Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Discerning Our Desires

People who read John Wesley and study early Methodism know quite well that the only criterion for joining a Methodist society was “the desire to flee the wrath to come.”  Sometimes this statement is used as an argument against doctrinal debate, i.e. Methodists shouldn’t argue about doctrinal differences because the ground of our unity lies elsewhere.  I’ve been mulling over what “the desire to flee the wrath to come” actually entails and it is stirring the waters of my soul.

Immediately, I notice that Wesley is using the language of John the Baptist: “Who warned you [brood of vipers] to flee the wrath to come?”  (See, e.g. Matthew 3:7.)  In the biblical context, it has an eschatological tone.  It points to the ultimate purposes of God loosed in the world and to a particularly definitive moment in history – the appearance of the Messiah.  In other words, we’re not just talking “revival” in the bland, presumptive sense we often use the word.  John the Baptist isn’t leading a “revival.”  He is evidence of the day of the Lord.  The more I read Wesley’s journal, the more I think he felt similarly about the Methodist movement.  In one sense, I just stated the obvious, but I think we’re not paying sufficient attention to this particular feature.

Next, I notice the word “desire.”  “Desire” suggests a positive pull of the heart toward an object that produces intentional action in order to realize the desire.  People did not get into Methodist society without actually desiring to do so.  Compare this thought with the tradition of “joining the church” so common to us now.  I’ve heard it said – and I’m inclined to agree more and more – that it should be a lot harder to join the church than it is.  It’s not too much of an overstatement to say that today’s version of church membership in generally meaningless.  I know some glorious exceptions, of course.  But not many.

Finally,  the desire is “to flee the wrath…”  Admittedly, Wesley’s journal is biased.  It’s aimed toward presenting certain features of Methodism, partly to disprove the charges leveled against Methodism and to make a defense of their legitimacy, and partly to instruct Methodists on how to perceive and feel their Christian experience.  But, even with these biases shaping the journal, we still read what people actually thought and felt.  They had a sense of God’s holiness that has almost totally vanished in our day and time.  Oh, we can pick up a stray reference to “justice” in various circles or to “morality” in others, particularly when someone is advocating a cause.   I’m talking about the awful, aching personal, heartfelt awareness of God’s purity and power.  We think too much of God as “our ever present help in time of need” and not nearly enough of God as “a consuming fire.”

And the words we use repeatedly; the concepts that dominate our thinking about God will shape our emotional lives.  “Desire” has emotional tonality.  In other words, the words that we use to describe our spiritual lives shape our hearts.

Those early Methodists wanted to flee the wrath to come.  What do we want?

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June 25, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

From One Heart to Another

In 2 Corinthians, Paul is put in the position of defending his ministry.  “Are we beginning to commend ourselves?” he asks the Corinthians.  “You are our letters [of commendation],” he reminds them.  Paul’s “defense” of the authenticity of his work is the strong, open, vulnerable witness he has lived amont these people.  “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves…” (4:2)  

The open statement of the truth is delivered by means of a transparent witness, by the work of Christ in the hearts of the ministers.  Paul says that the light of God has “shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ,” (4:6)  This treasure is carried about in jars of clay, so that the glory may redound to God and not to the vessel (4:7).  

The Gospel goes from one heart to another.  The transparent witness of one Christ-follower lights up the knowledge of God in another person.  Grace “extends to more and more people…” (4:15)  

I’m struck by the lack of standard supports for ministerial authority in Paul’s situation.  I just re-read John Wesley’s sermon entitled, “The Ministerial Office,” which serves as an apologia for Methodism and an exhortation for Methodists to keep to their station.  He upholds lay preaching, for example, but he criticizes Methodist preachers for trying to administer the sacraments.  The purpose of lay preaching was evangelism, which does not need the standard support of ordination.  The purpose of Methodism was spiritual renewal – for the light and love of Jesus Christ to shine in the hearts of Methodists so that others could see the glory of God.  

I find here an irreducible core to Christian ministry.  Ultimately, ministry is not training or skill, though both are crucially important.  Ministry is heart to heart, whether lay or ordained.  In some fundamental sense, ministry is nothing more than witness.  And “witness” means that something is happening to me, to my heart, which becomes visible in my actions.

I don’t know about you, but as United Methodist annual conferences meet and tally the votes on the Constitutional amendments, these thoughts keep me oriented.  I am not pitting “heart” against external, organizational matters, as if the organization does not matter.  It does.  And people in favor of and against the structual changes care deeply about mission.  

But the ground of confidence in Methodism or any other church or movement ultimately is not in the structures.  It is not in the various kinds of standard supports we build to enhance the organization’s effectiveness.  The ground of our confidence lies in the glory of God shining in our faces; the grace of Christ extending to more and more people; the treasure of the Gospel embodied in these earthen vessels.  

I take comfort in these thoughts.  When I had to vote at annual conference last week, I struggled with the pros and cons of opinions about the amendments.  I voted my conscience.  At the end of the day, however, no matter how the structure changes or remains the same,  the Gospel still goes from one heart to another.   I need always to remember this one thing.

May 28, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment