Friday, 20 July 2007

Encounters with tradition (7): Why I am still a Wesleyan

A guest-post by John Mark Poling

I was born in 1950, and grew up in an environment that was something of a mix between suburbia and Appalachia. My parents were both former Methodists who became Nazarenes in the late 1940s. So I am a product of the American Holiness Movement, Phoebe Palmer, 19th-century revivalism, the Camp-meeting movement, and to a lesser degree the teachings of John Wesley and other pietist movements. You must add to that mix a father who had an emotional breakdown in 1952, a rather frustrated and sometimes angry mother (adult child of an alcoholic), and the 1960s – which began for me with the Beatles and the assassination of JFK on my 13th birthday. C. S. Lewis died on that day as well, but it was another 13 years before I ever heard of him. I struggled with legalism (the original sin of our movement), and perfectionism (both real and perceived – our Achilles heel) for many years.

I have to confess, however, that I tended to be very self-righteous, and I assumed, as many conservatives did in the 1950s, that we were most likely the true and living church, so that any other group was regarded as highly suspect.

Today I am a Nazarene pastor. Quite frankly, I never expected to end up where I am. I did not study theology in college, although I did get a minor in religion. Our educational requirements are not as rigid as those denominations which demand an M.Div. for ordination; much of my education was through the extension program of the university where I already had a degree. I think that is why I enjoy reading Faith & Theology – it “puts the cookies down on the lower shelf” generally, plus I just find the topics interesting.

But I am not the Wesleyan I was. What changed me, more than anything else, was the world of books. Not until my mid-twenties did I discover Tolkien, Lewis, and Francis Schaeffer. Perhaps more than any of them, however, was a book entitled In Quest of the Shared Life by Bob Benson, which opened up a whole new world for me. This was in the 1970s. In recent years Philip Yancey, Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, and Henri Nouwen have been lights along the way.

Today I find fellowship in what would have been very unlikely places. For example, I spent a morning recently with a charismatic Episcopalian and a charismatic Catholic: you can’t imagine how unlikely that would have been 40 years ago. And to discover that Wesley himself supposedly had a glass of vino now and again – for a prohibitionist like me, well, that was a real eye opener.

I remain a Wesleyan for the most part because of people such as Dennis Kinlaw, whose preaching, teaching and (rather limited) writing convinces me that there is something to what has been called “the deeper Christian life.” I realize that stories of “conversion” to a different tradition are far more glamorous than mine – and even more so when the person has had intense theological training! But I do represent a certain type of believer: those who have been disillusioned with their cradle affiliation, and have made peace with it.

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