Happy birthday, John Wesley!

Invocation. “I was blinded by the devil, / Born already ruined, / Stone-cold dead / As I stepped out of the womb. / By His grace I have been touched, / By His word I have been healed, / By His hand I’ve been delivered, / By His spirit I’ve been sealed.” —“Saved,” Bob Dylan

§  §  §

Methodism’s founder John Wesley, an Anglican priest, was born on 28 June 1703.

Or was it 17 June?

It’s confusing. Because Britain switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian in 1752, while Wesley was still living. Which meant his birthday moved.

Our United Methodist Church (UMC) friends in the US are dealing with a lot of pain these days, with a quarter of their congregations disaffiliating in recent years, the culmination of 40 years of contention, primarily over questions regarding LGBTQ ordination and same-sex marriage in the church.

The logjam finally broke at the end of the 23 April-3 May General Conference meeting in Charlotte, NC, where delegates from central conferences around the world voted to remove discrimination against queer folk from the church’s official documents.

As its name (first uttered by its early Anglican critics) implies, the United Methodist Church is methodical. Many procedures, including a “regionalization” plan set in motion at the General Conference, will take a long time to process and clarify.

If you’re like me, you probably didn’t know that two-thirds of United Methodists live outside the US. An extenuating factor in the conversation involving sexual orientation is that UMC leaders in the Global South accuse the culturally progressive elements in the US body of colonialism in their affirmation of its LGBTQ members.

The remaining body faces a crisis moment that will result in significant institutional downsizing. Might this be a crisis leading to clarified vision and renewal? Or will it put further pressure dwindling of all Christian communions in the US?

Time will tell. Though, as with Gideon, God does have a thing about downsizing.

This fork in the road reminds me of my third most favorite quote from Wesley: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”

§  §  §

For some fascinating background, see “10 fascinating facts about John Wesley and United Methodism” by Jeremy Steele

§  §  §

I suspect most every existing denomination of Christians receive—at its outset, by one or small group individuals—a genuine charism, a gift of the Spirit, a gift that was meant for the whole body. But after a couple generations, the bearers of that gift decided to copyright that gift, using it to establish boundaries, boundaries which hardened into walls, walls that deepened insularity and isolation. And the walls—the traditions, vocabulary, and institutions—become the object of devotion.

The Wesleyan charism (Wesley himself was not alone in its unfolding) has indeed been a gift to the whole church. In this instance, here in the US, the Wesleyan DNA eventually commingled with what is now referred to as the holiness movement, generated in the Second Great Awakening, over time splintering into competing institutional claims on the legacy.

Holiness was most certainly an element of the renewal movement Wesley and his cohorts attempted to ignite in the Church of England. It included a vigorous pattern of piety and ascetic practices. As we know, over time such patterns and practices have a tendency to quench the Spirit rather than unleash Her—as much as solemn, perfunctory liturgical practice in traditionalist circles.

Central to Wesley’s testimony was the occasion, in a May 1738 meeting on Aldersgate Street in London, when he reports in his Journal, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.”

This, of course, is one of the sources from which the evangelical charge, “let Jesus into your heart,” originates. Trouble is, according to the New Testament, when you let Jesus in, he brings all his poor, homeless, hungry, sick, prisoner friends with him.

And in fact, a characteristic practice of the Methodist renewal movement was increased attention to society’s castoffs.

My friend and Methodist clergy Bill Wylie-Kellerman writes that Wesley was keenly aware of the ravages caused by the slave trade. He “recognized such violence hidden in the clean and tidy profits of slave traders and owners. He exposed it, addressing them with the fire of a prophet: ‘Thy hands, thy bed, thy furniture, thy house, thy lands are at present stained with blood.’

“He drew the Methodist societies effectively into abolitionism. The ‘General Rules’ [of the Methodist movement] began with the commitment to give evidence of salvation by ‘Doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is generally practiced.’ ‘Doing no harm’ is an 18th century synonym for nonviolence. . . .

“The founding conference in the US called for the expulsion of any member participating in the slave trade. . . [L]ittle by little that commitment fell to the temptations of mainline compromise. By 1816, a committee reported to General Conference that ‘in relation to slavery, little can be done to abolish a practice so contrary to the principles of moral justice . . .the evil appears past remedy. . . .’” (from “Of Violence and Hope: Death Undone,” Response magazine)

Which brings me to my second favorite quote from Wesley: “Any Christians who take for themselves any more than the plain necessaries of life, live in an open habitual denial of the Lord. They have gained riches and hell-fire.”

§  §  §

Lord, I’ve made you a place in my heart, and I hope now you leave it alone.” —Greg Brown, performed by Dar Williams, Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky

§  §  §

There are many reasons to distrust “religion of the heart,” as Wesley accounted and as is heralded by many gathered under the modern umbrella of “evangelical” expressions of faith (though, in increasingly larger circles, evangelicalism in the US has now become a potent political force bound and determined to create a theocracy).

One of my favorite lines from contemporary music comes from the Greg Brown song sung by Dar Williams, Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky: “Oh Lord, I’ve made you a place in my heart, and I hope now you leave it alone.”

In contemporary usage, heart religion is notoriously vague, ethereal, and sentimental. The cartoon of a Salvation Army (one of many fruits with Wesleyan-Holiness roots) band playing that old hymn, “Rescue the Perishing (care for the dying),” at a river wharf, to an audience of destitute, unhoused men, with the Salvationists completely oblivious to one who has fallen into the river and is floating away.

In Scripture, though, the heart is not a fickle organ given to flights of emotional zeal, which usually dissipates like morning dew in the sun’s exposure. Rather, the reign and rule of God is rightly said to be about human hearts, because it is in the human heart that choices are made about ultimate trust and security.

The word “worship” comes from the same Old English root as the word “worthy.” Thus our true and proper worship is the act of deciding worthiness. Thus, to name a few examples, can we “bank” (i.e., invest our assets) on God’s promise that one day lion and lamb will lie peacefully together? That every warrior’s bloody boots will be torched. That enemies are to be loved? That all tears will be dried and death come undone? That creation itself will be freed of its defiling bondage?

Such decisions are not merely social or political decisions. They are, at bottom, spiritual decisions. In biblical terms, therefore, giving one’s “heart” to Jesus means withdrawing it from Mammon. And having one’s mind “renewed” (in Paul’s reference) is, in contemporary language, to have it decolonized—which entails, using Wesley’s language, coming to serve God not out of “reverential fear” but now “out of gratitude and love.” To know the profound, unqualified, unassailable love of God entails the journey out of fear; and fearless people are the empire’s greatest threat.

§  §  §

Hymn of longing. “When the lion and the lamb will lie down in peace together in Jerusalem. . . . I believe that on that day the children of Abraham will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem.” —“Jerusalem,” Abraham Jam

§  §  §

Which brings me to my most favorite quote from Wesley:

“Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the Gospel than holy adulterers. The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness, but social holiness.”

The warmed heart in Wesley’s testimony is sturdier than emotional exhilaration or affective temperament. Emotional highs last about as long as those from illicit drugs.

Rather, the experience of God’s grace frees from self-centeredness; which generates the capacity to repent the damage we’ve done and the bonds we’ve broken, interrupting the momentum of history’s spiral of violence, turning from harm to health; which sets the stage for sanctified life as agents and provocateurs of Heaven’s insurgency into Earth’s calamity.

And we learn these things, we practice these things, we examine and modify these things . . . together.

Holiness is not like some imagined spiritual stock portfolio, where we frequently check its condition; boosting this or that pious habit to keep up with market fluctuations and cultural fashions; feverishly measuring ourselves against others, alternately priding ourselves when we over perform, shaming ourselves when we fall behind.

Solitude is indeed one of our spiritual practices, but never in isolation from community. As Wendell Berry put it, “It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are.”

The depths of God’s ultimate purpose for creation cannot be read from history’s surface. But deep currents do emerge, from time to time. It is the community of faith’s purpose to recognize, rejoice over, proclaim and enjoin those occasions.

The kind of freedom we practice requires communities of conviction, where we uncover, and begin to dismantle, the ways in which we have been fooled into thinking that only the strong survive and that divine favor is a protection racket. It requires face-to-face communities of nurture, in order to persevere during moments of disquiet and dejection and seasons of desperation and anxiety. Faith that is more than well-wishing (“thoughts and prayers”) requires communities of consequence, where we discern and assent to the repercussions of a life lived in contradiction to the pestilent spirit of this pernicious age.

The theologian James Luther Adams writes that “A faith that creates no community of faith and a faith that assumes no definite form is not only a protection against any explicit faith, it is probably also a protection for a hidden idolatry of blood or state or economic interest, a protection for some kind of tyranny.”

The ranks of marketeers grow giddy at the thought of a population of purportedly self-made, independent, unaffiliated, autonomous individuals with no community of conviction to help guide their choices—choices which reduce “freedom” to questions of tooth paste brands and cellphone plans.

Join me in saying happy birthday to John Wesley; and a be of good cheer blessing to our United Methodist friends as they come to embrace the insecurity of their common life.

I can imagine Jesus saying to his disciples, shortly before his departure, “I didn’t say it would be easy. It said it would be worth it.”

§  §  §

Benediction. “We rise, up from the wreckage / Rise, with tears and with courage / Rise, fighting for life / We rise! / In hope, in prayer, we’re right here.” —“We Rise,” Batya Levine & friends

§  §  §


For your guided meditation,
here is a list of my favorite quotes from John Wesley.

  • “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion. . . . Solitary religion is not to be found there. “Holy Solitaries” is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than Holy Adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. Faith working by love, is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.”
  • “…none shall live with God but he that lives to God…”
  • “The church changes the world not by making converts but by making disciples.”
  • “One design you are to pursue to the end of time — the enjoyment of God in time and in eternity. Desire other things, so far as they tend to this.”
  • “Having, first, gained all you can, and, secondly saved all you can, then give all you can.”
  • “Any Christians who take for themselves any more than the plain necessaries of life, live in an open habitual denial of the Lord. They have gained riches and hell-fire.”
  • “But beware you be not swallowed up in books! An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge.”
  • “Beware you are not a fiery, persecuting enthusiast. Do not imagine that God has called you (just contrary to the spirit of Him you style your Master) to destroy men’s lives, and not to save them. Never dream of forcing men into the ways of God. Think yourself, and let think. Use no constraint in matters of religion.”
  • “The longer I live, the larger allowances I make for human infirmities.”
  • “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”
  • John Wesley did not say the following (but I think he would say amen!): “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.”

# # #