My year of Wesley pilgrimage

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Origins of the journey

It began on New Year’s Day, the first Sunday of 2017.  We sang a hymn which the Gaither Vocal Band had popularised in the USA, but which had never really caught on in the UK.  You can hear the song here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsq3aDNhZIQ

Our pastor read the words, and at one point, as he explained what they meant he became quite overcome with emotion. We were invited to take the microphone and say what in this song had particularly spoken to us.  As I looked at the words, the line that leapt out at me was “I know how fear builds walls instead of bridges”.  I couldn’t help but think of the very scared little man who is about to assume leadership of the biggest western nation, and his threats to build a wall to keep Mexicans out, as well as his intention to expel all illegal immigrants and ban Muslims from entering the country.

I stood up and tried to explain this to the congregation – how one of Trump’s advisors, Monica Crowley, had tweeted a photograph of herself beside the Berlin Wall with the words, “At the Berlin Wall last week.  Walls work.”  That the trauma of separation caused by the wall, not to mention the oppression that took place behind it and the deaths of those who tried to escape its tyranny, should be seen as evidence that “walls work” should sound a note of the greatest alarm.

And this reminded me of the situation in France during the 18th century, when the increasing wealth and complacence of the rich while callously grinding the faces of the starving poor had spilled over, in 1789, into the French revolution, which not only overturned the establishment and the stranglehold on power of the monarchy and nobility, epitomised in the storming of the Bastille on July 14th, but often at times descended into a chaotic bloodbath, with the introduction of the guillotine.

I noted that social conditions in Britain, especially England, at the time were almost exactly parallel to those in France, and that it has often been said that what saved England from a bloody French-style revolution was the spiritual revival that took place under the Wesleys, George Whitefield and Charles Finney. And it struck me, pondering on the words of this hymn, that a few hundred sermons, preached here and there all over the country as John Wesley rode the length and breadth of the land, could not of themselves have been the bulwark that held back the tide of revolution and averted disaster. (Note: that is what I said in church; I have since learned that John Wesley delivered some 45,000 sermons during his ministry.)  Rather, it must have been the many individual lives, transformed by the power of God, who returned to their communities and lived out the kingdom of God in their small, daily circle, that changed the history of the nation and brought about a peaceable change that, in the coming generations, could give rise to men like William Wilberforce and the eighth Earl of Shaftesbury, and women like Elizabeth Fry and Josephine Butler.

This reminded me of Jesus’ saying that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump”.  All it needed, in the Wesleys’ day, for revival to spread and transform the life of the nation, was for individuals indwelt by the Holy Spirit, to bring the kingdom of God into the homes and streets where they lived.  And the same is true now. We might look at some worrying trends on the political stage here and abroad, and feel helpless to do anything about it.  But that is not the truth.  We are the leaven, scattered throughout the dough of society, which can leaven the whole lump, if we determine to bring the light and love of God’s kingdom to the places where we live and work.

After church, our pastor spoke to me.  He agreed with my analysis of the situation, and said that the parallels were even greater than I realised – that if I read the history of the South Sea Bubble I would see similarities both with quantitative easing and the bank bailouts which had been done at the expense of the poorest in society, and with the recent exposure of tax avoidance in offshore funds by some of the nation’s wealthiest people.  And he told me that it was estimated that twenty-eight thousand people came to faith in Jesus through John Wesley’s preaching – not a great proportion, considering that the population of Great Britain in Wesley’s time was around twelve million.  A little leaven leavens the whole lump.  If 2.3% of the population in Wesley’s time could change the course of the nation, what might we do today?  We have the power in our hands to change the world, if we only realised it and prayed and acted accordingly.

I continued to ponder all this after I got home from church.  I had, like John Wesley, known my heart “strangely warmed” on more than one occasion.  I could recall times when my experience of Jesus echoed Charles Wesley’s lyrics “My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed Thee”.  But I knew that in recent years my heart had begun to grow colder, and currently I could identify more with the words of William Cowper,

“Where is the blessedness I knew,
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul refreshing view
Of Jesus and His Word?

What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void
The world can never fill.”

And somehow, as I sat contemplating all this, I felt God calling me to make a journey, both spiritual and physical, this year, in the footsteps of John Wesley.  I spent some time researching places he had been.  Some I already knew quite well – I had long been familiar with some of the sites in Cornwall where Wesley had stayed and preached, and I had often worshipped at Truro Methodist Church.  My own grandfather on my mother’s side had been a Methodist minister, for a long time active in the circuit in East Hull, and pastoring at one of its churches.  But I felt compelled to learn more about the Wesley brothers and their ministry, and in particular the secret of how they kept alive the flame of their relationship with Christ through a lifetime that was certainly not without its privations but which never wavered from devotion to the cause of Christ, the spread of His kingdom, and seeing lives transformed by His love and grace.  Over the course of the year, I hope to chart my progress here.

The Glory of Christ

This post was written for Through the Roof (www.throughtheroof.org) and is reproduced here by kind permission.

Worldwide web watchers may have noticed recently that there has been some fresh controversy regarding a particular brand of “prosperity Gospel” coming out of America. In this particular version, at least according to its critics, God has been portrayed as being rather like an over-indulgent grandparent whose offspring have only to name a wish for it to appear in front of them. If it fails to appear, there is something wrong with the way they are asking, the words they are using or their levels of faith. The focus of this type of spirituality appears to be our own happiness rather than God’s glory. (I’m choosing my words carefully because the speaker in question claims to have been misunderstood and misrepresented; although the original words were, at least, ill-chosen.)

The problem with a version of the Gospel which emphasises God showering material blessings on us is not that there’s no truth in it, but that it isn’t half (or even one-tenth) of the story. I certainly know there have been occasions when God has blessed me materially. There have been times when praying for things has been answered by those things happening. There have been times when speaking out the truth of God’s word has changed situations. There have also been times when I haven’t received what I prayed for, for reasons known only to God, and other times when I haven’t received what I prayed for, because I wasn’t really asking in faith. I am also convinced that, for the most part, when God sees me happy, it gives Him pleasure. But these things form only a tiny part of my Christian experience.

Moreover, when God blesses us materially in these ways, we see it from our own perspective. We have a little need; we ask in faith; God meets our little need and sometimes even goes way beyond what we asked for. We are blessed, we feel really happy and we have a great testimony to share. But God sees it from a far larger perspective. He has only one real goal in everything that He does, which is, in Paul’s words from Colossians, that in everything Christ might have the pre-eminence.

The times of most transforming, lasting joys in my life have come when God has not instantly gratified my desire, even for things that might seem a really legitimate good to pray for. I remember sitting in the paediatrician’s office when my daughter Ellen was 11 and being told that her scoliosis was now so severe that it was crushing her heart, lungs and stomach and putting her at imminent risk of heart failure. She needed a very risky operation to straighten out her spine and insert a metal rod to support it. The paediatrician explained that the operation might kill her or leave her completely paralysed, but that without it she would certainly die. He concluded with the words, “We can’t leave it a year. She hasn’t got a year left.”

For complicated reasons which I won’t explain here, ten months went by before Ellen was able to have her operation, by which time her condition was critical. I was convinced that God can and does heal, and I could see no possible good to a child from having a painful and traumatic operation, so I confidently prayed for her healing. I confessed the word of God over her. The pastors from my church came round and prayed for her, and, in obedience to James 5. 14, anointed her with oil. (I remain convinced that they were right to do so.) I had every expectation that she would be healed. After all, James 5. 15 confidently asserts that “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up”.

Eventually she went into hospital, but still my faith never wavered. I believed she would be healed at the last minute, the operation would not be needed, and God would be glorified by her testimony. When they came to take her down to the operating theatre, I was reading Psalm 27 aloud to her.

Ellen had her operation, and it was traumatic. But she didn’t die and she wasn’t completely paralysed, although she did lose some physical function. We were told that the operation would take at least 5 hours, she would need at least 48 hours in intensive care, and would be in hospital for at least a month. In fact the operation took less than 3 hours, she went straight back to the children’s ward accompanied by intensive care nurses, and was well enough to be discharged 3 weeks later. I remained at her bedside day and night for 3 weeks, catching some sleep in a chair whenever she dozed. The thing that struck me was how much genuine, deep joy I experienced during those 3 weeks. I had an unassailable inner peace, and the presence of God in the ward was so real I almost expected to see Him with my eyes. My closeness to Him was deepened immeasurably, and the effects were lasting. It was an important stage in my spiritual development and, crucially, it revealed to me a glorious facet of the character of Jesus as the God of all comfort, which I would never have encountered if all my prayers had been instantly answered.

So to go back to the controversy about the “prosperity Gospel”, when God blesses us with answered prayer it’s not primarily for our own benefit (although of course we do benefit) but for His glory. And when He withholds answers to prayer, even to prayer offered in faith, it’s primarily for His glory, although we do benefit too. Any Gospel which misses this point has an incomplete view of the glory of Christ – and this matters because it’s the glory of Christ around which the whole of creation revolves, and towards which the close of the age will draw us.

In 1864 a puritan named John Owen wrote a little book entitled The Glory of Christ. If you can cope with 17th century language, or find a modern abridgement, I recommend it to you. In this book, he meditates upon different facets of Christ’s glory – the glory of His love, the glory of His mystery, His glory as mediator, His glory in the church, and the glory of His eternal being. He shows how beholding the glory of Christ with the eyes of faith in this life is preparing us for, and will be completely overtaken by, our sight of His glory face to face in the next. Any Gospel which has anything other than the glory of Christ as its chief focus is at best lopsided and at worst misleading.

As C.S. Lewis discovered, when he pursued happiness it eluded him, but when he encountered God he received joy as a surprising by-product. Yes, our happiness gives God pleasure. But only when our happiness is derived from our pursuit of God and His glory. Any other kind of happiness brings him sorrow because He knows it is a deceit that will ultimately leave us empty and unfulfilled. He has created us for relationship with Him, and it’s only in seeking to know and worship Him in all aspects of His character that we will find true and lasting goodness and joy.