When Life Doesn’t Go According to Script —
By Elizabeth Glass-Turner —
What do you do when you do what you’re supposed to do and it doesn’t go right? What are you supposed to think when your best preparations, intentions, and actions seem to go to waste or lead to loss instead of fruit?
A multitude of critics and coaches will tell you what the problem is and how to fix it. You sow again; nothing sprouts, or if it does, you suspect it’s a harvest of weeds. What do you do when this continues for a stretch of months – years, even? What if the more closely you follow Christ, the worse things go?
It’s not reducible to the usual learning curves: the normal process of gaining wisdom in the practice of Christian faith or vocational ministry. It’s not just about practical tools developed through growth. Sometimes, it’s not even necessarily tied to real and related dynamics: injustice, and spiritual warfare and the call to anointed intercession.
Every Christian needs community; every Christian needs prayer and needs to pray for others. And there are times when your prayer life deepens, only to see your professional traction spinning in the mud.
There are times when you follow Jesus Christ into the center of a mob to put your presence next to someone shielding their head from hands holding stones, only to see your calendar gradually empty.
But there are also times when stakes are unclear; when you’re sailing along fairly predictably. You’re not harboring or fostering known sin, you’re tending to self-management and due diligence, you’re growing in self-awareness and wisdom, you’re continuing to follow Christ to the best of your anointed, sanctified ability, and yet – you sow all your seed and little sprouts. What do you do when you do what you’re supposed to do and it doesn’t go right?
It doesn’t mean you must’ve done something wrong. It doesn’t mean you’ve been unwise. It doesn’t mean a particular method is faulty. If you’re not sure what’s going on and whether or not it’s a tool of the Holy Spirit’s conviction, run that sense of conviction by a few mature, trusted friends in your close circle, local or scattered.
When difficult seasons arrive, you won’t be short on critics or well-platformed gurus advertising solutions. But a sense of condemnation does not come from the Holy Spirit. The enemy of your soul would love for you to look around at a seeming lack of fruit, assume it’s your fault, and grow discouraged.
This is the poverty of the “prosperity gospel” Dr. Kate Bowler has written on so incisively in her book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. Even sound Christians and experienced ministers may inadvertently assume that input leads to output, that best practices lead to multiplication, that expertise raises the likelihood of achieved goals or success.
When a veneer of piety is applied – that God will bless the faithful with a particular set of outcomes – the stage is set for believers in the pew or pulpit to encounter a crisis of faith if their lives or ministries go sideways.
“But I did everything right!” “But I didn’t do anything wrong!”
This sense runs deeply: that we control a “blessing” lever. Pastors pursuing ministerial fruit may unknowingly pursue the reassuring salve of concrete outcomes. “Bearing fruit” slyly shifts to tallying up the numbers associated with people sitting in pews, pulling out their wallets. It’s uncomfortable waiting for invisible, long-term, hard-to-quantify fruits, like those of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
If you sense condemnation when you face inexplicable hurdles that continually pop up, ask yourself what metrics you’re using, and whether or not they’re the metrics of Jesus, who saw many disciples walk away: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66, NIV).
Ask if your unconscious metrics can withstand a visit to a pediatric oncology unit: a ward where kids with cancer receive treatment. If we live in a world where children get cancer, how can we say God always blesses the faithful with specific outcomes? If we live in a world where children get cancer, we have to sit with suffering, with the “unfairness” of it. If anyone “deserves” cancer, it’s certainly not a child. Sometimes, there are miracles. Sometimes, there are not. Neither case proves faithfulness, piety, or belovedness, or denies them.
Deep down, if you know this about the hardest examples of suffering, you also know you can take less credit than you’d like for any part of your ministry that seems “fruitful.”
But you also can’t wilt under a sense of condemnation when things don’t go right despite your best efforts. It can be true both that your actions have real meaning and consequence and also that you’re able to direct less than you think.
St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) is famously quoted growling her irritation with this reality. Slipping in mud, falling in a ditch, or being swept off her horse in high water (depending on the account), she burst out to God, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.”
It may be one of the most honest prayers in church history.
On days when it’s all manure, no harvest, we face a simple fact. We all want to be fruitful; few want to live the line from John Wesley’s covenant prayer: “let me be laid aside for Thee.”
What if God asks you to trust the Holy Spirit’s calling and empowerment, whether or not you ever see any fruit? Any impact? Any positive results?
What if the Holy Spirit asks you to trust the sound of God’s voice through hurdle after hurdle, as your own goals keep getting obstructed? If God asks you to till hard soil with little yield, what will you say? Would you say, “of course, yes, I’ll do it,” like the son who said yes, then went away? Would you say, “oh–no, I’m not sure I can handle that,” only to be softened by the Holy Spirit, like the son who said no but came back?
When things don’t go right, it doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong; it also doesn’t mean you’ve done something right, a hero or martyr. Sometimes, God is weaning you off the approval of your peers. Sometimes, God is showing you that you put your confidence in metrics or methods or even theology instead of Christ alone.
Sometimes, God is entrusting you with the companionable silence of his presence, not disavowing you with the punitive withdrawal of his presence.
Sometimes, as Pete Grieg points out in God on Mute, in a physical universe governed by the laws of physics, you just slip in the mud.
When so many of Jesus’ disciples walked away, what did he say? “‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God’” (John 6:67-69).
Fruitful seasons are nice, but they have their pitfalls too. In reality, some fruitful seasons are overinflated bubbles ready to burst, like the disciples who turned back. The desire to maximize our time can tempt us to declare a harvest prematurely or hurry our discernment.
You don’t need a bumper crop of obvious fruit in ministry. You never did. It won’t prove you’re faithful; it’s not a reliable indicator of the state of your soul, either. It’s kind of an old lie, after all – that possessing a certain fruit can ensure you are like God.
Silly, really – trading the quiet companionship of God in the cool of the evening for the illusion of validation that external fruit tempts us with.
“‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’”
Jesus has always been enough.
Maxie Dunnam: Revival on the Horizon —
Several years ago, the Good News Board of Directors met in Memphis, Tennessee, and bestowed the United Methodist Renewal Award on the Rev. Dr. Maxie Dunnam. In the previous issue of Good News, we published the first part of our conversation with him and touched upon his spiritual journey as local pastor, social activist, influential author, seminary president, and former world editor of The Upper Room.
Good News’ award is presented to a person that has demonstrated dedication to the renewal of Methodism. It was named after the late Rev. Edmund W. Robb Jr., an unforgettable evangelist and author who served as chairman of the Good News board of directors.
For the occasion of the award presentation in 2016, friends gathered at a Good News dinner at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis. At the ceremony, the Rev. Rob Renfroe, president and publisher of Good News, accentuated Dunnam’s focus on a Christ-centered ministry, as well as his commitment to civil rights and education for underprivileged children. My colleague also touched upon Dunnam’s winsome disposition.
“When he steps up to a pulpit, within a few words people think to themselves, ‘I like that man. I’d like to be his friend. Or I wish he were my uncle.’ And when people like you, they listen to you and you have a real opportunity to influence them for Christ,” said Renfroe.
“And the reason people like Maxie is because you immediately get the impression that he likes you,” observed Renfroe, a long-time friend. “The reason you love Maxie is because you sense that he loves you.”
Maxie has had a great impact on Methodism because “people know that he cares,” said Renfroe. “So they have listened when he spoke, they have followed when he led, and they have given their time and their talents and their treasure when he has challenged them to a worthy cause.”
The award presentation also celebrated his influence as a faithful delegate to numerous United Methodist General Conferences, as well as his pivotal roles in helping create both the Confessing Movement and the Wesleyan Covenant Association.
“Maxie, by nature, is a lover with a heart of grace. But, there is a commitment to the truth of the gospel that has propelled him into the fray, at times reluctantly,” concluded Renfroe. “And for who he is and for all he has done, we honor him.”
In the previous issue of Good News, we spoke with Maxie about his childhood, call to ministry, his signature on the “Born of Conviction” statement, Bishop Gerald Kennedy, Brother E. Stanley Jones, and the mystery of prayer. What follows is the second-half of our colorful conversation.
– Steve Beard, editor of Good News
Because of the [previously discussed] “Born of Conviction” statement, you moved from Mississippi to California in the 1960s. That was a shift for your family.
I was excited about going to something new and fresh. One of our friends – who was not a signer of the “Born of Conviction” statement – was out in California. He had nurtured me in the ministry. We visited him six months before we went. We saw San Clemente and I said, Wouldn’t it be would it be wonderful to live in a place like this? That’s where I planted the church.
What did you learn spiritually on that journey?
I didn’t know anything about anything. That was another confirmation of God’s guidance in a way that you don’t even recognize it until it’s over.
The district superintendent had given us the name of two couples in San Clemente. That’s all we knew and those two couples just took us in and welcomed us. They were happy because they knew they were getting an evangelical pastor.
What that taught us at a deep level is that it really doesn’t matter where you go, God’s people are there – it’s a matter of getting connected with them. Not all of them are on the same level of the relationship, but they know themselves to be God’s people and that was confirmed.
After 10 years of ministry in Southern California, you moved your family to Nashville to work at The Upper Room. Big shift.
The Upper Room was a huge chapter in my life. That’s really when I became what I call a “world Christian.” How I got there is really a mystery. I had begun to lead some retreats and speaking at conferences.
I received a letter from Wilson O. Weldon, the world editor of The Upper Room, saying that they were starting a new ministry that was going to try to resource and engage the readership of The Upper Room – 4 million back then – as a prayer fellowship and get their energy directed.
I just felt, my Lord, I don’t know anything about that.
What year was this?
That would have been 1974. About the same time, I had been involved with some people in Mississippi who were friends and lay people committed on the racial issue – which was a rare kind of thing – and they had become involved with people in Maryland who had a retreat center. We had been in an interview to become the head of that retreat center. It was so attractive because my wife Jerry and I have had a faint, and sometimes passionate, desire to live in a deliberate Christian community. That’s been a thing that has stirred in me through the years and that would have been it.
That ends up being the most exciting thing that you never ended up doing. [laughter]
We got on the plane headed back to California. We hadn’t been in the air 30 minutes before we looked at each other and said, We can’t do that. We both had the same feeling.
It wasn’t but a couple of months later before we got this word from Wilson Weldon at The Upper Room. I think that I’m honest emotionally – and I always try to be honest with other people if I’m involved relationally – when they began to talk about me leading a prayer movement I just said to him, “Look I am not an expert in prayer and I think you’re talking to the wrong person.”
You felt like this was a mistake?
I still have a letter that I wrote them on the plane going back to California telling them that I just didn’t think I was the person for that job because of my weakness in prayer.
The long and the short of it is that they called me and offered me the job. It’s one of the two or three times in my life when I accepted a position that I knew I was incapable of really performing. That’s also what I felt about becoming the president of Asbury Theological Seminary.
Every reader can relate to feeling inadequate. All you have to do is see the phrase “Prayer Specialist” and we all feel inadequate. We’re all amateurs, right?
That’s right. Absolutely.
There’s nothing that we are asked to do “spiritually” – and I put that in quotation marks – that we are capable of doing. We are equipped as we move along and as we are obedient. If we are obedient, we are equipped supernaturally.
That’s really what happened at The Upper Room. We need to be humble enough to recognize our deficiency, to confess it to those who are part of the responsible bodies, and trust that God has other instruments that he’s using to accomplish his will. When they invited me, I had to say, Well, they know what they need better than I do. Both Jerry and I felt that we should do it.
How did your name emerge at The Upper Room?
I tried to find out how in the world they had ever chosen to interview me for that job. Ira Galloway had become the General Secretary of the Board of Evangelism. Ira didn’t know me. And I knew Wilson at The Upper Room didn’t know me.
The General Board of Evangelism had a program where it sent young ministers to Mexico to preach revivals. I was one of the ten they sent to Monterrey, Mexico. The visiting preachers and our hosts would get together every morning for prayer and sharing before we started teaching and preaching at 10 o’clock in the morning. One of the guys on the team was from Texas. He is the one who told Ira, “Maxie is the guy you need to look at.”
Earlier, you used the phrase “world Christian.” What do you mean by that term?
Being in that position at The Upper Room, there is lots of travel involved because we had all these editions all over the globe. That was a tough part of the job, but it was a great part of the job. We visited the different editors all over the world and began to share life with them. For a country boy from Mississippi, California was an eye opener, but this was even beyond that.
I also began to see the expression of the gospel and the church in different ways – and how it was effective and not effective.
I met dynamic Christians – some of them world-class. I met Christians who were laboring in very difficult situations but were radiant and faithful. Some of that became clear when I traveled with Dr. Tom Carruth and Brother E. Stanley Jones at Ashram meetings.
[Editor’s note: Carruth taught on prayer at Asbury Theological Seminary and authored 15 books on the subject. He died in 1991. E. Stanley Jones (1884-1973), of course, was a historic international Christian leader who developed the Christian Ashram movement.]
I am who I am and I’ve done what I’ve done because there’s been three or four big occasions when I was called and I knew I was incapable – but I thought it was a genuine call and that I would be enabled to do the job. We’re enabled as we move out. The Upper Room was a big example of that.
You began at The Upper Room as the director of Prayer Life and Fellowship. You then became the world editor of The Upper Room daily devotional guide. It had a worldwide circulation in the millions at the time and was printed in 38 different languages.
When I went to The Upper Room I was responsible for the area of work that was related to the fellowship of prayer and developing resources. I wasn’t proficient in prayer or spiritual direction. I began to read everything I could read and talk to everybody I could talk to. As a result, I came in touch with the saints of the ages. I saw people in East Germany that were oppressed, but faithful. I saw the prophetic witness of Dr. Peter Storey and Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa. We saw the humble saints that were without fame – as well as those with well-known names. Both had deep commitments. I had a chance to be exposed to all kinds of people.
You once had a meeting with a very consequential man: Pope John Paul II.
I met Pope John Paul while I was the editor of The Upper Room and on the board of the World Methodist Council.
What struck you about him?
His humility. Pope John Paul knew he was under a heavy burden and a heavy responsibility but there was nothing haughty about him. Nothing. In fact, quite the opposite. The only reason my picture was taken with him was really accidental. Wherever the Pope goes, there are photographers. I didn’t even know that picture was taken. These photographers post those pictures on bulletin boards all over the place.
I’ve been thinking about Pope Francis, the current pontiff. He’s rare. I’m not sure he’s going to be as popular as others but sometimes he tickles me. I don’t see how a man could even function there – but they have to know that they’re the spiritual head of millions and millions of people.
Agreed. Switching to a different lane of leadership, let’s talk about how you became president of Asbury Theological Seminary.
Again, it was Tom Carruth. I had been invited to serve on the Asbury Seminary board after having been given an honorary degree. I was at Christ Methodist Church in Memphis and I got to know the Asbury community a little bit after being on the board. I discovered Asbury was a place I wish I had gone to for my own seminary education.
Jerry and I went to a meeting with the World Methodist Evangelism to England with Eddie Fox [longtime leader of World Methodist Evangelism] to dedicate the statue of John Wesley feeling his heart “strangely warmed.” We knelt at that statue and prayed. Three months later the Asbury presidency opened up. Six months later I was offered the job.
How did that come about?
I had resigned as chair of the presidential search committee. It was a time of obedience because we could not have been happier at Christ Church. It was dynamic. It was growing. Two of the greatest missional expressions that are going on in Memphis were birthed at Christ Church. It was just a great church and it was growing. The person that teetered me in the direction of being interested in the presidency was Jimmy Buskirk.
Dr. Jimmy Buskirk was a precious soul. He was the long time pastor of First United Methodist Church in Tulsa. He served on the Asbury Seminary board with you. He had also been the founding dean of the School of Theology at Oral Roberts University.
I was happy at Christ Church but Jimmy came to see me and said, “Your ministry, Maxie, at Christ Church is a ministry of addition. If you become the president of Asbury, it’ll be a ministry of multiplication.”
He was right. Pivoting in a different direction, I am going to list some names. Give me your thoughts.
Bishop William R. Cannon (1916-1997).
I have a real love and attraction for people who are themselves – and don’t try to be anything else – but have some uniqueness that just sets them apart. Bishop Cannon was one of those people. When I went to Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, he was the Dean.
He would preach in chapel now and then and I remember two or three occasions when everybody would just remain, just linger – not talking to each other. Our relationship was very loving – it wasn’t formal. When I went to The Upper Room, we had dinner and he said, “Maxie, don’t stay there too long. You need to be preaching.”
Yeah, beautiful. He didn’t pretend to be anything he wasn’t. But he did emphasize his eccentricities. He was the chair of the General Board of Evangelism. He gave a speech at the Confessing Movement. He was as orthodox as you can get. He was an evangelical – not in the popular sense of the word – but he really wanted people to be won to Christ. There’s a sense in which he really was a lot like Bishop Gerald Kennedy from California. Very different personalities. You never knew how they were going to express their passion.
Dr. William J. Abraham (1947-2021). Our dear Irish friend, Billy, who taught for ages at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas.
First, I felt he died too early. He was one of the best theological leaders we had – as smart as any of the theologians I knew, but he did not let that smartness keep him from communicating the gospel in an understandable way. Our friendship was really growing. We had been friends a long time, but I didn’t see him a lot. I’m sure he knew that I had become the president of Asbury Seminary when he was a primary candidate, but we never talked about it. I get the feeling that Billy would have loved to have been the president of Asbury Seminary. I think he was that kind of leader.
One more mutual friend: Dr. Thomas C. Oden (1931-2016) from Drew Theological School.
There’s a sense in which Tom was a little bit more of a churchman. Tom would have never been the communicator that Billy was – I don’t think he ever was – but their theology is very much the same. They’re both brilliant. Both of them loved the academy – and championed the academy. I don’t think Tom ever wanted to be anything other than what he was.
Tom and Billy rarely faced a battle they weren’t willing to fight.
That’s right. Both of them were fighters but Billy was a feisty fighter. Tom was a conservative fighter.
Let’s talk about the launch of the Global Methodist Church.
I really have come to believe that the Global Methodist Church is an answer to prayer. It isn’t that we’ve been praying for a new denomination – we’ve been praying for revival. I’ve been a Methodist preacher longer than there’s been a United Methodist Church and I have been totally – maybe more than I should have been – committed to the United Methodist Church.
I’ve poured my life into that denomination and the World Methodist Council. I’ve been a part of Methodism and have fought the battles to conserve what the UM Church has always said she was in terms of how we define ourselves. I could have lived basically with the Book of Discipline of the UM Church the rest of my life, except I’d want to change some things about the bishops.
The obvious pattern of the church, it seems to me, developed a strong vocal, very influential liberal presence. That’s not just theological. There was a another group – not evangelical, really – we would really label as “centrist.” I really have been a part of that.
You would consider yourself a centrist?
I have, through the years.
These categories can be confusing, sometimes overlapping.
I’m clearly traditionalist now, but I think it’s because of my pastoral inclination of wanting people to be together. And then I saw the glaring violation of the Book of Discipline with one of our retired bishops performing a same-sex wedding ten years ago in Alabama, and the effort to liberalize the UM Church.
In the southeast, we always seemingly elected bishops that were different than that – we thought. I decided that something needed to happen. I didn’t think about it in terms of division, but I knew it had to be some sort of division and that happened to me at the 2019 special General Conference when the bishops brought the four ways forward.
The bishops themselves didn’t want to consider the traditional one – being what the UM church has said she is, but with more accountability for the episcopacy.
That’s the way I saw it. I left that General Conference just really down.
I had a small group of people scheduled to go to Cuba. There’s been a revival going on in Cuba for a long time. I really needed that and it was terrific. I’d been to Cuba before, but I’d never really experienced the depth of spirituality there.
The 2019 General Conference reaffirmed what we had affirmed the four years preceding but it turned into a shouting match. As you know, the Western Jurisdiction publicly announced that it was not going to abide by what we had decided. The bishops had come to the General Conference divided themselves.
Are you optimistic about the future?
I’m excited about the Global Methodist Church because I believe it is a great expression of revival. I think the structures are too great and the interest groups are too firmly established in the United Methodist Church. It could be a fresh start for everybody. It will give us an opportunity to really be serious about how we, as a body, are going to preach and teach and experience the Holy Spirit.
I believe we’re going to have a demonstrable revival.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. All of us at Good News are grateful for the Christian witness of our friend Maxie Dunnam. Photo: Anthony Thaxton. Used by permission.Maxie Du
Finding Life Between Law & Grace —
By Carolyn Moore —
Not long ago, I got a text from someone who was a part of our local congregation until she moved to another state. She’d seen something in her devotional guide that sparked memories of things we talked about when she was part of our fellowship.
“Today’s devo reminded me of our time together in healing prayer when you said to me, ‘You’ve prayed … now WALK IN IT.’ Those three words (‘walk in it’) have resonated with me, over and over, when my mind and emotions overtake my faith. Healing prayer. Imagine! Actual healing. Daily healing. Sanctification. Remember when I thought sanctification was ‘Heyull’?”
That’s how she spelled it: h-e-y-u-l-l. Heyull.
She was a new Christian (we will call her Janet), or at least, a renewed one. She’d come home to Jesus after years away. It had been a great joy to see Janet find her place in the body of Christ and watching Jesus do some significant healing in her life. I had prayed with her and listened to her complicated story and we’d shed tears together.
Janet was right, of course: sanctification is hard work. By the time someone gets serious about the process of changing spiritually, they’ve usually tried all the other options and have discovered there is no short cut. If change is going to happen, something has to die, and deaths are not easy! Ask anybody who has had to quit smoking or drinking or drugging or who has had to quit any unhealthy habit. The quitting itself is hard work.
Somewhere in the death of that thing, we get a glimpse – if not of where we are, then – of where we’ve been. So sanctification happens while we are doing it, and we feel it when we walk from death to life or from darkness to light. We know from the contrast that hell has been in the equation, and it is only for the promise of what is on the other side that we bother. Or because our hell got bad enough to move us on. All of this is to say, holiness is not for wimps.
Passed on from Wesley. Methodism’s founder John Wesley and his brother Charles lived in the 1700s. They were pastor’s kids, but their mom is the one who really discipled them. John especially seemed to have a strong hunger for a deeper life of faith. His understanding of salvation was broader and deeper than “getting saved.” When he talked about it, he used terms like “Christian perfection” and distinguished between personal and social holiness – think journey inward and journey outward – and over time he developed his understanding of what we call “entire sanctification.”
A few months before he died, Wesley wrote this in a letter to Robert Carr Blackberry: “This doctrine [entire 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” (September 15, 1790).
In his book Perfect Love, Dr. Kevin Watson defines it theologically this way: “Entire sanctification is the doctrine that defines Methodism’s audacious optimism that the grace of God saves us entirely, to the uttermost.”
I love that phrase: audacious optimism. I love thinking of us as the people who carry that kind of spirit, truly the spirit of Jesus. It is the glorious trust in God’s ability to make us better than what we are and then, better and better still. It is the belief that God actually has the capacity to heal me and make me whole and holy.
It goes against the typical narrative surrounding the idea of holiness. The Puritans ruined it for all of us. They made it sound like a list of dry and joyless rules we had to follow in order to keep God happy. As a consequence, we still tend to hear that word and get very serious and wonder what we’ve done wrong. We forget that freedom and lightness and joy are the hallmarks of a holy life.
Holiness is meant to release us into the joys of the Kingdom of God. To operate in holy love – loving God with all my heart and loving my neighbor as myself. That’s how we advance the Kingdom of God. It is not meant to be an unbearable burden. Instead, it is the ultimate form of freedom.
I’ve discovered that you don’t have to understand it to pursue it. You just have to want it – to desire your motives to be more pure, your desires to be more Christ-honoring, your heart to be more open to loving like Jesus.
Far from being restrictive and fun-sapping, holiness calls out the best in us and causes us to glorify God. It is art, not engineering. It is the good life.
“This is Methodism’s big idea: salvation brings not only forgiveness and pardon but also empowerment and freedom to live a faithful and holy life entirely and right now,” writes Watson. “This is our grand deposit – the treasure that God has entrusted to the particular people called Methodists.”
Big questions. Before they were ordained, Wesley would ask Methodist pastors if they intended to be saved entirely – to the uttermost. He had a list of nineteen questions that he asked every pastor. Methodists to this day still use those questions. Three of the first four deal with entire sanctification.
• Have you faith in Christ? In other words, what would it take for you to engage your faith?
• Are you going on to perfection? This question is not about whether we have reached it or even if we can. The question is: are our lives pointed in that direction? Are you heading in the direction of spiritual perfection?
• Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Seriously, are you going someplace spiritually? Do you actually expect to get there? Is your intention to be perfect in love? To be so ruthlessly opposed to stagnation in our life with Christ that we continually press on toward the prize of perfect love? Because holiness or Christian Perfection or entire sanctification is ultimately about love.
• Are you earnestly striving after it? Sounds a little intimidating and pushy, doesn’t it? And not very fun. “Earnestly striving” sounds a lot like legalism or self-effort – everything we are trying to get away from – right?
When discussing holiness, it is easy to get off track. It can be tempting to become more interested in the laws than in the Law-giver. So from our earliest history, our people have mishandled this gift of holiness. We made it more interesting for engineers than artists, carefully carving it into hundreds (or countless) rules to memorize and master. We turned an abstract work of immeasurable beauty into a blueprint.
Hard work. Entire sanctification is hard work. The writer of Hebrews says, “For the joy set before him (Christ) endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
So not even Jesus got a pass on that walk through pain to get to the other side where the joy is. The hard work of sanctification is the part of solid, orthodox Christianity we don’t often talk about. It is really about understanding what God wants to do to our lives.
The woman who texted me, Janet, got her first taste of sanctification. “Now I accept the power and pain of it only because I’ve learned I cannot handle the burn of sanctification without Jesus’ constant presence,” she wrote. “Not my actions or feelings but his presence and power.”
I can feel how much she has learned as she has walked out this journey. Sometimes our talk about sanctification can seem a bit abstract. But nothing is more real than this spiritual work of “growing in every way more and more like Christ” (Ephesians 4:15, NLT). That’s how the Apostle Paul put it. Nothing is more real than the power and pain that comes with seeking and developing a tolerance for Jesus’ constant presence. But don’t you want it?
At the same time that I was interacting with Janet about sanctification, I spent the day in a courtroom. I had two recurring thoughts in my mind. One was, I can’t believe we are here. I can’t believe it has come to this. I can’t believe we had to ask a secular court to decide for Christian people what is right. This is exactly why Paul didn’t recommend it. Court and the law causes us to focus on what is wrong, rather than being free to focus on what is right and good and pure and holy. The law will never get us the distance of grace.
Sometimes circumstances will draw us to that legal option when it seems like the only one we have left. But, can the Law ultimately get you where you want to go?
The other thought in that courtroom was, This Sunday, I’m talking about the difference between law and grace and how law and grace interact with the process of sanctification. Yet, here I sit in a courtroom, leaning on the law and wishing for grace.
That was a moment for me. I recognized that no human system can generate grace, because grace is incubated in relationship with God. This is one of the meta-stories of the Bible. We begin in the Old Testament with God bringing his people out of exile into the desert, then handing them the Law as a first primer – think of it like a first coat of paint – on their way to understanding God’s true colors and the vibrant color of sanctification.
In Exodus, we get the Ten Commandments. In Leviticus, God begins to drill down into each of those major themes to teach us that a thousand times a day we are confronted by pockets of death. However, inside this fallen state there is a choice and an invitation to go looking for life.
Leviticus is a hard book. It is where Bible reading plans go to die. Why? Because it is hard to hear the bigger point, which is that holiness really is all about life.
So, ridding your house of yeast, ridding your clothes of mold, ridding your life of sexual activity you weren’t designed for – all those rituals and laws for the Israelite – were little practice sessions on how to go looking for life. At the center of this whole conversation in Leviticus – all of it about what it means to be holy, about what it means to live the good life – sits what they call the Holiness Code. And like a heading over this section, God tells Moses to tell the people: “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).
The Hebrew word for holy is qodesh. We find that word more than 100 times in the book of Leviticus. Seventeen times in Leviticus chapters 21 and 22, we find either that we are holy or that God is, or that we are to be holy because God is. All the way through the Holiness Code – Leviticus chapters 17 to 26 – God makes it clear that the point is to know God as he is. We do these things so we can identify with God, so we can know him, so we can recognize his voice when we hear it.
We are holy by proximity to God. It is his character and his voice that make us holy.
The writer of Leviticus gives us this whole section of very specific laws about all kinds of things: mold, not putting a curse on someone, not seeking revenge, sexual relationships. It reminds me of those warning labels made by lawyers: “This coffee is hot” or “This plastic bag is not a toy.”
We have to be told because on our own, we are drawn toward death. So the author talks very directly about behavior but he comes back to this refrain over and over again: Be holy because I am. In other words, get close enough to God to hear his voice.
These laws are highly relational. In fact, it is also in the Holiness Code in Leviticus that we find the second greatest commandment: to love your neighbor as yourself.
Stop and think about this for a minute. This is the line Jesus plucked from all those laws in the Holiness Code. The one line he pulled into his teaching was this: Love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, take care of each other because this is the filter that every other law has to run through.
Observe the Sabbath … and take care of each other.
Don’t make or worship idols … and take care of each other.
Take care of your body … and take care of each other.
Don’t leave the weak ones behind … take care of each other.
Respect foreigners and elders. Take care of each other.
All of this is to say that we are holy not only by proximity to God, but in proximity to each other. How we live impacts the people around us. This is why Jesus got so frustrated with the Pharisees. Over and over, he watched them become experts in the law while they cared nothing for people.
The law can only take you so far. It can tell you that your actions are right or wrong, but it can’t fix your motives, nor can it repair your heart.
So can we ever be entirely sanctified? Only by the love of God, manifested in the person of Jesus Christ, taking us by the hand and walking us that final stretch from the best we can do into the holiness of God.
Flying in the clouds. Not long ago, I had a prophetic vision in a time of prayer where I saw myself in the cockpit of a plane flying through the clouds. Eventually my plane would break through and I’d be able to see what I was flying toward. My fear while I was in the bank of clouds was that I would fly directly into a building.
That’s a pretty anxious feeling. When the clouds are thick or the weather is particularly bad, they tell me it can be disorienting for your eyes to go back and forth between what you see in the window and the panel in front of you. That’s because the messages aren’t the same. What is out the window tells you that you may be out of control, but the panel tells you the truth. The panel can tell you what true north is and it can show you altitude and terrain. It can communicate directly with air traffic controllers and it even has systems in place to fix itself.
The control panel actually can tell you what is true. And this, maybe, is a little bit like the Law. It can tell us what is true. When things get confusing it is wiser to keep our eyes on the control panel – on the Law – rather than looking out the window on a world that wants to turn it all upside-down.
When an airplane flies into a high-traffic area, there is something better and more accurate than a control panel: the control tower. Those in the control tower see the big picture. They see the buildings, the traffic patterns, the weather – they see it all. The control tower knows where all the other planes are. To find the runway, the pilot has to depend on the voice in the tower.
Perhaps that is what grace is. The Law is rules on a page, but Grace is a voice. If we want to land safely, we need to become intensely interested in that voice – not just to hear it but to trust it, to believe in it. Faith is trusting the Voice, even in the clouds.
“I had to learn my first lesson of the Christian life: how to obey before I understood. My whole life had taught me to master a concept before I could assent to it,” wrote Rachel Gilson in Christianity Today. “How could I possibly agree to something so costly without grasping the reason?”
Gilson was relating how God navigated her through some thick clouds. “In the end, it came down to trust. I knew Jesus was worthy of trust, because he had made a greater sacrifice,” she wrote. “He had left the bliss, the comfort, the joy of loving and being perfectly loved, to live a sorrowful life on earth. He took the pain and shame of a criminal’s death and suffered the Father’s rejection, all so I could be welcomed. Who could be more deserving of trust?”
She passes on a very important truth: “The obedience of faith only works when it’s rooted in a person, not a rule. Imposed on its own, a rule invites us to sit in judgment, weighing its reasonableness. But a rule flowing from relationship smoothes the way for faithful obedience.”
As Rachel makes clear, the difference between law and grace is the difference between rules and relationship. It is the difference between following the panel and following the Voice. It isn’t that one is wrong and the other is right. It is that one can only take you so far.
And that, I believe, is Paul’s point when he talks about law and grace in his letter to the Romans. He teaches that the Law has done its job when it tells us that what we are doing when we sin is wrong. When the Law does that, it is doing its job. It is telling us while we’re in the clouds that we are heading toward a brick wall. Paul even says that we make it worse on ourselves when we trust our own brain by watching out the window instead of looking at the panel.
“I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:22-25).
That’s it! We cannot be perfected outside of an intimate and growing relationship – friendship – with Jesus, until we learn not only his Law but his voice. We cannot be perfected in love until we surrender to him when we can’t see two feet in front of us in the clouds. That’s where the real perfecting happens because that’s where faith clicks in. To be made perfect in love, to be perfected in love toward our neighbor, to land on that runway – we have to learn how to listen for the tiniest, thinnest whisper of God even in the thickest cloud.
Carolyn Moore is the founding pastor of Mosaic Church in Augusta, Georgia. She is the author of several books, including, most recently, When Women Lead (Seedbed). Photo: Shutterstock.
Estonian Churches Withdraw —
By Heather Hahn (UM News) —
The 23 United Methodist churches in the Baltic nation of Estonia are leaving the denomination to form the independent Estonia Methodist Church.
By a 97 percent majority vote on June 16, the Estonia District affirmed the churches’ decisions to disaffiliate. The district’s voters then directed that church property and assets be transferred to the autonomous Estonia Methodist Church as of July 1.
Among the assets going with the newly created Estonia Methodist Church are several diaconal institutions and the Baltic Methodist Theological Seminary in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital.
United Methodist Bishop Christian Alsted, who leads the Nordic-Baltic-Ukraine Episcopal Conference, described the district conference as solemn and prayerful but also very emotional.
“Personally, the disaffiliation grieves my heart – I find it unnecessary, and I believe it is a loss to the Methodists in Estonia as well as to the entire UMC,” he said in a press statement.
“Nevertheless, I respect and honor the decision made by the Estonia Methodist Church, and I stand with my commitment to help all annual conferences, districts and local churches in the Nordic, Baltic and Ukraine episcopal area to live into a future, where they believe they can serve with integrity.”
The district, which has about 1,500 members, is part of the larger Baltic Annual Conference that includes United Methodist churches in Lithuania and Latvia. Remaining in the conference are 18 churches with about 870 members total. Annual conferences are The United Methodist Church’s basic organizing units around the globe.
In 2019, General Conference – the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly – approved a policy that allows churches to leave with property “for reasons of conscience” related to homosexuality if they meet certain procedural and financial obligations.
Since the church law took effect, [more than] 6,000 United Methodist churches in the United States, about 20 percent of U.S. churches, have received the required approvals to disaffiliate. But that policy – the Book of Discipline’s Paragraph 2553 – only applies in the U.S. and is set to expire at the end of the year.
Under Estonian civil law, the church in Estonia could simply leave with property, Alsted said. But Estonian church members wanted to leave “in a peaceful and respectful manner,” the bishop added.
To accommodate that goal, the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference held a special session online in March to vote on a process that would allow for Estonian churches to exit in an orderly way this year.
The central conference approved a process that required each Estonian congregation support disaffiliation by at least a two-thirds vote. At least 30 percent of a church’s professing members needed to be present when the vote took place. Most votes were unanimous for withdrawal, Alsted said. The district then confirmed the separation when it met in June.
The disaffiliation process also requires the exiting Estonian United Methodist churches to be up-to-date in paying their apportionments – shares of church giving that support ministry beyond the local church. Beyond that, the Estonia Methodist Church does not have to pay any additional compensation.
At the district conference in Tallinn that marked the Estonian churches’ disaffiliation, Alsted and the Rev. Robert Tserenkov, Estonia’s district superintendent, signed an agreement of mutual recognition between United Methodists and Estonian Methodists.
“Each recognizes in one another that they are constituent members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church as expressed in the Scriptures, confessed in the Church’s historic creeds, and attested to in our common doctrinal standards,” the agreement said.
The agreement also commits the central conference and new independent church to collaborate wherever possible in mission and ministry and to welcome each other’s members.
Tserenkov, who will lead the new denomination alongside an elected council until it elects a bishop, expressed his hope for the future. “May God bless and guide the Estonian Methodist Church forward, as he has done by his grace for 116 years!”
During the district’s ordination service, Alsted offered his hope that the two churches will be like Paul and Barnabas in the Book of Acts after they went in different directions.
“Despite their sharp disagreement and their decision to part ways, God continued to bless them and make their separate ministries fruitful,” Alsted said. “I pray that the decisions made this weekend, as difficult as they were, will lead to fruitfulness.”
Heather Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. This article was distributed by UM News. Photo: Nordic-Baltic-Ukraine Area Bishop Christian Alsted, left, and the Rev. Robert Tserenkov, Estonia District superintendent, sign an agreement of mutual recognition between the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference and the Estonia Methodist Church. The 23 United Methodist churches in Estonia are leaving to form the Estonia Methodist Church, which Tserenkov will lead alongside an elected council until the new denomination elects a bishop. Photo courtesy of Bishop Christian Alsted via UM News.
Methodist Heritage: Brother Stanley —
By Edmund Robb III —
Good News Archive, July-August 1976 —
TIME magazine, Oct. 20, 1948: “A grand old man among U.S. missionaries is a rugged Methodist preacher named Eli Stanley Jones. Baltimore-born Missionary Jones went to India in 1907, and his 35 busy years there made him one of India’s best known and respected Americans. His preaching has converted many a Hindu and Moslem to Christianity; his 14 books (best known: The Christ of The Indian Road) have quickened the faith of Christians all over the world.”
Little did the Time editors realize how rugged this “grand man among U.S. missionaries” really was! What was apparently intended as a career epitaph report, wasn’t. His “35 busy years” stretched to 61. His “14 books” increased to 27. And the number of his converts swelled dramatically.
Dr. Jones – “Brother Stanley” – never seemed willing to quit. He often said, “When I die and get to heaven, I will take the first 24 hours to rest, the next 24 hours to seek out and talk with my friends, then I think I will go to Jesus and say, ‘Lord, do you have any other lost worlds where you need an evangelist? Please send me.’ ”
E. Stanley Jones – energy extraordinary! But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, he almost died of appendicitis in 1914. Only an emergency midnight trip from Sitapur to Lucknow in an army truck saved him – and even then he almost didn’t make it because 10 days after his operation tetanus set in. It looked as though Jones’ missionary career was over.
Somehow, he survived. Later, Brother Stanley recounted, “I had no intention of dying.” But within a few months the young missionary suffered the first of several nervous breakdowns. Eight years of strain in India had taken their toll, and so he was furloughed back to America for a year of recuperation.
Then he returned to India – and collapsed again. He later wrote, “I went to India with a deepening cloud upon me. Here I was beginning a new term of service in this trying climate and beginning it – broken.
“I saw that unless I got help from somewhere, I would have to give up my missionary career, go back to America and go to work on a farm to try to regain my health. It was one of my darkest hours. At that time – while in prayer, not particularly thinking about myself – a Voice seemed to say, ‘Are you yourself ready for this work to which I have called you?’
“I replied: ‘No, Lord, I am done for. I have reached the end of my rope.’
“The Voice replied, ‘If you will turn that over to Me and not worry about it, I will take care of it.’
“I quickly answered, ‘Lord, I close the bargain right here.’ That moment was the turning point of E. Stanley Jones’ missionary career – indeed, of his whole life!
The Voice was nothing new to Brother Stanley. He had been listening to it since college days – and it had led him to India. He later wrote, “At the close of four years here [Asbury College, 1906], I was perplexed and needed guidance as to where I should spend my life. At that particular moment I received a letter from the college president saying, ‘It is the will of the townspeople, it is the will of the faculty, it is the will of the student body, and we believe it is the will of God for you to come and teach in this college.’“
At that same moment he got a letter from a friend saying, “I believe it is the will of God for you to go into the evangelistic field here in America.”
He then received a letter from the Methodist mission board saying, “It is our will to send you to India.”
“Here was a perfect traffic jam of wills!” he recalled. “I had to get my way out, to find my way into clearness. I … knelt down in my room, spread [the letter] out before God, and said, ‘Now, my Father, my life is not my own. Anywhere you want me to spend it, I will go.’
“Just as quietly the inner Voice said, ‘It is India.’ I arose from my knees, sure it was India.”
And so, E. Stanley Jones went to India at a critical period in its history. The country was in a great flux. The India which he saw was fascinating, alluring, but paradoxical. He described it:
“The Indian Road! The most fascinating Road of all the world. Every Road seems tame alongside this Road. There is no sameness here; and hence no tameness. A surprise awaits you at every turn.
“On this Road you will find the world’s most beautiful building the Taj Mahal – cheek by jowl with the world’s most miserable hut. Here men disdain the world as evil and money as base, and yet on certain days will worship their own account books. … Here you will find the gentlest souls of the world … alongside of which you will find an explosive mentality….”
In 1907, young Jones landed in Bombay. His first impressions struck him like a blow. “People were lying on beds in the day time under trees, or they moved about very slowly. I was used to life keyed up and energetic. Here life seemed to be run down and tired. Its poverty seemed to be accepted and life had adjusted itself to that fact.”
Though respected as a missionary, it was Jones’ prolific writing which brought him into world prominence. Since publication of his first book in 1925, he averaged authoring a book every two years. In addition he wrote scores of magazine articles.
After his death in 1974, his daughter, Eunice, and son-in-law, Bishop James Matthews, wrote, “Some of his books have become modern Christian classics … translated into more than 30 languages.”
Strangely enough, “It was almost by chance that E. Stanley Jones became a writer. It developed from his preaching. Dr. Ralph E. Diffendorfer of the Methodist Board of Missions suggested in 1925 that he incorporate into a book the addresses he had been delivering all across America the previous year. These were based on his missionary work among the intellectuals of India, with whom he had developed an unusual rapport. The unexpected result, a month later, was The Christ of the Indian Road, an immediate best seller.”
At age 83, Stanley Jones began his third autobiography. (He had scrapped the other two.) When asked why he chose to write his own biography, Stanley Jones characteristically replied, “If anyone else writes it, they’ll talk only about E. Stanley Jones, but if I do it, it will be about Jesus.”
In spite of his writing success, until his death Jones insisted, “I am not a professional writer. I have not written for the sake of writing, nor for the sake of material gain. Rather, I have seen a need and have tried to meet that need.”
Brother Stanley wanted to be known not as an author – but as a witness for Jesus Christ. Since the beginning of his long ministry, this was his sole goal.
He once wrote, “I think the word ‘evangelist,’ the bearer of good tidings, is the most beautiful word in our language descriptive of vocation. I have been tempted to desert the name, for it has fallen on evil days and has a bad odor, but I have never been able to let it go, for it would not let me go.”
At one point in his ministry, Jones came near to missing his way as an evangelist. While home from India attending General Conference, he was elected a Methodist bishop, though he had earlier withdrawn his name from consideration. After a restless night Jones decided, “A mistake had been made and I knew it. I was headed in the wrong direction.”
“Bishop” Jones was miserable but he revealed his doubts to only one man, a trusted and loved bishop. His reply was, “You’ve got to go on, no matter how you feel.”
Nevertheless, “Bishop” Jones listened to another voice – The Voice.
Jones recounts: “I went straight to the chairman, Bishop Johnson, and said I had a matter of high privilege. … He had to let me go on. I read my resignation, thanked them for the high honor … walked straight off the platform, out of the building at the back and down the street to my train. I did not wait to see if my resignation would be accepted. I was hastening to get back to the Indian Road – as an evangelist.”
Stanley Jones had learned the importance of being a witness (an evangelist) during his very first sermon. He had prepared for three weeks, feeling that he should act as God’s lawyer and plead His case for Him.
The little church was filled with relatives and friends, all anxious that the young man should do well. All went smoothly until he used the word, “indifferentism.” A young college girl smiled and put down her head. This unnerved him so much that he went blank. “I stood there clutching for something to say.” Finally he blurted out, “I am very sorry, but I have forgotten my sermon.”
On his way back to his seat, Jones heard the inner Voice say to him, “Haven’t I done anything for you? If so, couldn’t you tell that?”
Young Jones stepped down in front of the pulpit and said, “Friends, I see I can’t preach, but you know what Christ has done for my life, how He has changed me, and though I cannot preach, I shall be His witness the rest of my days.”
At the close of that service a youth was saved. Jones had learned a lesson – God wanted him as a witness, not a lawyer.
Brother Stanley was a faithful witness. He was fond of saying, “My theme song is Jesus Christ.” And He was. Long before the Jesus Revolution popularized the “One Way” sign of Christian faith, Jones used a three-finger sign of Christian discipleship. He would smile, hold up his right hand with three fingers extended, symbolizing one of the basic facts of his life: “Jesus is Lord.”
Christ was the focal point of Brother Stanley’s faith – and his life. “I will have to apologize for myself again and again,” he would say, “for I’m only a Christian-in-the-making. I will have to apologize for Western civilization, for it is only partly Christianized. I will have to apologize for the Christian church, for it, too, is only partly Christianized. But when it comes to Jesus Christ, there are no apologies upon my lips, for there are none in my heart.”
Stanley Jones was especially gifted in adapting new methods to present his constant message Christ. One such example is the Ashram (ah’ shrum) movement, which he brought to America.
Ashram is an Indian Sanskrit word, meaning “a retreat.” In India, an Ashram is a place where a guru, or spiritual leader, and his disciples go apart for disciplined spiritual growth. Jones combined this ancient Indian format with the Christian Gospel, and the result was an overwhelming success. (About 150 Christian Ashrams now meet annually around the world.)
One of the reasons for Ashrams’ popularity is their openness. “When we come into the Ashram as members,” Jones explained, “we lay aside all titles. There are no more bishops, doctors, professors – there are just persons. We call each other by our first names …. “ Hence, the Rev. Dr. Eli Stanley Jones became known to millions around the globe simply as “Brother Stanley.”
Above all, Brother Stanley was a disciplined person. His son-in-law, Bishop Matthews, characterized him as “the most disciplined man I have ever known, so much so that at times he seems in this respect almost an anachronism in this century.”
Disciplined, indeed! Every night at 9:30 he would excuse himself to exercise and pray. He prayed one hour every morning and evening – regardless.
Bishop Mathews said of him: “He is constantly reading; constantly writing; constantly replying to his extensive correspondence; constantly traveling …. “
But in spite of his relentless pushing, Brother Stanley is remembered by many as a “fun” person. For example, Rev. Dr. J. T. Seamands, Professor of Missions at Asbury Theological Seminary, and long-time colleague of Jones, shares the story of the time he and Dr. Jones were eating at a Japanese inn. Their repast was revealed to be octopus feet, two sparrows, raw fish, and seaweed. Upon examining the meal before them, Dr. Jones exclaimed: “Where He leads me I will follow; what He feeds me I will swallow!’’
Brother Stanley was full of life because he walked with the One who said, “I am Life.” He knew the Source of his indefatigable strength.
Jones frequently said, “One day you’ll pick up the newspaper and read that Dr. E. Stanley Jones is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I’ll never be more alive than at that moment; and should you look into my casket with a glum face, I’ll wink at you.”
POSTSCRIPT: TIME magazine, Jan. 23, 1973 – Died: Dr. E. Stanley Jones, 89, Methodist clergyman from Maryland, who became one of the world’s best known evangelists; in Barielly, India. . . .
Edmund Robb III was the associate editor to Good News at the time of this article’s publication. This article appeared in the July-August 1976 issue. Dr. Robb went on to be the founding pastor of The Woodlands United Methodist Church in The Woodlands, Texas.
Photo: E. Stanley Jones showing poster of Jesus as the Word became flesh at Nykarleby, Finland Ashram, 1963 (courtesy of Asbury Theological Seminary special collections).