Thursday, March 4, 2010

Learning from Wesley

On a cold January evening in 1975, I knelt in the darkened living room of the Rectory of Emmanuel Church in Stamford, Connecticut and made a total surrender of my life to Jesus Christ. This surrender came in response to an overwhelming sense of God’s presence as I spoke out the desperation and despair that I felt. The details of what happened are not important here because I am writing on the feast day of John and Charles Wesley to share what I learned from John Wesley after my conversion.

The problem was that I was already an ordained priest. It was some time later that I would learn that I shared with Wesley a post theological education conversion to Christ. I say “conversion to Christ” because that is what it was for me. I had felt called to the ministry, and, before seminary at least, I had believed in the Trinity and the creeds of the Church. What happened to me that night was that I experienced a personal sense of forgiveness and total acceptance by a living and real Christ. Jesus Christ became alive for me in a new way.

The most immediate result of this was expressed by what I did that night. I took the sermon that I had written that week and burned it in the fire place. I was determined to speak now of the love of Christ I knew personally, and not the ideas about God that I had learned in seminary. Let me be clear on this. I am not proud of the fact that I am a post theological education Christian. For example, people are surprised to know that one of my faculty advisors was Henry Nouwen. Yes, I was blessed by a number of outstanding teachers, not the least of which was Jaraslov Pelikan while at Yale. I do believe that some of them had a deep relationship with Christ. But none of these teachers ever spoke of a personal relationship with Christ as something to be desired, and most down played any sense of conversion. Conversion, if it existed at all, was a gradual process of growth. Consequently, I look back a bit jaded at my seminary experience.

For several years, I struggled to integrate my experience with both my theological education and my experience with Episcopal Church practices. Then on my tenth anniversary of ordination, I took a month’s sabbatical. I spent the month at a seminary following guidance from the Dean. What the Dean asked me in our first session changed my theological identity. As I shared trying to put these pieces together, he asked me, “While you were in seminary, did you read the source material of Anglicanism?” What he meant was whether I had actually read Cranmer and the other English Bishops of the reformation. Of course, I hadn’t. I had read commentaries and histories about them, but not the actual works. For the next month, I felt that I had found my roots. I discovered my evangelical and conversionist legacy which is thoroughly Anglican. Then he introduced me to the “Three Ws of Anglicanism; Wesley, Whitfield and Wilberforce. Wesley spoke to me.

Wesley was a high church Anglican who’s “heart was strangely warmed” in the Aldersgate experience, and who had deep commitments to the marginalized and poor of his world. In reading Wesley, I found an Anglican who expressed both what I believed and what I had experienced. I am not a Wesleyan if you mean by this a Methodist. I consider most Methodists that I have known to be very nice and well-intentioned people none of whom have either the conviction or passion of Wesley. I remain a person who believes in both conversion and sanctification. Here are some of the other things that I learned from Wesley:

All the head knowledge in the world cannot substitute for “knowing Christ Jesus in the power of his resurrection.”

Religious experience apart from creedal belief usually ends in shipwreck somewhere.

True conversion leads to passionate love for the poor and to concrete steps to alleviate their poverty.

Social justice and evangelism are both mandates of scripture, to hold one without the other is to diminish Christ’s work.

Holiness of life is the goal of all disciples – we don’t want to be people who do good things - we want to become people who are Christ-like.

Simplicity of life is a Christian virtue.

Christian leaders who hold power often work to suppress Christian experience even those who once claimed a conversion experience.

Being called a fanatic is often a compliment.

Nominal Christian life is the greatest enemy to true discipleship.

Innovation for the sake of mission and evangelism is Apostolic and needed in every age.

Extreme Calvinism quenches human freedom and is joyless.

People have free will and it is obvious that we have to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in ministry and growth.

In Christ, women are equal to men and can be effective agents of ministry.

Bishops are important, but prelacy is a sin against Christ and his Church.

And when it comes to preaching, “set yourself on fire in the pulpit and the whole world will come to see you burn.”

11 comments:

Twisted in Texas said...

What were the Wesley readings that spoke to you? I found this post quite meaningful.

Dean Kevin said...

I started with his sermons. There are several printed editions. His Journal is wonderful. Many biographies quote him extensively. His letter regarding slavery is remarkable for the era he lived in.
But start the the Anthology of his sermons.

Twisted in Texas said...

Ok, I'm on it.
Thank you very much.

Dean Kevin said...

For Wesley, the experience had meaning. This is what he actually said.
'In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. 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.'

Canon Neal said...

Kevin, I read--I can't remember where--a distinction between the call for social justice and the call for compassion. He said that the call for social justice is rooted in competition and jealousy, whereas compassion is a Christian (Judeo-Christian) virtue.

I'm reflecting on that distinction. Let's talk about it at lunch.

Dean Kevin said...

Worth talking about. Interesting distinction.

Keeley said...

Great post, Dean Kevin. Thank you for sharing your experience. I really enjoyed reading this post too.

Laurie said...

Dear Kevin,

I just read your blog and appreciate the thoughts and your tetstimony as I remember those days. I only flinched at one section where you said "People have free will and it is obvious that we have to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in ministry and growth". I propose that perhaps a better way to say the same thing would be something like "People have responsibility for their choices and must cooperate with the Holy Spirit in ministry and growth". A nuance like this keeps reformed folk like myself happy, affirms the warnings of the author to the Hebrews (Wesley's concern perhaps?) but also is sensitive to the 39 articles (esp articles XII and XVII) as well scripture (John 15:16, Ephesians 1:11, etc)

I used to always admire this in Terry's teaching. One day I noticed his Syustematic Theology by Berkhof on his shelf and said, "Terry you are quite a reformed Calvinist, aren't you?" My memory of his response was, "Well yes, but I try to handle that very softly as people do not like to think they are not in total control". He was masterful at leaving God's spirit in charge but still calling people to make responsible decisions to grow in holiness. And that is why both Calvinists and Wseleyans sat under his ministry with great please.

What do you think?

Laurie

Laurie said...

Dear Kevin,

I just read your blog and appreciate the thoughts and your tetstimony as I remember those days. I only flinched at one section where you said "People have free will and it is obvious that we have to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in ministry and growth". I propose that perhaps a better way to say the same thing would be something like "People have responsibility for their choices and must cooperate with the Holy Spirit in ministry and growth". A nuance like this keeps reformed folk like myself happy, affirms the warnings of the author to the Hebrews (Wesley's concern perhaps?) but also is sensitive to the 39 articles (esp articles XII and XVII) as well scripture (John 15:16, Ephesians 1:11, etc)

I used to always admire this in Terry's teaching. One day I noticed his Syustematic Theology by Berkhof on his shelf and said, "Terry you are quite a reformed Calvinist, aren't you?" My memory of his response was, "Well yes, but I try to handle that very softly as people do not like to think they are not in total control". He was masterful at leaving God's spirit in charge but still calling people to make responsible decisions to grow in holiness. And that is why both Calvinists and Wseleyans sat under his ministry with great please.

What do you think?

Laurie

Boyer Writes said...

Dear Dean Kevin,
I just recently found your blog and enjoyed so much the writing you did on John Wesley that I have used it as part of a writing also. Thank you for your words about your Christian experience. In this age of technology, we are able to reach out to the world. It's a wonderul thing.
If you are interested, you may take a look at my site.

www.boyerwrites.wordpress.com

Blessings at this Easter time. Nancy in Florida

Dean Kevin said...

Laurie,
thanks for your comments. I am not sure the Wesley would have been too concerned about making reformed, meaning, "Calvinists" comfortable, but he probably would have agreed with your statement.