Plucking souls from the fire

This morning, I was reading part of John Wesley’s “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion.” In this work, he includes plea to sinners who rush headlong and continuously away from God and into sin.

Think a little for once. What is it you are doing? Why should you destroy yourself? I could not use the worst enemy I have in the world as you use yourself. Why should you murder yourself inch by inch? Why should you burn yourself alive? O spare your own body at least, if you will not have pity for your soul! But have you a soul then? Do you really believe it? What, a soul that must live for ever! O spare thy soul! Do not destroy thy own soul with an everlasting destruction! It was made for God. Do not give it into the hands of that old murderer of men! Thou canst not stupify it long. When it leaves the body, it will awake and sleep no more. Yet a little while, and it launches out into the great deep, to live, and think, and feel for ever. And what will cheer thy spirit there, if thou hast not a drop of water to cool thy tongue? But the die is not yet cast: Now cry to God, and iniquity shall not be thy ruin.

I am reminded in reading this that Wesley’s ministry and passion was stirred by a clear and specific theology, one that is not in favor in many Christian gatherings in the United States today. Wesley, in short, believed in eternal torment of the damned.

Now, an NT Wright would point out to us that Wesley’s picture of souls disembodied misses the good news of resurrection. A Rob Bell will attempt to drive us with beautiful questions to doubt that anyone would ever be condemned for eternity. More than a few United Methodist pastors I know would point out that Wesley had bad relationships with women and was a dictator in the Methodist movement.

All these are worthy of note, but they also all seem to miss an important point.

When we look at Wesley’s ministry, we cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer intensity and energy with which he set about his task. Here was a man driven by the conviction that men and women all around him were leaping into eternal torment, and he must do everything he could to pull as many back from the pit as he possibly could.

Many among us these days might make fine arguments about his theological or psychological faults, but I wonder how many of us would dare compare our energy and passion with his.

Acevdeo: Genius of the “And”

Here is the text of what United Methodist elder Rev. Jorge Acevedo said at the Wesleyan Covenant Association in Chicago. He posted this on his Facebook page, and I am sharing it here.

Genius of the “And”

Years ago, I was privileged to hear Jim Collins of “Good to Great” fame speak. This was before he wrote this seminal leadership book. He had just finished releasing his research that documented the slim margin that distinguished “A” companies from “A+” companies. In those days, it was the difference between American Express and Visa or Dell Computers and Hewlett-Packard. This research was recorded in his book “Built to Last.”
The part of his talk that I will never forget was when he taught on one of the distinguishing principles. Collins said that A+ companies practice the genius of the “and” instead of the tyranny of the “or.” In the talk, he described how choosing between seemingly contradictory concepts—focusing on this or that—leads to missed opportunities.
• Is the product low cost or high quality?
• Do I focus on short-term opportunities or long-term strategy?
• Should the company be bold or conservative?
• Is it great customer service or profit making?
Collins and his team at Stanford discovered that the best companies find a way to embrace the positive aspects of both sides of a dichotomy, and instead of choosing, they find a way to have both.
It seems to me that as followers of Jesus in the Wesleyan way, we practice this principle of the genius of the “and” in our understanding and living out of the life of faith. Think about some of apparent choices some in Christianity might want us to make:
• Is it grace or is it truth?
• Is it faith or is it works?
• Is it radical welcome or is it radical Gospel?
• Is it orthodoxy or is it orthopraxy?
• Is it love of God or love of neighbor?
When we in the Wesleyan stream get it right, we refuse to be sequestered to one corner or another, but instead choose the robust middle way, which we understand as the way of Jesus.
Maybe the most profound witness to genius of the “and” at work in our tradition is our Methodist understanding of the means of grace. A quick check on the website and you find this page ( We Methodists believe in holding in tension both works of piety and works of mercy. Faith expressed without a robust expression of both in the life of an individual follower of Jesus or a local church is incomplete and unbiblical in our understanding of what it means to live in Christ. For us faith is lived best when as a follower of Jesus I work on my prayer life and work to end human trafficking. My local church is being faithful to the way of Jesus when our hands are lifted high in transcending worship and our hands are reaching low to work with the poor.
This was part of the genius of the Wesley’s and the early Methodists. Early Methodists searched for innovative places and ways to find “ports of entry” where the Holy Spirit went before them to share the Good News of Jesus. Some of the early Methodists “ports of entry” included an amazing diversity of fresh expressions like:
• Field preaching
• Literacy efforts
• Medical care for the sick
• Homes for orphans and widows
• Care for the physically handicapped and chronically ill
• Opposition to slavery
• Inexpensive mass publications
• Economic development projects for the poor
Wesley and the early Methodists resisted making the Gospel and salvation simply a ticket out of hell. In “The Works of John Wesley,” Vol. 8, page 47, Mr. Wesley wrote:
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 original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy and truth.
For John Wesley and his spiritual progeny, salvation cannot be limited to deliverance from the penalty of sin, but also includes deliverance from the power of sin. At Grace Church where I am privileged to serve, we tell our people that Jesus not only wants to rescue you from the hell you are headed to, but also the hell you are living in. Salvation to the uttermost involves as Wesley said, “…a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy and truth.”
In the time that remains, I’d like to take a few moments and lean into what it means for followers of Jesus and local churches in the Wesleyan way to turbo-charge our rich Methodist heritage particularly in our ministry to the poor, addicted and marginalized. As a pastor in one local United Methodist congregation in Southwest Florida for 20 years, I have had the awesome privilege of watching a hard-working, blue-collar congregation live richly and deeply into this lush Wesleyan DNA.
A Wesleyan Ministry to the Poor
One of the hallmarks of the early Methodists was the way they invested their limited resources in creating places for people on the margins of society to receive the ministry of Jesus! The Industrial Revolution in England moved masses of people into living conditions that were catastrophic for that time. The invention of the steam engine and other laborsaving devices only heightened unemployment. The English attitude toward poverty was that it was the fault of the poor and carried a stigma of divine punishment.
Into this cultural milieu, listen to what John Wesley wrote about his ministry with and for the poor some 20 years after Aldersgate (Journal 4:358; November 17,1759):
It is well a few of the rich and noble are called. Oh, that God would increase their number! But I should rejoice (were it the will of God) if it were done by the ministry of others. If I must choose, I should still (as I have done hitherto) preach the gospel to the poor.
At Grace Church, Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan has helped us think about two kinds of ministry with and for the poor. You’ll remember that in Jesus’ story, the half-breed Samaritan saw the beaten Jew and was moved with compassion. So much so that he bandaged him up, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn. This is was a first century Palestinian ambulance and hospital! The Samaritan met the poor man’s immediate need. He offered the man “aid.”
At Grace Church, we believe that Jesus meant it when he said, “When I was hungry, you fed me.” We have many immediate aid ministries like food, clothing, pet and medical ministries. These ministries bandage the wounded of Lee County and garner us relational capital to share the Gospel.
But Jesus’ story doesn’t end there because the Samaritan’s compassion for this man was not fully expressed. The kind man returned and promised to pay for his expenses until the man could get back up on his feet. The Good Samaritan was committed to beaten Jews on-going “advancement.”
For us, advancement ministries are those ministries that move people from dependence and reliance to independence and freedom. Ministries like GED, recovery ministries and Jobs for Life, a ministry that assists the un-employed and under-employed to become more employable help people advance.
Our most recent and exciting ministry for and with the poor is the adopting of the largest pocket of poverty in our part of Lee County, the Suncoast community. It’s the second largest trailer park in America with an under performing school in it. A few years ago, we began an after school children’s program. Last year, we sent 50 reading mentors to the school in this community and this past month we launched a fresh expression of church on Thursday night in what we are calling “Eat, Love and Pray.” It’s a incarnational dinner church that last month in it’s first month saw 339 people total with 136 different people and get this, two first time commitments to Jesus. This is a working poor community that is experiencing the love of Jesus through the Body of Christ in their neighborhood, not at our church facility.
A Wesleyan Ministry to the Addicted
Another of the other geniuses of the early Methodist movement was how its interconnected groups served as a tool to grow people in grace! You’ll remember the group model of the early Methodists:
• United Societies: large groups for instruction and worship
• Class meetings: 10-12 people for spiritual growth
• Bands: same gender groups of about 6 persons who were committed grow in love, holiness and purity of intention
But I wonder how many of us know about a fourth kind of Methodist groups called the “penitent bands?” Listen to what Dr. D. Michael Henderson wrote in his book “John Wesley’s Class Meeting” about penitent bands:
This final group of Wesley’s system was specifically designed for those who lacked the will power or personal discipline to live up to the behavioral demands of the class meeting but still had a desire to overcome personal problems. The target population of the entire Methodist system was “the dregs of English society,” some of whom had serious social dysfunctions. The primary goal of the penitent band was to restore its members to the mainstream of society and its regular channels of growth. The penitent bands met on Saturday nights, designed to keep them out their “old haunts.” The minister in charge was assigned the responsibility to help them deal with their problems especially alcoholism. The group was rigorous in format and stringent in means of personal reform; similar to today’s Alcoholics Anonymous.
In my estimation, many United Methodist Churches are guilty of what I call “spiritual malpractice.” That is, they offer Jesus the Healer without offering the people, places and processes for people to heal. My seminary professor, Dr. Fred Van Tatenhove told us “Don’t take the lid off the trashcan if you are not willing to help people clean it out!” Churches can be faithful to the evangelistic call to know Jesus as the Forgiver, Healer and Leader of their lives, but then stop short of helping that new relationship take root inside the battered life of the fledging Christ-follower.
In 2013, I was invited to join Dr. Matt Russell, Rev. Carolyn Moore and Dr. Dale Ryan from Fuller Seminary to speak at Asbury Seminary on Addictions, Recovery and Holiness. Dr. Ryan gave an address to the Executive Team and several other faculty at Asbury arguing that according to the World Health Organizations statistics on mortality that the number one cause of death globally is addictions. Hidden behind much suicide, heart disease and accidental deaths are precious persons who were lost in a life of addictions. Every one of us in this room today knows multiple people maybe close family who are struggling and even dying of addictions. My wife Cheryl and I have lived through a hellish decade with our son Nathan’s struggle with addictions and mental illness.
Grace Church has a profound commitment to creating healing people, places and processes for people in our community who are addicted. We call these our recovery ministries. On any given week, we host 25 traditional recovery groups, 2 full on Celebrate Recovery ministries and an evening of same gender six month long step studies. In total on any given week at all our campuses; we’ll have 600 people or more in recovery meetings. Besides this, we take a meeting into a detox center every Thursday. After 17 years of this kind of “penitent band” ministry, I can unequivocally say that it has changed my life, my family, our church and our community.
Just a few weeks ago, I hugged three different people after speaking at a Celebrate Recovery service. John who is a drug addict had received his one-year chip. A year ago, he was in jail and dying. Today, he is reunited with his wife and beginning to step into some simple leadership in our ministry. I also got to hug Patti after receiving her eight-year chip. Eight years ago, Patti sold her body for crack cocaine. That night, she was a stunning trophy of God’s healing and redeeming grace. The last person I hugged was Amanda. She was 90 days sober and 20 years ago, I baptized her as a baby at the same altar where that night I was embracing her. Only God! Frankly, this is my new addiction…watching Jesus put lives back together. I can’t get enough of it.
A Wesleyan Ministry to the Marginalized
One of the early Methodist bases for works of piety and works mercy was the Foundry in London. The main room of the building was large enough to seat 1500 people. At one time, the Foundry had been a place for casting cannons. After a serious explosion in 1716, the weapons operation moved to Woolwich. The Foundery remained damaged and unused until 1738 when John Wesley either rented or purchased it. He organized the Methodist Society there. In addition to worship services, other ministries occurred on the premises such as a school for marginalized children and the dispensing of money from a loan fund for poor people to help prevent them from paying exorbitant interest to others. Think micro loans. This is what early Methodists did.
Several years ago, God opened a door for our church to a marginalized and “unreached people group” in our community; persons with special needs and their families. We discovered that the divorce rate among families with special needs children is significantly higher than the national average. Mothers with children with special needs typically die earlier. And we also learned that in Florida after a person with special needs turns 22; there are limited community resources for them.
First, we began a Sunday morning “buddy” program that integrated younger children with special needs into our children’s ministry. Then we began a monthly 3-hour respite program for families with children of special needs. But the most exciting ministry we began was a ministry called Exceptional Entrepreneurs. This ministry had a vision to create employment and training opportunities for young adults. And it has exploded.
This ministry is a safe place where persons with special needs learn to make products that are sold. Several of the students receive a paycheck. Bible studies are a regular part of this fresh expression of church. About two years ago one of the volunteers was led to Christ and baptized on a Sunday morning. Several of our EE students began to ask questions about being baptized themselves. One evening I met with the students and their families to talk about being baptized and following Jesus and later that month, we baptized four of them.

Here’s their baptism video:
EE baptism video (2:29)
Friends, as I drove home that morning after their baptisms and I told the Lord, “Take me because it can’t get any better than this!”
One final thought: This passion for the poor, addicted and marginalized is who we are as Methodists. This is our spiritual DNA! It’s in our blood! Listen to how Charles Wesley weaves together works of mercy and works of piety into this hymn:
When first sent forth to minister the word,
Say did we preach ourselves, or Christ the Lord?
Was it our aim disciples to collect,
To raise a party, or to found a sect?
No; but to spread the power of Jesus’ name,
Repair the walls of our Jerusalem
Revive the piety of ancient days,
And fill the earth with our Redeemer’s praise.
-Charles Wesley
This is who we are and what we do as the people called Methodists. Let’s pray…

A reply from a friend of the WCA

Today, nearly 2,000 United Methodists are gathered in Chicago. Some say they are gathered there to plot schism. Others don’t say that outright, but they imply it pretty strongly. These claims, of course, fly in the face of the statements of those gathering to form the Wesleyan Covenant Association. You can see what the organization says about itself by following the link to it page.

I’m not with them in Chicago. Part of the reason is because the timing is inconvenient, even if the location is not. Part of the reason is because I am waiting to see what emerges from this group, which includes many pastors I respect and admire.

As I wait and observe, I have an odd sense of deja vu. Having recently been through a divorce, it is odd to read our denominational “dialogue” these days. It has all the familiar hallmarks of a broken relationship. People talk past each other. They do not interpret each others actions with charity. They are quick to cite past wrongs and harms. When they tell the story of their shared history, the two sides tell very different tales. They characterize each other’s motives in ways that the other would not recognize. They ask questions that are not really questions but attempts to score points. They ask questions but do not really listen for the answers.

In my seminary and clinical pastoral education, I was taught a lot about active listening and “non-violent” communication. Those lessons are lost on us.

I do not write that to cast blame, but merely to describe. Perhaps our divorce as United Methodists is already a fact even if the court papers have not yet been drawn up.

I’ve been quiet about all this because I don’t think I have a lot to contribute to the discussion, and I don’t know what I will do when we start dividing up the property. Theologically, I am a traditional Wesleyan — even if that makes me a poor United Methodist at times — but I’ve taken vows at my baptism and commissioning to do all in my power to uphold the United Methodist Church. If there is a schism, I’m not sure where I will land.

So, although I have little hope that my voice can contribute much in the midst of our conflict, I wanted to write today in response to something written by a colleague in my conference. Dr. Philip Amerson asked a series of questions for “Friends of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.” Although I am not a member of the WCA, I certainly count myself a friend to many who are. So, for what it is worth, here is how I respond. These answers will be fairly brief.

Question: If “evangelical” what is the “good news” you share?

Answer: I suspect the organizers of the WCA would point Dr. Amerson to the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, and the Standard Sermons of John Wesley. My summary goes something like this: The universe and all that is in is the creation of a good, just, gracious, and merciful God who despite our rebellion against him and rejection of him has sacrificed all, coming among us in the flesh, dying on the cross, and being raised from the dead so that we might be forgiven of our sins, restored to right relationship with him, and live the life now and in eternity that God first created us to live. Jesus Christ offers these things to all who believe and by the power of the Holy Spirit works in us to destroy the power and guilt of sin, free us from the bondage of death, and purify us so that we might live in holiness now and forever.

Question: If “evangelical” why so little attention to Christian experience, to personal conversion? Why so little mention of the transforming love of Jesus Christ for persons and society?

Answer: I am not sure what concern lies behind this question. If it is directed at the WCA, the organization’s statement of beliefs links to several documents — including the standard sermons of John Wesley — which speak quite a bit about these very things. If Dr. Amerson has read those and not found sufficient emphasis on experience, conversion, and the transforming love of Jesus, I am not sure what else would assure him. The pastors I know who are most involved with the WCA has strong commitments to the very things Dr. Amerson is asking about. If there is something more behind this question, I suppose I would need it to be explained to me.

Question: If Wesleyan, why the silence about ministry with the poor?

Answer: Again, the sermons of John Wesley and the General Rules of the United Methodist Church speak strongly to this point. And again, the ministry of many of the pastors involved with the WCA appears to me, at least, to demonstrate a great interest in ministry with the poor. Perhaps, again, I misunderstand the question.

Question: If uniquely “Biblical Christian,” what is the basis for scriptural interpretation? What is the hermeneutic employed?

Answer: I assume the “uniquely” is a reference to the WCA’s statement on Biblical authority, which makes reference to challenges directed at the unique place of the Bible in the church. Dr. Amerson asks what is our basis for biblical interpretation. As a commissioned elder, my understanding is that our basis for interpreting Scripture, which we regard as the final authority in all matters of faith and practice, is grounded in a tradition the encompasses the best thinking of the church back to the apostles but is centered on a movement of the Holy Spirit that gave rise to Methodism. We find the doctrinal commitments of this movement in the sermons and hymns of the Wesleys and our other foundational documents. Our interpretation of Scripture as United Methodists is a part of this tradition and should be heavy informed by it. In addition — as Wesley did — we believe our faith is reasonable, and so starting from the truths that we affirm from scripture, we employ our reason to attempt as best we can to hold together all that we believe in a rational whole. And, to keep this brief, we look to the experience of actual Christian lives for confirmation of what we have believed. It is in the lives of Christians that our beliefs find living expression.

Like Augustine and Wesley, among many others, I interpret the Bible from a stance of humility rather than suspicion. Or rather, I attempt to do so. The temptation to place myself in a position of authority over Scripture rather than obedience to it is ever present. I fail at times to be faithful, but my goal is to treat the Bible — as our Articles of Faith require — as the final authority in all matters of faith and practice.

Question: If Wesleyan, what of John Wesley’s concern about schism and his clear guidance to learn from others who differ as expressed in “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection“?

Answer: I am grateful for Dr. Amerson’s reference to Wesley’s great work. There is a great deal in that document that would be beneficial for all United Methodists to ponder and study. It would be a wonderful thing to see our General Conference taken up by serious study and prayer over the depth and meaning of the doctrine of Christian Perfection and the means by which we might obtain the blessings of that state. However, that is not the issue at hand.

I take Dr. Amerson’s reference in his question to be to a few paragraphs at the end of that work in which Wesley offers some advice to Methodists in how to hold to the teaching of Christian Perfection in the face of opposition to that doctrine within Methodism itself and the Church of England. In his “sixth advice” to Methodists, he does warn quite eloquently about schism and division.

Suffer not one thought of separating from your brethren, whether their opinions agree with yours or not. Do not dream that any man sins in not believing you, in not taking your word; or that this or that opinion is essential to the work, and both must stand or fall together. Beware of impatience of contradiction. Do not condemn or think hardly of those who cannot see just as you see, or who judge it their duty to contradict you, whether in a great thing or a small. I fear some of us have thought hardly of others, merely because they contradicted what we affirmed. All this tends to division; and, by everything of this kind, we are teaching them an evil lesson against ourselves.

I think Wesley’s words are wise here, and I see many in our church who do not follow them. Sadly, I often see our desire to point such faults tends to be limited to those with whom we disagree.

I would, however, also direct Dr. Amerson to the paragraph preceding the one I just quoted, which might also have some merit in our consideration of how Wesley would advise us to avoid schism.

Likewise, if you would avoid schism, observe every rule of the Society, and of the Bands, for conscience’ sake. Never omit meeting your Class or Band; never absent yourself from any public meeting. These are the very sinews of our Society; and whatever weakens, or tends to weaken, our regard for these, or our exactness in attending them, strikes at the very root of our community.

Would we — for the sake of avoiding schism and learning from each other — all agree to observe every rule of our denomination? I do believe that Wesley is correct that our weakening regard for those rules has struck deeply at the root of our community.

Dr. Amerson expressed in his post that he had not heard answers to his questions. I write these answers not as a representative or member of the WCA, but as a friend and hopeful observer. I hope these meager responses might help address some of the concerns he expressed.