Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Learning from John Wesley

Kevin Martin, dean of St. Matthew's Episcopal Cathedral in Dallas, TX, recently offered some very interesting personal reflections on The Dean's Blog. He writes that he was not actually converted to Christ until some time after his ordination to the priesthood:

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.

I only spent one year at Sewanee, but about eight or nine years at Vanderbilt Divinity School and the Vanderbilt Graduate Department of Religion (faculty and students overlapping). Fr. Martin's observations of his theological education resonate with my experience at Vanderbilt. The focus was almost exclusively on a politically correct version of social justice. The very idea of a "deep" and "personal relationship with Christ" was the sort of stuff that fundamentalists talked about. When we weren't looking down our noses at them, we felt sorry for those kinds of folks.

After his conversion, Fr. Martin describes how reading the works (particularly the sermons) of John Wesley helped ground his post-conversion identity and integrate that experience with his theological education. "Wesley," Fr. Martin writes, "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." And he continues by sharing a number of things he 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.”

While I do not share Wesley's view (expressed in a letter to his brother Charles dated August 19, 1785) that "the uninterrupted succession [of bishops] I know to be a fable, which no man ever did or can prove," I resonate with pretty much all that Fr. Martin learned from Wesley.


Anonymous said...

I can relate from personal experience that I have no recollection of 'when I was saved' in the sense of a dynamic change, I can convey that many years later my desire it to become closer to Jesus who was my Saviour before ever I heard His Name, and that everyday is a new day and every day it is easier to walk away with the wind of the world than turn my face into it and struggle towards Him.
Maybe it has just been my experience but I hear little of this struggle in the modern church and a lot about social issues, or the inferred sense of 'now your saved you can just give thanks and carry on' (that may be a harsh sentiment on my part). The fact that I have received more comfort from the readings of the Desert Fathers (whose existence is unknown by many I would suspect) may be an indication of how much of the church operates or where its focus is today - one it seems of continually trying to be relevant to the modern world but I wonder at what cost?

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for offering comments that share some of your personal journey, George. I, too, cannot point to a single "event" that was my moment of conversion, but I can recall many times in my life when the call of Jesus as Lord and Savior has echoed within the depths of my heart and soul, even during my early divinity and graduate school years when I was doing my best to hold off the Church and her faith at arm's length. When he hasn't comforted, inspired, confronted, or challenged me, Jesus has nevertheless haunted me.

Joe Rawls said...

Many of our clergy, of course, never really "convert" at all, and this is a big reason our church--with the rest of the mainline--is going down the crapper.

Anonymous said...

Bryan your blog title is often something I think about 'Creedal Christian', what tipped you over into the Liturgy? There is an attraction there but also a wariness (for me)so I am interested in your perspective if you want to share.

Bryan Owen said...

George, a couple of pieces I posted a while back may go some way toward answering your question:

The Radical Creed

Are You Saved?

I'd love to read your thoughts in response.

Perpetua said...

HI Bryan+,

I just previously read Sarah's post of a C. S. Lewis quote at Stand Firm that inspires me to ask your opinion on this. You have:

"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."

But I think C. S. Lewis is saying that shifting the focus towards social justice and alleviating poverty often diverts the focus from doing the small acts of charity towards one's immediate family and neighbors.

What do you think? In reality, aren't we humans small limited creatures who can really only focus in or out, but not both at once?

Bryan Owen said...

Perpetua, I think that we humans are, indeed, "small limited creatures who can really only focus in or out, but not both at once." But I would hasten to add that this is true only to the extent that we are left to our own devices. I believe that God wants to expand the circle of our concerns to include both those who are near to us and those who are far away. I'll grant that this is not easy to do (we are still sinners), and that, apart from the transforming grace of God perhaps impossible, but I think that's part of the goal of an authentically Christian life.

Anonymous said...

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

I may well be very very wrong but I think that it is spending time in Gods presence and by His grace and through His grace that these things happen (tho He can do anything He wants when He wants and peoples lives can be changed in an instant)
I still think though that while God makes His dwelling in us the moment we ask Him to, a lot of pressure can be placed on people that as a result their lives (as it is acted out) must as a result change instantly as well (and yes the desire should be there) but the flesh is weak and the sin is ingrained and when we fail to live up to expectations (our own or others) the guilt can overcome us and unless we are being discipled we can find ourselves turning away from the Light back to the darkness but now also with the burden of shame. I know I am making rash generalizations but how many new converts are told that even though they have been washed clean in the river of His Love at baptism that they soon dry out and need to keep coming back and back and back (sorry for the hijack Bryan)