternity.

My social media accounts often include posts that say stuff like “The gospel is less about getting into the Kingdom of Heaven when you die and more about living in the Kingdom of Heaven now.” I don’t think that is correct. It is about both, equally. The Gospel is about eternal life. And it is about access to the joys of heaven right now. It is not one or the other. It is certainly not one at the expense of the other. John Wesley wrote in the preface to his published sermons that he desired to know one thing in his life: The way to heaven. We can certainly decide that old John got Christianity wrong, but we cannot reasonably go around telling people to stop being so worried about salvation, saving souls, and heaven and hell and still say we are speaking from the central concerns of the Methodist tradition.

Third, it is a faith that is visible to others in the lives we lead, by our works. Just as a healthy tree bears good apples, so our lives bear good fruit when this faith is the source of all that we are and do. The works signal that the faith is present, but they themselves do not save us or give us any of the blessing that come alone from faith.

My observation as a pastor is that one of the biggest stumbling blocks for good church people is that they confuse works for faith. We confuse the outer things of religious life with a saving faith in Jesus Christ. And this confusion is all the more tempting because the works are the things that win us the approval of the world around us. They are the things people can use to defend the church when it is attacked as irrelevant or harmful or deluded. “Well, yes, but we have a food pantry.” God does want us to feed the hungry, but we are called to do so because we have faith the overflows from our hearts as love for God and love for his people. Without this faith and love, the works themselves are worthless.

Much more could be said about this hymn, and there is much more to say about what a Methodist is. I am a Christian called to be a Methodist by God’s grace. I am a Methodist called to be and remain a United Methodist. In this uncertain time for the people called United Methodist, I pray that God will help us recover the gifts first given to the people called Methodist. I plead for the faith that we sing.