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?

Discernment and Dreams

How do you make important decisions?

Not what you’re going to wear in the morning or what to fix for dinner, but the big questions of your life. For example, how do you decide where to live or what person to marry, or even when it’s time to move on in your job?

These are matters that can’t be left up to chance; you have to engage and invest some energy into making such decisions.

Ironically, the early Christians seemed to make at least one major decision in an entirely random way. In Acts 1, the disciples “cast lots” to replace Judas Iscariot in the inner circle. Scholars don’t know exactly what it meant to “cast lots” but it was likely akin to flipping a coin or choosing straws of different lengths.

But the disciples didn’t make decisions like this for very long, because in the next chapter of Acts, they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and this changed the way they went about things. To be “filled with the Spirit” means that one has the very presence of God in one’s being, which means that each one of us can access God’s wisdom. Each of us can seek God’s will for our lives.

We call this practice of listening to the Spirit “discernment.” Sister Mary Margaret Funk wrote, “This is discernment: to sort our thoughts and follow the impulse of grace given by the Holy Spirit … We learn to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit rather than our own voice, self talking to the self. The voice of the Holy Spirit is a dynamic voice that we hear and heed through our interior senses.”

Throughout the centuries, Christians have offered and embodied a number of different ways to understand and develop a discerning spirit. St. Benedict offered instruction on discernment in his “The Rule of St. Benedict”; St. Ignatius did the same in his “Spiritual Exercises”; Quakers introduced Clearness Committees to help persons find clarity in their vocation.

Discernment is not just for individuals, however. Groups can also approach God and ask for direction. In fact, using spiritual discernment for making decisions in a church setting is probably a much better process than the way we usually do things.

Thanks to U.S. Army Major Henry Martyn Robert, most of us do things in an extremely parliamentary way. Robert’s Rules of Order predominate most church meetings, regardless of denomination.

While Robert’s Rules of Order are helpful in all sorts of settings. They ensure that everyone has the right to be heard, and insist that things be settled democratically. Majority rules for Robert, as long as the correct procedure is followed.

But Robert’s Rules were not designed to hear, or respond to, God’s voice. In this matter, they are only helpful insofar as each person in the meeting is also hearing and responding to God’s voice.

Of course, the truth is that, using Robert’s Rules of Order, rarely is everyone able to agree on what God’s will is. In the end, Robert insists on a vote, and when there’s a vote, there are winners and losers.

Authentic Christian community is not about winners and losers, but it is about compromise, mutual subjection, and humility. I believe that there must be a better way to go about answering the difficult questions — and there is. It goes by the name of group spiritual discernment. And it’s not simple … or easy.

The practice of group spiritual discernment creates a sacred space where people can listen for God’s voice together, as well as listen to each other intimately and intently. The group enters into the space with a confidence that God will speak and lead the group to consensus. Consensus is not the same thing as a unanimous vote, nor does it mean complete agreement. It simply means that the group has agreed to move forward in a particular direction, and that all are on board to support that movement.

I’m currently doing quite a bit of reading and research on this model, because I am convinced that it is an excellent way to go about pursuing God’s will. In fact, I’m using a group spiritual discernment model for a new task force which meets this Sunday night to discuss the long-term future of the church building and property.

I can’t wait to see what God reveals to us, because God’s dreams are always bigger than our own. The key is learning to dream God’s dreams …

Deeper in 2018


    Every time the New Year rolls around, I spend some time in prayer to discern those things I ought to spend time thinking, studying, and praying about in the coming months. Sometimes I get a single word; other times, I get a topic or a subject that I need to focus on.
    This year, I got a word: deeper.
    I know this word applies to my own spiritual life, but I believe it also has something to do with the whole church. In fact, I’ve decided to focus on this word during Lent (which is coming up quickly this year — February 14!)
    I was initially drawn to this word while reading Psalm 42:7, which reads, “Deep called to deep at the noise of your waterfalls; all your massive waves surged over me” (Common English Bible).
    I was captivated by the phrase, “Deep called to deep.” I understand this sentence to mean that, in the midst of personal suffering, the Psalmist recognized that the deep voice and mystery of God was calling to the depths of his own heart and soul. This is where soul communion occurs; this is where God waits to meet you.  
    Too many of us are content to play around on the surface of spirituality. We are happy enough to attend church, pray our nightly prayers, and go about our business with as much piety as we can muster.
    But God has so much more for us. God is willing to meet us if we will only make the deep dive into our heart of hearts.
    That’s why I’ve determined to make that dive. I want to go deeper with God; I want to burrow down into the depths of my own soul, even though it may be uncomfortable, and discover the riches of God’s grace. I’m no longer going to be satisfied with a shallow, superficial religiosity.
    In fact, I don’t believe I am able to do the very physical work that needs to be done in this world, fighting injustice and evil, unless I have done this deeper inner work. I have discovered that I run out of energy and hope quickly if I am not deeply grounded in my relationship with God. The journey inward is the best prep work for the journey outward.
    I would love to take all of you with me on this journey this year. All it takes is a personal commitment to the Lord, a willingness to be stretched, a desire to be changed, and the guts to put your head under the water and dive down.