Aiming for heaven?

I get the feeling at times that the church tries to be more than it is and tries to do more than it reasonably can do. It feels at times that we don’t know why we exist, and so we grab on to virtually anything that justifies our existence.

John Wesley — whatever his faults — did not suffer this problem. He saw the purpose of the church as getting people to heaven. He sums this attitude up no where better than in the preface to his sermons when he discusses his own attitude toward the Bible.

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 safe on that happy shore.

Elsewhere he wrote more directly about the church, but the spirit was the same. The point of what we do is to land people in heaven.* This was Wesley’s passion and purpose for his entire ministry.

And I wonder what would change in the UMC if that was our goal. What if our mission statement was something like this: The mission of the United Methodist Church is to get people into heaven?

I have to confess that it feels like a goal with a great deal more clarity to it than “Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.” We won’t know if we have met the goal in this life, but the goal feels like the kind of thing that could actually organize our work in a way that our current mission statement does not.


* I am aware that the idea of heaven as the goal rather than the new heaven and earth is a debated point. I find the term “heaven” a convenient place holder for whatever we understand to be the end of all things.

Show me, don’t beat me

In the preface to his first series of sermons, John Wesley entreated readers who thought he was in the wrong how they could most effectively persuade him of the truth.

Are you persuaded you see more clearly than me? It is not unlikely that you may. Then treat me as you would desire to be treated yourself upon a change of circumstances. Point me out a better way than I have yet known. Show me it is so, by plain proof of Scripture. And if I linger in the path I have been accustomed to tread, and am therefore unwilling to leave it, labour with me a little; take me by the hand, and lead me as I am able to bear. But be not displeased if I entreat you not to beat me down in order to quicken my pace: I can go but feebly and slowly at best; then, I should not be able to go at all. May I not request of you, further, not to give me hard names in order to bring me into the right way. Suppose I were ever so much in the wrong, I doubt this would not set me right. Rather, it would make me run so much the farther from you, and get more and more out of the way.

Wesley’s words here may have been better than his practice. I’m sure many of his debating partners found him not terribly open to persuasion on most points. But that acknowledged, I admire the spirit of this passage. It would be wonderful if we could adopt such an attitude in the midst of our disagreements.

And having written that, I feel compelled to point out that Wesley, who wrote the above, was also an absolute stickler on discipline in his societies. He would warn a wayward member and weather their backsliding for a time, but if they would not amend their ways, they were out. So, clearly, there is a distinction in his thinking between discussing points of faith and enforcing church discipline. In the United Methodist Church, we would probably do well to follow that example as well.

What Job teaches me about sin

“Sin” is one of those tough words in Christianity. A lot of people outside the faith don’t understand it. Many of them find it off putting. At the same time, many people who claim the name of believer don’t actually know what they mean by the word either.

When I encounter problems like these, I try to stay alert in my Bible reading to clues that might help me see things more clearly. The Book of Job, I find, is a particularly rich resource.

In the course of his self-defense against his friends, Job provides evidence of his innocence. In Job 31, he lists many sins for which he claims to bear no guilt. Here is a quick summary of his list:

  • He does not walk with falsehood or hurry after deceit (31:5)
  • He has not let attractive or alluring or appetizing things control his choices (31:7)
  • He has not lusted after a woman who is not his wife (31:9)
  • He has not denied justice to his servants when they have fair complaints against him (31:13)
  • He has not refused to share his bread, support, or clothing with the poor, the orphan, and the widow (31:16-19)
  • He has not let injustice against the poor occur in court without offering his help (31:21)
  • He has not put his trust in gold (31:24)
  • He has not worshiped the sun or moon (31:26)
  • He has not rejoiced at his enemy’s misfortune (31:29)
  • He has not cursed his enemies (31:30)
  • He has not closed his doors to the traveler or stranger (31:32)
  • He has not hidden from the people who might see whether he has sinned (31:33-34)
  • He has not been unjust to the people who farm on his land (31:39)

This may not be an exhaustive list of sin. But it certainly is long enough to challenge us to examine our own lives.

And most importantly, Job understands that the court of this judgment is not ultimately his own heart or the opinion of his friends, but God: “What will I do when God confronts me? What will I answer when called to account?” (31:14)

God in the Bible has given us some clear teaching about what he expects of us. He has also left us with some teaching that we find more difficult to sort out. In the end, the proper frame of reference the judgment of God. How will we stand before God when called to account?

We cannot stand still

Ebenezer Blackwell was a London banker. He was also a supporter of John and Charles Wesley’s Methodist movement who reportedly gave “considerable sums” to John Wesley for distribution to the poor. In Wesley’s works, we find several letters to Blackwell. A recurring subject in the letters is Wesley’s concern that the wealthy banker faces many temptations and dangers to his soul. Here is one example:

Whereunto we have attained, let us hold fast! But this can only be, by pressing on. Otherwise, we must go back. You have need of courage and steady resolution; for you have a thousand enemies: The flattering, frowning world; the rulers of the darkness of this world; and the grand enemy within. What need have you to put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day! I often tremble for you. And how few will honestly and plainly tell you of your danger! O may God warn you continually by his inward voice, and with every temptation make a way for you to escape!

The letters are instructive for the glimpse they give of Wesley’s pastoral method and for what they reveal about Wesley’s concern for “The Danger of Riches.”

I also find in the quotation above a compelling image of the life of the spirit. We cannot stand still. We either press on or we slide back. We either go on toward perfection or we slip back toward sin.

This is a pastoral rather than a purely scriptural observation by Wesley. It came from his wide experience shepherding souls in all corners of the British Isles. It is also why he was so adamant about the need for individuals to be in society with other Christians. We need the encouragement and at times the gentle prod of others to help us to keep pressing on. Otherwise, we sag and slide and fall away from the way that is set before us.

This all rings true to me.

As a part-time pastor with little direct interaction with more experienced pastors, I am continually grateful for the lessons and challenges that I find in Wesley’s words.

Why bone cancer does not shake my faith

British actor and comedian Stephen Fry caused a bit of a storm in some sectors of the Internet recently. In an interview he was asked what he would say to God if he met him at the pearly gates:

His language is powerful. He delivers his message well. I can see why it has stirred up people.

Of course, it is not original. Humans have been angry about suffering and death from the first. Job, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, and Lamentations all give voice to the range of despair and anger that both atheists and the faithful have raised for as long as humans have drawn breath.

Fry suggests that bone cancer and other afflictions reveal God’s character — if he exists — as a cruel, selfish, and insane god not worthy of worship. What person who has lived any life at all does not understand the pain and anger expressed by such accusations?

I am writing this post on Ash Wednesday, when many Christians gather in worship to be reminded that from dust we have come and to dust we will return. It is a day we remember and are reminded that we will all one day die.

If faith is only possible to us in a world without suffering or pain, then faith will be impossible for us until the end of all days.

Of course, if a man is determined to face mortality and suffering by spitting in the eye of God, we cannot reason him out of his plan. We certainly don’t do any honor to God by getting angry at him or posting nasty things about him on the Internet.

If Fry professed to be a Christian and said such things, it would be cause for some church teaching and perhaps discipline. But he is not of our tribe. We can and should be ready to explain the hope that is in us. We should be ready to offer him Christ. We should pray for God to bless him. But we should not be surprised by his outrage.

Our Bible speaks of the same kind of anger and fear. We know suffering and pain. Ashes and dust await us all. And yet God is God.

Dead, not sick

Since I was thinking about George Whitefield the other day, I went back and read the sermon John Wesley delivered in 1770 upon Whitefield’s death.

In the sermon, he summarized Whitefield’s fundamental point in all preaching as this:

“Give God all the glory of whatever is good in man;” and “In the business of salvation, set Christ as high and man as low as possible.” With this point, he and his friends at Oxford, the original Methodists, so called, set out. Their grand principle was, There is no power (by nature) and no merit in man. They insisted, all power to think, speak, or act aright, is in and from the Spirit of Christ; and all merit is (not in man, how high soever in grace, but merely) in the blood of Christ. So he and they taught: There is no power in man, till it is given him from above, to do one good work, to speak one good word, or to form one good desire.

If it not clear from the text, Wesley was one of those original Methodists. He is writing and speaking about his own doctrine here as much as Whitefield’s. If we miss this point about Wesley’s doctrine, we misunderstand the nature and power of preventing grace. For Wesley – just as for the Calvinist Whitefield – human beings are devoid of any power or desire to do good. We are fallen utterly, and left to our own devices are rude, selfish, and brutal.

But Wesley always insisted that there is no such thing as a human being totally devoid of grace. In his sermon “On Conscience” he explains that no human being we ever meet is in an entirely graceless state because preventing grace (what we United Methodists call prevenient grace) has been poured out already. We recognize it when we urge each other to listen to our conscience. What we sometimes think of as that universal human intuition about right and wrong is – according to Wesley – God’s grace tutoring us toward holiness.

But – and this cannot be emphasized enough as we read Wesley today – preventing grace is not saving grace. It lures and draws us toward God, but it is not itself grace that will save us. In other words, being a person who is guided by conscience or who is a “good person” by the world’s standards is not a sign of being right with God.

Indeed, in his sermon on Whitefield’s death, Wesley overturns one of the most common ways we like to talk about church, a turn of phrase we use, perhaps, because we want to think that all people are more or less good people and just need some support to live upright and holy lives.

Here is how Wesley put it:

For it is not enough to say all men are sick of sin: No, we all are “dead in trespasses and sins.” It follows that all the children of men are, “by nature, children of wrath.” We are all “guilty before God,” liable to death temporal and eternal.

Church is not a hospital for sinners, Wesley might say, but a slaughterhouse for the old Adam. We are not basically healthy people who just need to be cared for and nurtured back to full health. We are dead people, spiritual corpses, in need of a miracle.

This is the message George Whitefield preached, according to his spiritual friend John Wesley. It is the message John Wesley himself preached, despite our attempts to soften the edges of his doctrine. Is it or will it be the doctrine that we preach?