Not Losing Hope on the Road to Emmaus

Not Losing Hope on the Road to Emmaus

Reverend Rob Renfroe
rrenfroe@goodnewsmag.org

By Reverend Rob Renfroe –

Just one week earlier the two men had come to Jerusalem. On what would later be called Palm Sunday, they entered the city with Jesus. Their hearts swelled as the crowds shouted his name and called him king.

They watched him enter the Temple as if he owned the place. He called the moneychangers thieves and with fire in his eyes and authority in his voice, he chased them out of his Father’s house with a whip.

For three days he taught in the Temple Courts. Huge crowds hung on his every word.The two men could see it – how Scripture would be fulfilled. The Messiah was here. The time was now. The day of deliverance had come. 

But then everything went wrong. Thursday night he was arrested. Friday he was crucified. Saturday he was dead in a tomb. Sunday morning, devastated and confused, Cleopas and his friend left Jerusalem, walking along the road that led to a village called Emmaus.

As they walked, One they didn’t recognize joined them. “What are you talking about?” he asked.

Cleopas answered: “About Jesus of Nazareth, and how our chief priests and rulers had him condemned to death and crucified. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

Maybe you’ve been on an Emmaus Road of your own. You dared to believe in something almost too good to be true. For a moment, it seemed that your world was going to change. Life would get better. Everything would become right. You could see it and how it would happen.

But then Friday came. Your hopes died on a cross of despair and they were buried in a dark tomb. 

You look back on your life and you find yourself saying, “But I had hoped for a marriage that was a blessing, not a battle.” “I had hoped to overcome the pain of my past.” “I had hoped for a life that was more than going to work, putting bread on the table, accumulating some stuff, watching the years go by, and wondering why my life never changes.”  “I had hoped. God knows I had hoped for so much more.”

Emily Dickinson wrote: “Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul/ And sings the tune without the words/ And never stops at all.”

But sometimes hope does stop singing, doesn’t it? What do you do then?

If you care about The United Methodist Church and are committed to a faithful future for the people called Methodist, you have probably found yourself thinking, “But I had hoped.” 

After nearly fifty years of disagreeing about sexual ethics, I had hoped we would be done by now. But it hasn’t happened. 

After some vocal centrist leaders made public statements at General Conference 2016 that it was impossible for us to live together and we needed to separate, I had hoped they would join with traditionalists and support a plan that would put an end to our fighting. But it didn’t happen. Instead, these same leaders got behind a proposal that could never pass and that belied their admission that we could not be one church. 

At the special General Conference of 2019 when the majority once again affirmed the traditional position, I had hoped that vote would be the end of our disagreement. After all, that’s why the Conference had been called – once and for all to determine the church’s position and settle the matter. Either centrists and progressives would leave the church or accept the results of the vote. Instead, they took out full-page ads in newspapers across the country condemning traditionalists as hard-hearted, mean-spirited homophobes.

After a diverse group of leaders miraculously brought forth the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation, I had hoped General Conference would adopt the plan in 2020, and by now we would be well on our way to forming a new missional church that is Christ-centered and faithful to the Scriptures. But COVID made a physical meeting impossible, and the Commission on General Conference decided that a virtual meeting could not fairly and fully address the Protocol.

So here we are. Some of us personally, looking at our lives. All of us in terms of the church and its future. Here we are, walking down a road to Emmaus, saying to ourselves, “But I had hoped.”

What do you do when even hope is gone? You learn what Cleopas learned. 

You learn that on Friday they can crucify your hopes. You learn that on Saturday your dreams can be buried in a cold, dark tomb. But on Sunday you learn no matter what has happened, Jesus Christ is Lord. You learn, wherever you are and however you feel, whether you know it or not, Jesus is walking with you. You learn that, in a way you didn’t see and couldn’t imagine, Jesus was working for your good all the time. You learn that he is the Lord over the past, the present, and the future. You learn that your job is not to understand the plan but to walk in faith and in faithfulness. He will rise. He will overcome. He will be with you. Walk that way. Live that way.

Why has a separation that is so obviously needed been delayed? Why is the future we have worked for, prayed for, and sacrificed for been so long in coming? As understandable as they are, these are the wrong questions to ask.

The question is always: What is Jesus doing and how can I join him? And the right response is always hope. As Emily Dickinson wrote, the right way forward is to sing the tune, even when we don’t have the words. Our eyes may be blinded for a moment, but Jesus is with us. He will make himself and his plans known. He will achieve his will. If a cross and a tomb couldn’t stop him, neither can a General Conference’s postponement. 

Do not be discouraged. Do not give up. Jesus will have the last word. And that word will be good. 

Rob Renfroe is a United Methodist clergyperson and the president and publisher of Good News. 

Not Losing Hope on the Road to Emmaus

From Skeptic To Believer

The Rev. Eric Huffman preaching at The Story Church in Houston. Photo courtesy of The Story.

By Eric Huffman –

Finding the drawer full of teeth was the point of no return along my journey into cynicism. I was eight or nine years old when, while ransacking my mom’s bedside table in search of loose change because the ice cream truck was fast approaching, I happened upon a plastic bag with almost a dozen familiar baby teeth. My teeth. The teeth my mom swore the Tooth Fairy so desperately wanted. What was I supposed to believe now – that the Tooth Fairy swiped those teeth from under my pillow and then left them in Mom’s drawer? That’s ridiculous, I reasoned. Why would the Tooth Fairy pay me good money for teeth and then turn around and give them to Mommy?

Something wasn’t adding up. After running through all the possible scenarios in my head – Mommy bought my teeth back from the Tooth Fairy, Mommy stole my teeth from the Tooth Fairy, Mommy is the Tooth Fairy – logic led me to one painfully obvious conclusion. Mommy lied about the Tooth Fairy.

Looking back, I think a switch flipped in my heart that day; from then on, I was paranoid about all things supernatural. I became the preeminent anti-Santa crusader in my fourth-grade class. My school occasionally invited magicians to entertain the student body, but while other kids seemed to enjoy the swindler’s tricks, I overanalyzed every sleight-of-hand until I could debunk them all.

Amplified by adolescence, my cynical edge grew louder and meaner in the 1990s. Most people were shocked when they heard that the guys from Milli Vanilli were lip-syncing the whole time, but not me. I knew something wasn’t right about those guys. And when the obviously guilty Hall of Fame running back got off scot-free after killing his ex-wife and her boyfriend? I called it. When others were scandalized by the proliferation of steroids in our national pastime, I wore my Sammy Sosa jersey with pride. Who cares? Everybody was doing it. And when the president lied about what he did in the Oval Office with the intern in that blue dress? So what? Politicians lie all the time.

Just like my mom, about the Tooth Fairy. 

The only reason I’m telling you this is so you’ll understand my about-face in writing a book in defense of the whole Bible. There are so many reasons not to put stock in a three-thousand year-old religious book full of miracles and outdated rules, especially since it’s been translated hundreds of times and we don’t have a single original copy.

I’ve spent my whole life with the Bible. As a kid, I believed it because I was told that’s what the best kids do. In college, I rejected it because I was told that’s what the brightest students do. In my twenties, I used the parts that supported my leftist politics, and I ignored all the rest. Over the years, I have evolved from a snarky, cynical, social justice warrior to believe that the Bible is perfect and true.

I became a Christian when I was thirty-four, a full thirteen years after becoming a pastor. “How does one become a pastor without being a Christian?” I hear you asking. It was pretty simple, really. 

I lied.

I grew up in rural northeast Texas, also known as the buckle of the Bible Belt. My dad is a pastor, and so were my grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather before him. My entire life has revolved around my small-town Methodist church, and I was the poster boy for straitlaced, cookie-cutter, red-blooded American Christianity.

Then I went off to college and married the cutest Christian girl I could find, and between my junior and senior years, I accepted the first ministry job that came my way. At twenty-one years of age, and for a salary of $16,000 a year, I became the pastor of Mooringsport Methodist Church in northern Louisiana. No one who knew me was surprised by my life’s trajectory. Goody two-shoes small-town preacher’s kid gets married young and becomes a pastor was precisely the path my friends and family had predicted for me.

But there was one problem. During the year prior, under the guidance of two particularly persuasive professors, I had come to the conclusion that Christianity was – like all other religions – a man-made construct designed to fool gullible peasants into submission by playing on their fears of death and damnation. 

For the next thirteen years, I did and said what I had to in order to play the part of a pastor. 

But did I truly believe in the foundational promises of God as presented in Scripture? Did I believe that the God of Israel is the one and only true God? Or that Moses actually parted the Red Sea? Or that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus? Or that Jesus physically rose from the dead? Or that anything in the Book of Revelation makes any sense whatsoever?

Nope.

To my skeptical eyes, the Bible looked no different than any other old, religious text. I assumed it was written by religious men for the purpose of maintaining social order. Cynical to the core, I figured, What better way to manipulate the masses than with the promise of eternal paradise as a reward for good behavior and the threat of unrelenting hellfire for those who get out of line?

So why would someone with such disdain for religious conformity enlist to become a clergyman? In a word, politics. As a left-leaning activist with a chip on my shoulder, I found the Bible to be a familiar and formidable weapon in the war against what I perceived to be conservative Christian bigotry. Cherry-picking verses that supported my pro-immigration, LGBTQ+ inclusion, semi-socialist views became my favorite pastime. I suppose it never occurred to me how convenient it was to leave out all the other parts – passages about personal repentance, sexual holiness, and Jesus’s mandate to “make disciples of all nations.” I enjoyed sarcastically reminding cranky, white evangelicals that Jesus said to love your enemies and that they’re supposed to love Iraqis and gays and abortion doctors.

Of course I never stopped to consider my own hypocrisy: conservative Christians were my mortal enemies, but I felt no love for them. If I believed in hell back then, I would’ve told them to go there. 

Internally, I was falling apart: depressed, isolated, and struggling with a porn addiction. I knew I couldn’t keep living a lie forever, so I went to law school for a year and a half, until I realized that to become a big-shot lawyer you have to be even more duplicitous than a pastor with no faith. I was stuck until late 2012 when, out of nowhere, an activist friend named Andrea asked me if I had ever been to the Holy Land. When I told her that I had not, she said, “You need to see with your own eyes how the Zionists are abusing the Palestinians; I’m going to find a way to get you over there.” Nine months later, thanks to Andrea and several other friends, I found myself exploring the land that gave rise to the Bible.

In Capernaum, I died. My old, divided life passed away the day I stood near the ancient house on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee where first-generation Christians began to worship in the years following Jesus’s death. My friend who was with me is an archaeology enthusiast, and he taught me how, on the walls of that ancient house-church, archaeologists discovered graffiti that reads, “God Jesus Christ” and “Christ have mercy.” That part didn’t surprise me; I knew Christians had been calling Jesus their “God” ever since the days of Emperor Constantine’s famous Edict of Milan.

But then he said, “Those engravings have been dated to the first half of the first century AD,” and my ontological foundations began to tremble beneath me. One of my favorite weapons to use against evangelical Christians was the argument that Jesus’s divinity was a later amendment to the original biblical narrative. My professors insisted that upgrading Jesus from a failed apocalyptic prophet to the one true God in the flesh was nothing more than politics, the sort of power play commonly found in the history of human religions.

What does it mean, then, that this graffiti was scratched onto those walls at least two hundred sixty-three years before the Edict of Milan, not to mention decades prior to Mark writing the first Gospel? It means that the people who knew Jesus best – his friends, followers, and even his own flesh and blood – worshiped him as their God, and not just while he was alive, but even after he died on the cross. 

I knew enough about Jewish scriptures and beliefs to be certain that, for any self-respecting Jew, worshiping a man was off-limits. In the Old Testament, not even Abraham, Moses, or Elijah were worthy of worship. The rule against worshiping mere men sits atop the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3). But the faithful Jews who walked with Jesus, some of whom watched him die, worshiped him and called him God, and many of them died for this heretical, treasonous belief.

That day in Capernaum, I was faced with history’s most consequential question: Was Jesus just a man, or is he truly God? After weighing the evidence and searching my heart, I came to the conclusion that it is more likely than not that Jesus is who he – and his followers – said he was: Emmanuel, God with us.

Making that decision was relatively easy; figuring out what to do about it was the tricky part. If Jesus is God, I knew I would have to revisit the Bible. For thirteen years, every time I opened that book, I expected to find something to disagree with, something to hate. But once I realized that Jesus loved the Bible, that he never criticized or contradicted it, and that he quoted it often, I knew I had more work to do. I couldn’t continue calling Jesus my God while feeling such animosity toward his Word.

Perfect God & Imperfect People. Christians believe the people who wrote the Bible were inspired by God; in  fact, we think every word of Scripture is “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). That does not mean, however, that we believe the entire Bible fell from heaven as a finished product in the King’s English, gilded pages and all. It means that God inspired all the stories, laws, songs, and prophecies that make up our Scriptures as they were being written, and he still inspires them now as they are being read.

The divine inspiration of Scripture does not preclude the fact that God’s perfect message for the world passed through human filters. You can’t read the Bible without seeing its raw humanity; the sporadic examples of textual discrepancies, the occasional shocking misogyny, and the examples of extreme violence leap off its pages. This undeniable fact terrifies biblically insecure Christians, but we should never see the humanity of Scripture as a threat to its veracity.

The question is not whether the human element sullies the original Word of God; instead, we should be asking, “Does the humanity of Scripture damage its integrity?”

I don’t believe it does. Before I became a Christian, I used what I thought were flaws in the Bible to poke holes in the Truth claims that Christians hold dear. I would question, for example, why the four Gospel writers disagree on the order of events in Jesus’s life. Did Jesus famously turn over the tables in the Temple toward the end of his life, as Matthew and Mark suggest, or was it at the very beginning of his ministry, like John says? Luke says there were two angels in Jesus’s tomb on Easter morning. Matthew and Mark say there was one. And John, the only Gospel writer who was actually at Jesus’s tomb on Easter morning, didn’t mention the presence of any angels at all. 

I used to think these obvious discrepancies represented the proverbial nail in the coffin for the Bible. No thinking person could ever accept this internally inconsistent collection of ancient books as authoritative or divinely inspired, right?

It’s just not that simple. Once my life changed in Capernaum, I began to revisit some of my deepest doubts about the Bible, and I felt compelled to start asking better questions. Instead of “Why would a perfect God write such an imperfect book?” I started asking, “If the standard of biblical truth was the absolute absence of discrepancies, why didn’t the early Christians ever ‘clean up’ the scriptures?” 

Generations of believers had plenty of opportunities to dispose of the minor discrepancies within the Gospel stories with some careful editing, so why didn’t they take advantage?

Maybe worshiping a perfect book was never the point for Christians because, while the Bible’s inerrancy makes for fiery conversations and controversial books, we know that a holy book – perfect though it may be – can never save a single soul because a book can’t show us how to live. Only a person can do that. 

The Bible is the story of the only perfect human. The lack of discrepancies and minor historical flaws isn’t what makes the Bible perfect; the Bible is perfect because of Jesus: God’s perfect gift for this imperfect world.

It’s the Bible’s humanity that speaks to my skeptical heart. Any holy book claiming to be anything other than human-filtered is a fraud from the start. It’s not the human element, but the supposed lack of it, that negates the sacredness of any so-called sacred text. 

Anything short of a humanized holy book is mere magic, the stuff of fairy tales we tell restless children until they finally give up and go to sleep, or worse: the stuff of false religions we preach to restless adults until they do.The only Bible worth believing is both God-breathed and human-filtered.

The only God worth trusting is the Son of Man.

The message that matters most is God’s love for all humanity.

Even for you and me.

Eric Huffman is the founder and lead pastor of The Story Church in Houston and host of the Maybe God Podcast. He is the author of Scripture and the Skeptic: Miracles, Myths, and Doubts of Biblical Proportions (Abingdon). This article is an excerpt of Scripture and the Skeptic and is used by permission.  

The Spirit of St. Patrick

The Spirit of St. Patrick

By Steve Beard –

While sifting through obscure Spanish colonial records, it was discovered a few years ago that the very first St. Patrick’s Day parade was not conducted in Boston, Chicago, nor New York City. 

Instead, the Irish feast day was celebrated in modern day St. Augustine, Florida, in 1601. 

“They processed through the streets of St. Augustine, and the cannon fired from the fort,” said Prof. J. Michael Francis of the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg, who discovered the document. The ancient records named “San Patricio” as “the protector” of the area’s maize fields. “So here you have this Irish saint who becomes the patron protector of a New World crop, corn, in a Spanish garrison settlement,” he said.

This strange twist in the story and celebration of St. Patrick, a fifth century holy man, is really not that surprising. His memory is invoked all around the globe. On March 17, the patron saint of Ireland is celebrated in parades and festivals in surprising places such as Argentina, India, Japan, Singapore, Spain, Turkey, and the West Indies. 

Although the celebration was launched by Irish people scattered all around the world to remember their Celtic heritage, now even non-Irish people claim to be “Irish for a day” – even if it is only a fun excuse to eat corned beef and cabbage, wear green, and order a Guinness. The vast majority of those celebrating have no idea who St. Patrick was or what he did. That is a pity. 

Historians are constantly attempting to set the record straight. After all, Patrick was not Irish (born in Britain of a Romanized family). He was never canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church. Interestingly, there are two St. Patrick’s Cathedrals in Armagh, Ireland – one Catholic and one Protestant. Remarkably, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin is both Catholic and Protestant. 

The legacy of Ireland’s patron saint blurs a lot of lines – but, he is notably worth celebrating. 

Patrick was brutally abducted at the age of 16 by pirates and sold as a slave in Ireland. For six agonizing years in a foreign land, he largely lived in abject solitude attending animals. The Christian faith of his family that he found unappealing as a teenager became his spiritual lifeline to sanity and survival while in captivity.

“Tending flocks was my daily work, and I would pray constantly during the daylight hours,” he writes in his Confession – one of only two brief documents authentically from Patrick’s own hand. “The love of God and the fear of him surrounded me more and more – and faith grew and the Spirit was roused, so that in one day I would say as many as a hundred prayers and after dark nearly as many again even while I remained in the woods or on the mountain. I would wake and pray before daybreak – through snow, frost, rain – nor was there any sluggishness in me (such as I experience nowadays) because then the Spirit within me was ardent.” 

Through a divine dream, Patrick was inspired to make his escape. His journey as a fugitive was, according to his testimony, a 200 mile trek to the coast. Further miraculous circumstances allowed him to wrangle himself aboard a ship to escape his imprisonment in Ireland. He finally made it back to the loving embrace of his family. 

Years later, however, another mystical dream launched his trajectory into the ministry and, ultimately, back to Ireland. “We appeal to you, holy servant boy,” said the voice in the dream, “to come and walk among us.”

For many years, he trained to become a priest. Eventually, in 432 A.D., Patrick returned to the shores of the land where he once was held captive. 

“Believe me, I didn’t go to Ireland willingly that first time [when he was taken as a slave] – I almost died there,” he wrote in his Confession. “But it turned out to be good for me in the end, because God used the time to shape and mold me into something better. He made me into what I am now – someone very different from what I once was, someone who can care for others and work to help them. Before I was a slave, I didn’t even care about myself.” 

Noted classics scholar Philip Freeman, the author of St. Patrick of Ireland, points out the distinguished uniqueness of Patrick’s public vulnerability – a trait that was not characteristic of a

man of his stature and notoriety. As an elderly and well-known bishop, Patrick begins his Confession with these words: “I am Patrick – a sinner – the most unsophisticated and unworthy among all the faithful of God. Indeed, to many, I am the most despised.”

“The two letters are in fact the earliest surviving documents written in Ireland and provide us with glimpses of a world full of petty kings, pagan gods, quarreling bishops, brutal slavery, beautiful virgins, and ever-threatening violence,” writes Freeman. “But more than anything else, they allow us to look inside the mind and soul of a remarkable man living in a world that was both falling apart and at the dawn of a new age. There are simply no other documents from ancient times that give us such a clear and heartfelt view of a person’s thoughts and feelings. These are, above all else, letters of hope in a trying and uncertain time.”

While there are many beautiful, miraculous, and fantastical stories about St. Patrick, his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus – the other document authentically written by Patrick – exposes his heart and soul. It portrays the character of a man worthy of emulation and celebration. His humility, empathy, and righteous indignation scorches the letter as he takes up the cause of the voiceless captives and powerless victims of slavery – a common practice in the fifth century. 

The fiery correspondence addresses the horrific news that a group of newly baptized converts were killed or taken into slavery on their way home by a petty British king named Coroticus, known to be at least nominally a Christian. 

“Blood, blood, blood! Your hands drip with the blood of the innocent Christians you have murdered – the very Christians I nourished and brought to God,” Patrick writes. “My newly baptized converts, still in their white robes, the sweet smell of the anointing oil still on their foreheads – you murdered them, cut them down with your swords!”

Violating cultural and ecclesiastical protocols, the letter was sent broadly and caused a stir. Courageously, Patrick launched a public ruckus – outside his governance – over the “hideous, unspeakable crimes” because he believed that God truly loved the Irish – even if church leaders elsewhere did not. Patrick’s vision for the love of God was expansively generous. “I am a stranger and an exile living among barbarians and pagans, because God cares for them,” he writes (emphasis added). 

“Was it my idea to feel God’s love for the Irish and to work for their good?” Patrick writes. “These people enslaved me and devastated my father’s household! I am of noble birth – the son of a Roman decurion – but I sold my nobility. I’m not ashamed of it and I don’t regret it because I did it to help others. Now I am a slave of Christ to a foreign people – but this time for the unspeakable glory of eternal life in Christ Jesus our master.” 

Having been captive, he does not write about slavery whimsically. He was an outspoken voice opposing slavery at a time when it was simply considered commonplace. Furthermore, he was a fierce advocate for those who were most vulnerable and abused in captivity. 

“But it is the women kept in slavery who suffer the most – and who keep their spirits up despite the menacing and terrorizing they must endure,” he writes in his Confession. “The Lord gives grace to his many handmaids; and though they are forbidden to do so, they follow him with backbone.” 

When Patrick heard about the bloody attack and abductions after the baptism service, he sought to reason with Coroticus: “The very next day I sent a message to you with a priest l had taught from childhood and some other clergy asking that you return the surviving captives with at least some of their goods – but you only laughed.”

In response, Patrick derides Coroticus and his men as “dogs and sorcerers and murderers, and liars and false swearers  … who distribute baptized girls for a price, and that for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom which truly passes away in a moment like a cloud or smoke that is scattered by the wind.” 

In order to make his point, he prays: “God, I know these horrible actions break your heart – even those dwelling in Hell would blush in shame.” 

With pastoral care, Patrick addresses the memory of those killed after their baptism: “And those of my children who were murdered – I weep for you, I weep for you … I can see you now starting on your journey to that place where there is no more sorrow or death. … You will rule with the apostles, prophets, and martyrs in an eternal kingdom.”

Even in an inferno of justifiable rage, Patrick extends an olive branch of redemption: “Perhaps then, even though late, they will repent of all the evil they have done – these murderers of God’s family – and free the Christians they have enslaved. Perhaps then they will deserve to be redeemed and live with God now and forever.” 

“The greatness of Patrick is beyond dispute: the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery,” writes historian Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization. “Nor will any voice as strong as his be heard again till the seventeenth century.”

All around the globe, St. Patrick’s Day is set aside to honor a great man who overcame fear with faith, overcame hate with love, and overcame prejudice with hope. Although he had every reason in the world to resist the dream to return to “walk among” the Irish, Patrick responded to the God-given impulse of his heart – even when it was most difficult. He knew the dangers and challenges and returned anyway.  

Patrick offered himself as a living example of what new life could look like for the Irish. “It is possible to be brave – to expect ‘every day … to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved – whatever may come my way’ – and yet be a man of peace and at peace, a man without sword or desire to harm, a man in whom the sharp fear of death has been smoothed away,” writes Cahill of Patrick. “He was ‘not afraid of any of these things, because of the promises of heaven; for I have put myself in the hands of God Almighty.’ Patrick’s peace was no sham: it issued from his person like a fragrance.”

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Good News. 

Not Losing Hope on the Road to Emmaus

Review: Perfect Love

 

Photo by Haley Rivera (Unsplash).

By Andrew C. Thompson –

John Wesley met with a group of Methodist preachers in London for a watch-night service on February 6, 1789. It was just two years before his death, and Wesley was an old man. Yet age and infirmity did not hinder him from impressing upon his young followers what he had been teaching for over half a century.

As he records in his journal, “I strongly insisted on St. Paul’s advice to Timothy, ‘Keep safe that which is committed to thy trust,’ particularly the doctrine of Christian Perfection which God has peculiarly entrusted to the Methodists.”

It is that conviction of Wesley’s around the importance of the doctrine of Christian perfection that drives Kevin M. Watson’s newest book, Perfect Love: Recovering Entire Sanctification – The Lost Power of the Methodist Movement (Seedbed).

Watson is a prolific author whose scholarly focus is on John Wesley, early British Methodism, and the later American Methodist tradition. He has produced well-regarded academic monographs on the history of the early Methodist band meeting in the 18th century and the American Methodist tradition in the 19th century. Yet he is best known to many people as a writer with a passion for bringing neglected practices of early Methodism into present-day, practical discipleship. His first book for a general reading audience was A Blueprint for Discipleship (Discipleship Resources), which still stands as the best treatment of how to appropriate John Wesley’s General Rules in the present. 

Perhaps his best-known popular-level work is The Class Meeting (Seedbed), a book that has been used by hundreds if not thousands of congregations to start class meetings in their own local churches. Most recently, he co-authored The Band Meeting with Scott Kisker (Seedbed) where he and Kisker introduced early Methodist band fellowship to contemporary Methodists.

Watson’s newest book Perfect Love looks not at an early Methodist practice but rather at an early Methodist idea. That idea is Christian perfection, or entire sanctification. It is the conviction that we can by grace be made holy in heart and life to the extent that the power of sin is utterly overcome in our lives. Positively speaking, it is the idea that we can be so filled with the love of Jesus Christ that that love animates our every thought, desire, word, and action.

It’s also an idea that goes by a variety of names drawn from the Bible and the Wesleyan tradition: Christian perfection, entire sanctification (the term Watson prefers), full salvation, perfect love, and other variations on these. The most common term used to describe it has often been seen as the most objectionable: “perfection.” The connotation that perfection has when applied to our discipleship can seem negative for obvious reasons. It suggests that we can attain a quality that is only available to God; or conversely, it smacks of a certain arrogance by people who perhaps do not fully grasp the depth of human sinfulness.

Yet Wesley believed that perfection was not only possible but the very goal of the Christian life. His passion for teaching about entire sanctification is one that Kevin Watson has embraced as well. As Watson says in his opening chapter, “Entire sanctification is the doctrine that defines Methodism’s audacious optimism that the grace of God saves us entirely to the uttermost.” Wesley once wrote in a letter to R.C. Brackenbury that “full sanctification … is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up.” It is a point Watson returns to repeatedly throughout the book, contending that a renewed focus on entire sanctification is the key to revival within the Methodist movement.

Watson makes his case for the importance of the teaching of entire sanctification by pointing to a number of examples from the 18th and 19th centuries of people who testified to having experienced perfection. Here, Watson’s historical facility with the Methodist tradition is on full display as he moves easily from figures like Jane Cooper and John Fletcher to Phoebe Palmer and B.T. Roberts. Though Watson doesn’t say so explicitly, one of the strengths of the examples he uses is the way the various characters reflect such broadly different backgrounds and experiences. His examples run the gamut from learned theologians to frontier preachers, and from sophisticated urbanites to roughhewn rural folk. All of them had experiences of God’s perfecting grace, and they shared a common spirituality that made up the beating heart of the Methodist revival on both sides of the Atlantic.

Yet common experience is not enough to embrace any given teaching; it must be grounded in God’s will for his people as revealed in the Bible. This, in fact, is exactly why Wesley insisted on perfection. He did not believe that perfection was a novel teaching. As Watson ably points out, Wesley believed it should be taught because he believed that it was rooted in the Scriptures. The words “holiness” and “sanctification” are synonyms of one another, and the spiritual reality towards which they point is the goal of the Christian life as we find it taught in the Bible. The phrase that Wesley used to sum up what it means to live in this way is “holiness of heart and life.” When we are transformed inwardly (the heart), then our outward life will follow. That transformation is always a transformation in Christ’s love, and it is that love that defines what holiness is.

Watson does a wonderful job in explaining many of the particular characteristics around the Wesleyan teaching on entire sanctification. One is that sanctification (like justification) always comes by faith and not by works. And the surest way to receive it is to seek after it in prayer. 

A second characteristic is the way in which Wesley spoke about entire sanctification as coming both gradually and instantaneously. This is one of the more confusing aspects of Wesley’s view of perfection, and it can perhaps best be understood with reference to the way that a race is both run and completed. You always finish a race in an instant (which is the instant you cross the goal line). But you are gradually drawing close to that final instant with every step that you take. This is Wesley’s view of perfection, except you have to add one extra layer. For Wesley, it’s also as if the race is constantly going around new turns, and the goal line could suddenly pop up on the other side of any one of them. Just so, the gradual growth in grace could culminate in perfection at any moment for the earnest Christian. 

Finally, a third characteristic that Watson highlights is simply what perfection does not entail. It does not mean that we are free from ignorance, mistake, infirmity, or temptation. It doesn’t even mean we are free from the possibility of falling back into sin. What it does mean is that we are really and truly free from sin right now. And that includes not only the commission of actual sins, but also any sinful thoughts and affections of our hearts.

How, then, do we pursue perfection in practical sense? Here, Watson’s previous work on early Methodist practices serves him well in describing the spirituality of a Christian believer who is yearning for entire sanctification. He mentions more than once the importance of embracing the General Rules in the day-to-day lives of Methodist folk (do no harm, do all the good you can, and attend upon the ordinances of God). He also points to practicing the means of grace given by God to draw us closer to Christ and experience his sanctifying grace (prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, and Christian conference). Finally, he emphasizes the importance of the band meeting as the original small-group structure in early Methodism that was meant to help people reach entire sanctification through mutual confession of sin, testimony, and intercessory prayer.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Wesleyan teaching on Christian perfection is that it is never a static experience. Indeed, there is no sense at all in Wesley’s view that you ever reach a point where you can no longer grow in God’s love. “A person who experiences entire sanctification is still on a journey,” Watson writes. Such a person will “still need to grow daily in grace.” There is a sense in Wesley’s writing that God’s sanctifying grace can continue to draw us into fuller communion with Christ Jesus even after the battle with sin has been won. 

In A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, Wesley asks the question, “Can those who are perfect grow in grace?” And then he provides the answer: “Undoubtedly they can; and that not only while they are in the body but to all eternity.” Such an affirmation means that the Wesleyan teaching on Christian perfection pertains not only to discipleship in this present life, but to our enjoyment of God in the life to come.

The strengths of Perfect Love are significant indeed. Given its central importance to John Wesley’s understanding of the Christian life, it is remarkable that a book like this has not appeared sooner. (Watson points out how attention to perfection was not only neglected but actively opposed in American Methodism of the late 19th century, and in that sense this book is long overdue!) There are a few areas that a reader might be left wanting a bit more, however. Watson nods to the relationship between justification and sanctification at a couple of points, but people more familiar with the former than the latter will be left with questions about how one is to think about the connection between the two. Also missing is any attention to Wesley’s theological influences outside of Scripture, other than the briefest of mentions about his engagement with the holy living tradition (e.g., Thomas à Kempis, Jeremy Taylor, and William Law). 

Part of the formative influence on Wesley for Christian perfection came from the early church fathers – perhaps most especially Clement of Alexandria, whom he cited in print as an inspiration for how he came to think about perfection. Wesley (as Watson points out) was fundamentally interested in entire sanctification because he believed it was thoroughly biblical. Yet he was also working from a broader tradition (known as theosis or divinization in the early church tradition) in this as in so much else in his theology.

Dr. Andrew C. Thompson

Like Watson’s other popular-level works, Perfect Love is written with tools to help individuals and small groups fully engage the text. Each chapter concludes with a discussion guide that offers both a format for small group meetings and sample questions for discussion. Watson has also included a number of appendices with primary source materials for readers who want to dig into some of the original Wesleyan and Methodist texts on sanctification: the General Rules, Wesley’s sermon, “On Christian Perfection,” Wesley’s sermon, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” the Rules of the Band Societies, and a sampling of doctrinal statements from denominations descended from early Methodism.

One of Watson’s greatest strengths is his ability as a writer. Not all brilliant academics are able writers for a broad reading audience, but Watson has that talent in spades. His writing style in Perfect Love is almost conversational, and any engaged reader will find it accessible. For Methodists today who are interested in the biblical teaching that John Wesley believed was the most important gift the Methodist movement could offer to the Christian church, Perfect Love is the perfect book. Watson no doubt would hope that readers would pick it up not just wanting to learn about entire sanctification, but wanting to experience it for themselves.

Andrew Thompson is senior pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Springdale, Arkansas, and the author of  The Means of Grace and Watching From the Walls.  

Not Losing Hope on the Road to Emmaus

Hearts of Fire with Perfect Love

“Methodism exists in order to preach, teach, and proclaim the bold optimism that the grace of God is able to bring full salvation to everyone.”

By Kevin M. Watson –

Methodism is in the midst of an identity crisis. We have forgotten who we are. We have abandoned our theological heritage.

God raised up the people called Methodists to preach, teach, and experience one core doctrine. This doctrine is Methodism’s reason for existence. If we get this right, everything else will fall into place. If we get it wrong, we will miss the unique calling and purpose that God has for us.

Less than six months before he died, John Wesley wrote a letter to Robert Carr Brackenbury that referred to this core doctrine as “the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up.”

That sounds important! But the previous quotation also contains a handful of words that we do not use much today. Let’s start with “grand depositum.” Wesley meant that God had deposited or entrusted Methodism with something of great worth and importance. Propagating means to spread or pass on to others.

So, Wesley was saying that God had entrusted Methodism with something specific of great worth and importance. And God raised up Methodism in order to spread what God has entrusted to us to as many other people as possible.

Wesley identified the key thing that God gave to Methodists as a specific doctrine or teaching. So, what is this doctrine? Entire sanctification or Christian perfection is the grand depositum that God has given to us.

Entire sanctification is the doctrine that defines Methodism’s audacious optimism that the grace of God saves us entirely, to the uttermost.

This grand depositum is still the reason God raised up Methodists. Methodism exists in order to preach, teach, and proclaim the bold optimism that the grace of God is able to bring full salvation to everyone. Methodism separated from this core teaching has no future. If Methodism focuses once again on this grand depositum, it will find new life and fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit in its midst.

We have the opportunity to recover this powerful truth and again present it to a world desperate for hope and healing.

This discussion is for everyone who at some point traces their spiritual lineage back to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. This includes denominations that have the word Methodist in their names, such as the United Methodist Church or the African Methodist Episcopal Church. I also have members of the Holiness Movement in mind, like the Wesleyan Church, the Free Methodist Church, Church of God (Anderson), Church of the Nazarene, and the Salvation Army. But this is still not the full extent of the Methodist family. I am also thinking of members of the global Pentecostal movement whose understanding of a second work of grace and baptism of the Holy Spirit can be traced back to John Wesley and the doctrine of entire sanctification. When Pentecostalism is taken into consideration, we are talking about well more than a billion (yes, billion with a “b”) Christians today who can trace their heritage back to Wesley and early Methodism.

Methodism’s significance within the body of Christ is often underestimated or overlooked. But we are a powerful movement of the Holy Spirit that has brought not only forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ, but also freedom from the power of sin and an outpouring of holy love in countless lives over the past three centuries. Methodism has been the most Spirit-filled in our history when people have leaned into our grand depositum and wrestled with God to help people receive the blessing of entire sanctification. When Methodists have lowered their expectations of what God can do in this life, spiritual and numeric decline have followed.

God did not raise us up to lower expectation for what is possible through the work of Jesus Christ. We have been brought to life to tell the world that “it is God’s will that you should be sanctified” (1 Thess. 4:3a). And God is able to do what he wants to do in us!

Why Are We Here? These are trying times for Wesley’s spiritual heirs. All who trace their spiritual lineage back to John Wesley are facing sustained challenges in a variety of ways. Despite these real and serious challenges, I feel excitement and a growing sense of anticipation.

I have an expectation in my spirit that the living God is going to do an (old) new thing. Unsettled and even chaotic times can provide an opportunity for reevaluation. They can bring clarity. Difficult seasons can bring renewed focus on the reason a group exists. This is a great time to seek clarity about a basic question: Why are we here?

I am convinced that there is one main reason we exist: to preach, teach, and help people receive the gift of entire sanctification. This is the reason God first breathed life into Methodism. And this is the reason I have hope God will breathe life into our churches once again.

Like many of you, I’ve been praying. I’ve been asking God to break through. I’ve been wrestling with what faithfulness looks like in this time and in this place. And I’ve been hearing the word “return.” The first time I heard that word, my mind was going in so many different directions I wasn’t sure what it meant. But as I’ve kept hearing “return,” the mist and confusion have been clearing away and one particular Scripture passage has stood out:

Thus says the LORD:
Stand at the crossroads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.
But they said, “We will not walk in it.” (Jeremiah 6:16, NRSV)

It is time for the people called Methodists and all of John Wesley’s spiritual heirs to return to the ancient path that Wesley referred to as the “grand depositum” of “the people called Methodists.” Lest we respond like those who heard Jeremiah: “But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.”

The grand depositum of Methodism was the doctrine of entire sanctification, or Christian perfection. The mission of Methodism in Britain and in the United States was initially to “spread scriptural holiness.” Holiness, or sanctification, was the core focus and purpose of the people called Methodists. Wesley understood holiness to be an ongoing process of becoming more and more like Jesus, loving God and neighbor to the exclusion of sin. Entire sanctification (which will also be referred to as Christian perfection or full salvation here) was the goal of ongoing growth in holiness. So, what exactly is entire sanctification? In A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, Wesley gave a succinct definition:

“(1) That Christian perfection is that love of God and our neighbor, which implies deliverance from all sin. (2) That this is received merely by faith. (3) That it is given instantaneously, in one moment. (4) That we are to expect it, not at death, but every moment; that now is the accepted time, now is the day of this salvation.”

The goal for Wesley and his followers was to actually live the kind of life that Scripture tells us is possible by the grace of God in Christ Jesus. This determination was expressed most boldly in the doctrine of entire sanctification. This teaching was the grand depositum that God gave to Wesley and those who went before us.

It is time to return, to recommit to steward what has been entrusted to those who follow in the footsteps of Wesley and the first Methodists.

Dr. Kevin M. Watson

The Stakes Are High. I am convinced that any form of Methodism that is not dearly connected to the doctrine of entire sanctification has no future. Any new movements or expressions of Methodism must place our grand depositum at the center of our faith and practice. I am equally convinced that if we as a people recommitment ourselves to this grand depositum, God will breathe new life into our movement out of love for a desperate and hurting world.

Here is what I see as being at stake for us today: We live in a world where many are desperate for hope and healing. Many have a quiet desperation that comes from the numbness and pseudo connections that have developed from spending too much time connected to our screens and far too little time connecting in person in life-giving relationships. Many are desperate because they know that their lives are going in directions that are not going to end well, but they are not able to stop. Many are depressed, discouraged, and simply without hope. The list could go on.

In this reality, our calling is to preach the full gospel. We have the good news of Jesus Christ. The gospel of Jesus not only brings forgiveness and pardon; the gospel brings hope and healing. Through faith in the amazing grace of God, we can be forgiven and reconciled to God. This is, indeed, good news. But there is more! God doesn’t want to just forgive us, he also wants to offer us power and freedom over the ways of sin and death.

We need not limp through this life, defeated, merely surviving. No! “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37 NRSV)!

We can be saved to the uttermost!

Jesus is able. There should not be a church in any of our communities that has a more audacious and bold optimism of what God’s grace can do in the lives of every single person than churches that trace their roots back to John Wesley. Entire sanctification is not an abstract idea or merely a theory.

Not at all!

Entire sanctification is the fruit that comes from knowing a person – Jesus, our risen Lord. Jesus saves. Jesus rescues. Jesus heals. He has done these things before and he will do them again!

There is still Living Water here.

As we unplug the well of the entire sanctification and invite people to drink deeply from it, we will see fruit. We will see lives undone by the love of God that has been poured out over the world in Jesus Christ. We will see lives mended and made whole. We can unplug this well now and offer the Water that is already in it today to the people in our communities.

Kevin M. Watson is associate professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University in Atlanta. He is the author of numerous books, including The Class Meeting (Seedbed). This article is taken from his recent book Perfect Love: Recovering Entire Sanctification – The Lost Power of the Methodist Movement (Seedbed, 2021). It is reprinted by permission. He writes at kevinmwatson.com.     

Not Losing Hope on the Road to Emmaus

Review: Prayer In The Night

The Rev. Tish Harrison Warren

By Elizabeth Glass Turner –

There is a point when dog-earing a book becomes an exercise in futility. My copy of Tish Harrison Warren’s Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep is accordioned with an absurdly unhelpful number of dog-eared pages.

The Anglican priest and author constructed a kind of catechism of grief just before the world slipped into isolated chaos in 2020. Borne in on the wake of her own annus horribilis – in 2017, she moved halfway across the country, lost her father suddenly, and lost two sons to miscarriage – Prayer in the Night is fashioned from an entry in the Book of Common Prayer that sustained her in the wreckage. 

If you are shipwrecked, the book is a first-aid kit, an emergency ration box, and Warren patiently tutors the reader in the usefulness of each component with the clear-eyed pathos of someone who has hungered through long nights waiting for a rescue plane that might or might not come. She is unflinching. 

Some might wonder if a book with the word “weep” in the subtitle can find a place on shelves just as likely to be lined with resources on church growth, self-improvement, leadership, vision, or other ways to optimize potential and stay ahead of everyone else. For several decades, faith-based publishing has been nothing if not optimistic. Do most people really want to read about those who work and watch and weep? 

A couple of things are noteworthy. It is rare for a faith-based author on social media to receive comments from multiple readers sharing that they’d personally purchased boxes of copies to distribute to colleagues, friends, and family members, as Warren has received. Further, Prayers in the Night might normally be a valuable book likely to fly under the radar. (The human instinct to plug our ears in denial of mortality runs deep.) However, Warren happened to finish it just weeks into a nascent pandemic; it was released as the global toll of that pandemic continued to rage. What the author could not know when she began writing was that the world was about to be hit with a once-in-a-generation occurrence, with many people about to lose the luxury of putting mortality on mute. 

By the Eucharistic grace of God, Warren had offered up what she had on hand: her tragedy, like a child holding up some bread and fish. She wrote what she found to be true and useful during her long, dark  night of the soul. In the economy of God’s grace, what she gave freely is feeding more people than she could have anticipated. Her own words speak to what loss requires: “I needed words to contain my sadness and fear. I needed comfort, but I needed the sort of comfort that doesn’t pretend that things are shiny or safe or right in the world. I needed a comfort that looked unflinchingly at loss and death. And Compline is rung round with death.” 

In part a primer on prayer, in part a primer on what it means to be human, the chapters are organized as a steady unpacking of the phrases of a Compline prayer, part of the bedtime reading of the Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer:

“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.”

Warren unloads these phrases with pragmatic depth, rendering a resource that is sure to be used in study (as the discussion questions at the back provide for). But it is not first and foremost a study, unless it is a study of loss and the nature of a God who allows it. Sometimes in the shellshock of grief, we don’t know how to talk to a God we’re angry at; we don’t have energy to form our own words. But at the outset, the author shares her experience of learning the value of the practices and prayers of the ancient church in times of crisis and catastrophe. 

“I’ve come to believe that … to sustain faith over a lifetime, we need to learn different ways of praying,” she writes. “Inherited prayers and practices of the church tether us to belief, far more securely than our own vacillating perspective or self-expression.” For seasons of profoundly disorienting loss, she compares the prayers of the church to cairns marking a foggy mountain path. “When I could not pray, the church said, ‘here are prayers.’ When I could not believe, the church said, ‘come to the table and be fed.’ When I could not worship, the church sang over me the language of faith.” 

The prayers to which the author calls us are not just life rafts or escape hatches; regularly, she reminds the reader that prayer shapes and forms us. “Faith is more craft than feeling. And prayer is our chief practice in the craft. We are given means of grace that we can practice, whether we feel like it or not, and these carry us. Craftsmen – writers, brewers, dancers, potters – show up and work, and they participate in a mystery. In our deepest moments of darkness, we enter into this craft of prayer. Patterns of prayer draw us into the long story of Christ’s work in and through his people over time.” 

As Warren unfolds the Compline prayer phrase by phrase, the path of grief is illuminated as spiritual formation. She scoots among the commonplace and the ancient, quoting “Almost Famous” then unpacking apophatic theology with approachable ease. Not everyone can briefly sketch theodicy or apophatic theology with simplicity. Yet she manages to do so, deftly demonstrating how idea and practice merge, revealing the value of theological treasures left in the dusty attic of church history. Her voice is like an Antiques Roadshow appraiser, surprising us with the hidden value of what we unknowingly pass by – only the worth is not only convenient, it’s life-saving. The reader is shown with pressing clarity how and why this prayer matters for you, today, and how it can shape the worst moments of the worst days of your life. There is no sugar-coating; no prosperity gospel; no platitudes. But there is honesty, joy, and hope.

In Prayer in the Night, there is little that is casual, much that is accessible. Loss can clarify voice (eventually); the frank, easy tones found in Warren’s previous book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, are familiar yet carry a new sense of urgency, as though the matter is life and death: because it is. 

“Compline,” writes Warren, “speaks to God in the dark. That’s what I had to learn to do – to pray in the darkness. When we’re drowning we need a lifeline, and our lifeline in grief cannot be mere optimism that maybe our circumstances will improve because we know that may not be true. We need practices that don’t simply palliate our fears or pain, but that teach us to walk with God in the crucible of our own fragility.” 

Instinctively, whatever circumstances the reader currently finds themselves in, it is easy to recognize that our world does not crave “mere optimism.” If, as Warren outlines in chapter three, we allow ourselves to grieve and lament individually and together as a church, we may travel through to substantive hope on the other side; but grief must come first. On the value of praying the Psalms, she notes, “If our gathered worship expresses only unadulterated trust, confidence, victory, and renewal, we are learning to be less honest with God than the Scriptures themselves are.” 

Warren’s potent phrasing is scattered throughout, unlikely as an inspirational slogan slapped on overpriced merchandise, but more likely to help preserve your faith in the dark night of the soul. (There are always trade-offs in life.) Exploring the phrase, “tend the sick, Lord Christ,” Warren wryly plumbs the human discomfort with frustration and physical frailty. “A lot of what appears as kindness or patience or holiness in my life is fueled by good health, energy, and simple pleasures. When these are taken away, it’s clear that I am not that kind or patient after all. I just didn’t have back pain.” Sanctification stings. 

But there is no use mincing words when you’re in the crucible. When Warren swats away common theological and philosophical insufficiencies (she gives readers the dignity of engaging hard questions), she does so with vivid insistence. “I have come to see theodicy as an existential knife-fight between the reality of our own quaking vulnerability and our hope for a God who can be trusted.” Warren points the heartbroken reader to the tender heart of God. “The church has always proclaimed that if we want to see what God is like, we look to Jesus – a man ‘acquainted with sorrow,’ no stranger to grief, a peasant craftsman who knew suffering, big and small, and died a criminal, mostly alone. Mysteriously, God does not take away our vulnerability. He enters into it. Jesus left a place where there is no night to enter into our darkness.” 

After sitting in the darkness with each group called out in the Compline prayer – exploring what it means to work, watch, or weep; unfolding the reality of those who sleep, the sick, the weary, the dying, the suffering, the afflicted, the joyous – where is the reader led? “And all for your love’s sake.” Alluding to the speed of light in a vacuum as a universal constant, Warren proclaims, “we enter the practice of prayer in response to the steady fact that we are already loved. God’s love and devotion to us, not ours to him, is the source of prayer. He is the first mover in prayer, the one who has been calling to us before we could ever call to him. And he will not stop calling, no matter how dark the night becomes. Light, not darkness, is the constant.” 

Warren continues the shift from gutted lament to battle-worn, hoarse  doxology: “Our love is more akin to day and night. God’s love is a constant … the speed of light. His love is the center of all things and there is no darkness in it. The love of God – not sickness or weariness or death or suffering or affliction or joy – is the fixed center of our lives and eternity.” 

In Madeleine L’Engle’s coming-of-age story on death and grief, A Ring of Endless Light, the teenaged Vicky Austin, shaken by a traumatic experience, talks with her dying grandfather.

“You have to give the darkness permission,” he tells her. “It cannot take over otherwise. … Vicky, do not add to the darkness.”

There at the hospital bed, she both heard him and did not hear him. 

“Vicky, this is my charge to you,” her grandfather continued. “You are to be a light bearer. You are to choose the light.”

“I can’t…” Vicky whispered. 

“You already have,” he said. “But it is a choice which you must renew now.”

She couldn’t speak.

“I will say it for you,” her grandfather said. “You will bear the light.”

In her loss, Warren, a priest, has chosen the role of acolyte, choosing to be a lightbearer. Like Vicky’s grandfather, the Compline prayer tells the crumpled believer, “I will say it for you,” when the darkness has stolen our words. In hollow contrast to the arrival of spring, the darkness of loss threatens to suffocate many in our nation and our churches, and Prayer in the Night comes at a critical moment, naming the darkness, bringing the light near, and showing us how to be light-bearers.

Elizabeth Glass Turner is a frequent and valued contributor to Good News. She is the managing editor of Wesleyan Accent (wesleyanaccent.com).