Methodist Heritage: World Methodist Council 1961
Address by Bishop Gerald Kennedy
Tenth World Methodist Conference
August 19, 1961
In the nineteenth century, the English theologian Frederick Dennison Maurice wrote: “I cannot but think that the reformation in our day, which I expect to be more deep and searching than that of the sixteenth century, will turn upon the Spirit’s presence and life, as that did upon the justification by the Son.” That expectation, while as yet unfulfilled, was a confident hope that God through his Holy Spirit would again act mightily in the Church. This expectation was based on previous experiences in the first century and again in the eighteenth century.
The Book of Acts is really the Book of the Holy Spirit. The clue to the meaning of Pentecost is in the words: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2). There is a mighty assurance in those early Christians and they acted as if it were only natural to heal and convert. They were filled with a power that made their witness sharp and clear. They lived in the constant awareness of the reality of the Holy Spirit ever present with them for guidance, comfort, and courage.
The end of World War II was a terrible time for the Christians of Germany. The country was ruined, defeated, disgraced, and there was no hope in the future. Germany was divided, with much of Protestantism under the communists. The churches were particularly hard hit, for they had lost their buildings and many of their leaders. Some of the church leaders had to cross back and forth between East and West Zones and suffered harassments from the authorities. Yet listen to this testimony from Bishop Otto Dibelius: “We are living in the Book of Acts, and, oh, it is glorious.” He was speaking of the recovery of the sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence.
Our fathers knew this experience. Indeed, to read John Wesley’s Journal is to be transported back into the atmosphere of Acts. There are the same great expectations, the same inspiring hopes, the same signs. The Evangelical Revival was, among other things, a rediscovery of the truth of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. I cannot escape the conviction that the Wesleys were raised up by God for this witness and that the people called Methodists have been chosen to continue it.
Now the scandal of revelation for many is its particularity. Why should God reveal Himself in one man, one tribe, one event, one place? Why does God so seldom if ever use an entire generation, a continent, a general infiltration of a whole period as the means of making Himself known? Why is it that He speaks through minorities and fellowships rather than through majorities and institutions? Perhaps it is because He chooses to use the foolish things with which to confound the wise. But I believe He will use some particular instrument for the new reformation.
It could be Methodism. At least we have the tradition and the theology for it. We may have been raised up for such a time and we have the advantage of having been born out of a revival of the Holy Spirit, nurtured by its doctrine, and commanded by its sense of urgency. Let us examine briefly four aspects of our belief in the witness of the Spirit.
In the first place, we believe in Experience. We may argue as to the particulars of John Wesley’s heart-warming event at Aldersgate Street in 1738, but it seems inescapable that it was a personal turning-point and the spring of the Methodist flood. It was an inward witness that brought personal knowledge of God and assurance of the availability of God’s power. It was a baptism of the Holy Spirit.
This was a part of the worship experience of early Methodism. You may remember how Francis Asbury attended a Methodist meeting in Wednesbury and said: “I soon found this was not the Church – but it was better.” He found there no cold formalism and no lifeless ritual, but the sense of the immediate presence of God. The dour and dark dread which seems to dominate so much modern theology, is not the prevailing atmosphere where the presence of the Spirit is expected and recognized. So Wesley could say of a man who has this experience, “He is therefore happy in God.”
I attended a church service a few years ago in a mood of prejudice, which is not the proper way to enter God’s house. I did not like the sermon subject and I was sure that the whole approach was not for me. But from the first hymn, I was captured and lifted. The pastoral prayer began: “O God, when Thy Son walked the earth, men felt that if they could but touch the hem of His robe, they could be healed. We believe He is here with us this day in this place, and with our arms of faith we may touch Him and be healed. Help us to claim Thy promises.” The sermon was a testimony of how men find Christ the answer to their needs and the goal of their search. I left the church helped and strengthened, which is too seldom the experience of people who sit through our chilled formalities.
One of the main problems for modern Methodists is how to create an attitude of expectancy in our ‘cathedrals’ with our choirs and dignified services. Our preaching can so easily become like the heavy lecture at the 1954 World Council Meeting, after which the late Bishop Berggrav of Oslo murmured, “The word became theology and did not dwell among us.” Methodists should sing their theology, which is a better way to proclaim it than reciting a creed or constructing a dogma. Charles Wesley’s hymns are full of personal experiences, and they abound in personal pronouns. I have noticed that Methodist theologians, particularly in England, often quote a hymn when they are discussing a doctrine. They have the sense of these expressions of Charles and John Wesley’s poetry as descriptions of religious experience. And that is theology!
The sign of the living God is communication and revelation. This means experience, and we are committed to the belief that His Spirit witnesses with our spirit. Preachers without the experience of the Holy Spirit are smoking fires with hardly any flame of light. Laymen who have not been baptized with the Spirit, are merely salesmen for an institution with little joy and hardly any power. We cannot give what we do not have any more than we can go back to where we have not been. We believe in the experience of the Holy Spirit.
In the second place, the Holy Spirit’s witness makes us believe in Results. To connect anything pragmatic with the spiritual, will seem to some a contradiction. I am convinced, however, that quite the opposite is true. The spiritual affairs which produce no ascertainable results are to be considered with suspicion. The practical affairs which have no spiritual implications are to be regarded as of questionable importance. This is true of religion in general, but it is the very center of Christianity’s truth.
I have been impressed with the way Wesley met his critics and how in the midst of controversy he kept his eye on the main issue. He seldom argued generalities, but went straight to the particular point. How often he replied to his opponents by referring to the change in environment the Methodists had wrought. He talked about changed personal lives as the answer to Methodism’s critics. John Wesley seems to have thought that the results produced by conversion were the answers to the opposition.
The modern split is reflected in the conversation between two students attending a theological seminary. Both of them served student churches, and one of them was complaining about the condition of his church. The finances were in bad shape, the organizations were feeble, and the attendance was small. But the other one was not disturbed. ‘What do you expect ?’ he asked. “Results?” Or we see it in the superior attitude some times exhibited by other churchmen toward our “activism.” I have seen these communions with their empty sanctuaries and their lack of life. I prefer a Church committed to the idea that the living Spirit of God will produce observable results from its labors, if it is doing God’s will.
We may disagree about methods of evangelism, but we cannot disagree about evangelism itself and remain Christians, to say nothing about remaining Methodists. Evangelism is not just one interest of the Church, for there simply is no Church if evangelism is not present. Let us be critical of all methods and never think that a single method is holy. But that we should ever think that our Methodism can be excused from winning people to Christ would be a confession of death. Every minister and layman in our fellowship must be under the constant question: When was the last time you won somebody to Christ?
We are heavily organized and this causes some of the brethren to chafe. Organization as an end in itself is of the devil, but waste and inefficiency are neither pious nor pleasing to our Lord. All we are trying to do is to conserve the benefits of our faith and exert our maximum power. John Wesley said that he would not strike a blow unless it could be followed up and sustained. I think history says clearly that, for the long pull, Wesley’s way was right. Let us not assume that if we believe in the witness of the Spirit, we must be opposed to machinery in the Church. For it too is a part of God’s plan for the evangelization of the world. It helps us maintain the fruits which God gives from our labors.
A third aspect of this subject is Discipline. This is more important than we think, for only within the framework of a strict discipline can the free Spirit work constructively. Since the days of St Paul, there have been those who would turn the Christian’s freedom into license.
Precisely because he was dealing with tremendous spiritual power, John Wesley insisted on discipline in his services and in the lives of his followers. The early Church found that same necessity and so shall we. In Wesley’s Journal for 17th August 1750 there is this entry: “I preached at Ludgvan at noon, and at Newlyn in the evening. Through all Cornwall I find the societies have suffered great loss from want of discipline. Wisely said the ancients, ‘The soul and body make a man; the Spirit and discipline make a Christian.’” All one or the other can only create half-Christians.
I marvel yet at the Methodist tradition of time and rules. We are to consider time the great gift and the heavy responsibility. We have our General Rules and our Discipline. Our ministers carry heavy burdens and take responsibility for their conferences as well as for their churches. They are to serve where they are appointed without spending time candidating for pulpits. They are subject to the modern tensions and strains which are destroying so many of our contemporaries. I do not know a more difficult or demanding job in our modern world than to be a Methodist minister. This situation will not get better, for we are not about to become pietistic fellowships or passive, waiting servants of Christ. Ours is the marching tradition and we are a travelling ministry. We can only do our work by being the most disciplined of men.
Billy Sunday said one time that he had been accused of rubbing the fur the wrong way. “Well,” he replied, “let the cat turn around.” Perhaps God is saying to us that we must turn around – that we are on the wrong path going in the wrong direction. With all the material advantages we enjoy, we are often frustrated and unhappy people. To be an instrument of the Spirit’s power, we must accept spiritual discipline. The path to freedom is both straight and demanding.
Finally, let us see the witness of the spirit in the light of our doctrine of Christian Perfection. This is a difficult matter for us to understand and explain. There is a very close connection between the doctrines of the Holy Spirit and Christian Perfection. Both stem from the experience of being found by God in Christ. Both are based on a faith that God is involved in all of man’s life. Both believe that the Spirit of God can capture a man and transform his desires. Both will destroy our carefulness and timidity with an assurance that “all things are possible with God.”
When I was a young preacher, I studied John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian Perfection, which may be the only unique doctrine Methodism has preached. I found him spending about as much time explaining what he did not mean as what he did mean. It seemed to me too troublesome, and I spent little time on it in the following years of my ministry. But John Wesley held it and preached it in spite of its difficulty, and I have become convinced that he was right.
A young candidate for Conference membership objected to saying “Yes” to the question: “Are you going on to perfection?” An old bishop asked quietly, “Well son, what are you going on to?” The whole idea of perfection is foreign to us, and we prefer to just do the best we can and not expect unreasonable attainment. But Jesus said, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5).
It is time that we tried to recapture the mood of a man and a people who would declare their intention of aiming at nothing less than being perfect in love. They were not saying that they expected to become sinless – or perfect in judgment. But they were willing to be content with nothing less than giving themselves completely and unreservedly to the service of Jesus Christ. It was an affirmation of the kind of faith we find in the Book of Acts when the experience of the Holy Spirit was so real.
That New Testament enthusiasm is lacking in our time. The American comedian Mort Sahl said that he wished he could find a cause, because he had a lot of enthusiasm. Our problem is just the reverse, for while we have a cause, we seem curiously lacking in enthusiasm, either in the pulpit or in the pews. If in the midst of this compromising, vacillating, mediocrity ridden world the Methodists should proclaim again that they were committed to being made perfect in love, it might start a new revival. In the midst of all the bad news which reaches us daily, this would be good news indeed.
God gives much or little according to our asking. If all we want is the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees, that is all we shall receive. But if we dare to reaffirm our faith in the doctrine of Christian Perfection and pray for the glorious experience of the witness of the Holy Spirit, God wih use us mightily again. And who knows whether we have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?
Gerald Kennedy (1907-1980) was a bishop of the United Methodist Church (Los Angeles). Excerpted from the Proceedings of the Tenth World Methodist Conference in Oslo, Norway, August 17-25, 1961.
The Marks of a Methodist 3: Discipline
By Thomas Lambrecht
This series of articles has been looking at the marks of a Methodist, as expounded by Bishop Gerald Kennedy in 1960. How has the expression of Methodism changed or remained the same in the last 60 years? We have seen that the marks of a Methodist include Experience (a personal experience of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ that transforms all of life) and the desire to Make a Difference in this world as an expression of God’s love.
The third mark Kennedy points to is Discipline. He quotes John Wesley’s Journal from August 17, 1750: “Through all Cornwall I find the societies have suffered great loss from want of discipline. Wisely said the ancients, ‘The soul and body make a man; the Spirit and discipline make a Christian.’”
Discipline might be defined as focused and structured effort toward a goal. For a Christian, the goal is both personal holiness (experience) and pursuing the mission of God in the world (making a difference). In the mind of Wesley and Kennedy, the means to reach that goal is through discipline. Kennedy quotes Methodist Bishop Edwin D. Mouzon as saying, “Methodist discipline is as much a part of Methodism as Methodist doctrine.”
Kennedy illustrates this focused effort by how we spend our time. He quotes one of Wesley’s “Historic Questions” that have been propounded to every aspiring Methodist preacher since the 1750’s. “Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time. Neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary.”
These instructions strike us as somewhat obsessive. One wonders if Wesley ever took a vacation! Unrelenting effort is a recipe for burnout. There are occasions when it is appropriate to waste time. Certainly, the Sabbath principle points to the need for rest and restoration, both physically and spiritually.
On the other hand, many today lack focus and purpose in their lives. When we understand what we are to do with our lives, there needs to be focused time and effort to be faithful to that understanding. We will not accomplish what God has for us to do by sitting on a couch and playing video games. Part of making a difference is devoting our time and energy to those things that will result in making a difference. The more we can give that focused effort, the more we are able to accomplish.
Kennedy sums up his viewpoint, “One of the most serious sins is to waste time. God does not give us a more precious gift than the years of life which are made up of hours and minutes. I find myself more and more in harmony with Wesley’s acute sense of the importance of using every minute of every day with ‘sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,’ as Kipling said.”
Wesley’s General Rules
A primary way that discipline was manifested in the Methodist movement from its earliest days was through Wesley’s three General Rules. Kennedy reminds us that Wesley welcomed anyone with “a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins” to be admitted to a Methodist society, “but once admitted, members either followed the rules or they were dismissed.”
The first rule states that Methodists will evidence their desire of salvation “by doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind.” The examples given in the original rule include “profanity, breaking the Sabbath, drunkenness, fighting and quarreling, dishonesty, buying or selling without paying the tax, usury, speaking evil, doing anything that is not to God’s glory, self-indulgence, borrowing without the probability of repaying.” As Kennedy put it, “great living often begins with a resolution not to do some things which other people are doing. Many people have lost their moral standards because they have accepted the silly idea that a ‘thou shalt not’ is always wrong. Life is made noble by the people who dare to say No.”
The second rule is the flip side of the first. Methodists are to evidence their desire of salvation “by doing good in every possible way, and as far as possible to all.” We are to do good “to their bodies” by relieving physical needs of people and providing food, shelter, clothing, and companionship. We are to do good “to their souls” by engaging them spiritually, instructing and encouraging them to grow in faith. We are to do good “especially to them that are of the household of faith,” our brothers and sisters in Christ, favoring them in business and taking special care to minister to the needs of fellow Christians. Most importantly, we are to do good whether we feel like it or not!
Finally, the third rule is to evidence our desire for salvation “by attending upon all the ordinances of God.” These are: public worship, the ministry of the Word, the Lord’s Supper, family and private prayer, studying the Scriptures, and fasting or abstinence. Kennedy affirms Wesley’s promotion of “holy habits” that build our spiritual lives. “[Wesley] was careful to dismiss those who fell away from their obligations, for he knew that such carelessness could destroy the societies. We are not a people under law but under grace. Still, we will lose our way unless we have guideposts and regulations.”
What strikes one is the systematic way that Wesley and Methodism pursues salvation and holiness. This important pursuit is not left to chance, but is carried out in intentional, methodical ways. Just as discipline focuses our use of time, it also focuses our efforts on doing good, avoiding evil, and engaging the spiritual disciplines, the means by which God has ordained for us to grow in likeness to Christ.
Methodism was characterized by the expectation that God would grow the Christian into spiritual perfection. As Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). As Wesley understood it, this does not mean perfect in the sense that we never make a mistake. Rather, it is a level of spiritual maturity whereby we are so filled with the love of God that we do not commit any intentional sin. A familiar saying among Methodists is that we are “going on to perfection.”
Most of us may never reach that goal in this life. Wesley himself never professed to have reached perfection. But if we stop striving toward it, we will settle for being much less than we could be.
These high expectations were manifested in an approach to church membership that was characterized by discipline. Kennedy states that of all the thousands of people who professed conversion in the great revivals on the American frontier, “probably not more than a fourth ended up as members [in the Methodist Church]. Candidates for church membership were carefully examined, taught, sifted. They had to attend classes and testify as to the condition of their souls. Nor was it unusual to have members dismissed for failing to live up the rules of the Methodist Church.”
This high expectation has been lost in many churches today, Methodist and otherwise. Studies in church growth over the years have shown that “high-expectation churches” tend to experience greater numerical growth, as well as (hopefully) greater spiritual maturity. The 1950’s before Kennedy wrote his book was a period of some of the highest church attendance in U.S. history. He alludes to the fact, however, that such a “return to church” had not had the equivalent expected impact on the culture of the time. “If the return to religion in our day has not resulted in the moral and spiritual renewal of our society, it is the fault of the churches. If we fail to make clear what Christianity demands, we need not be surprised if our members take the whole affair lightly. The Church only cheapens itself when it fails to make demands and hold up standards.”
Kennedy particularly singles out ministers for needing discipline in their lives. “True it is that our society has no more difficult profession than the ministry. Indeed, it is an impossible task as can be proved easily if you analyze what is expected from the minister by the congregation. No [one] is up to it. But it has always been true that no [one] can carry this load without divine help. The minister is driven back upon God if he [or she] is to ‘walk and not faint.’”
Indeed, this is true in a larger sense of all Christians. We are not able to live up to the high expectations God has for us. That is why we learn to depend upon God to grow us into that spiritual maturity, rather than thinking we can do it all on our own effort. Kennedy reminds us, “we never discover what God can do until our weakness drives us to Him.”
“The time has come when we must hold up The Methodist Church as something that demands the best and insists on discipline. … The Methodist Church has had its great periods of power and influence which were always times of witnessing. We still worship the same Lord, and we believe the same doctrines. If we would accept the same discipline, we could expect the same mighty results. The essential mark of our Church is a disciplined, witnessing fellowship.”
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Art credit: John Wesley preaching in Ireland, 1789. Maria Spilsbury (1777-1820). John Wesley’s House & The Museum of Methodism.
Marks of a Methodist 2: Making a Difference
Two-hundred-eighty years ago, John Wesley (Methodism’s founder) wrote The Character of a Methodist to describe what he considered the essential qualities of a Methodist. I bloggedabout it in June. Just 63 years ago, Methodist Bishop Gerald Kennedy did a take-off on Wesley’s work in The Marks of a Methodist (1960). It is instructive to see what changed and what stayed the same in the intervening 220 years, as well as how Kennedy’s perception of Methodism fits with today’s church. I previously wrote about Mark #1: Experience.
Mark #2 is about the tangible effect that a Methodist Christian can have upon the world. Kennedy notes, “I am still a simple Methodist, believing that the church and the faith ought to make a difference. I believe in results. … Unless we betray our heritage, we must be a church committed to a faith in practical holiness. If the time ever comes when The Methodist Church cannot point to changed lives and conditions because of its preaching and witness, it will be its own witness against itself.”
In today’s United Methodist Church, when we hear about the church making a difference in the world, we often point to political statements or lobbying for certain causes in the public arena. It should be noted that the church’s influence over societal issues is relatively limited. The church’s influence can be seen most dramatically during Prohibition in the 1920’s and to some extent the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.
The most profound impact of the church happens from the bottom up, when individuals are changed or convinced of the rightness of a cause and work toward its adoption. Both Prohibition and Civil Rights are examples of grassroots movements that eventually were codified in law. The hundreds of pages of resolutions and policy papers written by church leaders mean nothing if the hearts and minds of the common people are not first changed and convinced.
Kennedy does not point to political action as the sign of the kind of change he sees Methodism producing, but to the changed individual. “Whenever it was necessary to defend his work, John Wesley could point to members of his societies. It would not have been said of them, as it is too often said of us, that there is no discernible difference between the Church and the world. … The very fact that a [person] became a Methodist at all, meant that he had made a decision.
“I think we must come back to this or become increasingly ineffective. It has to cost something or our whole Christian profession is a farce. … We can be content with nothing less than an affirmation that Jesus Christ is to be Lord of all life. Believe me, it is later than we think, and The Methodist Church must produce more results than it has been producing.”
How are these changed lives produced? Kennedy points to the priority of evangelism. He points to the criticisms of evangelism prominent in his day. “At the very time when Hitler depended on mass rallies to conquer Germany, the Church was saying that large meetings with preaching and singing were outgrown and would not work. In the very day when ninety thousand people go crazy at a football game, we will see to it that no one gets excited about religion, if we can help it.”
I vividly recall the statement by 19th century evangelist D.L. Moody, who responded to a critic of his evangelistic methods, “I like my way of doing evangelism better than your way of not doing it!” Too often, our critique of methods becomes an excuse not to do evangelism at all.
“I think it is most important to get one thing clear,” Kennedy goes on. “We may disagree as to methods of evangelism, but we cannot disagree about evangelism itself and remain Christians, to say nothing about remaining Methodists. Evangelism is not just one interest of the Church, for there simply is no Church if evangelism is not present. … That we should ever think that nothing is to be done to bring the Gospel to [people] who once knew it and have forgotten, or to [people] who never heard it truly, is simply unthinkable.”
How The United Methodist Church has changed! Today there is very little emphasis on evangelism or witnessing for one’s faith or sharing one’s experience with Jesus Christ. The substitute for evangelism today is inviting one’s friends and neighbors to church, which is a good start but no equivalent to introducing people to Jesus.
Kennedy points to a statement in the 1960 Book of Discipline: “The Methodist Church believes today, as Methodism has from the first, that the only infallible proof of a true church of Christ is its ability to seek and to save the lost, to disseminate the Pentecostal spirit and life, to spread scriptural holiness, and to transform all peoples and nations through the gospel of Christ.”
He notes in response, “If we are not accomplishing these results, then by our own confessions we are no longer the Church.” He concludes, “Our words and our experiences open the door to the Temple where [people] may enter the Holy of Holies and find God. Methodists believe that every [person] ought to do this constantly. We believe that this is the mark of a true Church.”
The United Methodist Church (and the Global Methodist Church, for that matter) will only thrive once again when we have regained our voice to share Jesus Christ with our families, our friends, our neighbors, and our coworkers. It starts with us making sure we have something to share! We cannot give what we do not have. Having a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ, we can then share our experience with others, helping them draw near to the One who alone can meet their deepest need.
Another way of making a difference in the world is fostered by the Methodist penchant for organization. Kennedy notes the difference between George Whitefield and John Wesley. Whitefield was a better preacher and converted thousands. Wesley, however, organized his converts into small groups for continued spiritual growth and support. Over time, many more of Wesley’s converts had grown as disciples of Jesus Christ, experienced life transformation, and impacted their world for good, while more of Whitefield’s converts had fallen back into old ways, if not fallen away from faith altogether.
John Wesley famously wrote, “‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the Gospel than ‘holy adulterers.’ The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness, but social holiness.” By that, he meant that one cannot be a Christian and grow in holiness without being part of a community of faith that organizes itself to foster spiritual development.
Kennedy explains, “Methodists are a people with a passion for order which we have inherited from the Founder. … There are those who think we are overly organized, and it is probably true that no Protestant church has more machinery. Some would say that truth organized is truth killed, but our point of view is that the organization of an institution is society’s defense against waste. It is a reflection of our demand for results.”
Kennedy was conscious of the fact that organization can get out of hand. “We need to keep our machinery under constant scrutiny and criticism. Woe unto us when we think organization is the end and not merely the means. There are times when we set up wheels within wheels until one would think we exist only to provide jobs for preachers who are tired of serving churches.” He was unafraid to “name names” even at a time when Methodist organizational structure was considered the epitome of how a denomination should be organized. In the last 60 years, United Methodist organizational structure has only grown in size and complexity.
Acknowledging the need for critique, Kennedy goes on, “Yet I plead for more appreciation of our genius for organization and for more enthusiasm when we do move like a mighty army. … We are a connectional Church, which is to say that we do things together.” He points out how every person has a role to play, and the failure of one person to fulfill his or her role means that others must “take up the slack.” His desire is that “Methodists would gain a quicker appreciation of how much this machinery saves time and increases our effectiveness. Administration is not always an inspiring activity, but it, too, is a part of God’s plan for the evangelization of the world.”
Kennedy’s statement that “the Boards and the Administration exist to help individuals and churches” is regrettably no longer completely true. Some of our United Methodist boards and agencies have created their own kingdoms to the neglect of resourcing and empowering individual disciples and local churches. Like anything else, when done poorly, organization can be a hindrance and a distraction. But when done well, organization can become a channel of the Holy Spirit for the transformation of lives and the equipping of disciples and local churches.
Only at the end of this chapter on making a difference does Kennedy mention the church’s social witness. That witness presupposes the evangelism, discipleship, and life transformation that has gone before, organized into a consistent strengthening of the fellowship of believers as a vehicle for societal change.
Kennedy states, “Our Church still stands as one of the fellowships which assumes that religion is both personal experience and social witness. … It has been amply documented that the great revivals produced social results and released forces which modified and changed society. … Methodism has set loose forces of reform and moral uplift which never have run down. The prophetic note is always an essential part of our message, for society is ever in the process of growth, and it must be influenced to change for the best. To say, as some have done in recent days, that the Church must mind its own business, is nonsense. … Let us rejoice in our record of carrying our faith into the market place, the mine, the factory. And let us resolve that the power of Christ to change lives will be released by us.”
One gets the impression that, for Kennedy, the social witness of the church was just that – a witness, a “prophetic note” in the message of the church. Even in his description, the power for social change comes from individual transformation through the power of Christ. That does not preclude statements by the church on public policy issues, but the emphasis is on the transformative power of the Gospel, which in turn unleashes “forces of reform and moral uplift.”
Mark #1 of a Methodist is the experience of the power and presence of God in one’s life, the redemptive transformation of the cross of Christ made personal, and the power of the Holy Spirit to engage us in worship and holy living. Mark #2 of a Methodist is the desire to make a difference, to have measurable results from the ministry of the church through evangelism and discipleship channeled more effectively through the organization of the church, with the resulting social transformation brought about by spiritual revival and renewal. That is an appealing message to today’s young people, who desire nothing more than to make a difference with their lives. Returning to these roots, affirmed by both Wesley and Kennedy, can energize Methodist churches (whether United or Global) to effective ministry.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Art: An engraving based on a painting by Alfred Hunt depicting John Wesley preaching to a crowd at the site of his father Samuel Wesley’s grave at St. Andrew’s Church in Epworth, England – Public Domain
Marks of a Methodist 1: Experience
By Thomas Lambrecht
My wife is a marriage and family therapist. One of her recommended questions as a discussion starter to help couples remain emotionally connected is, “How am I changing and how have I stayed the same.” Methodism is in a period of upheaval right now, with the liberal evolution of United Methodism, structural separation, and the formation of the Global Methodist Church. Looking back over the nearly 300 years of Methodist history, it is helpful to ask the question, “How is Methodism changing, and how has it stayed the same.”
Two-hundred-eighty years ago, John Wesley (Methodism’s founder) wrote The Character of a Methodist to describe what he considered the essential qualities of a Methodist. I blogged about it in June. Just 63 years ago, Methodist Bishop Gerald Kennedy did a take-off on Wesley’s work in The Marks of a Methodist (1960). It is instructive to see what changed and what stayed the same in the intervening 220 years, as well as how Kennedy’s perception of Methodism fits with today’s church.
Gerald Kennedy would be called a centrist in today’s theological taxonomy. He was friendly and fair toward evangelicals, speaking at the very first Good News national Convocation in 1970. But he would not have classified himself in that historical category. Raised in California, Kennedy served as a pastor and college teacher (Pacific School of Religion) in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Elected bishop in 1948, he served four years in the Pacific Northwest, then an unheard-of 20 years as the bishop of Los Angeles. He was widely respected as a great preacher and authored nearly two-dozen books. He holds the distinction of being the only United Methodist bishop to serve as an active bishop and a local church pastor at the same time, when he appointed himself to First UMC of Pasadena.
In his book, Kennedy begins with the “distinguishing sign” of Methodism being experience. By this, he means a personal experience of the love, relationship, and power of God in one’s life. John Wesley’s father, Samuel, is quoted as saying, “The inward witness, son, the inward witness – this is the proof, the strongest proof of Christianity.”
This experience in Kennedy’s mind is birthed in conversion as an essential aspect of God’s working in a human life. “When [one] has it and knows it, the most natural thing in the world is to proclaim it to others and then watch it happen. Yet, … this first mark of a Methodist is often missing from our preaching.”
Kennedy laments that, “There is no room for something unplanned entering into the sanctuary and shaking [people’s] lives. It is all under control – our control. One of the main questions facing us today is whether formal churches can find room for the Spirit to move in the hearts of the congregation.” He maintains that such is possible in a “Gothic sanctuary with robes, processionals, and ritual,” but that it must be intentionally cultivated.
“This generation is as much in need of being converted as any in history,” writes Kennedy. He calls for “a thousand [people] who will receive the live coal from off the altar and set the fires of expectation to flaming in our Church.” Do we cultivate the experience of conversion in our worship? Do we testify to our own personal experience of God and invite others to share it?
Kennedy cites Wesley’s words that the one who has had this experience “is therefore happy in God.” “The consciousness that God had accepted him as a son and forgiven his sins put a song in the heart of the Methodist convert,” writes Kennedy. This joy is available to anyone, regardless of circumstances or past. “This happiness was not found at the price of reality. Sin was not just a theory to the Methodists, for many of them had come up out of degradation and immorality. They had been rescued from the hopeless part of society which the Established Church assumed was beyond the reach of sanctification.” Whom do we consider to be “beyond the reach of sanctification” today? How are we imitating Wesley and Kennedy in carrying the good news of God’s transforming love and forgiveness to those very souls? That is a distinguishing mark of Methodist mission and ministry.
Kennedy diagnosed his own time (1960) as a time of undue and unbalanced pessimism. “Theology that emphasizes human hopelessness, uselessness, and worthlessness, in order to emphasize God’s sovereignty, is unbalanced.” One could say the same of our time, when many feel hopeless and powerless in the face of intractable societal problems and our divisive polarization.
The antidote to this pessimism is the Christian experience of conversion and redemption, which leads us to testify to the reality of a God more powerful than problems. “We must bear our witness that Christianity is the restoration of joy. Nature looks different to the Christian and so does history. People become new creatures and life becomes the great adventure. Life after [our own personal] Aldersgate may not be easy, but it will never be meaningless, and it will never be sad.”
Worship is often the venue for conversion, as happened to Francis Asbury, the “American Saint” who led the early Methodist Church in the U.S. Kennedy notes, “The mark of a Methodist service is its singing, its sense of the immediacy of Christian redemption, its warmth of fellowship, and its enthusiastic invitation to salvation. The cold, lifeless, formal services, which are the marks of so many of our churches, bear sad testimony to our apostasy. This is not our way, and these are not our gatherings.”
One is struck by the boldness and bluntness with which Kennedy confronts the shortcomings of the churches of his day. Such therapeutic honesty is lacking in many of our leaders today. Unfortunately, the same diagnosis of “cold, lifeless services” might be levied against many Methodist congregations today, whether they are formal or informal, traditional or contemporary in style, singing hymns or the latest praise music.
Worship is to be an embodiment and overflow of our experience of Jesus Christ. “Methodists sing their theology. … Theology ought to be sung, for, if it is real, it is a part of a person’s emotional life.” Charles Wesley’s over 6,000 hymns expressed Methodist belief in a way congregations could internalize. Songs sung on Sunday are often the soundtrack playing in our head throughout the week. Unforgettable are those experiences of singing with other believers joined together in a common faith and a common experience of God’s redemption through Christ. There is a power in such worship that sets the table for the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of all who are there.
Kennedy sums up the Methodist mark of personal experience in this way: “The Methodist preacher without an experience is a fire that smokes but never flames. The Methodist [layperson] without an experience may be a [salesperson] for an institution, but who wants to live in an institution? We believe in a wide variety of experiences, and we do not assume that God deals with all [people] alike. But we believe that God reveals Himself to every [person], and, if we will allow Him, He will find us, and we will know it.”
Are we structuring the ministry of our churches in such a way as to encourage people to seek the Lord in a personal way and come expecting to experience him? This is an essential mark of Methodism that needs to be recovered in the church today. It was the hallmark of the Wesleyan revival in the 1700’s, was lacking in much of the church of Kennedy’s era, and is often absent in our congregations today. Authentic Methodism cultivates the presence, love, and power of God in a real and tangible way. Absent that experience, we have nothing to share with a world hungering for God.
Thomas Lambrecht is aUnited Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. Photo of Bishop Gerald Kennedy (1907-1980) courtesy of Abilene Library Consortium provided by the McMurry University Library to the Portal to Texas History. Kennedy was the feature speaker for the 1967 McMurry College Willson Lectures.
Maxie Dunnam: Finding His Pulpit in Life —
Known all over the globe, Maxie Dunnam may be his generation’s most recognizable Methodist. Of course, popularity contests are for politicians and marketing firms. Still, it is worth noting that we don’t know of a more beloved Methodist clergyman.
His first article in Good News appeared in 1984. It was ambitiously and positively titled: “You Can Grow In Your Walk With God.” He led with a wise admission: “For anyone to write on this subject is presumptuous at best. So, I accepted the assignment with some reservation, but keeping in mind the original ‘working title’ for this article: ‘Developing a Deeper Walk with God.’”
Dr. Dunnam went on to clarify: “Developing is the right word, and humility is the saving stance, when we talk about our relationship with the Lord. Yet, I’m convinced that no need is greater for Christians than a commitment to pursuing a ‘deeper walk with God.’”
In many ways, this has been the theme of his life’s ministry. In a world with chaotic church skirmishes, this is something that people of faith can agree upon.
“Maxie is known and loved by Methodists around the world probably more than any living United Methodist leader,” observed the Rev. Dr. James V. Heidinger II, my former colleague at Good News. “Here is a pastor who has been effective in the local church, bold in addressing issues facing the nation, a visionary leader at the Upper Room, a prolific author, a seminary president, a voice for renewal – the Houston and Memphis Declarations, and a co-founder of the Confessing Movement – and a mentor to more pastors than we might imagine.”
The professional journey on his resume tells you a lot – but not nearly as much as locking eyes with him as he grasps the back of your arm to draw you in closer to hear about what is going on in your life.
Maxie married Jerry Lynn Morris in 1957 after he had graduated from Candler School of Theology at Emory. She was a charter member of his first church plant, Aldersgate Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and went on to join him in planting two others, Trinity Methodist Church in Gulfport, Mississippi, and St. Andrews Methodist Church in San Clemente, California.
I’ve always thought of her as the artistic one – the Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire. A famous politician from Texas once said that Rogers did everything Astaire did: “She just did it backwards and in high heels.”
Their daughter, Dr. Kim Reisman, described her mom as a “partner in ministry.” After all, it has always taken two to tango. “Jerry worked in the early days of the Fair Housing movement and the Laubach Way to English. While in Memphis, she was instrumental in the founding of the chapter of Habitat for Humanity and in organizing a local jail ministry for Shelby County,” Kim told me. “During their time at Asbury, she used her gifts in art and hospitality to provide ministries with students, including an annual Holy Week mime interpretation of the passion of Christ.”
The Dunnams have endeavored to answer “yes” to the divine calls in their walk together with the Almighty. It has led them on a remarkable path.
That resume is colorful and significant. After serving in the local church, he became the World Editor of the Upper Room devotional with a circulation of four million and was instrumental in founding the church’s Walk to Emmaus program and launching the Academy for Spiritual Formation. He became a leader in the World Methodist Council, served as senior pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, and was elected President of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. In 2004, Maxie and Jerry returned to Memphis where he serves today on the staff as minister-at-large at Christ Church.
Maxie believes his most significant contribution to the Christian cause was The Workbook of Living Prayer (The Upper Room). That may prove to be a memorable legacy. “Prayer is one of the ways we link ourselves with God, we put ourselves in the channel of God’s moving power, and we participate with God in ministry to all persons,” he wrote. “I am convinced that this is one of the most glorious privileges given to Christians.”
The prayer workbook was first published in 1974 – nearly five decades ago – and is, remarkably, still in print. Available in six languages, the publisher estimates that more than one million copies have been printed.
It is always a pleasure to be in the company of the Dunnams. I sat down with my old friend recently to go over some of the highlights of his life’s story. This is part one of our conversation. Part two will appear in the next issue of Good News. I’m grateful for his time and our friendship.
– Steve Beard, editor of Good News
You were born in Mississippi during the crest of the Great Depression. Aside growing up without electricity or indoor plumbing, what do you recall about your childhood?
I grew up in rather extreme poverty in rural Mississippi. We lived way out in the country and were limited in all sorts of ways – educationally and culturally. We had expressions of Christianity all around us, represented primarily in small Baptist churches. We had a minister that came to our area once or twice a month and held evangelistic services. They called them holiness preachers – primarily holiness in terms of morality and enthusiasm. These preachers would preach on the front porches of homes or in a barn or outdoors.
Hellfire and brimstone preachers?
Always hellfire and brimstone. We lived way out in the country and we just couldn’t go to church often – but we went whenever we could.
These services were held in people’s homes?
Well, there were a lot of the traveling preachers. Lots of little Baptist churches. I can’t remember any other kind of churches. We moved closer to town when I was in my early teens. There was about 800 people.
About 150 yards up the road from where we lived was East Side Baptist Church. My mother was a professing Christian. My father was not – although he may have been more Christian than the rest of us. We went to that church. They would have services with Brother Wiley Grissom.
Let’s talk about him. In your book, God Outwitted Me, you write: “Memory of him kept me aware of the fact that calling and anointing are as important (ultimately, maybe more important) as education.”
He was a fifth-grade educated Baptist preacher. I seem to have experienced him in a different way than I had all the other preachers I had heard. There was a tenderness. The invitation was never a rigid hellfire and damnation. It was more, “Come on, join the people of God.” And that part of it really attracted me.
Two things were going on in my life. One, I had heard enough of the gospel – in a lot of different ways – to know that I really needed to reckon with it. But the other thing that was just as strong was feeling that I had to get out of my circumstances – culturally, educationally, economically.
I have repented of a lot of the feelings I’ve had about my circumstances because my mother and father were really loving and outstanding parents. My father was a very wise man – ponderous and reflective. My mother was very emotional. I think I may have gotten more of my mother than I did of my father in that emotional bit.
Brother Grissom’s preaching made a difference in your life.
One Sunday morning, it came to a head. I said, This is it. I’m going to make a commitment to Christ.
How old were you?
I was 14. I walked the aisle and made that decision. My father didn’t walk down with me, but he was there. Sometime during the next three weeks he made a decision. I’m sure he had really made it earlier but he felt he had to make that formal.
He and I were baptized together by immersion in a running creek. I was probably more serious as a teenager than I should have been, but I tried to live that out. We were about a mile and a half from the little town of Richton [in southern Mississippi] and we had absolutely nothing for young people in our little Baptist church and I just wanted to be with young people.
How did you get involved with Methodism?
I had heard of the dynamic youth group at the Methodist church in the same town. I had never been to a Methodist church, and I didn’t know anything about Methodism. I started going to that youth group, and the minister was very dynamic and educated. He took tremendous interest in the youth group and really paid attention to me. The youth group had a short term retreat in a rural area on the banks of a big lake. I vividly remember he rowed out not very far from the shore and stood in the boat and preached to us.
I formalized my commitment to Christ and decided then that I was probably going to have to do what the preacher was doing. I went off to my first year of college, but I was poor and didn’t have the kind of clothes everybody else did. I was wrestling. I knew God was calling me to preach, but I didn’t know what I was going to do. But I knew I was going to get an education and get out of what I felt was the trap of poverty. I wrestled with that intensely while I was in my first year of college.
Sounds like a difficult time to struggle with the call to preach.
I ended up leaving college and moved in with my married brother in Mobile, Alabama. I got a job selling women’s shoes. My brother was newly married and I knew I’d have a lot of time alone. He was generous. I couldn’t pay any rent.
During that time – it didn’t last but about six weeks – I said to myself, I’m gonna do what God wants me to do and I believe God wants me to preach. I believed I had to share this with someone and I said it to that young Methodist preacher. He smiled and said, “I have known it a long time.”
I became a Methodist and he began to shepherd me. I attended Mississippi Southern College [in Hattiesburg] in the early 1950s. We had an outstanding Wesley Foundation director. He took us to the National Student Movement conference at the University of Kansas. The president of the student movement was Jameson Jones, the father of Bishop Scott Jones. He gave an address to that group and I was tremendously inspired.
In reflection on my whole story, that director of student ministries at Mississippi Southern really was a liberal theologically and socially and that’s one of the places I got my social commitments.
I made it through college, but my passion always has been to preach. My mentor was a marvelous young Methodist preacher named David McKeithen.
This is a little bit neurotic on my part but this whole business of feeling that I had been cheated economically, socially, educationally, culturally was not a healthy thing with me. I didn’t want to do anything but preach.
What did your mom and dad think about this trajectory in your life?
They were very happy. My Mama said, “I hope you’ll be as good a preacher as your great grandfather was.” He was a Free Will Baptist.
My father didn’t say much because he was not a churchman. I didn’t know his daddy, but everybody seemed to have loved his daddy. He was poor and uneducated but somehow ended up being a Free Will Baptist preacher, rather than a what they call a Missionary Baptist. I remember the first time my father visited me at the seminary. I was preaching in chapel that day, and the students gathered around him and one of them said, “Well, what did you think of that sermon?” My daddy said, “Maybe a B.” [laughter]
That was when you began preaching?
My mentor started sending me to a little group of people that were attached to his church. He was the pastor of the church in town, but there was a little church further out and he would send me there to preach. That’s the way I got started. Over a six month period, I told him I wanted a church. He talked to the district superintendent. My commitment to preaching was so passionate.
The district Superintendent in Atlanta – Nat Long was his name – wanted to plant a church. He felt that if he could get two students from Candler School of Theology in Atlanta to do that, they could get it done – at least get it started. I became one of those students. Elton Smith and I went out into southeast Atlanta, near the federal prison. We organized that church. My colleague felt that he didn’t want to stay with it, and so it was my church after the first year. We planted a good church. That’s where I met Jerry. Her whole family became part of it.
When did you and Jerry get married?
I was married my last year in seminary, and she knew that we would go back to Mississippi. I didn’t know there was anything else to do. You just went back to your home conference and that’s where you served the rest of your life.
After graduation, you were assigned to Gulfport, Mississippi?
Our church in Gulfport really began to grow and get attention. Tom Carruth had been the minister at the First Methodist Church in Biloxi, but he was teaching prayer at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. I think Asbury was the first seminary ever to have a full time professor teaching prayer. We had him at the church to do a prayer retreat. Carruth is really the one that recommended that Asbury give me an honorary degree.
Bishop Gerald Kennedy of California had heard about what we young preachers were doing in Mississippi. Some of us went to hear him preach in New Orleans.
What was he doing in New Orleans?
He preached all over the nation. And whenever he was anywhere nearby, I would drive to hear him preach. He said, “If you all want to come to California, we’ll find a place for you.”
While you were pastoring in Mississippi in the early 1960s, Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson. The civil rights leader had been helping in James Meredith’s efforts to enroll in the University of Mississippi.
You were one of 28 Methodist ministers in the Mississippi Annual Conference who gathered to present a statement, “Born of Conviction,” to the church in Mississippi.
The civil rights movement was raging in higher education and the first black student, James Meredith, was admitted to the University of Mississippi in 1962.
Five of us young ministers decided we had to do something – at least say something publicly to the whole church. When I say the “whole church” I mean the Mississippi Conference of the Methodist Church. We thought it may be good if some of us young preachers voiced our opinions because we were the future of the church. Five of us got together over three days. We wrote this “Born of Conviction” statement. If you read that statement, it really is not a strong statement – but it was clear.
In the context of all that was going on …
Oh, all hell broke loose. Yeah. We issued it to the church – to the Mississippi Annual Conference – through The Methodist Advocate.
What was the reaction?
Oh, Lord. Mercy.
Dr. Joseph T. Reiff, a professor at Emory & Henry College in Virginia has written a book about it called Born of Conviction: White Methodists and Mississippi’s Closed Society (Oxford). The issue that we felt we had to address in the statement was, of course, the race issue. But we were being accused of being communist. The three areas of focus were race, freedom of the pulpit, and public education. Looking back on it, it was not really as prophetic as people have credited it being.
By the standards of the day, however, this was a shot across the bow. In God Outwitted Me, you wrote, “Within eighteen months of the signing of the document, eighteen of the twenty-eight signers had left Mississippi, two left later, and only eight continued their total ministry vocation in the state.”
In 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of Medgar Evers’ death, the Mississippi Annual Conference presented The Emma Elzy Award, an award celebrating those who had contributed to the improvement of race relations in Mississippi, to “the 28 ministers.” Eight of the twenty-eight signers who were still living were present. You and your colleague, the Rev. Keith Tonkel, accepted the award for the 28. In your remarks, you said, “Fifty years ago some young men, now old men, signed a statement, and now this Annual Conference is saying, ‘We appreciate that.’ God outwits us.”
How do you view your statement today?
Reiff believes the reason that it was so prophetic was that it was the church speaking to the church – but also it was a small group of Methodists speaking to their denomination. He compared it to “The Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and the response that the pastors made to that. Almost every person that signed the statement – 28 signing it – ended up leaving. Many of us went to California.
These were days of great turmoil.
This was a sign of how dramatic it was: Dow Kirkpatrick – the most liberal pastor in Georgia back then – left to be the pastor at First Methodist Church in Evanston, Illinois. Back then, it was one of the most liberal churches in Methodism. Dow invited me to be his associate minister. Instead, I chose to plant a church in Southern California.
You felt you had to leave because of threats?
We had threats. We didn’t have crosses burned on our lawn, but Jerry got telephone calls.
My church got angry with me and held special meetings. It was a new congregation. They loved me as the only pastor they ever knew. We were flavored with people from all over the nation because we were in Gulfport – there was a big air base nearby and a big veterans hospital facility and a retirement home. We had people in the congregation from all over the United States. That made it less against me.
My closest friend in the town – in terms of ministers – was the Rev. Henry Clay, Jr. He was black, and he became a leader after all this in the Mississippi Conference. I can’t believe this now, but we never had him in our home and he never had us in his home. He told me later that they didn’t have the sit-in people that were traveling on buses come to our church because they knew where I stood and they didn’t want that threatened. But we never visited in his home until he moved to California. That’s the ugliness beneath the surface.
Bishop Gerald Kennedy called you and invited you to California. Kennedy was a fascinating maverick. He was despised by fundamentalists of his era, but evangelicals within Methodism considered him an ally. Interestingly enough, he wrote an article for the first issue of Good News magazine, became the chair to the Board of Evangelism, and led the crusade committee of the 25-day Billy Graham preaching mission in 1963 when it was held in Los Angeles.
The district superintendent that finally extended the invitation to me was Andy Miller’s father [Andy Miller is the Director of Publishing for Seedbed]. Kennedy was my hero. He was such a great preacher and he was evangelical and orthodox, but he was considered liberal. I think he made it out there because he filled a unique gap culturally.
Let’s talk about Brother E. Stanley Jones. In an earlier era, Jones was a remarkably well-known missionary to India. In the 1930s, Time magazine referred to him as “the world’s greatest Christian missionary.” He is well known for his friendship with Gandhi, his creation of the Christian Ashram Movement, and inspiring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. How did you get to know him?
In the midst of the Mississippi crisis, one of the writers of that statement and I went to an Ashram in Florida being led by Stanley Jones. We were with Stanley for a week. Dr. Tom Carruth really loved me and saw things in me that I didn’t see. He’s the one that got me involved with Stanley Jones.
This would have been in the mid 1960s?
Yes, early 1960s. We left Mississippi in 1964. I had been reading Stanley Jones along with a group of people from my church in Gulfport. His little book In Christ really shaped my theology. That’s the crux of my theology. [Editor’s note: The book is a study of the 172 times the phrase “in Christ” or its equivalent is found in the New Testament]. I was with Stanley Jones as much as I could be that week. He was gracious. Tom Carruth thought I needed to spend time with Stanley and tried to make every opportunity he could for me to be with him. Tom invited me to go with him and Stanley Jones to lead ashrams in Europe, and I was to speak to the youth.
That was before the Berlin Wall came down, and we were in Sweden and Germany. I never had a lot of private time with Stanley. That was my fault. I just felt that he didn’t need to be spending his time with me. I regret that now.
You’ve written dozens of books. How did this begin?
I was reminded of Stanley last week when I pulled out the first book I ever wrote. It was a collection of columns I wrote for the church page in the Gulfport newspaper every Saturday. I named it “Channels of Challenge.”
Two women in that church – this is important to my history – mentored me in prayer. One was Nettie Beeson. She was married to one of the Beeson brothers that later gave substantial money to Asbury Theological Seminary. Nettie was in her 80s. The other was Claire May Sales. She was a retired missionary but had taught English and literature all over in little church schools.
Claire May showed up at my office one day with a bundle of these columns that I had written for the newspaper and she said, “You’ve got to publish these as a book.” I didn’t know anything about anything like that. She said, “I think they’re worth publishing and I think you can get them published and I’ll help you organize them.” And she did. Abingdon published it. That book is recommended by Stanley Jones on the back cover.
Wow, he gave you a blurb.
[Laughter] He gave me a blurb. Yeah, pretty great.
No matter what someone’s religion, prayer seems befuddling because you’re basically – to the naked eye – speaking to yourself in hopes that someone invisible is visible in a different realm. Where have you come down on attempting to explain what it is that we’re doing in prayer?
Communion is one word – and extend that to communication. I believe that God is personal, though spirit. God is personal, and persons need to communicate personally. We pray as though he is flesh, or he is our Father. We speak to him in that fashion. In my own pilgrimage, I had difficulty praying. That’s the reason I had to be mentored in prayer.
It’s okay for people to struggle with this?
It would be surprising if they didn’t. I don’t believe any person really ever feels that they have mastered the art of prayer. We look at some people like Frank Laubach, Tom Carruth, and Stanley Jones and believe they know. On second thought, I don’t think Stanley Jones would be on that list.
I’m somewhat embarrassed when people think I know how to pray because I’ve written about it. I pray – but I wish I knew how to pray more effectively.
There are times when Christ is vivid to me. But there are times when I keep on talking to him as though he’s left the room. There is a sense in which I believe that we can’t base our discipline of prayer on what we feel. The Father has told us that he loves us and he wants to be related to us. We just keep on accepting that, even though we may not feel it – and we keep on talking to him and that’s what prayer is. It’s just talking with God.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. In the next issue, we will publish the second half of this interview with Maxie Dunnam and touch upon his work with the Upper Room, some of his heroes, and his hopes for the Global Methodist Church.