I'm a little late in posting this, but Seedbed graciously posted something I wrote for Ash Wednesday and Lent a couple of weeks ago. I'm a huge supporter of all things Seedbed, so check out some of their resources while you're there.
During World War II, British Methodist W.E. Sangster wrote his PhD thesis on Christian perfection while also serving as the pastor of Central Hall, Westminster. During the Nazi bombing raids, he and others gathered in the bomb shelter underneath Central Hall's sanctuary. It was in this place and during these trials that Sangster writes, "I filled the hours of the vigil which had still to be kept by thinking on perfection. If that seems a little mad to some who read this, I can only reply that it was part of the way in which I kept sane."
I love the image of a pastor, bombs falling all around him, serving his people and keeping his wits about him by reflecting on holiness.
Wednesday morning my wife and I will drive to Nashville for the New Room Conference, a gathering I've been looking forward to since I left the one in September of last year. It's been an interesting year with many traps and pitfalls along the way. I remain convinced that "we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Eph 6:12) The way I've kept sane, like Sangster, is to think on holiness. Thankfully, opportunities to gather with others from the Wesleyan-Methodist tribe reinforce my delight in these things; they offer a brief reprieve from the battles of life and ministry and reinforce our commitment to the whole gospel.
Whether you attend with us or get a chance to watch the sessions after New Room terminates on Friday, join me in prayer, that no matter what comes our way, we will maintain our joy and our resolve by reflecting on God's holy love.
I entered a bit of a sidetrack while reading for my DMin project on Christian perfection. For the last couple of days I have chased down some readings on what Jonathan Edwards) calls "Religious Affections". Part of the reason for doing so is because I happened onto a paragraph in Fred Sanders' Wesley on the Christian Life in which he connects Wesley to Puritan spirituality. I'm not at all surprised he makes the connection given Wesley had grandparents on both sides who were Puritans. Sanders notes that Wesley, "sounds so much like his contemporary Jonathan Edwards in his insistence on religious affections" (Sanders, 90).
This piqued my interest, so I started reading Edwards' long treatise "On Religious Affections" and found myself surprised at how often Edwards writes passages sounding like they came straight out of A Plain Account of Christian Perfection or Wesley's sermon On Zeal [^1]. Reading both Wesley and Edwards it strikes me that what they are talking about cannot be reduced to mere enthusiasm. What they are saying is that one cannot come into contact with the one true God, our Triune Creator, and come away unaffected. Arid spirituality is no spirituality at all. Faith cannot be mere mental assent, it must be accompanied by a change in our affections which Edwards' defines as "exercises of the inclination and will of the soul." How can one encounter God and come away unaffected? It reminds me of an early passage in Umberto Eco's book Foucault's Pendulum in which he writes, "A moment later the couple went off - he, trained on some textbook that had blunted his capacity for wonder, she, inert and insensitive to the thrill of the infinite, both oblivious of the awesomeness of their encoutner - their first and last encounter - with the One, the Ein-Sof, the Ineffable. How could you fail to kneel down before this altar of certitude?"
How can one encounter the Triune God and fail to kneel down before him? Either there was no encounter or we have blunted our capacity for wonder. We can blunt our affections. A year and a half ago, I made two lists: things that stir my affections for God and things that rob my affections for God.
What stirs your affections for God?
+ Praying with other people, particularly in groups.
+ When people pray for me before church.
+ Reading biographies of Methodist/holiness giants.
+ Listening to sermons by Dennis Kinlaw.
+ Victory over sin.
+ When people follow Jesus.
What robs your affections for God?
+ Frustration with myself.
+ Bawdy humor.
+ Not knowing what to do/indecision.
+ Giving in to self-gratifying desires, particularly food.
My intention in creating these lists wasn't to engage in a form of Pharisaism, but instead to recognize when my affections were growing cold and to exercise the inclination of my heart in God's direction by replacing, say, the internet with listening to sermons by Dennis Kinlaw.
Hebrews 10:24-25 says, "Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near." Do you have anyone in your life who stirs your affections for God? In keeping with the heart of the Methodist revival of the 18th and 19th centuries, meeting together to stir one another up is an important practice which can keep our capacity for marveling over God's majesty and love from fading out.
[^1]: Of particular note, Wesley says, "In a Christian believer love sits upon the throne which is erected in the inmost soul; namely, love of God and man, which fills the whole heart, and reigns without a rival," while Edwards says that our where our affections have their "principle and original seat is in the heart" (Edwards 238)
I want to add something that was too long for that post here in case people were curious about one thing in that post. I created a sheet of cards covering the thirty texts scholars determined were the basis for Wesley's teaching on Christian Perfection. When I created this sheet, I used the English Standard Version for the text of the cards. Some may wonder why a United Methodist would use the ESV.
When I was 8 years old, St. Paul UMC in El Paso, TX gave me a Bible and it was the Revised Standard Version. I read that Bible all the way through elementary, junior high, high school, and most of college. I picked up a paperback version I used for Inductive Bible Study classes in seminary primarily because I was familiar with it and the language. I switched to the ESV in 2001 because it was 95% the same as the RSV and I could get it in nice leather bindings. That wasn't an option for the RSV by that time. So, although there are some translation quirks, I'm mostly familiar with the language and even though I've tried the NIV, NLT, and NRSV, I keep coming back to the ESV because of its familiarity, not because I'm tempted to go Calvinist. μὴ γένοιτο!
(That's not a slam - some of my best friends are Calvinists.)
I occasionally want to write some nerdy ministry posts and I felt like this one needed to be next. It is difficult, however, to write about using TextExpander without being able to show it and I'm not going to spend the money on ScreenFlow to shoot a video. So, bear with me as I'm typing this up instead of videoing it and I'm probably not going to edit before posting.
Other pastors have been talking about using templates in ministry to aid efficiency. I've been using them for some time but now I've added a power-wrinkle to them. Sometimes, we have to use the same format for different things like a first-time guest email or a worship service. My workflow for that was using the find/replace function in most text editors. That didn't take very long, but I knew it took longer than I liked. In walks TextExpander. TextExpander, for the uninitiated, is an app that will take a simple keystroke and expand it into the full text you want. For instance, instead of typing my whole name out, I can type "nname" and "Matthew Johnson" will appear on the screen. Or, when I'm writing for my dissertation prospectus, I can type " eent" and "entire sanctification" will appear. TextExpander is perfect for lazy writers like me.
One of the best features of TextExpander is that the user can create auto-fill forms. I'll use the example of the template I use when I get ready for a funeral. When I was an associate pastor, I followed the lead of my senior pastor who was an amazing teacher when it came to caring for the grieving and leading funeral services. He used a document he created from the 1964 Methodist Church Book of Worship. I still use it and, as I mentioned earlier, I used the find/replace feature to change the names and pronouns. No more, though. I created an auto-fill snippet that looks like this:
You can use the %fill:% language to create a pop-up form that looks like this:
The great thing about this is, when there are two or more %fill:% items that are exactly alike, it fills the others as you type (I typed my first name and part of my last name for %fill:name% to show you).
I can't recommend templates or TextExpander highly enough.
I never liked reading an essay or hearing a speaker begin with, "The dictionary defines..." What a rotten way to begin a thought, right? Maybe it is rotten, but I actually had to look up something tonight in order to write down what was on my mind. The title of this blog comes from the Francis Asbury quotation over there on the left. You can take a second to read it if you'd like. I'll wait.
I've been using a pencil and a piece of paper during the last couple of weeks to map out what I want this blog to exist for. I don't really want to write about the random things I think about. I want it to have focus so that I can discipline myself and get down to writing. One thought that keeps recurring is, "Why not the holiness Francis was talking about in that quotation?" It's a decent question. My dissertation is going to be about sanctification in the Wesleyan tradition. Why not blog about it, too? Or is that too narrow a focus?
Being the slightly distracted person I am, I left the holy part of the quotation and started fixating on the "live more to God" part. That's an odd choice of prepositions, isn't it? I tell people all the time when I'm teaching the Bible that the prepositions are the most important words in any passage. I get strange looks from time to time, but if you were nursed by the inductive method like I was in seminary, you'd probably agree. Why, "to"? Why not "live more for God" or "live more in God"? Those make a little more sense, especially if you take our religious jargon into account.
I did what I despise. I looked up "to" in the dictionary. The funny thing is, "to" is a pretty versatile preposition. Most of the definitions made sense.
- "Identifying the recipient of something." God receives my life.
- "Identifying a particular relationship between one person and another." Living to God identifies the relationship involved in living.
- "Indicating that two things are attached." There's a candidate for a discussion on holiness.
The one I liked the best was "expressing motion in the direction of". Brian Russell, Asbury Seminary professor and friend, once talked about repentance in terms of "realignment". The Hebrew word for "repent" basically means "to turn" (that's a bit simplistic but it'll work). Turn toward what? Turn from what? Answer: turn from sin and turn toward God. It's a simple (at least in theory) realignment of our hearts with God's heart. When you're off course in a boat, you've got to turn the wheel until you've realigned yourself with the course that's been set. Is this not what it means to express motion in the direction of God?
I think, despite the slight embarrassment for having to look up a word I've been using since I started talking, that I'm finding the focus for writing I've been looking for. What does life look like when it's sailing in a Godward direction? How do we realign when we get off course? Those are questions I want to dig into for life and if they spill into a blog, great. I'll see what happens.
I'm doing a little spitballing here.
I do not like the practice of Christians telling people to begin a relationship with Jesus by "asking Jesus into your heart." Maybe I haven't read the Bible through enough times but I think it's a terrible practice. Nowhere does Jesus say, "Ask me into your heart and that's that." Jesus tells people to follow him. Asking Jesus into one's heart is passive: it's a one time event that, given the state of American Christianity, doesn't require much of the inviter. On the other hand, following Jesus is a daily practice of discipleship (Luke 9:23) that demands much of the believer and is consistent with the witness of the New Testament.
This is on my mind at the moment because several of the men on our church are about to help on a weekend event designed to help men encounter Jesus. One guy asked me this recently: "What do we do if someone decides to become a Christian? How can I help them do that?" It's a great question. I've discouraged people in the past from merely thinking about conversion as "asking Jesus into your heart" and I often explain what it means to follow Jesus. In doing so, I remind them that if you get up out of your chair to follow someone, there is a first step and I think a prayer acknowledging that is helpful. But what to pray? I've been scratching out some ideas, and here's the rough draft:
Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Lord of all:
Through your love and grace, this is the moment I choose to follow you. I believe that you are Lord and that God raised you from the dead and now I want to follow you by denying myself and taking up my cross. Hear my confession of my sin. You are faithful and just. Thank you for forgiving me and cleansing me from all my sin. With the gift of your Holy Spirit, I pray that your work in me will bear fruit as I am now a new creation; the old is gone and the new has come. Thank you, Jesus. AMEN.
I don't think I've read a better blog post on ministry than this one. I get emails and see tweets linking blog posts about ministry growth all the time. I'm tired of them. But I'm refreshed by Jon Tyson's approach to ministry.
Today, I got to live an illustration of God's grace. I didn't extend grace. It was given to me. Some of you might find my use of the word "grace" tenuous but hang with me anyway. I won't tell the whole story but Ellsworth Kalas invited me to lunch today. If there is a more concrete example of "unmerited favor" in my life this week, I can't think of it (though several are close while I'm here at Asbury.) If you don't know who Dr. Kalas is, he is an author, a preacher, a beloved professor of preaching, and a past president of Asbury Seminary who guided the seminary through a tumultuous time like a pastor. I know it sounds like bragging, but I can't help it. He invited me. I experienced that as love and grace. I can't do anything for Dr. Kalas. Having lunch with me is doesn't provide him with anything special. For me, though, it is a thrill. I will benefit. I will remember it. It's a gift that I didn't earn or deserve. Dr. Kalas gave me a very gracious invitation to join him.
In the American church, we often speak of beginning a relationship with Jesus in this way: "I invited Jesus into my heart." There are a lot of reasons I don't like this idea. For one thing, we are called to follow Jesus, not ask him into our lives and forget that he is there. Another reason I don't like the idea of inviting Jesus into our hearts is because there is often an initial thrill associated with that moment that often fades out quickly. This is really different than actually following Jesus who invites us to do just that. Think of it this way, what do we do when we invite another person to join us for a meal or an activity and they agree? There might be a thrill if they say yes, or maybe some stress in getting the house ready or in making restaurant arrangements. After that, what? We might occasionally remember the time spent together. It might even be a fond memory, but does it really make a difference in the grand scheme of our lives?
What about the invited person? From this afternoon, I can tell you it's thrilling, it's humbling, and it comes with the experience of being loved. Think about how you feel when you are invited to participate in something by one or more people. Don't you feel grateful? Don't you feel loved? The reality of the Christian life is that we do not invite Jesus into our hearts. Jesus invites us to follow him. Jesus invites us into his life. Undeserving people who have nothing to offer the Creator King respond to that invitation with gratefulness, humility, and a whole heart. This kind of response is the kind of life I desire. What an invitation!
During the past few years I've read blog posts written by some of my Calvinist friends about some of the old Puritan writings that were shaping their souls as they read. These books were written by people I'd never heard of before like Richard Sibbes, Andrew Bonar, Thomas Brooks, and others. At the time I lamented the fact that my friends were able to drink deeply out of their own tradition while I had little outside of John Wesley and Francis Asbury - they are no slouches but they are only two. I assumed, incorrectly, that there weren't any inspiring older resources out of the Methodist tradition that could do the same for me. I had a bunch of Francis Asbury Society titles, which are great, but nothing that went back much farther than the last twenty or thirty years. Where are those resources?
Thankfully, Seedbed now provides that which I've been looking for. In cooperation with Asbury Seminary we now have available a new set of resources that satisfies my desire and nourishes my soul. It's called First Fruits and they are free PDF versions of titles from people like Henry Clay Morrison (founder of Asbury Seminary) and J.C. McPheeters. I hope you'll go there, download some of them, and read. I can't wait to see what comes next.
Tomorrow, long before the sun comes up, I will travel to the airport to begin my journey back to Asbury Seminary for my second round of classes for the Beeson Program I started last summer. A lot has happened since I went for the term last year. The people who were strangers to me on that first day are now family. I don't say that tritely. They are brothers and a sister I dearly love and cannot wait to see again. We've texted, emailed, communicated on Facebook, and even Skyped. We've prayed for and with each other. We've encouraged one another. I can't believe that God has blessed me as much as he has.
On top of all this, we begin a new adventure with new classes, new people to meet, and even a trip to Seattle the last week. I'm excited. I will miss my wife and daughter dearly, but thankfully they are going to come see me the second week to break up the drought of their presence in my life which will be a nice change from last year.
I don't know who reads my blog, but I hope that you will pray for me, my family, and my classmates as we continue our journey together to grow as people, followers of Christ, and pastors.
My blog posts from school last summer:
I was given a tract when I graduated from seminary from the Francis Asbury Society that I've kept with me for ten years. I don't think they print it any more, but someone posted the content online and I thought I'd share it as it's been an important reminder for me from time to time.
So make up your mind that God is an infinite Sovereign and has a right to do as He pleases with His own, and that He may not explain to you a thousand things which may puzzle your reason in His dealings with you. God will take you at your word; if you absolutely sell yourself to be His slave, He will wrap you up in a jealous love and let other people say and do many things that you cannot. Settle it forever; you are to deal directly with the Holy Spirit, He is to have the privilege of tying your tongue or chaining your hand or closing your eyes in ways which others are not dealt with. However, know this great secret of the Kingdom: When you are so completely possessed with the Living God that you are, in your secret heart, pleased and delighted over this peculiar, personal, private, jealous guardianship and management of the Holy Spirit over your life, you will have found the vestibule of heaven, the high calling of God.
Some more links to check out.
- Discipleship for Grownups By Stephen Rankin.
- Matt O'Reilly links to some Francis Absury Society videos on Arminian Theology.
- Another link from Matt, this time one he shared on Twitter on intellectual virtue.
- Finally, are you a clergy nerd? You might enjoy this episode of the Systematic podcast. It's great podcast, especially if you're a Mac/iOS user, but this week's episode features TUAW contributor and Presbyterian pastor TJ Luoma.
Oh my, friends. This is an amazing resource and I encourage you to read through the works available to download. Happy reading.
In order to keep my blogging drought to a minimum, I'm reposting good reads I've come across lately. Enjoy these.
- Matt Judkins on What really happens when we pray?
- Bishop Mike Coyner shares some good things he learned from some African Methodists. I'm a big fan of African Christians. Good observations.
- Another solid post on social holiness. It might not be what you think.
- A good reminder about loving people and keeping a reviewable record of those we serve and connect with.
This is just excellent. Andrew Thompson takes a look at how John Wesley cared for his societies and makes some important points about pastoral care and discipleship.
Andrew Thompson writes an encouraging post on the "comeback" of doctrine in the United Methodist Church. I welcome this kind of renewal.
Kevin Watson provides links to some great resources for getting into Wesleyan theology if that sort of thing interests you (it does me). Andrew Thompson persuaded me to buy the collection of Wesley's sermons Kevin lists first, but I'm also looking forward to Collins' collection coming out in August.
One of my favorite movies is the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?. One scene always makes me smile and that’s when the escaped convict Delmar tries to convince the other two-thirds of his group to jump in the waters of baptism by exclaiming, “C’mon in, boys, the water is fine!”. I grew up in the South but I never witnessed a crowd of people going into a river for baptism. I only saw pictures of days gone by.
Since August of 2012 I have baptized nine youth or adults by immersing them completely in water, one of them in a portable baptismal and the rest in the flowing waters of the surrounding country. I am a cradle Methodist and an elder in the United Methodist Church. I had never seen an immersion baptism done by a Methodist until I was 27 years old and almost one year into my first appointment as a pastor. In the last five years of my current appointment, I have baptized 15 people by immersion. It thrills me to see people respond to Jesus’ call to “follow me” and ask, “what shall we do?” like the people who heard Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2. I tell them the same thing Peter said, “Repent and be baptized.” So, that’s what they’ve done.
As I baptize more and more people by immersion, people ask me “Why are you immersing them? We are Methodists and I thought it was the Baptists who immerse people.” It’s a fair question. Given our demographics and decline as a denomination in the last forty-five years, I suspect that many United Methodists have never seen one of their own baptized by immersion. Many United Methodist Churches do not see even one baptism a year and as paedobaptists (infant baptizers), it is even more rare to see a person baptized by immersion. So, I want to answer the question that has been raised in my church and for all of us who call ourselves United Methodist.
On page 81 of the United Methodist Book of Worship, we read:
United Methodists may baptize by any of the modes used by Christians. Candidates or their parents have the choice of sprinkling, pouring, or immersion; and pastors and congregations should be prepared to honor requests for baptism in any of these modes. (Emphasis mine)
A Methodist might think immersion is what the Baptists do (as if what our Baptist brothers and sisters do is repulsive to us - it’s not - but that’s a topic for another post), but as our Book of Worship notes, we can and do practice baptism by immersion. Those who think immersion “isn’t Methodist” are wrong and one doesn’t have to look too hard to find instances in which John Wesley or Francis Asbury supported this practice. As far as I’m concerned, if they did it, that’s as Methodist as it gets and I’m proud to stand as one of their spiritual and ministerial heirs.
This is a cut and dried case as far as our worship practices go as a denomination, but that’s not the answer I typically give when I’ve been asked this question. When asked, “Why are you immersing people?” I usually respond by saying, “Because the Holy Spirit is working in the hearts of the people of our church.” That’s a much better answer because that’s exactly what is happening. The love of God is poured into hearts (“shed abroad” in Wesley’s King James Bible) “by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5).The Spirit calls men and women, making alive those who are dead in their trespasses, and makes them new creations. Since they’ve never been baptized before, we baptize them because through baptism they are initiated into Christ’s holy church. That is an amazing thing and I rejoice in it.
The confusion as to why Methodists are immersing people points to something else altogether. The reason adult baptism by immersion is so alien to our congregations is because we do not see dead people come to life through the grace of God given to us by the atoning work of Christ on the cross, the power of the resurrection, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We assume that everyone around us is a Christian or that they go to church so we shouldn’t bother them. Our assumptions are wrong and when we share the good news of Jesus Christ with our neighbors and even those in our worship services there is no predicting how God might work and move in our hearts.
I want to perform more baptisms by immersion because I want to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ and follow him for the rest of their lives. This is what we’ve been called to do and we must be faithful.
Adult baptisms by immersion are not only rare because we baptize infants, but also because we do not re-baptize anyone. Re-baptism is a chargeable offense in our Book of Discipline. ↩
From memory, there are a couple of accounts concerning immersion in the southern Methodist churches in Wigger’s biography of Asbury, but since it’s at my house you’ll just have to get a copy for yourself and look it up. ↩