The Baptist Standard caught my attention this past week with this article, published August 8, 2016: Baptist Ministers Join Call to Halt Execution.
I urge you to read the article, investigate the case of Jeff Wood, and act according to conscience. The article concerns the scheduled execution of Jeff Wood, which will take place on August 24th, 2016, unless Texas Governor Greg Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles choose to intervene.
I have chosen to write the Governor's office and request clemency in the case of Jeff Wood. If you would like a copy of my letter, email me. In cases like these, mailed letters have the greatest impact. The Governor's office also receives petitions by email and fax.
For more information on the case of Jeff Wood, visit this website, maintained by Mr. Wood's family. The website includes sample letters for those choosing to write Governor Abbott and/or the Board.
You may also conduct an Internet search for more information.
I urge you to join me in advocating for mercy in the case of Jeff Wood.
Over the course of my seminary studies I heard classmates say that God had become “homework,” the focus of a task or assignment given by professors.
The result was discouragement, a waning love for God, a tepid Christian spirituality, or all of the above. God had become something to look at, not someone to look to.
Ministers are prone to the same malady, reading the Bible only in preparation for a sermon or class, praying only when called upon to serve as a religious functionary, etc. “God” becomes associated with the tasks of ministry, rather than the calling of the minister.
I suppose this is a potential pitfall for any congregant. Established routines of devotion become stale, and reliable ways of engaging the Bible, serving others, or practicing prayer no longer warm affections for God as they once did. Bewilderment and confusion follow.
Reframing might help. In the case of the seminarian, the minister, and the congregant the practice of completing assignments about God or tasks for God can replace being in relationship with God. God becomes an object rather than a subject.
But if we can remember that the God revealed in Scripture is always personal and always working, it becomes increasingly difficult to relegate God to the domain of an assignment, a task, or a religious duty. God is not something we can control. God is someone we serve.
If we remember that God is God and we are mortal, we will cease our efforts to control God through the machinations of achievement, duty, or piety. Our most skillfully argued thesis, our most diligently prepared sermon, or our most consistent practices of devotion are given as a free response to God rather than a means by which we might define, distribute, or control God.
We can also remember that God, being a person and not a task, may feel distant despite being near. This happens often in human relationships. It is often the case that in these seasons, we learn new ways to love. We also discover new things about ourselves.
We remain with those to whom we have pledged our steadfast love. We carry out our duties and remain within our routines. We maintain attentiveness and offer the gift of presence. We help and provide.
Passions can wax and wane in all relationships, yet steadfastness binds us one to another, and the fruit borne is in keeping with love. All the while, we do not fulfill our tasks and duties in order to receive a feeling, a positive affirmation, or a grade. Instead, we continue to act in keeping with our commitment to relationship as an evidence of our love.
And because God has loved us first, and called us first, and claimed us first, and redeemed us first, we can be confident that God has not abandoned us or removed his presence from us. Perhaps, instead, God has given us the distance we need to grow, to learn new ways of loving, and to discover new things about ourselves. Good parents give their children room to breathe. God is no different.
God has given us the gift of time, wherein we may discover our own selfishness and wrong-headed assumptions. God has given us the opportunity to long for the experience of God’s presence and the overflow of divine love. God has also given us the opportunity to repent, and to ask for the grace we need if we are to ever become all that God has created us to be.
Any attempt to depersonalize God leads to idolatry and works-righteousness. God is not an assignment, a duty, or a feeling. God is Trinity, revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Person, not thing.
Subject, not object.
The Methodist movement is commonly described as an initiative of the Holy Spirit, driven by the zeal of a persistent leader, grounded by the practical innovation of bands and societies, and as yielding a theological distinctive or two. I have heard Methodism described as an ongoing work of gospel renewal begun to instill life in denominations and churches, as well as in individuals. There is some truth in that account, however simplified it might be. The events which gave birth to Methodism are much more complicated.
Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism (IVP Academic, 2016) unearths the strata of early Methodism, revealing the complexities surrounding the movement as it arose. The book is written by Ryan Nicholas Danker, who serves as assistant professor of the history of Christianity and Methodist studies at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Danker carefully chronicles the Anglican and English contexts that shaped and influenced John Wesley in an effort to help the reader understand both his life and theology.
Early in his account Danker states that “social, political and ecclesiastical issues have not been given proper weight” which led to a divide between Wesley, Wesleyan Methodism, and some of the evangelical clergy who were Wesley’s contemporaries. The divisions which occurred during the early Methodist movement are more often described as theological in nature, such as in the case of George Whitefield’s Calvinism and Wesley’s Arminianism. Danker effectively shows that the historical evidence yields a more complex reality.
Danker first outlines early English evangelicalism and Wesley’s place within it. Danker notes, “Although the term Methodist is now thought to be synonymous with Wesleyanism, at the beginning of the Evangelical Revival in England it was an elusive term.” Evangelicalism was first broadly defined and loosely organized, though it was understood to be evangelistic in nature and stressing conversion.
Evangelicalism was also opposed and viewed as dangerous. Even though evangelicals understood their work as yielding revival, established clergy viewed their results as potentially schismatic, particularly when converts were organized into their own small societies quite apart from the Church of England.
Danker also tells of ways in which revivalists were attacked and criticized, as well as why Methodist structure would draw out opposition. Danker’s description of the Act of Toleration, the Conventicle Act, and the implications of both, as well as the general posture toward non-established religious groups in post-Cromwellian English society is very helpful and revelatory. Danker also describes the tension between Methodist societies and Anglican clergy, who expected all Christians to participate exclusively within the parish structure of the Church of England.
Danker further analyzes the history of the Evangelical and Methodist movements geographically, showing why certain disputes arose and why they were perpetuated. Some itinerant lay preachers were frustrated by the parish system. Local clergy took umbrage with field preachers and with the organization of Methodist societies. Wesley was urged to channel his efforts into the existing forms of the Church, but for Wesley, the proclamation of the gospel was of greatest importance. This got Wesley into trouble.
Methodist identity, distinct from Evangelicalism, was solidified through the development of a “distinctive ethos,” and also thanks to decisions concerning the administration of communion. Danker writes, “Attempts by Wesley’s lay preachers to administer communion or gain the right to administer it, either as laymen or after ordination at Wesley’s hands, were seen by many within the Evangelical ‘party’ as the end of their association.”
Danker devotes a chapter to the fallout from the controversies between evangelicals and Methodists, highlighting the case of six Oxford students who were expelled for “methodistical behaviour.” He also shows the reasons why Wesley and the Evangelicals came to be distinct. Danker writes, “The Evangelicals, as a group, represented a Reformed vision of Christianity stemming back to the Puritans and the English Reformers, while Wesley represented a restorationist vision based on the church fathers as read through high church Anglicanism and the Caroline divines.”
Throughout his account, Danker removes some of the polish from Wesley. Many accounts of John Wesley and the early Methodists are hagiographical, rather than historiographical. Hagiography minimizes negatives and hardships, and elevates the person to the status of saint.
Wesley was far from perfect. He did not always do the right thing. He was human, with his own particular flaws and vices. The Methodist movement was not always received positively, and while it did bring some theological and practical distinctives that are gifts to the church, it created certain political problems within the Church of England as well as within British society.
The same flaws, however, gave rise to a boldness that should not be forgotten. I think Danker strikes the right balance here. Boldness in many instances should be emulated. Wesley was focused strongly on evangelism. He possessed a love for the church. Perhaps naively, he assumed that his work and legacy could reinvigorate and renew the Anglicanism that had so strongly shaped his life and ministry. Methodism, instead, budded as a new branch.
We do not always fully anticipate the outcome of our choices. We do not know what disputes may result, what ideas might take root, which friends we might make, and which ones we might lose. We may not fully grasp the weight our social setting or our political milieu places upon us even now, and how that may shape our positions and our actions.
But good historians can help us to perceive the present more clearly by initiating us into the complexities of the past. One result may be a greater understanding of ourselves, and what our moment requires. In this way, Danker’s history of early evangelicalism and John Wesley is a helpful and worthwhile offering.
In The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen writes:
It is not the task of the Christian leader to go around nervously trying to redeem people, to save them at the last minute, to put them on the right track. For we are redeemed once and for all. The Christian leader is called to help others affirm this great news, and to make visible in daily events the fact that behind the dirty curtain of our painful symptoms there is something great to be seen: the face of Him in whose image we are shaped.
Rest. Not anxiety or nervousness. Confidence in the Redeemer. Confirmation of the gospel, so that others might affirm it, as well as witness to another reality called "kingdom" (even in the face of this mess we call the world and ourselves). Intimacy with Jesus, into whose likeness we are being conformed, as we are being made new each day.
2 Corinthians 4:16 reads:
So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.
The Christian leader is set free to love their neighbor. To set aside their fears. To invite others into God's presence. To announce good news. And to be honest about themselves.
Too often, we think that is our task to redeem. Instead, it is to be redeemed, and live into the fullness of everything that means, not only in our proclamation, but in our life.