Methodists and Strangely Warmed Hearts

As we draw near the General Conference which will determine the future shape of the United Methodist Church, it would serve us well to reflect on the theological and spiritual legacy which John Wesley left us.

It would be easy to list all the good things that Methodism has done since the 18th century; from schools to hospitals, homeless shelters to civil rights movements, from UMCOR to UMW. However, all the good work that Methodists have done is really the fruit of the spiritual foundations that John laid.

As a young man, John was a perfectionist. He grew up under the strict watchful eye of his priest father and loving mother, and imbibed their piety and concern for good order. He wanted to be a good Christian, to the extent that he and his brother formed a “holy club” while students at Oxford. While his peers were enjoying the freedoms and excesses of university life, John and Charles Wesley spent their extra time in prayer, Bible study, visiting prisoners, and receiving communion in evening chapel services.

Once ordained as an Anglican priest, John took the opportunity to become a missionary to America. He took a post in Georgia, and started making plans to evangelize the Indians. But he discovered that his parishioners weren’t as interested in the Christian life as he thought, and he made virtually no inroads into Indian civilization. After a brief romance ended in bitter disappointment, John set sail for home, dejected and broken.

The months following his return were filled with anxious searching. John felt driven to lead a good, Christian life, but he worried that he simply wouldn’t be able to do so. He came face to face with his fragile psyche and soul.

That’s why what happened on May 24, 1738 was such a pivotal moment for him. While at a Bible study somewhere on Aldersgate Street in London, John felt his heart “strangely warmed” as he came to a sudden realization: “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

What happened that hadn’t happened before in John’s heart?

For one, John finally believed the gospel. He had “known” it before; he had even been ordained into the church, meaning that he assented to the church’s teaching and creeds. But he hadn’t really internalized it.

One way to put it is that the truth of God’s love and forgiveness was in his head, but hadn’t made the “longest six-inch journey” to his heart. He didn’t really act as if he believed it, until that fateful day.

Unfortunately, not all Methodists these days have come to a similar realization. Some Methodists have never made that journey from the head to heart, and that may be the fault of the institutional church, which tends to favor the head in most matters. Even our worship tends to be intelligence and knowledge-based. We sing from books, read prayers from bulletins, and assume a certain level of education.

I realized long ago that it doesn’t matter how many times I say, “God loves you and forgives your sins,” because some people don’t really hear it, don’t know what to do with it, don’t truly believe it. Until that becomes rooted in your heart, you won’t live the Spirit-filled life that is the birthright of us all.

Which brings me to a second thing that John Wesley gifted us. The Aldersgate experience taught John that he was not accepted by God as a result of all the good things he did, but was a free gift of grace. He also discovered that, suddenly, he was motivated to do good works as a response to God’s grace. And he found that grace was a free-flowing, ongoing gift.

He called the process of growing in grace, “sanctification,” and the doctrine of sanctification which he developed is one of the hallmarks of Methodism. For the rest of his life, John preached that we are made right with God by grace, and that this is not a one-time experience, but an ongoing process by which we draw closer and closer to God. He stressed the importance of staying close to each other for support and accountability, while also availing oneself of all the means of grace.

This message was radical for his time, and I believe that it remains radical, particularly in 21st-century America, which seems to inject a kind of individualistic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps, punishment-and-reward ethos into all things, even religion.

As a result of John’s preaching, Methodists have been doing very good things for over 250 years. But it’s important to remember — we don’t do good things hoping that God will love us; we do them because we know that God already does, and we want to pass on the good news to others.

So my fellow Methodists, here’s the question that John leaves for each of us to answer: Do you trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and do you have an assurance that he has taken away your sins, even yours, and saved you from the law of sin and death?

God Has No Point System


The opening scene of the pilot episode of one of my current fave TV shows finds Eleanor (Kristen Bell) sitting on a couch in a waiting room staring at the words “Welcome! Everything is fine” painted on the wall opposite her.

A door to an inner office opens and a man in a blazer (Ted Danson) invites her in. They sit across a desk from each other, and he introduces himself as Michael. She responds by asking, “Where am I?”

Michael says that she is dead. “Your life on earth has ended, and you are now in the next phase of your existence in the universe.”

Eleanor answers, “Cool, cool. I have some questions … Am I … (pointing upwards) or is this … (pointing downwards)?”

“It’s not the heaven-or-hell idea that you were raised on,” Michael says. “But generally speaking, in the afterlife, there’s a Good Place and there’s a Bad Place. You’re … in the Good Place.”

Did I mention this is a comedy?

It doesn’t take long before the show’s central conflict reveals itself — Eleanor shouldn’t have been sent to the Good Place; she was actually a pretty terrible person on earth, and the only way to get to the Good Place is by accumulating a net positive amount of points. She is the first to realize this problem, and tries her hardest to keep from being “outed.”

What plays out over the next three years of NBC’s “The Good Place” is a hearty dose of ethics, smart metaphysical humor, and a sassy robot girl named Janet. Except she’s not really a robot, but … it’s complicated.

One of my favorite scenes is the orientation video produced for new arrivals to the Good Place. You can watch it above. I’m especially fascinated by the point system that the Good and Bad Places are based upon.

In the video, Michael explains:

During your time on earth, every one of your actions had a positive or a negative value depending on how much good or bad that action put into the universe. Every sandwich you ate, every time you bought a magazine, every single thing you did had an effect that rippled out over time and ultimately created some amount of good or bad … When your time on earth has ended, we calculate the total value of your life using our perfectly accurate measuring system. Only the people with the very highest scores, the true cream of the crop, get to come here, to the Good Place.

In “The Good Place,” going to heaven or hell depends on one’s final “score.” That might sound amusing, but it absolutely amazes me how many people live their real lives according to this reasoning. This kind of moral reckoning likely makes sense to lots of people. In fact, I would guess that a large percentage of Americans believe in heaven and hell, and most of them probably believe that the way to get to heaven is to accumulate more good actions than bad.

What shocks me even more is that so many Christians live this way, too. Throughout my career as a pastor, I have visited more than one person on their deathbed who has said to me, “I’m not worried about going to heaven. I know I’ve been a good person.”

I want to say to them, though I usually don’t say it as bluntly as this, that BEING A GOOD PERSON HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH HEAVEN OR HELL.

In fact, that’s the exact opposite of the good news of Jesus Christ. The core gospel message is that God loves us — period. We are all sinners, all flawed and broken, but God forgives us anyway, and not because of anything we have done, but on the merit of Jesus Christ’s advocacy on our behalf.

This was the central theological point of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther protested the clergymen who were traveling the countryside selling “good points” to folks to boost their chances of gaining heaven. Luther insisted that God didn’t work this way; we couldn’t earn our way to heaven, but could only rely on grace to get us there.

In other words, God has no point system.

Paul put it like this: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph. 2:8-10).

The good news is that we are saved by grace, not by good works, but that we are created to be people who do good works. The good works are not a means to an end; they are the end themselves. They are what constitute a meaningful, purposeful life.

You are already loved, already saved, already held in the arms of God. Nothing can tear you from God’s arms, nothing can separate you from God’s love. You are secure.

You will be in the Good Place one day, along with everyone else.

But until then, let’s do everything in our power to make this planet, this earth, this nation, this neighborhood, God’s Good Place.

Join us at our next Faith on Tap session, Feb. 12, 7 pm at 723 Ft Worth Ave, as we take a deeper dive into “The Good Place” and what it means to be good.

Reflections on a Tragic Missionary Story


I’ve been thinking about John Allen Chau a lot lately.

He was the missionary who was recently killed on the shore of a remote island called North Sentinel by a tribe which intentionally remains isolated from modern civilization.

Media coverage has mostly focused on two questions: first, was Chau a courageous martyr or a misguided fool; and second, what is the best way to evangelize anyway; isn’t missionary sending a thing of the past?

I don’t know if I’m really qualified to answer the first question. Obviously, it took courage to travel to North Sentinel; that was bravery, but I also think it was entirely inappropriate. For one, there was a very real danger that Chau would bring communicable diseases to people who had no natural resistance to them. Furthermore, he didn’t know their language, so he had no quick way to let them know why he was there. And they didn’t invite him to their island!

I seem to recall that just a few weeks ago, I led my Sunday School class through a lesson that included a quote from Jesus in which he clearly said to his disciples, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town” (Matthew 10:14). Apparently, even Jesus thought it was a waste of time to go where you were not wanted!

In all seriousness, however, I want to move on to the second question, which has to do with the nature of evangelism itself. Put simply, does God want us to attempt to proselytize people, to convert them into believers in Jesus Christ?

It would appear so from the closing words of the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus tells his disciples, “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:19-20).

This was obviously the impetus behind Chau’s evangelism efforts. He was trained and sent by an organization called All Nations, based in Kansas City, Missouri. According to their website, their vision is “to see Jesus worshiped by all the peoples of the earth,” and their mission is “to make disciples and train leaders to ignite church planting movements among the neglected peoples of the earth.”

Why is this the vision of All Nations? What drives them to make this their particular mission? According to their Statement of Faith, “We believe that when a follower of Jesus dies, he/she passes immediately into the presence of Christ, there to enjoy conscious fellowship with God until the day of the resurrection and transformation of the body. The saved will then forever dwell in fellowship with their great God. We also believe that when the unbeliever dies he/she is consigned to hell, there to await the day of judgment when he/she shall be punished with eternal, conscious separation from the presence of God.”

In this way of thinking, missionaries have the ultimate task of saving people from hell — literally! That’s why Chau felt driven to risk his life on a far off island. That’s why he believed his act of self-sacrifice might ultimately be worth it. If the North Sentinelese are eventually introduced to Jesus someday, they might be saved to go to heaven. That’s a bargain Chau would accept, because he knew he would be in heaven himself.

This logic is flawed to me, to be honest. I simply don’t believe that people who don’t have faith in Jesus Christ will spend the afterlife in perpetual torture, much less people who have never even heard of Jesus.

In fact, the story of Chau’s demise reminds me of a story I heard once about a missionary priest who traveled to a remote tribe in a far-off land. When he got there, he learned the language as quickly as he could, and then began teaching them the precepts of Christianity.

Finally, one of the tribesmen asked the priest, “Are you saying that we will go to hell if we don’t accept your Jesus?”

The priest said, “Yes, that is what I am saying.”

The tribesman asked, “But what if we never had heard of this Jesus? Would we still go to hell?”

The priest replied, “Well, no, not in that case. Because God would show you mercy.”

The tribesman then said, “Why did you come and preach to us then? We would all be going to heaven! Now some of us are doomed!”

Chau either believed a) that all people who don’t believe in Jesus are going to hell regardless of whether they had heard of him or not, or b) that only people who have heard about Jesus will be judged on the basis of whether they have believed in him; the rest will be judged on a different basis. If he believed option a, then I understand his urgent mission but pity his belief in an unmerciful and horrible God; if he believed in option b, then he was simply foolish — far better to leave them alone and let them go to heaven out of ignorance!

Frankly, I find both options to be equally problematic, but that’s a subject for a different column.

For now, let me simply close with this thought: the Gospel of Jesus Christ is meant to be good news to people, a liberating word, a fresh and transformative thing. Jesus himself once said, “I have come that you may have life and have it more abundantly.”

Anything that doesn’t bring abundant life is not from God. Even if it comes from a so-called missionary.