Do you think John Wesley was very good at the wilderness?
This week, I’ve been carrying around the gospel lectionary about Jesus being driven out into the wilderness and returning to preach the gospel. It is the wilderness that has taken hold of my attention. What is the wilderness? What do we do in the wilderness? What happens in those days? Why are Americans so bad at wilderness?
And I found myself this morning thinking about John Wesley.
On the one hand, he clearly had a long wilderness experience. It drove him to the colonies and nearly to despair. His response seemed to be to put his head down and bull rush through. Wesley did not appear to do Sabbath very well. He did not wait in the wilderness for 40 days to pass.
Or at least not so far as I can see from his letters, journal, sermons, and other writings. Although he often spoke of “waiting in the means of grace” for the work of the Holy Spirit, I never get the feeling from reading him that there was ever anything passive about this waiting.
In his sermon “The Wilderness State,” Wesley dismisses the notion of writers such as Henri Nouwen who teach the necessity of spiritual darkness and wandering in the wilderness. Wesley instead confronts the wilderness with his full array of spiritual diagnostics. He examines the various causes of spiritual darkness and proposes a series of cures depending on the cause. None of these cures, however, is to wait and be still. This just is not in Wesley’s spiritual medicine cabinet.
Richard Foster’s very helpful book Streams of Living Water places Wesley in the Holiness stream of Christianity, which is not a surprise. Nouwen, to the surprise of no one, is a contemplative in Foster’s typology.
These thoughts and observations raise for me questions about the nature of our denomination. Are we a home for all six of Foster’s streams of Christianity? Should we be? Or should we be an expression of our founding stream, holiness?
Of course, there is no simple answer to this question, but I do think some of our denominational struggles these days are over this set of questions. They are questions of identity. I wonder if having a more explicit appreciation of that fact would help us deal with the tensions created by our own wilderness wandering.