Wha . . .?

John Wesley Preaching From His Father's Tomb by Alfred William Hunt.  On Display At The British Museum Of Methodism

John Wesley Preaching From His Father’s Tomb by Alfred William Hunt. On Display At The British Museum Of Methodism

You ever read something and think, “What was the point of this?”  What’s worse, of course, is when other people read it – sometimes people you respect – and they seem to find meaning and importance in what is meaninglessness.  The problem, then, isn’t what you’re reading.  It’s you.  Or, in this case, me.  It just occurs to me that people do things, thinking they are being either clever or profound when in fact they are . . . well, I’m not quite sure.

A blogger I read pretty regularly, even while disagreeing with him, is the Rev. John Meunier.  His latest post is a Bowdlerized portion of a sermon from John Wesley in which he, as he says, “took out words that I thought would strike our contemporary ears as too negative.”  It’s reproduced below:

Let thy religion be the religion of the heart. Let it lie deep in thy inmost soul. Be … amazed and humbled to the dust by the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. …. Let the whole stream of thy thoughts, words, and actions flow from the deepest conviction that thou standest on the edge of the great gulf, thou and all the children of men, just ready to drop … into everlasting glory …! Let thy soul be filled with mildness, gentleness, patience, long-suffering towards all men; — at the same time that all which is in thee is athirst for God, the living God; longing to awake up after his likeness, and to be satisfied with it! Be thou a lover of God and of all mankind! In this spirit do and suffer all things! Thus show thy faith by thy works; thus “do the will of thy Father which is in heaven!” And, as sure as thou now walkest with God on earth, thou shalt also reign with him in glory!

He had quoted the full, unexpurgated sermon portion in an earlier post, on November 17, and it appears below:

Let thy religion be the religion of the heart. Let it lie deep in thy inmost soul. Be thou little, and base, and mean, and vile (beyond what words can express) in thy own eyes; amazed and humbled to the dust by the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. Be serious. Let the whole stream of thy thoughts, words, and actions flow from the deepest conviction that thou standest on the edge of the great gulf, thou and all the children of men, just ready to drop in, either into everlasting glory or everlasting burnings! Let thy soul be filled with mildness, gentleness, patience, long-suffering towards all men; — at the same time that all which is in thee is athirst for God, the living God; longing to awake up after his likeness, and to be satisfied with it! Be thou a lover of God and of all mankind! In this spirit do and suffer all things! Thus show thy faith by thy works; thus “do the will of thy Father which is in heaven!” And, as sure as thou now walkest with God on earth, thou shalt also reign with him in glory!

In the post written yesterday, Meunier asks, “Does Wesley lose his punch if we take out the vileness and hellfire?”  The title of that later post is “Osteening Wesley”, I suppose suggesting that removing whatever Meunier removed makes Wesley’s preaching little different than Rev. Joel Osteen and his positive thinking message.  Yet, reading both these side by side, I find neither vileness and hellfire in the original, nor a castrated human-potential message in the edited version.  In fact, I read two perfectly marvelous messages.

I’m searching and searching for vileness and hellfire, for anything that would be “negative” to our contemporary ears in the original.  I really want to find it.  Is it this? “Let the whole stream of thy thoughts, words, and actions flow from the deepest conviction that thou standest on the edge of the great gulf, thou and all the children of men, just ready to drop in, either into everlasting glory or everlasting burnings!”  I find it more than a little amusing that he removed, “Be serious”, as something that would offend contemporary hearers.

I suppose the “meaning” of all this is that Wesley, and by implication we his heirs in The United Methodist Church, would serve our people better, and the Gospel message more honestly, by including imprecations of damnation and the call to “seriousness” in our approach to our whole life as a life lived in faith.  Yet, the overall meaning of the paragraph is not changed one jot or tittle by removing those things that Meunier has edited out.  Indeed, the entire paragraphs is a call to a faith of the heart that is a faith lived out, rooted in love for God and humanity.  There is no “punch” lost because of the things Meunier has removed.  John Wesley has not morphed to Joel Osteen because John Meunier removed a mention of hell.

Furthermore, do we contemporaries, who have a difficult enough time accepting the whole “God” thing, need to hear at first blush, the threat that our eternal lives stand on the edge of a blade?  There are plenty of folks living today who really do believe this in a literal sense – that the fire is real; that we shall feel its burnings in a physical way for all eternity.  Yet are we not a people who preach God’s grace?  What is the purpose of the threat of hellfire – real or as metaphor – other than a way to give power to the preacher, rather than communicate the message of Divine Love through self-giving, and that ours is to be a life of heart-faith lived out through that same self-giving?

If John Meunier wishes to preach about hell, there is nothing in the world stopping him.  I, for one, find the image Wesley draws – of us traversing a chasm on the edge of a blade, ready to pitch to the endless darkness – compelling.  Not because I believe in the hellfire, but because I understand that the suffering and emptiness of a life lived without God is something we can and do experience right now.  That darkness below us is our life without understanding we are already embraced by the Savior.

Furthermore, there are millions of human beings for whom that hellfire and abyss is all too real in other ways: through endemic illnesses that are either treatable or even curable, yet needed medications aren’t provided because there’s no profit in it; there are millions of people living under horrid political and social oppression; there are Muslims afraid to practice their faith in America and Christians fearful of living their faith in Muslim countries; women are gang-raped and killed in India, have the crime filmed, and no one is punished.  For Meunier to pretend that hell is something to come, some metaphysical – or perhaps physical? – place of which we human beings should be afraid ignores the reality that hell is all too real for far too many of our fellow human beings.  It is our job as the church not so much to worry about whether or not we’ll pitch in to the darkness, but to extend our hands, one holding the Light of Christ, to those trapped in all the darknesses of this world and lift those so trapped up, help them stand, and show them the love for humanity that flows from a heart-faith rooted in a love for God and a sense of one’s own smallness and irrelevance in a world filled with powers and principalities.

So, again, I’m just wondering what the point of Meunier’s post was; why remove those words?  Why think “contemporary” ears do not know of hell, or need its threat to motivate them to a life of faith?  As for “serious”, I have said many times over the years that lives are at stake because of what we in the church do and who we are.  If that isn’t serious, I’m not sure what is.  At this point, it isn’t even cleverness at which Meunier was aiming.  His results, however, demonstrated a kind of myopia, an inability to see how our understanding of “hell” and “seriousness” have changed; that these words can be used, yet used with care.  Rather than be an 18th century classically-educated Oxonian preacher, perhaps we should be 21st century American preachers, bringing the message of the Gospel in our own idiom, with our understanding to our times and our needs.  That can certainly include “vileness and hellfire”.  It should just be fleshed out a tad is all.

So, I’m left scratching my head.  Pointless?  Cleverness?  Myopia?  Some combination thereof?

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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