Monday, 16 December 2013

Encounter: George Clark Part 2

In the last post, I mentioned that George Clark found himself more aware of the sin in his life after his conversion experience. This experience of feeling more sinful after conversion is something I resonate with. I had a season of feeling so much like a failure as I became more and more aware of the brokenness in relationships and my own selfish motives in those relationships. I know that relationships can be hard (in this case it was college roommate relationships, a unique set of challenges) but I think there was more going on in my spirit. And I can't help but wonder if I would have been less distressed by my struggles if I had been warned that sin after conversion is to be expected. Particularly those sins that are internal and connected to motivation as much as behaviour.

John Wesley wrote a sermon on this topic, called appropriately, "On Sin In Believers." In it he argues for the existence of sin in believers, from the biblical evidence that there is provision for forgiveness. Further to the provision for forgiveness, there is hope for progress. Welsey encourages believers by untangling the assumption that once we are holy at all, we must be holy altogether. As we push in on that, it seems absurd to expect spiritual progress to be all or nothing, but I know my experience is to despair of any goodness in myself when I see even the slightest unholy internal motivation.

Even though my experience with interior sin has been hard, in hindsight, I know it has been good for me to learn more about myself and learn more about God. And the good news is that God does not want us to remain in this place, in the constant awareness of our own failure and neediness.

In the face of his struggle with the inward sinful motivations, George Clark experienced a transformation when he encountered God in a particularly immediate way on Pentecost Sunday, 1762. Here is his journal entry for that day:

This morning I thought much of the descent of the Holy Ghost on the Apostles, and prayed that He might rest upon me. But I found little answer till the singing of the first hymn, when his Spirit made me deeply sensible of his presence. I then pleaded with him, and that with many tears, to make me a partaker of his sanctifying love, by removing forever the bitter root of pride, self-will and unbelief. All this time my heart was broken before the Lord, and my face covered with tears: and I found nothing left but a fear lest the Spirit should depart, before he had purified me from inbred sin. While I was thus agonizing with God in prayer, the power of the Lord came upon me, so that my whole body trembled under it. But I kept my spirit still, and continually cried, “My heart, Lord! work within! work within!” In that instant I felt the Spirit of God enter into my heart with mighty power, and as it were literally accomplish that promise, I will take away the heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh: the old heart seeming to be taken away, and God himself taking possession of my soul in the fulness of love: and all the time of the service, I enjoyed such a heaven of love as I never before experienced. All the day I watched every motion of my heart, to see if the evils I before felt were there or not: but I found none: I could find nothing there, but solid joy and heart-felt peace. (Arminian Magazine (1783) 244-245) 
One thing I find so inspiring about this narrative of an experience is that God met Mr. Clark with such a tangible sense of His real presence in the midst of his struggle. And the presence of God crowded out all those fears and feelings of inadequacy, replacing them with love and peace. In the face of my awareness of sin, I long for God's love to be the antidote.

Part 3: Transformation and Controversy

Saturday, 7 December 2013

The Story of Mr. George Clark

I do want to provide some definitions to provide a framework for what I will share from my historic friends, the early Methodists. But instead of starting with theology, I want to start with biography. So, here is part of the story of George Clark, a small group leader in London, in the eighteenth century.

George Clark (1710-1797) was the last of my four thesis-friends that I discovered. I had trouble finding a narrative for my research from a lay, non-preaching man in this time period. I have a fondness for George Clark because of the earnestness I found in his diary. And in this earnestness he was honest about his struggles, and transparent in his transformation.

George Clark lived in London, working hard to support himself and his family. He was first introduced to the Methodists through his mother, who had begun attending Methodist preaching. His first impression was to reform his lifestyle to live like he was inspired to live, by the example of the Methodists. But when he tried to do this on his own strength he had limited success. Then during a Methodist service, he encountered God in a way that was sensory and immediate, not described by others, but experienced for himself. This encounter made a difference in his effort to reform his life, actually it made all the difference. He left behind the lifestyle he had been slipping back into and sought after God.

Clark matured in his faith, and became a leader in the community. Yet, he soon discovered that in seeking God, he found more of himself, and he didn't like what he found. When faced with the love of God, he found selfishness in his heart. When faced with the sin of others, he found anger toward them, not forgiveness. When faced with the humility of Christ, he saw only pride and stubbornness in himself. By taking away the outward actions of sinfulness (the drinking and carousing) he soon discovered that there was more to sin than what you did with you time and money. Sin was found in the attitudes of his heart, sin was found in the reaction he had to his friends and family, sin was found in the choices he was making everyday. For example, this journal entry: 

Sunday, Sept 10 [1756]. Inexpressible has ben the painful emptiness I have found for several days past. I try my heart and my ways by the word of God, with fervent prayer, and find nothing of actual sin. But it is pride that tears me. When I have much love, I am lifted up above what I ought to be. And when I am made to possess my own iniquity, my spirit frets against God. Yet this day has been a sabbath of rest, in which I have enjoyed much love: but I know not how to keep it.

Part of what I find so compelling about George Clark is that I identify with his honest struggles (if not always with the intensity that he expresses them). We all struggle with ongoing sin in our life. And, even as I identify with him, I long for him to experience more freedom from his sin.

And the good news about the discovery of more of our sin as we seek out God, is that God is big enough, wise enough and loving enough to deal with the sin that is discovered. God doesn't just want you to know you are prideful and angry, He wants to pour out His overwhelming love to the point where it fills your heart and crowds out the sin. Even more, God wants to fill you until His love overflows in your life to the people around you. That the character of God would flow from you, not as effort, but as a flood of gratitude.

George Clark experienced this, and it transformed his life. But I’ll post more about that transforming experience in another blog post.

Part 2: Encounter
Part 3: Transformation and Controversy

Friday, 29 November 2013

The Title

I had some trouble figuring out the title for the book. The title of my thesis was The Story of Perfection — you know, with the story being both the narratives and the narrative history of the doctrine. I thought it was clever. But, as I thought about attaching that title to my first publication, that was just too much pressure.

I was looking for a different turn of phrase and my husband suggested something about love, so I looked through some notes I had taken on references to the doctrine of Christian Perfection using love language and I found this gem.

The title Witnesses of Perfect Love comes from a journal entry by Sarah Crosby on May 1, 1774, noting Wesley’s protective attitude toward those who experienced God through perfecting love. She writes: Wesley “told the Society, that whosoever spake against those who were simple witnesses of perfect love, spake against those, who were as dear to him as the apple of his eye."

 I find it significant that as much as John Wesley was protective of the doctrine, he was more so protective of the people and their experiences. 

Friday, 22 November 2013

My story about finding the stories

Before telling the stories that are found in my book, I thought I would share a bit about my journey of discovery of the narratives of Christian Perfection among the early Methodist people. Witnesses of Perfect Love is primarily research I completed at Regent College. I didn’t set out to write on narrative, or even about the lesser known early Methodist people. My journey began with questions about the Methodist doctrine of Christian Perfection. Questions about what exactly John Wesley taught, and why his teaching seemed so foreign today — even in churches who claim the Wesleyan tradition. As I began to read the theology and John Wesley’s arguments I became more confused. Wesley said many things, in many different context over serval decades about the doctrine of Christian Perfection, and his comments don’t appear to be consistent. I couldn’t help but think that there must be more going on during this time period than I was grasping. 

Then one question led me out of the fog. Since Wesley himself did not claim to have experienced Christian Perfection, is there anyone else I could investigate that did claim Perfection? What do they have to say about the experience, rather than the theology? This question led me to the narrative of William Hunter, then his intriguing story led me to seek out others. 

I fully intended to address my original questions, but as I dug deeper and talked to others about what I was finding (or rather the people I was discovering) it became clear that the stories of early Methodist Perfection was central to understanding the ideas. The people who held to these beliefs were essential to understanding the ideas themselves. I see now that my attempt to take the idea of Christian Perfection out of its eighteenth-century context of the narratives, led to my confusion.

As I think back on the journey of writing this book, it is the people I encountered in history that stick out. I discovered a letter written from Sarah Crosby to John Wesley, where she is reflecting on her own experiences to talk about the doctrine of Christian Perfection — narrative theology though before that jargon existed. In my research notes I recorded the content of the letter then I wrote: “is there more of the story in writing?” Highlighting it in red so I would come back to it. I did indeed find more to Sarah Crosby’s story (more on that in a later blog post) and I fell in love with Sarah’s spunkiness. She shared her experience and opinions, even when it meant correcting John Wesley or telling him she found his sermon dull.

Duke reading roomI discovered Bathsheba Hall while on a research trip to Duke University. I was using my time to dig through their set of the Arminian Magazine the periodical that Wesley himself published. I had found a few nice tidbits, but then in the January 1781 edition I discovered the beginning of the journal of Bathsheba Hall. I was particularly struck by the story Hall tells about reading her spiritual experience to a friend, who promptly fainted and woke up to say she had encountered God herself. What was going on in this woman’s life? I just wanted to know more! My memory of reading her account is vivid in my memory event 4 years later. As I sat in that library reading room I was taken outside of myself and into her story. I wish I had a picture of her, all I have his a photo of the reading room where we first met.

Stories have so much power to express more than just an idea of theology. The stories of real people hold layers and layers of truth that speak evocatively to how we live out the Christian life. How we think and talk about God. I was able to discover these particular stories, and I want to share them with a broader audience than the handful of people who have read my academic writing. Stay tuned for more on Sarah Crosby, George Clark, William Hunter, Bathsheba Hall, and possible others, too!

Monday, 28 October 2013

A Vision of Holiness for God's People

I had the privilege of being asked to speak at the Free Methodist Church of Canada’s ministers conferences (Eastern Canada, Sept 25, 2013, Western Canada, Oct 2, 2013). I consider it a privilege because I grew up in the FM Church, and still consider it my spiritual home, even though I have not been able to attend a FM church while completing my grad work. 

I was given the task of casting a vision of holiness, in the context of the theology of John Wesley. This was very exciting to me to have this opportunity because that is the practical question that was behind the research I did for my thesis. The very question that got me digging into eighteenth century diaries and letters was how can the rich spiritual history of Methodism serve the church today? In particular regarding holiness, in light of the history of misunderstanding and excesses in regards to the doctrine of Christian Perfection. I was asking is there a way to reconnect with the original intention of John Wesley and the original benefit that the early Methodist people saw in describing their Christian faith using the language of holiness. 

I receive lots of great feedback from the pastors who heard my presentation, including stories of their own longings for holiness and experiences of God. I was also challenged to face my own doubts and fears that keep me from fully seeking God and his holiness in my life. I am blessed to be able to call the FM community friends, and I am grateful for the time spent with them this fall.

One question from Pastor Jay Mowchenco from Weyburn, SK has been simmering in my mind since he asked it. I had challenged the pastors to consider how testimony about holiness can inspire more holiness, and Jay asked how that works. His experience was that when people talk about their own holiness, it is only a breading ground for pride and self-glorification, not to the glory of God. I hope I answered Jay well in the moment, but I can’t be certain. My answer now is that what I mean by "sharing testimony about holiness" is sharing how God is at work in the life of people. Particularly, sharing the stories of encountering Jesus in powerful ways that produce transformation in someone’s life. I think I need to make sure I explicitly articulate that distinction. My collection of testimonies from eighteenth century Methodists show that by example, the stories I found most intriguing were those that shared about an encounter with God, but the explicit naming of testimonies to holiness as stories of encountering God will definitely be part of any future presentations. Thanks Jay for asking that important question.

Audio of my presentation here:

Linked here is the manuscript, and slides from my presentation. 

Audio download link

I will link to the video if it becomes available.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Why I am Writing

I have had the blessing of meeting so many interesting people, and just because some of those people are long dead and I met them through their writing doesn’t mean that their stories shouldn’t be told. I started my research journey asking questions, but things started to take shape when I started to meet people and hear their stories rather than look for proof to support my assumptions about ideas. I was disarmed by the honesty and passion that I felt from the writing of these people. I felt like I had found kindred spirits at times, and at other times I have been challenged by how differently they see the world and encounter God. This kinship and challenge is why I am so happy to share their stories with others through Witnesses of Perfect Love, my forthcoming book about early Methodist spirituality.

The stories of early Methodist spirituality come from a time of spiritual revival in England during the eighteenth century. It was a time of significant social change, one example of which is the increase in literacy and access to writing materials. The boom in letter writing and journal writing are the means through which we can access the personal reflections of not only important people, but everyday people. The eighteenth century in Britain was also a time of spiritual revival. While the overwhelming majority of the British population of that time period would have self-identified at Christian, there was a wave of spiritual renewal that swept across Britain (and revival was similarly was bubbling up in North America) in response to bold and unconventional preaching, and in response to the stories about what was already happening.

While the big sweep of what was happening is very exciting, the small stories are also compelling. I find it easy to keep the stories of revival at arms length when I look around and fail to see the same revival passion and fervour around me today. But the small stories, the everyday stories of encountering God, those I can relate to. The surprising encounter with God in the midst of prayer marked by overwhelming love. The tears of joy in response to feeling forgiven deep down in that place where the hurt and fear resides. The hope for more encounters and deeper communion with God yet to come.

My particular focus in looking for stories is sanctification narratives, that is the witnesses of the experienced described as “perfect love.” The Methodist revival is known for conversion narratives, particularly the account of John Wesley’s own narrative of having his heart strangely warmed. Narratives of conversion can be described as the story of how an individual has an experience where they feel that they personally are loved and forgiven by God. Transformation that inevitably comes from such an intense encounter with God. Yet the reality of the Christian life is that struggles continue after a conversion experience. The struggles may not look the same, the outward change in life makes possible a deeper understanding of our own human brokenness. The narratives of perfect love are a similar to conversion narratives, a similarly personal and intense encounter with God, but they happen later in the spiritual life marking new freedom from the struggles that emerge after conversion.

So, this is my project: inquire of the early Methodist people, “what was your experience of God as you look for transformation and long for perfect love?” They told me so much about the Christian journey, and I hope you will journey with me through some of their stories.