I can see some folk scratching their heads and asking, “what on earth is Wesley Day?”, others, many of them my Methodist friends are sharing the well known story of John Wesley’s conversion where he recorded this in his journal:
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
He and his brother Charles were deeply dissatisfied with their spiritual state, and in May 1738, they both experienced a deep spiritual conversion in which they knew and felt the love of God. Charles wrote of his experience ( which had taken place three days earlier) in a hymn, he was a prolific hymn writer:
Where shall my wondering soul begin
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
A brand plucked from eternal fire,
How shall I equal triumphs raise,
Or sing my great Deliverer’s praise?
Charles went on to write over 6,000 hymns, while John used his organising genius to turn a spontaneous movement into structured body which became the origin of today’s world-wide Methodist Church. The name Methodists was originally almost an insult, but it stuck, I’ve often wondered what we might look like as a church if one of the other nicknames had stuck, imagine being a member of the Enthusiastic Church! You can read more about Methodism and it’s history here.
Over the years the church has grown, split, come together and diminished in size, a question I often hear is “what would John Wesley think?”, I am not going to offer any suggestions as to what Wesley might think, but I do know he was a man of his time, as was Charles whose hymns were often set to popular tunes that would be known by “ordinary people”. John took his message outside the churches and had a passion for social justice, he wanted to see the burdens lifted from the poor. So maybe, just maybe his work wouldn’t look that much different in some senses though I suspect he would make good use of technology and challenge his church to be outward focused.
So, history lesson over, as I sit writing I am watching the wind sweeping through the trees, and pondering that the Holy Spirit is often depicted by the symbols of wind and fire, the wind blowing where it will, an unstoppable force. Given the Wesley’s hunger for spiritual reality and depth, I am not surprised she blew in their direction, nor that John’s heart was strangely warmed. The place of experience is firmly embedded in Methodist Theology, Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience make up the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The assurance of the free grace of God was the experience of the early Methodists, which the Wesley’s set in the Christian tradition of ‘arminianism’, emphasising within human freewill the need for holy living as an outcome of faith leading towards ‘Christian perfection’.
In all of this human experience of the divine action holds an important place, I have certainly experienced many touches from the divine, both large and small, being caught in wonder at the beauty of a sunset, or a mountain top view, to the intricacies of the details of a flower, to experiences in worship, in discussion, or the way something suddenly makes sense, to seeing a healing take place, and people’s lives change. I wonder what my life would look like without faith, and while I was an adult convert, I really can’t imagine it now.
Experience is important, but what happens when all of that feels absent? When there is no sense of the divine presence, when prayers feel dry and the heart feels numb, and when no amount of reading, praying or seeking makes a difference. These desert experiences are well documented, and are certainly not uncommon, Mother Theresa wrote many letters to her spiritual confidant detailing her doubts and feeling of alienation from God, yet still pressed on in her calling, if I am honest I wonder how she did it, choosing to see God in the need that surrounded her, to see the suffering face of Christ in those she ministered to all the time feeling empty inside.
If I am honest much of the time at the moment I feel empty and dry, I know that is partly down to the fact that I am suffering from depression, and that life has once again taken an unexpected turn, but previous bouts of depression have caused my faith to deepen and to grow, and while I am aware that the divine energies don’t always come with feeling attached, the emptiness, or dullness I now sense is particularly challenging. Yet I choose to press on, to pray, to read to hope, to take time to look and seek, and to revel in the glimpses and whispers that are there. Do I need to experience God in presence only, perhaps absence, or perceived absence is just as powerful and necessary. While I long for a heart that is strangely warmed do I find God in the longing, when I write in my journal, “what do I believe?” or “what does it mean to believe?” do I find God in the questions? What is stirring these longings and questions within me? I have only one answer. Lord I believe, come help me in my unbelief, stir me to life again I pray.