Category Archives: John Wesley

If only

John Wesley by William Hamilton

John Wesley preaching, by William Hamilton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


On Sunday Christians of all branches of the church make their eager way to their favourite church, there to be joined by some of their best friends in a congregation come to participate in an act of worship. They would not miss it. Over the years, Sunday by Sunday, it has meant so much to them. Recharging their batteries, some would say. And so they came expectant that they would have a good sing – favourite hymns known and loved that warmed the heart; prayers couched in concern and love. And perhaps more likely they came hoping to be challenged, inspired, to hear a sermon that was both a revelation and relevant to their personal circumstances and need. They were seldom disappointed, their minister was a marvellous preacher. He knew what to say and how to say it. He could send them home with their batteries charged, faith refreshed, fears and doubts removed, and pointed them to the next step on their Christian journey. That is what they liked about their minister, he was nicely sure, always positive, left them in no doubt of where he stood and where the Lord was leading.

All well and good but I suspect it not to be the whole story. I suspect there were days when some set off for home in a different frame of mind. When they went home from church thinking – it was a marvellous, informative and challenging message. Recalling the sermon, reluctantly and timorously they found themselves saying, I do not think I could subscribe to that statement. If only I could be sure! If only.

I can feel uncomfortable in the company of the eternal optimist for whom life always seems to be going well. We have them in church, vociferous rather than tactful. Good folk, faithful and devoted to doing the will of God, but a testimony spoilt somewhat in the impression given that unlike some of us they have direct access to God: a hotline to heaven with all the answers to personal dilemmas, doubts and fears. One suspects that what is given as personal testimony is sometimes no more than an expression of personal indulgence. In their presence the if only disciple is vulnerable and feels his/her faith is decreed not big enough. There are occasions when we have no right even to contemplate to speak for God. I have heard some appalling (maybe well-intentioned) comments made at the side of a hospital bed, or a home where tragedy has struck. I have had to bite my tongue and leave any discussion about the Providence of God to another and more appropriate time. The more encouraging testimony is that which listens, questions and who can say no more than if only. If only I could be sure! There is no reason to consider ourselves to be inferior believers; no need to be ashamed. We are in good company. Dr Leslie Weatherhead, one of last century’s pulpit giants, who in his day brought many people to faith, towards the end of his ministry caused quite a stir in certain Christian circles when he wrote a book that described the inner turmoil with which he had to contend for most of his life. He called the book Christian Agnostic. I do not know about you, but I can identify with him. I too have doubts and questions, times when I am agnostic about aspects of faith and believing.

How can we be sure about God? Maybe the high priests and prophets of new-age atheism have got something valid and authentic. If only – how can we be sure about God? It depends on what kind of assurance we want – if is logical proof or mathematical certainty we require, we are headed for disappointment. Studying for my preacher’s exams before being an accepted candidate for ordained ministry, I was introduced to what were known as Proofs for the existence of God. What were those proofs?

  1. The world of nature pointed to God.
  2. The moral order in the world directed our gaze to God.
  3. People’s universal hunger for the supernatural provided evidence for the existence of God.

I cannot imagine being enlightened or converted by that kind of argument. Aids to our understanding God they may be, but they are by no means proof of his existence.

I have told the tale many times, and at least once on this blog, of John Wesley’s coming to an assurance, desperately wanted, yet sensing it could be denied him. Sailing home from Georgia an unsuccessful, distraught and unhappy clergyman, his ministry there a miserable failure and what faith remained in shreds, he was determined no longer to preach. How could he preach faith when he did not have it himself? On board ship as they headed home, Wesley became aware of a group of Moravian Christians. He was impressed by the way they lived the Christian life and practised the faith, and by their love and devotion to Christ. So much so, he resolved to seek help and counsel about his dilemma and spiritual crisis. It was the wise and saintly leader of the party who took John in hand. His counsel and encouragement to a broken man who yearned for faith and lost it: preach faith until you have faith. He did and I write this piece on the day 24th May (1738) we commemorate Wesley’s renewal and restoring experience and testimony: I felt my heart was strangely warmed and that I did trust Christ alone for salvation.

How can I be sure of God in the bad times when it feels as though God has deserted us; days when we are heading away from his blessing and empowering grace? If only? It may not be a bad thing to conclude with Wesley – if only! Practise the life of faith until you have it. The proof we look for is in the living.

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It hurts

I have never been so humiliated! Who hasn’t felt like that, sometime? How common the experience is, is reflected In the variety of ways we can describe our embarrassment – nonplussed; crestfallen; having to eat humble pie; looking foolish; feeling small; being red in the face! It can mean a loss of dignity – something we don’t much like – it hurts. When it is unwarranted it can be the cause of resentment.

St Paul by El Greco. Photo credit Wikimedia

St Paul by El Greco. (Photo credit: Wikimedia)

If it is of any comfort to us, albeit a crumb, we’re not alone. Some notable people have suffered the same fate. The Apostle Paul knew how to be abased; knew what it was to be humiliated. In his letter to the early Philippian church, he relates to his Christian friends a catalogue of deprivations he had to undergo in the course of his peripatetic ministry. He wasn’t bemoaning the fact as one who had learned to grin and bear it! He is saying – I know how to handle it. It is not human resolve alone that enables him to ride and conquer the storm:

I am able to face anything through him who gives me strength. Philippians 4: 13.

John Wesley, founder father of Methodism, knew humiliation too. He began his ministry in Savannah, Georgia, as a chaplain with the ambition to convert the native Indians. His time there was short-lived. He returned from his missionary assignment in America a failure and it might not be too much of an exaggeration to name him a broken man; certainly bewildered and unhappy having made a bit of a fool of himself in his pastoral dealings with a young female parishioner and without the slightest impact on the Native Indians. It was too much

Statue of John Wesley in Reynolds Square

Statue of John Wesley in Reynolds Square, Savannah, Georgia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

for him and he was ready to give in. What the world would have missed if Wesley had not met Peter Boehler, a Moravian pastor, on the journey home, who helped keep him on track, urged him to keep on preaching faith until faith found him. What the world might have missed if Mr. Wesley had not learned to be abased prior to the night of the 24th May, 1738. It all happened for him that night and for those of us who follow in his succession. He recounts it in his Journal:

“I went very unwillingly to a meeting of a religious society. . .. someone was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. At about a quarter before nine I felt my heart strangely warm, I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation.”

Life can be tough for us sometimes. People have no right to make us look foolish – they do! Unkind words cut to the core; cynical actions wound deeply; we let ourselves down. There are times when through ignorance or folly we have ended with egg on our face. Times when great has been our fall through the failure of well-intentioned but immodest ambition. It hurts…..

Do not despair, there was no greater humiliation than that which Jesus was required to suffer – spat upon; beaten; treated like a criminal; nailed to a Cross. No wonder he asked the Father if there was no other way – and ALL for us.

A near miss

Salvation Army

Salvation Army

It was young people’s day during my brief time in the Salvation Army when members of the young people’s section were invited to give their heart and dedicate their life to Jesus. Toward the end of the meeting the Young People’s Sergeant Major – the Leader in charge – made her appeal presenting us with the opportunity to start out on the road of discipleship. The journey would begin, she explained, by our being saved or, if we were already committed, to rededicate ourselves to the service of Jesus. She wanted us all to be saved by accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

Salvationists were well accustomed to this kind of appeal. The worshipper who was challenged by the message and felt compelled to respond to this altar call would make their way to the front and as invited, kneel at the penitent form. They would arise, counselled, prayed over, their request confirmed – the process of salvation begun.

Back to young people’s day – the process a wee bit different. There was no altar or penitent form in the smaller hall in which we met. So, she was going to ask us to come to the front and kneel before the big drum, to declare publicly our intent. “Hands up those who haven’t been to the penitent form,” she asked. Slowly I raised my hand. “Put your hand down, John” I was instructed, “You have been saved!” That was it – am I saved or am I not? That is the question. What do I say to the enthusiast who might want to know, who asks, “Are you born again?”

That was it until . . . . . . . . .

Stripped image of John Wesley

John Wesley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One Sunday evening some years later, the minister was trying to educate the inattentive members of the youth fellowship in the traditions of Methodism. He was telling the story of the Kingswood colliers coming up from a shift underground hewing coal, to be confronted by the Reverend John Wesley preaching the good news – the gospel of grace. The picture is still vivid in my memory of those men, white channels marking their coal-dust faces where the tears flowed as they listened and opened their hearts to the Spirit of Jesus. How their lives were transformed, some of them converted into preachers, others to positions of influence at work and in the community at large, partners in the religious revival led by the Wesleys, a revival that helped give birth to Methodism. This late 18th Century revival helped to turn the minds of the English people from thoughts of revolution, although not all historians agree.

The story told that Sunday evening of those responsive Kingswood colliers has had a lasting impact on one youth. From that moment, my conscience ceased to trouble me about missing out on that young people’s day when I was told . . .” put your hand down.”

Prayer: Lord, we thank you for our spiritual awakening, for those who pointed us to Christ, those in whose lives we caught a glimpse of Jesus. Thank you for Jesus, all he means to us; our hope for days to come. Amen.