What if young Wesley came to us?

I’ve been reading again John Wesley’s account of his own search for faith, a journey that began when he was 10-years-old and continued until his Aldersgate experience shortly before his 25th birthday.

In his journals, Wesley recounts the seriousness and sincerity of his desire to serve God. Looking back, he sees himself in the same state of many Christians in his day and ours. He was seeking salvation through his own works rather than through faith in Jesus Christ. The consequence of this was that although he experienced many blessings, he had neither the experience of peace with God nor the power to overcome sin. He was doing all the good he could, abstaining from every harm, and attending zealously to prayer, worship, Bible study, and Holy Communion, but still when confronted with the prospect of his own death, he found his religion little comfort.

His spiritual friend and mentor Peter Bohler saw these struggles. He told the young Wesley that his problem was his unbelief.

To almost any observer, the suggestion that John Wesley did not have faith would have seemed ridiculous. He was as sincere and hard working a Christian as you would hope to ever find. He devoted himself to religious observances. He visited prisons and the sick. He fasted regularly. He resisted every outward sin. He had traveled across a dangerous ocean to carry the gospel to Native Americans.

And yet, he had no peace and regularly fell into sins that he fought against but could not overcome.

I think a great many pastors confronted with a young and earnest Wesley, would have tried to offer him comfort and encouragement. Bohler gave him what Wesley called at that time a new gospel: true faith in Christ has two fruits that always spring from it, “Dominion over sin, and constant Peace from a sense of forgiveness.”

Wesley’s reaction to this counsel was to fight against it. He consulted the Scriptures and demanded to see evidence in the experience of actual people that such a thing was possible. He was not willing to accept what Bohler taught and fought against it by all the means he had.

His consultation of the Scriptures failed to disprove Bohler’s contention. (I wish Wesley had given us more account of exactly where he searched and what texts he consulted in this quest.) Having failed to find an ally in the Scriptures, he told Bohler he would not believe him unless Bohler could supply some actual Christians who were living witnesses to this faith, which Bohler presently did.

“And, accordingly, the next day he came again with three others, all of whom testified, of their own personal experience, that a true and living faith in Christ is inseparable from a sense of pardon for all past, and freedom from all present sins. They added with one mouth, that this faith was the gift, the free gift of God; and that he would surely bestow it upon every soul who earnestly and perseveringly sought it.”

Now convinced, Wesley resolved to renounce any dependence on his own good works as the basis for his hope of salvation and to pray for this faith that had so long eluded him. Here is what he prayed for: “justifying, saving faith, a full reliance on the blood of Christ shed for me; a trust in Him, as my Christ, as my sole justification, sanctification, and redemption.”

That faith would at last come to Wesley on May 24, 1738, and the Methodist revival would follow.

As I reflect on Wesley’s testimony, I wonder how many pastors today would have been a Peter Bohler to him. How many of us would tell such a young man or woman — or an older one — that the problem they are having in the midst of their unease is that they actually do not have faith?

By failing to do so, how often do we leave those in our care as pastors striving without any sense of real peace or power? We direct them into good works of one kind or another, we encourage them that they are bringing about the Kingdom or “the beloved community” but what we teach them is a lie. We teach them that the problem is that they do not work hard enough, rather than teaching them that they are trusting in sand for their salvation.

If John Wesley had met me in 1738, would I have given him the push he needed to find his way to Aldersgate?

Down in the sheep pen

The United Methodist Church is deeply wounded right now. Rehoboam has answered Jeroboam with scorpions. Shechem has been fortified. Kings and prophets and priests are hard to work repairing and establishing their rival kingdoms.

In these days, I find myself a shepherd far from the places where decisions are made. There is this little flock that I’ve been tasked to care for. There go the prophets on their donkeys and armies on the march. Here I am, wondering how to tend to the maladies of this ewe or how to get that ram to stop wandering over the hills where the wolves stalk the night.

And so, being a Methodist, I find myself going again through the notebooks of Father John who first gathered up the Methodists into a body and cared for their souls. I turn to his words seeking wisdom for my task.

As I read again “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists” written in 1748, I come in the second paragraph to these words.

“But I must premise, that as they had not the least expectation, at first, of any thing like what has since followed, so they had no previous design or plan at all; but every thing arose just as the occasion offered. They saw or felt some impending or pressing evil, or some good end necessary to be pursued. And many times they fell unawares on the very thing which secured the good, or removed the evil. At other times, they consulted with the most probably means, following only common sense and Scripture: Though they generally found, in looking back, something in Christian antiquity likewise, very nearly parallel thereto.”

In other words, John and Charles Wesley and the others did not set out to create Methodism. They never imagined there would be a United Methodist Church or any of the other denominations that trace their lineage back to the Wesleyan revival. They set out, as I will recount in a post to come shortly, simply to preach the gospel as they understood it to anyone who would listen. Everything that happened after that intention was just trying to keep up with the movement of the Holy Spirit.

I take from this simple starting observation some comfort.

The princes of the church must do what they must do, but for me here down in the pasture the starting point remains the same as it always has been. Preach the gospel. Feed His sheep. Care for His lambs. Call any who will hear to the feast.

But what gospel do we preach?

That will be the topic of my next post. The morning is fast flying and the work of the day calls for my attention. May God bless you, and thank you for taking the time to read.

The geography of a soul

In the new year, I’ve been reading the Psalms each morning. I don’t have a program or reading plan. Some days I read 1 or 2. Some days, I read more.

Reading the Psalms — at least the early ones — is a bit like peaking inside the spiritual notebooks of David. You get his ups and his downs. In one Psalm he is full of confidence, and in another he is full of despair. I find myself wondering how I would respond to David if he were to come to me, as members of the church I serve do sometimes, and shared some of the thoughts and prayers that he has scribbled into his journal.

Psalm 26 was one that really stood out to me. You can go read it yourself, but here are a couple of key verses.

“Vindicate me, Lord, for I have led a blameless life. I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered. … I do not sit with the deceitful nor do I associate with hypocrites. I abhor the assembly of evildoers and refuse to sit with the wicked. I wash my hands in innocence, and go about your altar, Lord.”

As a pastor, I’ve met this person before.

I’ve met the church member who has great confidence in his or her own virtue, and can point to the facts to back up their sense of righteousness. I’ve seen that armor of good works that church people often put on, a confidence in good deeds and clean living. I see it, and I wonder, as a pastor, how to get through to such people.

For we know that our own righteousness is not enough. Indeed, pride in how blameless we are is, in my experience, a deadly disease of the soul, but it is one particularly resistant to treatment or correction. It is much easier to bring the prodigal son to Christ than his self-righteous older brother.

In my reflection about how I would speak to David as pastor in his Psalm 26 moment, I am helped by continuing to read. The David of Psalm 26 is also the David of Psalm 30: “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’ Lord, when you favored me, you made my royal mountain stand firm, but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.” And he is the David of Psalm 25: “For the sake of your name, Lord, forgive my iniquity, though it is great.”

I think, perhaps, the role of the pastor is not to try to talk people out of Psalm 26 moments. That sense of confidence and righteousness may be built on sand, but it is a glimmer of the real confidence found when our feet rest on the rock that cannot be moved. No, what the Psalms call me to do as a pastor is not to seek to puncture the pride of my Psalm 26ers. The world is going to do that on its own.

What I can do is try to give people the vocabulary to be able to name our failures as places where God has turned his face away, where our iniquity drives us to ask for mercy, and where we come to realize that the only thing we have to offer God is a broken spirit.

This is the slow work of preaching and sacrament, of teaching, and of pastoral care. I am certain I have a great deal still to learn about doing this well. David has been teaching me the spiritual geography of the human heart. I pray I am a good student for the sake of the kingdom.