News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  1 March 2019 •  No. 188

Correction. In the original copy of this post, I mistakenly attributed the authorship of the hymn, "What a Friend We Have In Jesus," to Charles Wesley. In fact, it was composed by Joseph M. Scriven. My apologies—see the correction notice (at bottom) for more information about the amazing story behind this hymn. —kls

Processional. “What a Friend We Have In Jesus.” Mississippi Mass Choir feat. James Moore

Invocation. “As we rejoice in the gift of this new day, so may the light of your presence, O God, set our hearts on fire with love for you; now and forever.” —John Wesley

Special issue


        The recent decision by the United Methodist Church policymakers to retain (and harden) its rejection of lgbtq pastors and matrimonial blessings is, for many inside and out of that confessional body, a bitter pill. The news prompted me to push everything aside and compose a pastoral note. (“A humble word of encouragement to my Wesleyan friends: On the United Methodist Church’s General Conference decision to ostracize queerfolk”)

        It also made me switch gears entirely for this issue of “Signs of the Times” to provide some background on John Wesley’s influence in directly molding one significant stream in the Christian tradition and influencing many others.

        It would be hard to overstate the Wesleyan impact in shaping Protestant practice, piety, and polity, which included the impulse behind the “Great Awakening” movements of the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain and the US. Particularly so when you bring into the picture Charles Wesley, John’s brother. Charles’ hymns are omnipresent; and some would say had a greater influence in actually articulating this pietist-revivalist theological vision.

        The trouble with Charles’ hymn texts, though, is the trouble with Protestant theology in general. They almost exclusively speak of personal faith, with virtually no reference to what John Wesley described as “social holiness,” for which he used the word sanctification. (Even so, I love "What a Friend We Have In Jesus." I've used recordings of this song, in a dizzying array of musical genres, for most of the music selections in this issue.) —continue reading “What a friend: The influence—for good and ill—of the Wesleyan tradition of faith

Call to worship. “All who dwell in the dell of the Blessed Embrace shall raise anthems of joy and grace. / My fortress, my shield, by mercy concealed: O Shelter, my shiv’ring displace. / The terrors of night shall stalk you no longer, nor the arrows that fly by day. The pestilent shadows no longer encroach, nor savaging tremors dismay.” —continue reading “When you call I will answer,” a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 91

Hymn of praise.What a Friend We Have In Jesus.” —Faith Hill with the Greater Grace Temple Mass Choir at Aretha Franklin’s funeral

¶ “10 fascinating facts about John Wesley and United Methodism,” by Jeremy Steele

      1. Wesley wrote one of the all-time bestselling medical texts.

      2. He coined the term “agree to disagree.”

      3. He rode far enough on horseback to circle the earth 10 times.

      4. He had serious doubts about his faith.

      5. “Methodist” was originally a derogatory term.

      6. Wesley counseled people to “eat a little less than you desire.”

      7. He never intended to split from the Church of England.

      8. He never said this famous quote attributed to him.

      9. He believed you could not be a Christian on your own.

      10. Methodism grew from four to 132,000 members in Wesley’s lifetime. —read the entire article in UMCommunications

Confession. “There is a terrible cruelty to it. Baptizing them as children, teaching them in Sunday school, hosting lock-ins & game nights in youth group, encouraging their calls to ministry, and then, when they work up the courage to tell the truth about their sexuality, kicking them out.—Rachel Held Evans

Hymn of supplication.What a Friend We Have In Jesus,” sung by a farm family inside an empty grain silo.

¶ “Consider this 1844 source from the Wesleyan Methodist Church: ‘[The gospel] is in every way opposed to the practice of War in all its forms; and those customs which tend to foster and perpetuate the war spirit [are] inconsistent with the benevolent designs of the Christian Religion.’ The St. Lawrence Annual Conference of the Wesleyan Methodists even considered a resolution to ‘alter the denominational Discipline so that refusal to engage in war and military training would be come a condition of membership.’ There are hundreds more such statements ranging from the Brethren in Christ, the Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection, Church of God (Fort Scott, Kansas), Church of the Living God, Church of God (Anderson), Church of the Nazarene, Congregational: Broadway Tabernacle, Emmanuel Association, Free Methodist Church, and the Salvation Army.” —David Swartz, “Unexpected Sites of Christian Pacifism: Holiness Edition

Words of assurance. “Christianity did not begin with a confession. It began with an invitation into friendship, into creating a new community, into forming relationships based on love and service.” —Diana Butler Bass

Professing our faith. “Blessed by the Lord come the choice gifts of heaven, with the finest produce of the ancient mountains, and the favor of the One who sprinkles dew on Hermon and nestles among the pines on Tabor. Your righteousness o’ershadows the Rockies, your justice towers over Katahdin. Peak calls to peak in your Wake and echoes back again.” —continue reading “Holy Great Smokies,” a litany for worship inspired by Scripture’s references to mountains and high places

Hymn of resolution.What a Friend We Have In Jesus.” —Mansion Bluegrass Players

John Wesley made a profound adjustment to how the church has historically spoken about how we hear the Word of God. To the traditional listing of Scripture, tradition, and reason, he added a fourth, experience. (He did not coin the phrase “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” but that’s what it is now called.) He recognized what others would later note, that we live our way into new forms of thinking more than we think our way into new forms of living.

Word. “When religion becomes an organizational system, it will reward fear because it offers control to those in management.” —Richard Rohr

News briefs (some good, some not so) on lgbtq matters

        • “Transgender troops make historic first testimony on military ban before House committee.” NBC News (5:28 video)

        •“'Being LGBTQ is not an illness': Record number of states banning conversion therapy.” Susan Miller, USA Today

        • “The World Health Organization will stop classifying transgender people as mentally ill.” —Ben Pickman & Brandon Griggs, CNN

        • “For what’s believed to be the first time, the Vatican uses the term ‘LGBT’ in official document.” Michelle Boorstei, Washington Post

        •  “Support for LGBTQ people across the country has fallen, according to a national survey indexing attitudes toward the community. It is the first time in the survey's four-year history to register a decline.” John Paul Brammer, NBC

        • Due to widespread public opposition, language in Cuba’s proposed new constitution removed a provision that changed the definition of marriage as “between a man and a woman” to a union of “two people.” The new constitution, to be voted on in the fall, now has no language defining a marriage. Guardian

Hymn of intercession. “What a Friend We Have In Jesus.” Mahalia Jackson

¶ “The Church recruited people who had been starched and ironed before they were washed.” —wrongly to John Wesley, but it’s still a good quote

Preach it. “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.” —John Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), Preface, page viii.

For those who like to plow through the details of the recent United Methodist Church’s Special General Conference—what happened, what it means, what next?—read Tom Ferguson’s “Dispatches from the Sunken Place: United Methodist Special Conference." (Thanks Donna.)

Can’t makes this sh*t up.

        • “Donald Trump nominates man whose firm tripled price of insulin to regulate drug companies.Chantal Da Silva, Independent

      • The Senate confirmed Andrew Wheeler, a former coal company lobbyist, to be the permanent Environmental Protectional Agency Secretary. ABC News

        • “Trump's UN nominee Kelly Craft says she believes 'both sides' of climate change science” [and her husband is a billionaire president of a large coal company]. —, MSN

Call to the table. Imagine we were following Issy Emeney down the aisle, mimicking her every Appalachian Flatfooting dance move with ease, coming to the communion table.

The state of our disunion. A Michigan woman seeking a heart transplant received a letter from her hospital that she will need to launch “a fundraising effort” to pay for the post-operation medication. Jake Johnson, Common Dreams

Additional Wesley quotes

• “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.”

• “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.”

• “Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three—that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness.”

Best one-liner. “What we need is not truths that serve us but a truth we may serve.“ —Jacques Maritain, French Catholic philosopher

Wesley and his Methodist progeny were strong advocates for small discussion groups. The trouble with relying on such for Christian formation “is akin to giving a group of people who want to learn to play the piano a series of studies about the piano and how the piano is played. At the end of several months of study and discussion they are very well informed about every aspect of the piano and piano playing. When they sit down at a keyboard they know where all the notes are, but they have no idea how to make music with the instrument they have devoted so much time and energy studying.” —Steven Manskar, “The Trouble With Small Groups” (Thanks Taylor.)

Left: Art ©Julie Lonneman

Helpful tools: Lenten devotional guides available online.

        • Bread for the World has released a devotional guide to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in Jamestown, Va. “Lament and Hope: A Pan-African Devotional Guide.”

        • “We're living in a time of great upheaval, anxiety, and challenge; as well as great possibility, and even hope. We’re following the traditions of authentic spirituality to embrace Lent as a season for going deeper amidst the swirl of life. You'll get a short daily email for reflection for every day of Lent, and hear conversation with Brian McLaren, Gareth Higgins and others.” The Seventh Story

        • The Plural Guild has published the LENT 2019: PRE-LENT GUIDE, a free resource to help prepare for the season of Lent. 

For the beauty of the earth. Sea jelly, from Earth Wonders. (6 second video. Thanks Kathymike.)

Altar call. “Jesus cleanses our hearts, but the world still dictates our bodies.” —Eric Paul, “Holiness and the Non-Violent Christ,” The Foundry Publishing

¶ By the way, if you haven’t seen in the Michael Cohen public testimony before the US House of Representatives Oversight Committee, you should. It’s the most remarkable, short (8:02 video) piece of commentary I’ve ever heard from congress.

Benediction. “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

Recessional. “What a Friend We Have In Jesus.” Dolly Parton

Lectionary for this Sunday. Commenting on Luke 6:46, Clarence Jordan quipped: “We’ll worship the hind legs off Jesus but never do a thing he says.”

Lent begins.

        • “Ash Wednesday: The only counter cultural holiday we have left

        • “Plastic Jesus: A Lenten meditation on plastic

Lectionary for Sunday next. “When you call I will answer,” a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 91

Just for fun. "I Want a Marriage Like They Had in the Bible" by Roy Zimmerman. (Thanks Abigail.)

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Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “A humble word of encouragement to my Wesleyan friends: On the United Methodist Church’s General Conference decision to ostracize queerfolk

• “What a friend: The influence—for good and ill—of the Wesleyan tradition of faith

• “When you call I will answer,” a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 91

• “Holy Great Smokies,” a litany for worship inspired by Scripture’s references to mountains and high places

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