Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #1 ©

Two incidents frame the beginning of a series of blogs I have tentatively entitled “Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way.”  First, an incident that happened a couple of months ago.  Jolynn and I found ourselves in another community worshipping at a large United Methodist Church on Sunday morning.  The preacher opened by stating that he was continuing a series of sermons by John Wesley with additions of his own.  Absentmindedly I didn’t catch what he said at first.  However as the sermon unfolded, I soon realized that he was preaching Wesley’s famous sermon on “Justification by Faith”  (See The Works of John Wesley, Vol.1, Sermon 5, pp. 182-199, Edited by Albert C. Outler). Somewhat edited for length and spliced with a few comments, its essence and even language was straight Wesley.

I take notes when I listen to a sermon (for my own spiritual learning and growth in faith, not in judgment of the preacher!).  About half way through I put my pen down and closed my notepad.  I sat back and looked across the congregation.  There were roughly four hundred people sitting in the sanctuary, and they were in rapt attention.  Literally you could hear a pin drop.  The sense of spiritual hunger and eager learning was palpable.  (Afterwards I checked with Jolynn and she too felt the mood of anticipation and eager learning).

There is a deep longing for the gospel truth which exists within and around this wildly secular culture of ours.  Like those coming in from the desert, we seek the water of life.  Culturally we are a living embodiment of John 4:15.  “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!’”

The second incident took place the day before my mother-in-law died.  We knew the end was near and had spent the previous day at the nursing home.  Sunday morning – discouraged, emotionally and spiritually hurting – we went to the local United Methodist Church where Maxine was a member.  (Over some 70 years she had held many positions in the church including 25 years plus as a Sunday School teacher, a leader in the UMW, Chair of the Trustees and a member of the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee.)  We had a soul-deep longing for a word from the Lord; a message of faith that was truly good news, the gospel.  The sermon did not mention God or the Trinity or Jesus Christ/Lord or the Holy Spirit.  The gist of it was that we should all volunteer to help others and if we really wanted to be good we should join the Lions Club.  (Sadly I am not making this up!)

There is a hunger to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way in the chaos of our times; one that is a soul-deep thirsting for a true and living walk with the Lord.  John Wesley once said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

Wherever one comes out on the progressive vs traditionalist theological spectrum of modern Methodism in America, the need is for something greater.  We stand with the unnamed woman at well so long ago crying out for the water of life.  This is what the original Wesleyan Way brought to first England and then the world.  Instinctively people recognized in the Wesleyan movement the essence of the Pentecost church.  Wesley’s deep fear has become a painful truth.

“Wesley’s great fear was that the Methodist movement would – in a process that had happened again and again over the centuries – be tamed by the culture until it was nothing more than a docile lapdog,” said the Rev. Dr. Andrew Thompson, a Wesley scholar and pastor of First United Methodist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. “He was afraid that Methodism’s engagement with the culture would dilute it until it was a shell of its former self.”

At its heart our crisis in this day is not about a social issue (however desperately important issues like healthcare, immigration, war, and the like are – and make no mistake they are critically important!).  Today The United Methodist Church wrestles with a much deeper theological crisis.  I recently overheard one of our better pastor’s mutter, “we don’t need more vague Unitarianism.”  How right he is!

Many of us in seminary (especially those my age – 67!) recall reading the famous Christian theologian and ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr (long Professor at Yale Divinity School).  Back in 1937 writing his book The Kingdom of God in America, Professor Niebuhr penned a famous quote.  “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”   (H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America, p. 193) It was a prescient insight offered just before the outbreak of World War II.

It is just as accurate in a time floundering in self-indulgence and slathered with a self-righteous embrace of victimhood.  As I write, the insights of Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: A Nation of Heretics rumbles in the back of my mind.  Near the end of his book he writes, “We are waiting, not for another political savior or television personality, but for a Dominic or a Francis, an Ignatius or a Wesley, a Wilberforce or a Newman, a Bonhoeffer or a Solzhenitsyn.  Only sanctity can justify Christianity’s existence; only sanctity can make the case for faith; only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can ultimately redeem the world”  (Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: A Nation of Heretics, p. 292).

A deep lingering hunger for a better life exists for us all.  We stand by the wells of life hoping against hope.  Longing for a soul deep significance, a redemption which can deliver far more than materialism’s wildest claims, science’s most brilliant insights, and politics’ most raucous triumph.  This is what the Wesleyan Way provided a heart-sick, slum infested, socially desperate politically bankrupt England.  It is what the Wesleyan Way offered to an infant America and what became the comfort and hope of so many settlers pushing west in the “New World.”  It is what the Wesleyan Way has shared across the globe.

I will offer a series of blogs on this subject over the next month and half or so (with periodic interruptions).  Together the Lord God calls us to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way.  We were once called “enthusiasts.”  It is time to claim the title again.

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