Getting beyond “How is it with your soul?”

An interesting extract from John Wesley’s journal dated March 25, 1739:

I baptized John Smith (late an Anabaptist) and four other adults at Islington. Of the adults I have known baptized lately, one only was at that time born again, in the full sense of the word; that is, found a thorough, inward change, by the love of God filling her heart. Most of them were only born again in a lower sense; that is, received the remission of their sins. And some (as it has too plainly appeared) neither in one sense nor the other.

I cannot tell from Wesley’s words here how he interprets his own report. Is this a sign of failure? Is it a defense of infant baptism, noting that adult converts by and large do not show any more signs of total reformation of life than babies? Is it something else? I’m not sure, but I do find the facts of the case interesting. As often is the case with Wesley, I find his categories interesting as well.

We see here at least three different states of the soul.

Born again in a lower sense — in which the sinner receives and is aware of a formal and positive forgiveness of sins by the grace of God.

Born again in the full sense — in which, added to the above, the sinner experiences a profound inward transformaion and a filling of the heart with the love of God.

The original state — in which we receive neither of the above even if we do the outward duties and rituals of the church.

It is notable that Wesley’s experience is that only a tiny subset of converts experience full rebirth at the moment of their baptism or conversion. For most, that is something that comes later. This would, of course, comport with Wesley’s own experience. Indeed, it is very likely that he would say he experienced neither the lower nor fuller sense of rebirth until his encounter with the Holy Spirit at Aldersgate in his mid-30s.

I don’t know if these ways of talking about the state of our soul need “translating” to make sense to people today. I am sure, however, that most of the people in our churches are not accustomed to thinking in such ways about their own spiritual life. I am also constantly struck by how little people in our churches can articulate their own spiritual experience. They lack the language, the categories, and the experience to talk in any concrete ways about “how is it with your soul?” I think one service Wesley and his preachers provided Christians in his day was to give them language and practice in talking about these important matters.

We could certainly do worse than provide our people the same thing.

 

 

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Don’t wait for heaven

By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its orginal purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in rightouseness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth.

— John Wesley, “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” 1744

Methodism at its foundation was deeply concerned with the eternal destiny of souls. John Wesley wrote that his great aim in life was to land on the happy shore of heaven when he died. But he had no time for those who thought heaven was a far off country that would remain ever distant from us until our final hour. No, Wesley and his preachers taught with great passion that the best part of the good news of salvation is that we do not have to wait until our death to taste the blessings of heaven.

Our salvation is about today. It not something we tuck away like our life insurance policy to be consulted during funeral arrangements. In Christ, we can experience the restoration of our souls today.

So much of our talk in church denies this.

How often do we say or hear other people say, “I’ll never be perfect” or “I’m always going to be a sinner”?

Yes, we are all sinners.

No, we are not condemned to always sin.

Christ came so that you might know life today.

I know these words do not express all there is to say on this topic, but I am going to stop today with these words because I find that once we open the gates to caveats and exceptions and “yes, but” conversations, we lose sight of the good news.

God desires that you know the sweetness of your original design. Christ has come so it might be possible for you to do so. The Holy Spirit is at hand to refresh and renew your soul.

You need only let go. Seek what you long for. Accept what you most wish to find. It is here. It is waiting. God waits only for your hands to be opened.

Why do we preachers need to talk more about heaven? Because it is close at hand, if only we will seek it.

Open our ears

When you go through seminary, you are taught how to listen to other people. In formation classes and in pastoral counseling classes, we are taught how to listen. If you take a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education — as all United Methodist clergy candidates in Indiana are required to do — you get both classroom and practical training in how to listen.

We need all this because it turns out that listening to other people is incredibly difficult to do.

We usually don’t listen to people. What we do is sift through things other people say in search of bits and pieces we can react to. Or we react involuntarily out of our own emotions, wounds, biases, and convictions. We don’t listen, and we don’t hear. We use the other person’s statements as fodder for our own.

I’m am reminded of this frequently. I’m reminded of it in my own life because I do it all the time and need to be reminded to listen rather than react and respond. I am reminded as well because the members of the United Methodist Church have been actively engaged in not listening to each other for many years.

I see it all over our church conversations and politicking about sexuality.

Time and again, I read and hear the words of clergy who claim to be representing the views of others, but they say things that the other person would never claim as their own. We attribute to others motives they do not hold and evil intentions that they would disavow, and yet we continue to attribute those words and motives to them.

More often than not, people defend such statements by saying they are only reporting what they hear coming from the other person. But they are not really listening. They are reacting. If they were sitting in a session with their CPE instructor, they would rightly be invited to take a closer look at their descriptions of the other person.

Here is the simple process I have been taught, and I try to hold on to.

After another person speaks, report back what you heard them say. Then ask if what you said is what they said. If they say it was not, then you try again, until the person who spoke agrees that what you said is what they said.

Of course, in dialogue across the denomination, such an exchange is rarely possible, but the spirit of that exercise can and should inform how we talk to each other and about each other because we cannot love each other in disagreement if we are not willing to listen to each other.

And let me be clear, being willing to listen does not require us to agree. I can listen to your position so well that I am able to state it back to you in words that you would claim as your own and still say I do not agree. We can listen to a person and still conclude that they are wrong or in error, and we need to permit them to do the same regarding our positions.

In the end, every one of us is going to meet Jesus and discover that we are wrong about some of the things we believe. Only God knows everything. It is a sign of humility to listen to someone who does not share our opinions. When we listen, we acknowledge that only God has nothing to learn about the world.

To listen is not to agree.

To listen is not to endorse.

To listen is simply to treat the other person as you would like to be treated.

The Bible calls that love, and calls us all to do it.

In the coming months, the United Methodist Church will come to some decisions that will change the very nature of our church. It is unavoidable work. It is work that we should carry on as Christians.

I pray God will convict me when I fall short in this area, make me ready to repent, and help me to better love my brothers and sisters even in the midst of disagreement.