Friday, July 04, 2008

Independence day

A couple of books ago, the author I was reading kept quoting John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church. Being the good little Methodist that I am, this got me to thinking about how little I knew of Wesley's theology. Oh sure, I've read the basic Wesley biography in the abbreviated adult Sunday school curriculum version, even saw a one-act play once about him, but my curiosity was sufficiently piqued.

I reasoned that my Pastor probably had a book or two on the sermons of John Wesley. (That is an understatement.) He loaned me a book entitled, quite simply, John Wesley. It is a biography with excerpts from his letters, journals, sermons, etc. Since it is a borrowed book, I have had to suppress my usual practice of marking the text. Instead, I have made random notes on a legal pad, which is quickly filling up.

Today, reading on the drive back from visiting my mother-in-law, I came across yet another example of Wesley's rigid (dare I use that word) requirements for people of faith. I confess, this text has both fascinated and exhausted me. I find myself constantly saying, "Who could possibly live up to this standard?" It all seems terribly legalistic.

(I keep hearing Jesus tell the Pharisees, "...but go and learn what this means, 'I require mercy and not sacrifice.'")

OK, so today I jotted down the five questions that Methodists had to answer out loud at the weekly meetings of their small groups, called Bands.

1) What known sins have you committed since the last meeting?
2) What temptations have you faced?
3) How were you delivered from these temptations?
4) What have you thought, said or done of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
5) Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?

I'm thinking that the first thing I would have to confess at each meeting is lying when answering the questions at the previous meeting!

Wesley had a famous line he repeated at the close of his sermons, sort of an altar call I suppose, which actually is a quote of scripture (but don't ask me which one). "If thine heart is as my heart, give me thine hand." Doesn't that sound beautiful? I can see him stretching out his hand to me. I can feel myself saying somewhat excitedly, Yes, my faith is alive and passionate. Yes, I feel as you do! Then I read on....

Here is what Wesley means by this invitation, this offering of the hand:
1) Are you right with God?
2) Do you believe in Jesus Christ?
3) Is thy faith filled with the energy of love? Do you seek happiness in God alone? Are you crucified to the world?
4) Are you focused on doing the will of God? Always fixed on him?
5) Do you serve him with fear? Rejoice with reverence? Are you more afraid of displeasing God than death or hell?
6) Is your heart right toward thy neighbor?
7) Do you show your love by your works?

I know for a fact Wesley would have to take his hand back after asking me these questions! Again, I say, who can live like this? How is it possible?

And so that brings me to the title of today's post -- Independence Day.

I have to be careful as I read this book and others like it that I don't automatically excuse myself from even attempting what theologians like Wesley propose. I know I am free from the requirements of the Law as far as my salvation is concerned. But still, God's Word rings in my ears, "Be perfect, as thy heavenly Father is perfect."

My Pastor recently suggested that during our evening prayers, as we are drifting off to sleep, we should take an inventory of our day; wipe the slate clean, if you will, before bringing the day to a close. OK, I can do this. I can think about the shortcomings of the day, confess them, consider why I did them, ask myself how I can avoid them. Yet I would be foolish to believe that I will ever reach the point when this nightly confession will no longer be necessary.

I've been reading a book by Francis De Sales called, "Introduction to the Devout Life." It is perfectly arranged to function as a daily devotional. In it, De Sales is instructing a certain penitent about how to live life in a more devout manner. Again, I find myself saying, "Who can live like this?"

Here is a sampling from today:

Turn to God. Thou, my God and Savior, shalt henceforth be the sole object of my thoughts; no more will I give my mind to ideas which are displeasing to Thee. All the days of my life I will dwell upon the greatness of Thy Goodness, so lovingly poured out upon me. Thou shalt be henceforth the delight of my heart, the resting place of all my affections. From this time forth I will forsake and abhor the vain pleasures and amusements, the empty pursuits which have absorbed my time; the unprofitable ties which have bound my heart I will loosen henceforth....

I promise you I was not meaning to be the least bit flippant as I read this and found myself murmuring, "No I won't, no I won't, no I won't..." As I read, simultaneously my mind confessed, "Forgive me Lord, for I know I fall way short of this. I cannot do it. It is not in me."

Is this realization of the pitiful state of my own human frailty any reason to stop trying? How does one set out on pursuing what Wesley terms as being "wholly sanctified" in any honest fashion, without becoming completely overwhelmed or defeated before even beginning?

The disciples expressed a similar sentiment when Jesus pronounced that it was harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. "Who then can be saved?" they asked in exasperation. The answer is one apropos for Independence Day: "With man, this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible."

And so, therein lies the key: With God, all things are possible. I don't mean to say I am convinced of my ability to live the life prescribed by Wesley and De Sales and others. No, I mean that these words can soothe my hopelessness; my feelings of inadequacy; my suspicions that I will never even come close.

With God, all things are possible. That's God's view of me; of my chances; how amazing! God is patient and gentle and loving and merciful. He will never give up on me. He will help me to understand what the focus of my life and my relationship with him should be. He will set me free from the demands of the law, the pursuit of perfection by my own means, the self-condemning rigors of self-examination. And he will remind me, whispering gently in my ear, "I will never leave you. I will never forsake you."

Happy Independence Day!

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