The Meaning of Apocalypse

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Carl Trueman has written an article at First Things in which Protestant Christians are asked to consider COVID-19 and the meaning of the term apocalypse.

“Apocalypse” is often associated with the end of the world, depicted in films as a cascading onslaught of geopolitical chaos, natural disasters, environmental decay, unstoppable global disease, and, maybe, the unleashing of evil spiritual forces. Think of The Book of Eli, Shaun of the Dead, World War Z, 12 Monkeys, End of Days, Soylent Green, Mad Max: Fury Road, Doctor Strangelove, I Am Legend, The Day After Tomorrow, Planet of the Apes, The Terminator, Children of Men, The Road, The Matrix, 28 Days Later, or Wall-E. Ghostbusters really nailed it. Long live Peter Venkman.

In the New Testament, the Greek term apokálypsis means an uncovering or unveiling. Revelation 1:1 begins, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John.” That word translated “revelation?” That’s apokalypsis.

A hidden thing is revealed. That’s an apocalypse.

Look At All These Rumors

Trueman has been hearing that Protestants fear that the pandemic has not only decimated budgets and worship services, and uncovered stresses and strains which exist in the relationship between church and state, but that online worship services and habituated non-attendance will lead to a massive reduction in church participation. Trueman writes:

In conversation with many ministers, I have noticed one key concern again and again: How many Christians will return to church once COVID has stabilized? It is anecdotal at best at this point, but the figure often cited in my presence is 30 percent: Three out of every ten pre-COVID worshipers might stay away for good. One friend told me that his denomination’s leadership has informed its ministers that a third of its congregations might close within the next few months.

Theology nerds will find Trueman’s claims about Catholic/Protestant arguments for meeting physically together worthy of contemplation. For Catholics, Christ meets with his people in the Eucharist. For Protestants, Christ meets with his people through the preached Word.

But really, it’s the last paragraph which provides the Scorpion uppercut punch:

So what will be revealed if vast swathes of Protestants do not return to physical church when COVID finally settles down? Surely that the theology of preaching as God’s confrontational presence in and through proclamation has at some point been supplanted in the minds of many by a notion that it is merely a transmission of information or a pep talk. And that listening as active, faithful response has correspondingly been reduced to a passive reception, of the kind that televisions and countless other screens have made the default position. To put it another way, it will reveal that preachers have become confused with life coaches or entertainers, and congregations have been replaced by audiences and autonomous consumers. Such a scenario will be apocalyptic. And in both senses of the word.

Let’s say, for a moment, that churches do experience a thirty percent reduction in active participation in weekend services once this storm passes. Trueman may have nailed all the causes.

But has this pandemic been truly necessary to reveal these things to be true? Or will the pandemic only make these matters even more plain, pushing those remaining in denial about the overall health of Protestant Christianity in North America to finally face the reality that cultural forces, including those within the church, have weakened our efforts at discipleship?

No Need for Anxiety

Long ago I gave up hand-wringing over matters like this. I’ve faced the fact that we are in decline, and that there is work to do. The monastics taught me to remember that God draws people unto himself and into community, and while I might be called to intercede for the world and to call upon God to bring the lost to saving faith, I am not called to be anxious about the future of the church. The Father sovereignly prunes the vine to foster future flourishing. I trust the vine dresser.

Dallas Willard once said “The greatest challenge the church faces today is to be authentic disciples of Jesus.” Indeed, that is a great challenge. But it echoes the commission given to all disciples of Jesus. Jesus has been granted all authority in heaven and on earth and has promised to be with us to the end of the age. Those are reasons for confidence, and hope.

Times Are Tough and So Is Pastoring

white and brown house
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The work of a pastor can be tough. When you’re facing a global crisis, it gets tougher. Normal patterns are disrupted. Pressures increase, and as they do, cracks become more pronounced.

Reverend Jakob Topper, pastor of NorthHaven Baptist Church in Norman, Oklahoma, tells several disturbing and sad stories emerging as a result of the pressure of pastoring during a global pandemic in an opinion piece at Baptist News Global. Topper writes:

I was on a Zoom call recently with 10 pastors across three denominations, when one of the participants shared a struggle with suicidal thoughts in these challenging days. By the time the meeting concluded, four of the 10 had found the courage to admit their own suicidal ideations.

He goes on to chronicle the troubles. One congregation opened early and shortly thereafter a member died from COVID. Other pastors were threatened by congregants from each extreme, who said they’d leave or withhold their tithes if the church didn’t reopen/remain closed. Another pastor was fired because the church was unhappy with her leadership, one had to lay off half their staff, and another was a victim of assault by a congregant–who came to the building and kicked the pastor’s door off its hinges, attempting to provoke a fight in response to the previous Sunday’s sermon, which addressed the topic of race in America.

Rev. Topper notes other factors that make church work tough right now. There is vast economic uncertainty, cultural anxiety, hyper-partisanship, a contentious and ongoing civil rights debate, and to make matters worse, it’s an election season.

We’ve got to get through this. And it will be much better if we’re able to get through this together. We’re bruised, battered, and beaten. Devouring one another from within won’t do us–or the world, or the kingdom of God–any good.

Rev. Topper offers advice to churches and congregants. For congregants, it is important to remember that the church and Christ are united, but not one and the same. Jesus is our Savior and Lord, and his goodness is not in doubt. But God has called together human beings who are still on the way, who are still in the process of being sanctified, who are yet to be glorified. We will fail one another, but Christ will not fail us. Rev. Topper also calls us to remember that pastors are undershepherds who serve the Good Shepherd, that we should pray for our pastors, to commit to being encouraging and faithful church members during a time of trial, and to advocate for your pastor’s mental health.

Rev. Topper then gives advice to pastors. He encourages pastors to see a counselor, talk to their primary care physician about their mental health, to slow down and reset expectations, to actively cultivate friendships via wise and available channels, and to lean on peers, other co-laborers in ministry. Excellent guidance, all.

The only thing strange about Rev. Topper’s framing of this crisis is his choice to draw upon the biblical story of Saul falling on his sword. He states, “There’s a story in the Old Testament about King Saul being defeated in battle. Instead of waiting on the opposing army to torture and ridicule him before killing him, he chooses to take his own life by falling on his sword.”

Rev. Topper writes that “pastors are already facing ridicule not just from their adversaries but from many of their own congregants. They’re being tortured by their own inability to lead their churches out of a pandemic, out of hyper-partisanship and out of racism. Falling on their swords is starting to look pretty attractive.” He adds, “this is a new level of hell that pastors are living.”

The problem is that Saul’s choice to fall on his sword is neither condemned nor praised in 1 Samuel 31. This particular text is silent on the subject of suicide. It most certainly is not an endorsement of this option, however. The arc of the Saul narrative offers us more of a picture of an example to avoid rather than one to follow.

Rev. Topper’s connection with Saul could be read as an out for ministers, one with biblical precedent. The overall thrust of his article argues that we do not want to see ministers choose this avenue even though some are considering it and that we can do a better job, together, of caring for one another. But the Saul example seems to suggest it is an available or at least an understandable avenue, even if it is not a preferable outcome.

I would think that better analogies could have been drawn from Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, or any of the other apostles. There are multitudes of New Testament examples of the early church facing immense suffering and trying times, and yet because of the gospel of Jesus Christ, these early disciples were able to both name the reality of the sufferings they faced while also praising God because of the reason for their hope: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some were glad to suffer for the name. Others recognized quite quickly that suffering is unpleasant, yes, but it also holds transformative potential, a signal that God, in some way, may yield something precious as the result of passing through the refiner’s fire.

The New Testament also gives us every reason to believe that the church consists of both enemies and friends, and that persecution and intense hostilities can arise from within the body as well as from without. That’s a sad reality, one that I’ve experienced firsthand. Pastoring is tough work. It always has been. Being the church is tough work. It always has been. The wheat grows up with the chaff.

Rev. Topper’s evidence is anecdotal–another sampling of pastors may reveal churches and leaders who are thriving. But there is no doubt that these are challenging times. We need to care for our pastors, and for one another. And we would all do well to tend to these troubling signs of the church’s spiritual health.

If our pastors–and our congregants–are responding to this crisis in ways that are destructive, then perhaps we are not as healthy as we thought we were before the pandemic. That’s a discipleship problem, one that can only be addressed if congregants and their pastors, together, commit to honest self-evaluation and renewed commitment to following Jesus wherever he leads. Whatever we were doing, this is the result. Changes may be in order. If so, make them.

I want every pastor to be mentally healthy, resilient, buoyed by hope, steadfast, and strengthened so that they can persevere. I do not want our churches to be places that crush their pastors. And for anyone who does have suicidal ideation, that can happen. Pastoring is tough. Get help. You are loved. There are people who will walk with you through the dark valley and help you see your way to the other side, who will do so as friends of God. You may not see them right now, but they are out there, maybe not in your context, but in the wider world and, hopefully, in the wider body of Christ.

This season has been tough on everyone. Times are tough. We’ll make it through. Let’s fix our eyes on Jesus. He went through worse–some might say he went through hell–and he did it for us, not only to inspire us, but to flood the world with his redeeming grace.

CDC: One Quarter of Young Adults Have Contemplated Suicide During Pandemic

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The Center for Disease Control has found that one quarter of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 say they have considered suicide in the past month because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report states: “Symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder, COVID-19–related TSRD, initiation of or increase in substance use to cope with COVID-19–associated stress, and serious suicidal ideation in the previous 30 days were most commonly reported by persons aged 18–24 years; prevalence decreased progressively with age.”

The youngest respondents express the highest level of hardship.

Politico reports:

While 10.7 percent of respondents overall reported considering suicide in the previous 30 days, 25.5 percent of those between 18 to 24 reported doing so. Almost 31 percent of self-reported unpaid caregivers and 22 percent of essential workers also said they harbored such thoughts. Hispanic and Black respondents similarly were well above the average.

Roughly 30.9 percent of respondents said they had symptoms of anxiety or depression. Roughly 26.3 respondents reported trauma and stress-related disorder because of the pandemic.

Another 13.3 percent of respondents said they have turned to substance use, including alcohol and prescription or illicit drugs, to cope with stress from the pandemic.

More than half of respondents who identified as essential workers reported some kind of adverse mental health or behavioral health condition related to the Covid-19 emergency.

If you know a young adult, give them a call. Ask them how they’re doing. Likely, they’re fine. Either way, tell them you care about them.

And if you are a young adult and you’re struggling right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also utilize the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

A House of Prayer

First Methodist Church, Waco, Texas

I serve in a seminary. How and where we teach is often conducted with methods and in settings very similar to other, more familiar educational settings. The teacher or professor delivers content, and we sit and listen, much like in a public school or a college lecture hall. We know answers to test questions are being given, and tests must be passed to move on to the next level. We take notes. We study. We produce those answers. And we move on.

This is all fine and good. We do a lot of good work. But the church is a different kind of setting, with different educational modalities and formational aims.

We have a problem when we get our wires crossed and begin thinking that the church is identical with the seminary, and how we’re led and taught effectively in one place is identical with the way we’ll lead and teach in the other. In the seminary, we’re taught all kinds of facts about the Bible, history, theology, and the practice of ministry. Those things are important. But we mistakenly assume that it is these facts, and these points of emphasis, that we’re supposed to stress while with the congregation. When we do this, there is something more central, more important, and more essential that we miss. What are we missing?

In The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson writes about his discovery that his educational outlook for pastoral ministry was very different than that of a previous generation of pastors, who throughout church history had learned “on the job” within the life of a parish. Seminaries, either as independent institutions or embedded within university systems, are more recent innovations. How we learn now, and how we teach, isn’t the only way to do it, nor is it the only way it has been done.

Peterson discovered both our problem and a different way to approach the pastoral task as a Christian educator. He writes:

My secularized schooling had shaped my educational outlook into something with hardly any recognizable continuities with most of the church’s history. I had come into the parish seeing its great potential as a learning center, a kind of mini-university in which I was the resident professor.

And then one day, in a kind of shock of recognition, I saw that it was in fact a worship center. I wasn’t prepared for this. Nearly all my preparation for being a pastor had taken place in a classroom, with chapels and sanctuaries ancillary to it. But these people I was now living with were coming, with centuries of validating presence, not to get facts on the Philistines and Pharisees but to pray. They were hungering to grow in Christ, not bone up for an examination in dogmatics. I began to comprehend the obvious: that the central and shaping language of the church’s life has always been its prayer language.

Out of that recognition a conviction grew: that my primary educational task as pastor was to teach people how to pray. I did not abandon, and will not abandon, the task of teaching about the faith, teaching the content of the gospel, the historical backgrounds of biblical writings, the history of God’s people. I have no patience with and will not knowingly give comfort to obscurantist or anti-intellectual tendencies in the church. But there is an educational task entrusted to pastors that is very different from that assigned to professors. The educational approaches in all the schools I attended conspired to ignore the wisdom of the ancient spiritual leaders who trained people in the disciplines of attending to God, forming the inner life so that it was adequate to the reception of truth, not just the acquisition of facts. The more I worked with people at or near the centers of their lives where God and the human, faith and the absurd, love and indifference were tangled in daily traffic jams, the less it seemed that the way I had been going about teaching made much difference, and the more that teaching them to pray did.

The educational task of the pastor is to teach, or to invite, people to be in relationship with God. It is to invite, model, instruct, and encourage them in the life of prayer. There are other facets to teaching, of course. But prayer is central.

Church and Contagious Disease

The New York Times is reporting on church attendance and COVID-19. This headline is well written and grabs your attention: “Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are Confronting Coronavirus Cases.” The subheading: “The virus has infiltrated Sunday services, church meetings and youth camps. More than 650 cases have been linked to religious facilities during the pandemic.”

Whoa! Sounds scary.

[Aside: Does the virus have agency? Infiltration is something I associate with government intelligence organizations and mischievous young people, the first in something like a Mission Impossible film, the second in a story like Ladybugs.]

Silliness at The Times

Back to the Times. Read the opening two paragraphs:

PENDLETON, Ore. — Weeks after President Trump demanded that America’s shuttered houses of worship be allowed to reopen, new outbreaks of the coronavirus are surging through churches across the country where services have resumed.

The virus has infiltrated Sunday sermons, meetings of ministers and Christian youth camps in Colorado and Missouri. It has struck churches that reopened cautiously with face masks and social distancing in the pews, as well as some that defied lockdowns and refused to heed new limits on numbers of worshipers.

The virus is surging. Infiltrating. It has struck. Churches have reopened apparently because of the president’s demands rather than because of convictions that predated Trump by millennia. While there have been some who have reopened cautiously, others have “defied” lockdowns and “refused” government orders.

Terry Mattingly of Get Religion writes that The Times misses the point, and that the story should focus on how religious leaders have responded to the pandemic and the effects the virus has had on religious congregations. Mattingly offers this analysis of the storyline:

Part I: It was perfectly valid to cover the relatively small number of religious groups — most of them totally independent Pentecostal and evangelical congregations — that were rebelling against government COVID-19 safety laws and recommendations (even when local officials were treating religious groups the same way they were treating stores, bars and other public institutions).

Part II: The bigger story was the cooperation that the leaders of most major religious institutions — from Catholic bishops to Southern Baptist megachurch leaders — were showing. In recent months, many of these religious groups have cautiously opened their doors to small groups of worships, once again following state and local guidelines.

The Times is reporting on a story, and the above themes are relevant and present. This is a disturbing trend. So what’s wrong with The Gray Lady’s reporting? Mattingly writes:

How does “650 cases” over several weeks that are said to be linked to services and events compare, statistically, with the overarching trends that are seeing COVID-19 cases rising rapidly. A week ago, Axios noted that new case numbers had hit 50,000 in one day. Might there be some other settings that are more important than churches in this surge, just looking at the numbers? Oh, wait. Might this have something to do with news templates linked to Donald Trump, white evangelicals and “religious liberty” and all that?

The problem is that The Times has written a politics story masquerading as a religion story, rather than a religion story with a relevant political parallel.

Silliness in the Pews

While I’m on this story, I want to draw out one more quote from the article in The Times. The report closes with the following:

Mr. Satterwhite, the pastor in Oregon [mentioned earlier in the article], said that scrutiny had fallen unfairly on churches, while businesses with outbreaks did not face the same backlash. “I think that there is an effort on the part of some to use things like this to try to shut churches down,” he said, adding that he appreciated Mr. Trump’s supportive remarks about churches being essential.

When weighing his responsibility as a faith leader, Mr. Satterwhite said, he returned to his beliefs. “My personal belief is, I have faith in God,” he said. “If God wants me to get Covid, I’ll get Covid. And if God doesn’t want me to get Covid, I won’t.”

My response to Pastor Satterwhite is twofold.

First, even if a church ceases public gatherings for worship for a period of time, there are other ways to remain together as the body, ministering to the needs of congregants, praying for one another, shepherding one another, teaching, and drawing together resources financial and otherwise in puruit of shared mission. A government order cannot shut down a church. It can create challenges. It may result in disbanding. But not necessarily.

I know some Christians view Sunday worship as a divine command, an extension of the Sabbath principle applied to Sunday, the day upon which Jesus was raised from the dead. But I don’t think it is that simple. I think weekly worship is wise and meant to be edifying, and that Christians should continue meeting together regularly as instructed in Hebrews 10:25. I think that the marks of the church include what is described in Acts 2:42-47: worship, instruction, fellowship, evangelism, and stewarship. I think gathering together is a spiritual discipline, creating occasions where the people of the church can exercise obedience to the “one another” commands of the New Testament. But I also think that in the midst of a crisis like the one we face at the present moment, the church can discern other avenues of continued connection and faithfulness, and respond with wisdom.

Second, the dramatic flourish with which Satterwhite closes, read charitably, is meant to reflect a strong confidence in the sovereignty of God. It seems to echo the sentiment of “faith over fear” that I have heard so often in these past days. But faith and fear are not our only biblical and theological categories. The only fear we should maintain should be fear of the Lord. That is the beginning of wisdom. And if fear of the Lord leads us to desire to be the best possible steward of our lives and the lives of others, we will not ignore the best medical and scientific insights that might help us from spreading this disease.

While it may be true that God holds the power of life and death, I will not put the Lord to the test by asking those who have been infected to breath on me, nor will I brazenly breath on others if I am a carrier of the contagion. I’ll distance, where a mask, and love my neighbor as myself.

Women in Church Leadership: Yes!

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David and I stopped in for a haircut at Champions Salon & Barber on Friday, and my stylist mentioned women in church leadership. She apologized for bringing up something that is divisive, so we talked about wearing masks instead.

Molly and I have been married for seventeen years, and even before we begun dating I had moved from complementarianism to egalitarianism regarding women in church leadership. In no way did I look past biblical texts which appear to prohibit women in leadership roles. Rather, I simply found complementarian interpretations of these texts to be less persuasive and the overall redemptive arc of the Bible’s narrative toward women in leadership to be more compelling.

I continue to read on this topic, and have only deepened in my conviction that men and women uniquely and together best serve the church when each, irrespective of gender, is honored in light of both calling and giftings. Experientially, I have continue to benefit greatly from the leadership and ministry of women, as I have done in the past, not only in children’s Sunday school, but in various other aspects of congregational life.

I suspect that over the course of my lifetime these questions will continue to be debated. The hermeunitcal questions are challenging. But among evangelical Christians, it appears that attitudes may be changing. Based on his research findings, Ryan Burge reports: “The results of a recent survey once again indicate that most evangelical Protestants are in favor of seeing women take on more prominent positions in the church.”

Burge and colleagues found:

In a survey I fielded along with political scientists Paul Djupe and Hannah Smothers back in March, 8 in 10 self-identified evangelicals said they agree with women teaching Sunday school, leading worship at church services, and preaching during women’s conferences or retreats.

Slightly fewer endorsed women preaching during church services, but 7 in 10 were in favor, according to the research, conducted by a team of political scientists in March 2020.

One detail that surprised me in Burge’s findings: support for women pastors was significant among Southern Baptist respondents.

It’s no surprise most evangelical Christians were most comfortable with women leading in Sunday school classes and when women are speaking to women. Yet despite a slight drop in favorability, there was still strong support for women preachers on Sundays, in congregational worship.

Burge’s group also uncovered interesting data pertaining to age demographics and theology. Evangelicals 65 and older are more likely to disagree with women preaching, while respondents 55 to 64 are more open. Younger evangelicals between 18 and 35 are more likely to align with the oldest demographic. The most surprisingly theological correlation: “When the sample is restricted to just those who believe that the Bible is literally true, three-quarters of those who attend services multiple times a week agree with women preaching during weekend services.” Those attending church most often also demonstrated the highest levels of support for women in the pulpit.

Just because something is popular does not make it true, and vice versa. Convictions should always be held on the basis of sound biblical hermeneutics and reason. Otherwise, sentiments will only be based on the direction of the wind.

Nevertheless, I take this as an encouraging sign. When women are given the space to lead according to calling and gifts, the church is blessed.

Online Theological Education

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Not everyone is called to seminary or divinity school. In fact, I’ve long contended that the local church is the center of theological education. Everyone can get serious there. I think you can learn more about ministers from the churches they’ve been part of than you can from their educational pedigree.

Nonetheless, institutions are important, and it does make a difference if someone has been trained at a reputable school. Two or three years of intensive theological study helps, and it is true that local churches can be limited in terms of depth, scope, and concentration of study made available. You can learn a great deal in the local church, but it helps when other avenues for learning are available.

Throughout the years I’ve come to know many people who have been well trained in their local church and are excellent leaders. You may be one of those friends, someone whom I consider a saint, a co-laborer in the good work of God’s kingdom. You might not be, too. This website is free and open to the public! You might be someone who found this post with a Google search. Glad to connect! But there’s another possibility (please read the following while imagining me with a wink and a smile): we may only be acquaintances, or someone I’ve been praying for for a long time.

What I’ve learned through experience is that there are those I know who could benefit from further training. We could do a lot in the church, but we couldn’t do it all. With the help of a designated course of study, these leaders would be helped to grow in biblical and theological knowledge, gain some outside perspective, learn pastoral ministry skills, and be better equipped to serve in their local contexts. More education would complement and strengthen what has been and is being received in the local church, and thus, by helping the individual grow, the local church would become stronger.

One of the cool things I learned after joining the staff of Truett Seminary is that we provide a form of online theological education. Truett’s Online Certificate Program is for bi-vocational ministers, congregants who serve as lay-ministers, deacons, Sunday school teachers, youth ministers, children’s ministers, and other ministry volunteers. The online courses are complemented with a few opportunities each year to receive in-person instruction during short on-campus seminars. David Tate directs the program. He’s great. And they have great staff who help to teach and facilitate these courses.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “That’s me!”, what are you waiting for? Check it out!

Another online option I’m familiar with is the Tony Evans Training Center. I have done curriculum development work for Urban Alternative, and while the TETC isn’t a seminary institution, it does provide opportunities for learning, growth, and online community, with a strong emphasis on the study of Scripture.

Other institutions offer online instruction as well, but these are the ones I know. If you are interested in broadening your biblical and theological knowledge, make a choice and pick your resources, dedicate yourself to the task, and get to work. By God’s grace, the church is strengthened when her servants are in pursuit of a deep, passionate, thoughtful, and active faith. Take the next step.

A Wesleyan Prayer for the Soon-to-be Wed

photography of man wearing white t shirt kissing a woman while holding bicycle on river dock during sunset
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While browsing for a resource on family devotions I came across these prayers for couples, and this one, I liked:

A Prayer for a Couple About to Marry

“O God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, bless these Your servants.
Sow the seed of eternal life in their hearts,
so that whatever they learn in Your Holy Word they will profit from it,
and bring their learning to fulfillment by their deeds.
Look, O Lord, mercifully on them from heaven. Bless this couple.
As You sent Your blessing on Abraham and Sarah to their great comfort,
so send Your blessing on these Your servants.
Help them to obey Your will and always live in safety under Your protection.
May this pair live in Your love to the end of their days.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord, we pray. Amen.”

– From The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, 1784