The path of true peace

He that sleeps in death, has a false peace; he that is awakened, has no peace at all; he that believes, has true peace …

— John Wesley, “The Spirit of Bondage and Adoption

When I first started to read John Wesley’s works, one of the things that I found most helpful was his attention to the spiritual condition of individuals. He writes much like a physician describing various forms of disease and illness, and often times even makes that comparison himself. To be a caretaker of souls, he writes, you must understand the causes of symptoms before you can administer the proper medicines.

In the sermon quoted above, Wesley discerns three spiritual states, each with its own characteristics and needs.

Sleeping
The sleeper or “natural man” is one who is either not aware of the things of God or imagines themselves to be in good stead with God when they are not. The first group we might call non-believers. The second group includes both those who worship a god other than the Trinity or who worship in the Christian manner but mistakenly think that mere outward worship and adherence to formal practices such as attending church semi-regularly and praying from time-to-time mean they are on good terms with God.

Such folks are at peace but it is the false peace we read warnings about in the prophets. Like the kings of the Old Testament, they can find no shortage of people to tell them that they have the approval of God, but such comfort and peace is difficult or impossible to square with careful attention to the Bible.

Waking
The sleepers are many. The awakened are few. These are persons who have come honestly face-to-face with their sin. They see and therefore grieve the fact that they are out of line with God, damned justly, and unable by their own power to do anything about it. This is why, as Wesley says, they have no peace at all.

The awakened are tormented and troubled. They know they deserve to suffer. Like the prodigal son, their unworthiness is the only plea on their lips.

As terrible as this state is, it is a huge spiritual achievement. Nothing is more difficult in the work of ministry — I have found — than helping sleepers shake off their slumber. Nothing is more emotionally and spiritual draining than walking through the daylight with an awakened sleeper who sees God and — like the disciples and prophets before them — is struck with terror.

Believing
An awakened sinner who cries out to Jesus and who does not relent until they have found him is the one who truly believes. They have a belief grounded on a deep assurance that Jesus Christ has forgiven them and that they are beloved not because they are worthy but because God is great. And the fruit of this faith — which is a gift given to us by God — is peace, true peace.

The believer requires continual encouragement and support as they grow in Christian maturity — we Methodists call this “going on to perfection.” And they need the watchful love of fellow Christians to help them along the way and help them avoid slipping backward or away from their faith. The grace of God will bring to full flower what he has started within them, if the believer continues to be a co-worker with God in their own spiritual growth.

Pastoral Challenge
Such is the landscape of the spirit that Wesley saw as he did his work long ago in England. The map he left us remains useful to those of us working in different fields. I find that pastoral work requires a great deal of attention to such things because there is so much temptation to let sleepers rest in comfort and so much difficulty in helping people through this process to a place of real peace.

The work is hard and the rewards are few. It should never be forgotten that Wesley was tossed out of many churches for disturbing the slumber of those who were used to lullabys rather than gospel preaching.

As tempted as I am to let sleepers lie, I am regularly in my pastoral work brought face-to-face with those who have been permitted to sleep and have found the bedtime faith that they have spent a lifetime in provides no comfort or peace in the day of trouble. They come to the edge of their mortality and they try to lean on their faith and discover it has nothing to give them but empty words.

I am not very skilled at helping people navigate this spiritual terrain. I am trying to do it better as I go. But I am grateful to those who have left me guidance, Wesley and others, so I might help the souls in my care find what God has promised.

 

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What can Spener teach United Methodists?

I have been reading Philip Jacob Spener’s Pia Desideria. It is one of the foundation stones of Pietism, a movement that has had vast influence on both the Methodism of John and Charles Wesley and on the founders of the communions that would come together in the Evangelical United Brethren. Therefore, it is a book that should be read with humble and open hearts by United Methodists. It is a root from which our mingled traditions spring.

As a result of my first read through the book, I wanted to share some short observations about Spener’s method and his prescription for the church.

His method was exceedingly practical. He called upon clergy to examine themselves and the church carefully for signs of sickness and turn to God in prayer for the light to see the proper remedies. He urged them to do this task in writing to each other and in meeting together as they were able. He saw reform, in other words, as rising up from networks of clergy who shared a sense that something was not well and reached out to one another for discernment and encouragement in treating the illness of the church.

Having proposed some remedies, he urged them to put them into practice in their own congregations, but not with blindness of heavy-handedness. He urged clergy to first aim at those most ready to receive and be edified by what is useful and necessary to true and healthy Christianity. Aim first and exclusively at those who are “tractable.” As those efforts bear fruit, Spener argued, others would be drawn into the circle by their example.

Even as we do this, however, we must not expect instant results or immediate fruit. Spener urges patience and hope, knowing that the seeds we plant often bear fruit we do not see. He writes, “If God does not give you the pleasure of seeing the result of your work quickly, perhaps he intends to hide it from you, lest you become too proud of it. Seeds are there, and you may think they are unproductive, but do your part in watering them, and ears will surely sprout and in time become ripe.”

As I read these words, I find Spener both pastoral and practical in ways that draw me into deeper study.

So what are the tools by which Spener urged clergy to cultivate these seeds? What is the medicine he urged for the sickness of the church and the people?

He offers six proposals, which I will list here but hope to expand upon in later posts.

  1. Extensive use of the Word of God both by individuals and in small devotional groups
  2. Diligent exercise of the priesthood of all believers
  3. Emphasis on living faith beyond mere knowledge of faith
  4. Engagement with non-believers and heretics in a spirit of love rather than bitterness or competition
  5. Reformation of training of clergy toward the practical arts of ministry and inward formation
  6. Promotion of preaching aimed at producing faith and fruits

Each of these items requires further explanation and each bears examination, but as a United Methodist, I find some encouragement that there may be a program here that fits our spiritual heritage and practices. I want to study these more.

Questions from above and below

Henri Nouwen writes about his friend Adam, who had profound physical and mental disabilities:

Could Adam pray? Did he know who God is and what the Name of Jesus means? Did he understand the mystery of God among us? For a long time I thought about these questions. For a long time I was curious about how much of what I knew, Adam could know, and how much of what I understood, Adam could understand. But now I see that these were for me questions from “below,” questions that reflected more my anxiety and uncertainty than God’s love. God’s questions, the questions from “above” were, “Can you let Adam lead you into prayer? Can you believe that I am in deep communion with Adam and that his life is a prayer? Can you let Adam be a living prayer at your table? Can you see my face in the face of Adam?”