Monday, December 17, 2018

Interruption, Incarnation

image found at

Whence is it that my Lord
    Himself should visit me,
Should stoop to such a wretch abhorr'd,
    And claim my misery?
    He leaves His throne above
    For His own mercy sake,
He comes constrain'd by pitying love,
    And doth my nature take.

    The mystery of Thy grace
    What angel can conceive?
Thou wouldst to all our ransom'd race
    Faith and salvation give,
    Thou dost the grace reveal,
    Thou dost the faith impart,
And thus Thou com'st again to dwell
    For ever in my heart. ~ Charles Wesley

We are deep in the season of Advent, and we have once again read the story of the Angel Gabriel's appearance to Zechariah with an unexpected birth announcement for him and Elizabeth, and we have heard again the Virgin Mary's "yes" to God's interruption by way of incarnation into her life and body. Only Luke tells us this particular story that places two seemingly ordinary women at the very center of salvation history.  Again and again in his gospel, Luke, himself an outsider, seeks to draw our attention to the oft-overlooked participants in the drama -- to women, to the poor, to the stranger.

In this icon and in the hymn we see the juxtaposition of the joy at Elizabeth's surprising conception with the exultation at Mary's even more astounding news of her own pregnancy.  The two women hold each other tenderly as their unborn infants shift, as John the forerunner salutes his greater cousin Jesus by literally leaping for joy. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, greets Mary by asking in wonderment why the mother of her Lord is coming to her, honoring Mary (and perhaps herself) for trusting that the promise spoken by God would indeed be fulfilled, while Mary responds with a song praising God for what may seem "upside down" reasons. But this is of course, an upside down kind of God who trades immortality for mortality, stooping down, becoming flesh like us so that we might be filled with all the fullness of God.  The Christ who interrupted his own life above interrupts the cycle of sin and death below by becoming incarnate in the lives of those whose lives he enters into.

Interestingly, in Charles Wesley's hymn, he takes upon himself the role of Elizabeth AND of Mary and invites us to do the same.  In the first verse, he shifts Elizabeth's words of salutation to Mary into a cry of bewildered joy that the Incarnate Lord has set aside the grandeur of heaven to embrace human nature and flesh, while the second verse is a reverie that calls to mind Luke's later words about Mary pondering all these things in her heart.  The coming of the One who lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things is a mystery beyond the eloquence of angels, and his advent is not simply a never-to-be-repeated virginal conception but an ongoing gift of grace as he makes his home in the hearts of all who accept his offer of salvation and faith. His coming not only interrupts the predictable, ordinary life that Mary probably expected for herself; his coming also interrupts the dominance of sin in the life of the world and breaks its power forever.

These are themes that Charles Wesley returns to repeatedly.  He cannot exhaust the praise of a God whose nature and name are Love; if he had one thousand tongues and as many years, he could not begin to describe the grace of such a gift.   But in his attempts to sound the depths of this divine grace, he continues to give us words to sing and pray as we celebrate the coming of the Lord, this Jesus who dwells forever in our hearts.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"Light of Those Whose Dreary Dwelling"

Charles Wesley preaching

Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the Dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.  (Luke 1: 78-79, KJV)

This past Sunday was the second Sunday of  Advent, and my sermon focused on the Song of Zechariah in the first chapter of Luke, drawing on Malachi 3: 1-4 as an appetizer for the "Brood of Vipers" sermon sure to come next Sunday when John the Baptist really gets going as the warm-up act for Jesus. These two verses mark the culmination of Zechariah's exclamation of joy at seeing the hope of Israel finally being fulfilled with the imminent coming of the Messiah.  We share his yearning and excitement because like Elizabeth and Zechariah and all those who had been waiting for so long, we sometimes feel like things will never get any better.  Like them, we dwell in the land of darkness and in the shadow of death, and like them, without the advent of that Dayspring from on high, we cannot see a way out.

This hymn from Charles Wesley takes much of its inspiration from these verses in Luke 1.  In the first stanza, he longingly calls for the Light to come and dispel the clouds and to give sight to those who cannot see. In the second, he pleads for the Savior to come and shed grace on everyone everywhere, while the third rounds out the hymn with its yearning for salvation from the "pacific Prince,"  trusting that he will come to release every burdened soul while guiding us into God's perfect peace. 

Light of those whose dreary dwelling
     Borders on the shades of death, 
Come, and by Thy love's revealing 
     Dissipate the clouds beneath: 
The new heaven and earth's Creator, 
     In our deepest darkness rise, 
Scattering all the night of nature, 
     Pouring eyesight on our eyes.

Still we wait for Thy appearing, 
     Life and joy Thy beams impart, 
Chasing all our fears, and cheering 
     Every poor benighted heart: 
Come and manifest the favour 
     God hath for our ransom'd race; 
Come, Thou universal Saviour, 
     Come, and bring the gospel grace.

Save us in Thy great compassion,
     O Thou mild pacific Prince, 
Give the knowledge of salvation,
     Give the pardon of our sins; 
By Thine all-restoring merit
     Every burden'd soul release, 
Every weary, wandering spirit
     Guide into Thy perfect peace.

I am reminded of a medieval hymn with which Charles Wesley was almost certainly familiar, by Thomas Aquinas, :

Light of lights!  All gloom dispelling,
Thou didst come to make thy dwelling
Here within our world of sight.
Lord, in pity and in power,
Thou didst in our darkest hour
Rend the clouds and show thy light.

Praise to thee in earth and heaven
Now and evermore be given,
Christ, who art our sun and shield.
Lord, for us thy life thou gavest, 
Those who trust in thee thou savest,
All thy mercy stands revealed.

This is not terribly surprising.  After all, songs written in praise of the divine Light are not uncommon, particularly hymns that reflect upon the Incarnation.  (Just think of "Silent Night" or "O Little Town of Bethlehem," for example.) Aquinas penned a lovely poem/prayer to which Wesley no doubt was indebted, yet his lovely hymn stands on its own. Its last appearance in an American Methodist hymnal apparently is in 1905, according to Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church (, but it could easily be revived, especially when sung to the tune "Hyfrydol," the same tune used for the better known "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus."

As you watch and wait and ponder and pray during this Advent season, you might read or even sing the words of Wesley's beautiful hymn.  In doing so, may you feel the darkness around you begin to dissipate as the Light shines into your heart and life, and may your weary, wandering spirit be guided by that same Light into perfect peace. 

Friday, November 30, 2018

Let Earth and Heaven Combine

Charles Wesley, most prolific hymn-writer in Christian history

During the season of Advent and into the Christmas season, people sing or hear many beloved hymns that form the backbone of their celebrations during this time of year.  But for every carol or song that has become part of the familiar soundscape of the season, there are many others, like this jewel, that are all but forgotten.  

Charles Wesley was an incredibly gifted man.  Writing poetry seems to have come to him almost as easily as breathing, and he was also a compelling preacher whose sermons brought the gospel to large numbers of people who felt themselves outcast and forgotten by the established Church.

Not all of his thousands of hymns were worthy of a gold star, and even the ones that most clearly expressed his theological fervor weren't always set to music for congregational singing.  Ever critical, big brother John wielded his editing pen lavishly if he felt a line was theologically questionable or if the verse itself was what he called "namby-pambical."  

This devotional poem may not be one we sing, but its words are certainly worthy of meditative reading and study.  Its subject is the Incarnation, that most incomprehensible of doctrines, that God the infinite chose to shrink to our size, taking on the helplessness of a human child in order to bring us back to God and perfect us in love.  When you hear some of the vapid lyrics of many of the contemporary "Christmas songs" of our day, you may well reflect that they have a long way to go before they can match the depth of insight and wonder, let alone the pure poetry of these words:

Let earth and heaven combine,
      Angels and men agree,
   To praise in songs Divine
      The' incarnate Deity,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.

He laid His glory by,
      He wrapp'd Him in our clay, 
   Unmark'd by human eye 
      The latent Godhead lay; 
Infant of days He here became, 
And bore the mild Immanuel's name.

See in that Infant's face 
      The depths of Deity, 
   And labour while ye gaze 
      To sound the mystery: 
In vain; ye angels, gaze no more, 
But fall, and silently adore.

Unsearchable the love 
      That hath the Saviour brought, 
   The grace is far above 
      Or man or angel's thought; 
Suffice for us, that God we know, 
Our God is manifest below.

He deigns in flesh to' appear, 
      Widest extremes to join,
   To bring our vileness near, 
      And make us all Divine; 
And we the life of God shall know, 
For God is manifest below.

Made perfect first in love, 
      And sanctified by grace, 
   We shall from earth remove, 
      And see His glorious face; 
His love shall then be fully show'd, 
And man shall all be lost in God.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

God's Banner Over You Is Love

John Wesley writing letters at his bedroom window
(New Room, Bristol)

Much of Wesleyan theology revolves around the centrality of love, not as an ephemeral emotion but as the crowning disposition of a Christian's heart.  Possessing the inward qualities of love, meekness, and gentleness are essential for holiness and for what John Wesley calls "real Christianity."  Without these, new birth/regeneration cannot exist, no matter how right one's belief.  What Gregory Clapper calls "orthokardia" --  the right disposition of the heart -- is of the utmost importance. 

As a spiritual friend and adviser, in a letter to Ann Bolton (March 28, 1785), with whom he frequently corresponded, Wesley cautions her to find a balance between seeing the hand of God in every circumstance of her life and wrongly assuming that everything is connected and therefore is the will of God. He urges her to see every difficulty as something God can use to her good, aiding her to partake in the very holiness of God.  He then frankly admits that he also sometimes jumps to conclusions about whether or not something is God's will, encouraging her with the words of St. Paul that God's grace is sufficient for her and assuring her that no matter what, "His banner over you is love."

I have often found an aptness both in myself and others to connect events that have no real relation to each other. So one says, 'I am as sure this is the will of God as that I am justified.' Another says, 'God as surely spake this to my heart as ever He spoke to me at all.' This is an exceedingly dangerous way of thinking or speaking. We know not what it may lead us to. It may sap the very foundation of our religion. It may insensibly draw us into Deism or Atheism. My dear Nancy, my sister, my friend, beware of this! The grace of God is sufficient for you! And, whatever clouds may interpose between, His banner over you is love. Look to yourself that you lose not the things that you have gained, but that you may receive a full reward.

I grew up Southern Baptist, and one of the choruses we sang in youth choir was "His Banner Over Me is Love."  I must have sung that hundreds of times without realizing that the reference was from Song of Solomon 2:4 where the bride expresses her longing for her bridegroom's presence and exults in their mutual love.  Wesley was a far more astute Biblical scholar than I will ever be, so he surely knew the overtones invoked by using that particular phrase, thereby making a strong statement about the depth of love that God has for us, even when the "clouds interpose" and pain or sorrow or weariness threaten to hide that comforting truth from us.

As we approach Advent and Christmas, a time touted as the most wonderful of the year, it is important to note that it isn't necessarily a time of joy for many people.  Think of the refugees and asylum seekers; think of the survivors of hurricanes and wildfires; think of the lonely and broken and the sick and imprisoned.  Think of those whose family ties are strained to the point of breaking and of those whose loved ones are far away or already dead.  Think of those who aren't quite sure of God's love because of the way they have been treated by other people. 

Maybe the most important gift you give this year is the reminder that God's banner over them is love and that in Christ there is grace sufficient to meet every need and circumstance.  How might you express the joy and hope of the coming of Christ in the midst of the rush and bustle of shopping, parties, and sentimental music to someone who desperately needs a word of love?  Will you take time to let the Spirit lead you to move beyond a surface celebration to a deeper sharing of God's love and into a fuller sense of holiness of heart and life?  Let this Advent be a time of blessing and grace in which we are so filled with God's love that our hearts overflow with love for our sisters and brothers and back to the One who is its Source! 

The grace of God is sufficient for you! And, whatever clouds may interpose between, His banner over you is love.

Friday, November 23, 2018

That's What Made it a Holiday

John Wesley above the front entrance of Duke Chapel

On November 26, 1753 when he was so ill that he believed he was dying, John Wesley wrote out his own epitaph:  "Here lieth the body of John Wesley, a brand plucked out of the burning, who died of a consumption in the fifty-first year of his age ... praying God be merciful to me, an unprofitable servant..."(Journal, November 26, 1753).  Forbidden by his doctor to preach or ride a horse, he began to think of making his own translation of the New Testament and writing a New Testament commentary, and on January 6 embarked on the project, which was described by him as "a work which I should scarce ever have attempted had I not been so ill as not to be able to travel or preach, and yet so well as to be able to read and write" (Journal, January 6, 1754).

In typical John Wesley fashion, he did not want to be "useless" while he was recovering, so he worked to "redeem the time" by cranking out a rough draft in around four months.  One of the most beautiful passages written by him in his commentary on 1 Thessalonians comes to mind whenever anyone mentions gratitude or thanksgiving --

16 Rejoice always, 
     17 pray without ceasing, 
18 give thanks in all circumstances; 
     for this is the will of God 
in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18)

Rejoice evermore - In uninterrupted happiness in God. 
Pray without ceasing - Which is the fruit of always rejoicing in the Lord. In everything give thanks - Which is the fruit of both the former. This is Christian perfection. Farther than this we cannot go; and we need not stop short of it. Our Lord has purchased joy, as well as righteousness, for us. It is the very design of the gospel that, being saved from guilt, we should be happy in the love of Christ. Prayer may be said to be the breath of our spiritual life. [One] that lives cannot possibly cease breathing. So much as we really enjoy of the presence of God, so much prayer and praise do we offer up without ceasing; else our rejoicing is but delusion. 
Thanksgiving is inseparable from true prayer: it is almost essentially connected with it. [One] that always prays is ever giving praise, whether in ease or pain, both for prosperity and for the greatest adversity. [S/He] blesses God for all things, looks on them as coming from him, and receives them only for his sake; not choosing nor refusing, liking nor disliking, anything, but only as it is agreeable or disagreeable to [God's] perfect will.

Thanksgiving Day in the US is a weird holiday with a tangled history, but it always makes me think of my mama saying that every day ought to be Thanksgiving because we could never thank God enough for all the blessings of life.  Perhaps not surprisingly, she grew up Methodist, but I'm pretty sure she never read Wesley's Notes! 

That's beside the point, really.  Having a grateful heart, possessing a disposition of thankfulness, and praying with our every breath -- that is what makes a day a holiday -- which of course is taken from "holy day."  Being filled with praise for God, even in the most difficult of circumstances as well as in the fun times is surely a mark of holiness, and for Wesley, happiness and holiness went hand in hand.

Daddy and I celebrated Thanksgiving together this year, just the two of us.  Scott had to work, and my kids were elsewhere.  I told him we'd have "Thanksgiving surprise" because neither of us is a cook, yet we managed to cobble together a veritable feast for the eyes and the stomach!  And in our time together, we gave thanks.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Citizens of the Kingdom

carved crucifix, Rodel Church, Isle of Harris

This Sunday is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, and it is usually known as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday.  The scriptures designated for it provide the perfect context for understanding that his reign and rule are far different from what we usually mean when we talk about monarchs and leaders.  Here we find no despot who is bent on getting his way by hook or by crook; here we see no bully-boy who threatens with weapons of mass destruction; here we discover no tyrant who subdues with intimidation and ridicule.  Instead, here we encounter a beaten, bleeding prisoner whose brow is crowned with thorns.  Here we meet a leader whose ammunition is Love, whose missiles are tears, and whose Reign is peace, and his mission is to bring to us true life, true love, true happiness, and true holiness.  His kingdom is not of this world, yet it has far-reaching implications for how we ought to live in this world as we work and wait for his kingdom to come here on earth as in heaven.

In a sermon entitled "The Unity of the Divine Being," John Wesley addresses the issue of what it looks like to be citizens of this different king's realm and rule.  Those who call themselves subjects of King Jesus will be both happy and holy as they grow in love of God and neighbor --

It is in consequence of our knowing God loves us, that we love him, and love our neighbour as ourselves. Gratitude towards our Creator cannot but produce benevolence to our fellow creatures. The love of Christ constrains us, not only to be harmless, to do no ill to our neighbour, but to be useful, to be "zealous of good works;" "as we have time, to do good unto all men;" and to be patterns to all of true, genuine morality; of justice, mercy, and truth. This is religion, and this is happiness; the happiness for which we were made. 

This begins when we begin to know God, by the teaching of his own Spirit. As soon as the Father of spirits reveals his Son in our hearts, and the Son reveals his Father, the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts; then, and not till then, we are happy. We are happy, first, in the consciousness of his favour, which indeed is better than life itself; next, in the constant communion with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ; then, in all the heavenly tempers which he hath wrought in us by his Spirit; again, in the testimony of his Spirit, that all our works please him; and, lastly, in the testimony of our own spirits, that "in simplicity and godly sincerity we have had our conversation in the world." Standing fast in this liberty from sin and sorrow, wherewith Christ hath made them free, real Christians "rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks." And their happiness still increases as they "grow up into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." 

And so, as we approach this Reign of Christ Sunday, I pray that we will indeed live into the liberty for which Christ has made us free by cultivating joy and gratitude and above all, love, in our hearts.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, let us be model citizens of Jesus' kingdom, now and forever!

Tiffany window in Trinity UMC chapel, Charleston, SC

Friday, November 16, 2018

Almost Advent

Icon at Portsmouth Cathedral, Portsmouth, UK

It's almost Advent.  That strange preparatory season that frequently gets short shrift by a world -- and a Church -- intent on rushing headlong into Christmas.  It was not always thus.  Advent used to be a bit more prominent, a bit less like a warm-up to the "most wonderful time of the year."  Advent used to be more meditative, more focused on Christ's coming, not simply as a baby but on his second coming in glory and majesty. 

Advent is a gift, if we but recognize and accept it. Advent offers us a space for living into the yearning we all feel between the world as it is and the world as it should be, between the deep desire we have for Christ's reign to really take hold here on earth as in heaven and the reality of a world that is rife with all sorts of upheaval:  mass migration of refugees, distrust and rage within our national life, hatred and even violence against "the other."

Advent offers us the opportunity to identify with Israel's longing for Messiah when the iron yoke of Rome chafed and oppressed them for so many years and with their sense of wonder and hope as John the Baptist and Mary and Joseph began to prepare the way for him, as they began to make room in their lives and in their hearts for the one "born a child and yet a King."           
Charles Wesley beautifully captures that Advent hunger for deliverance and deep need for strength, for relief, for the "gracious kingdom" to come, with a lovely hymn usually sung to the tune "Hyfrydol" --

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

What are you hoping for this Advent 2018?  What are your deep desires not only for yourself but for your country, your planet, for all of God's vast and intricate creation?  How might you stop and look and listen for the arrival of the One in whom all things will find rest and completion?  And what can you do to de-clutter the path for him as he comes to "rule in all our hearts alone?" 

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus!

Madonna and Child, Mepkin Abbey, Moncks Corner, SC

Interruption, Incarnation

image found at Whence is it ...