Thursday 19 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.


Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,
First time to your blog, I enjoyed reading a little bit.

About this wesley thing... I'm just curious what you think about him as a man. Not so much as a theologian, or pietest, but as a man.

I dont remember what her name was, but when he came to america and almost married that woman, but then cast lots (like a moravian) and then decided not to marry her as the lot fell... (then with the whole refusing to allow her to take communion thing....)

He looked back on himself later and was disgusted at himself for his immaturity with the situation.

Something about this helps me to understand just how much of a man he was. I mean like a real down to earth man. He struggled and questioned and all of these things....
just fascinating I guess.

my question is, does who wesley was help you be a wesleyan, or does it take away from it? His being so vulnerable etc...

and are you a wesleyan because of who he was or more a wesleyan because of what the word now means?

sorry such a long question... just curious

Anonymous said...

First, thanks, John Mark, for this snapshot of your journey, a lovely addition to Ben's great series that demonstrates just how clever the Lord is in putting together the puzzles of our lives to turn out people of faith.

And hi Roger, and welcome to the House of Faith and Fun! One of the best things I've ever read on Wesley is a short essay by that great theological all-rounder Rowan Williams in Open to Judgement (1994). Williams writes:

"His life is a record of what many - not only his politely contemptuous Anglican contemporaries - have seen as muddle and silliness, false starts, disastrous misjudgements, wrong turnings. The desperately scrupulous young don, growing his own hair lest a wig should be an extravagance ...; the aspiring missionary in Georgia, entangled in a humiliatingly awful love affair, utterly unable to disentangle pastoral responsibility and personal need, offending most of his flock, returning miserably to England; the new convert touched at last by the good news that God gives what we shall never earn, and then writing to a former guide and teacher letters of such censorious and pompous arrogance that he must have blushed for them for the rest of his life; ... the ageing and lonely pastor, contracting a disastrous marriage with a quite Hogarthian widow lady who bullied him and shouted at him and sneered at him and struck him before his friends; the harassed organiser, frustrated by the Church at every turn, desperately deciding to ordain with his own hands a 'bishop' to further the great work in America, and so ruining his last hopes of co-operation from the English hierarchy...

"'And yet to be so employed of God!' This neat, nervous little man, with his impulsive judgements, his endlessly betrayed reliance on his fellow men and women, his passionate and confused sexuality is, arguably, the greatest saint, the greatest witness to Jesus Christ, produced by the eighteenth century Church of England - the last place you'd expect to find fools for Christ's sake."

In fact, I'm sure Wesley could have written a great post for Ben for this series!

Anonymous said...

John Mark, I think your story represents many who have become alienated from their tradition and then found ways to reappropriate it. Sharing it was very appropriate and welcome.

Anonymous said...

Kim, I have never heard that quote before, so thanks for posting it. Recent books on Wesley reveal a man whose life was indeed a spiritual journey, and never an easy one.

Jackson said...

Hi John Mark-

I too am a Wesleyan and one of the things I love about our tradition is its sacramentality combined with a missionary zeal. At times we have floated to one extreme or the other producing offshoots that may not have the Wesleyan spirit as originally intended. But when we walk that tight rope and strike the balance, oh the pay off is extraordinary.

I love Kinlaw as well. Few things better than his devotional "The Day with the Master" and his more recent "Let's Start with Jesus." For more great Wesleyan theology, you may want to check out William Abraham. He has some great stuff and, in my opinion, has almost become a "voice crying in the wilderness" in the Methodist church.

Love this blog. Not a faithful commentor but a faithful reader. Thanks for the insights.

Anonymous said...

I am leaving town for a few days, and I just want to say thanks to Ben for allowing my guest post, I consider it an honor.
To state the obvious, I don't claim to represent Wesley, Wesleyanism, or the Church of the Nazarene in any broad sense. This is just my own little story. But that is the beauty of this series, sharing our stories with each other, learning and hopefully growing.

One of Freedom said...

I spent a few years in a wonderful Wesleyan church, in fact one of my best friends is a Wesleyan minister. I think that each of us has to find ways to reconcile themselves to the movements they call home. It is a wonderful part of our encounter with tradition. It is so important that we value this, otherwise we will continue to wear rose coloured glasses when we look at our own movements. I am convinced that the moment we think our tradition has it all right then we become cold, stale and institutionalized ourselves.

Enjoyed the post!

Anonymous said...

1 of Freedom said, "I am convinced that the moment we think our tradition has it all right then we become cold, stale and institutionalized ourselves."

EXACTLY! Even for those of us who left one tradition for another, the trap to avoid is believing our new tradition is perfect instead of seeing its strengths and weaknesses. I am convinced that people who end up dropping out of all institutional churches (e.g., Roger Williams, Will D. Campbell, etc.) do so not out of too "low" an ecclesiology, but out of an overly idealized ecclesiology. No actual community of faith can measure up. Instead of rejoicing that, at least, our churches aren't like the one Paul had at Corinth (I've never been part of a church where a prominent member was openly sleeping with his step-mother!), we want a church or a church tradition that is perfect.
This side of the eschaton, that ain't happening.

We can seek to make our traditions better, and we should.

Anonymous said...

Instead of rejoicing that, at least, our churches aren't like the one Paul had at Corinth (I've never been part of a church where a prominent member was openly sleeping with his step-mother!), we want a church or a church tradition that is perfect.

A new standard for those looking for ways to hold church's accountable by counting heads.

Question 1: Is anyone at your church openly(?)sleeping with his step-mother or her step-father?

Is yes you are a character in a soap opera. If no, please go to question 2.

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