Sunday, July 17, 2011

Vital Congregation Planning Guide

The Planning Guide is out and it is essentially the same as the proposed workbook released at the beginning of the year with a few sections added.  A new section on the Wesleyan Means of Grace is now included, the suggestions for beginning the planning process with prayer, worship, and Bible study have been expanded, and questions on Purpose, Principles, Promise, and People precede the section on metrics.  These changes, along with the area of the Vital Congregations website where churches can share their stories of success in ministry, indicate to me that UM Leaders are trying to expand the definition of effective ministry to include spiritual growth and not just numerical increases.

To strengthen the website's discuss of small group accountability I offer this section from John Wesley's  Journal as one standard to which group members can hold one another accountable:
October 14, 1738, "Examine yourselves whether ye be in the faith." Now the surest test whereby we can examine ourselves, whether we be indeed in the faith, is that given by St. Paul: "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new."
First: His Judgments are new: His judgment of himself, of happiness, of holiness. He judges himself to be altogether fallen short of the glorious image of God. To have no good thing abiding in him; but all that is corrupt and abominable: in a word, to be wholly earthly, sensual, and devilish ;—a motley mixture of beast and devil. Thus, by the grace of God in Christ, I judge of myself. Therefore I am, in this respect, a new creature. Again: His judgment concerning happiness is new. He would as soon expect to dig it out of the earth, as to find it in riches, honour, pleasure, (so called,) or indeed in the enjoyment of any creature: he knows there can be no happiness on earth, but in the enjoyment of God, and in the foretaste of those " rivers of pleasure which flow at his right hand for evermore." Thus, by the grace of God in Christ, I judge of happiness. Therefore I am, in this respect, a new creature. Yet again : His judgment concerning holiness is new. He no longer judges it to be an outward thing: to consist either in doing no harm, in doing good, or in using the ordinances of God. He sees it is the life of God in the soul; the image of God fresh stamped on the heart; an entire renewal of the mind in every temper and thought, after the likeness of him that created it., Thus, by the grace of God in Christ, I judge of holiness. Therefore I am, in this respect, a new creature.
Secondly: His Designs are new. It is the design of his life, not to heap up treasures upon earth, not to gain the praise of men, not to indulge the desires of the flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life; but to regain the image of God; to have the life of God again planted in his soul; and to be " renewed after his likeness, in righteousness and true holiness." This, by the grace of God in Christ, is the design of my life. Therefore I am, in this respect, a new creature.
Thirdly : His Desires are new; and, indeed, the whole train of his passions and inclinations. They are no longer fixed on earthly things. They are now set on the things of heaven. His love, and joy, and hope, his sorrow, and fear, have all respect to things above. They all point heavenward. Where his treasure is, there is his heart also. I dare not say 1 am a new creature in this respect. For other desires often arise in my heart; but they do not reign. I put them all under my feet, "through Christ which strengtheneth me." Therefore I believe he is creating me anew in this also; and that he has begun, though not finished, his work.
Fourthly: His Conversation is new. It is always "seasoned with salt," and fit to "minister grace to the hearers." So is mine, by the grace of God in Christ. Therefore in this respect, I am a new creature.
Fifthly: His Actions are new. The tenor of his life singly points at the glory of God. All his substance and time are devoted thereto. Whether he eats or drinks, or whatever he does, it either springs from, or leads to, the love of God and man. Such, by the grace of.God in Christ, is the tenor of my life. Therefore, in this respect, I am a new creature. But St. Paul tells us elsewhere, that "the fruit of the Spirit is love, peace, joy, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, temperance." Now although, by the grace of God in Christ, I find a measure of some of these in myself; namely, of peace, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, temperance ; yet others I find not. I cannot find in myself the love of God, or of Christ. Hence my deadness and wanderings in public prayer: hence it is, that even in the holy communion I have frequently no more than a cold attention.
Again: I have not that joy in the Holy Ghost; no settled, lasting joy. Nor have I such a peace as excludes the possibility either of fear or doubt. When holy men have told me I had no faith, I have often doubted whether I had or no. And those doubts have made me very uneasy, till I was relieved by prayer and the Holy Scriptures. Yet, upon the whole, although I have not yet that joy in the Holy Ghost, nor the full assurance of faith, much less am I, in the full sense of the words, "in Christ a new creature." I nevertheless trust that I have a measure of faith, and am "accepted in the Beloved:" I trust, "the hand-writing that was against me is blotted out;" and that I am "reconciled to God" through his Son.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Natural Corruption

Article VII - Of Original or Birth Sin
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.

This quote is taken from the United Methodist Articles of Religion and is part of the standards that define United Methodist Doctrine.  In trying to explain natural corruption in a way that is in keeping with our Doctrinal Standards and that is intelligible to a lay audience, I came up with the following sermon:

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Exercise the Presence?

Wesley listed “exercise the presence of God” as a Means of Grace and posed two questions to his preaching assistants that provide some guidance regarding how to practice this spiritual discipline: “Do you endeavour to set God always before you? To see his Eye continually fixt upon you?”

Unlike other Means of Grace, this one is not discussed in Wesley’s sermons.  His Christian Library does include a section on practicing the presence of God that is taken from Jeremy Taylor’s book Holy Living.

Chapter 1, Sect. III, “Practice of the Presence of God,” includes this passage: "Let every thing you see represent to your spirit the presence, the excellency and the power of God, and let your conversation with the creatures lead you unto the Creator; for so shall your actions be done more frequently with an actual eye to God’s presence, by your often seeing him in the glass of the creation.” (vol. 16, page 22)

This sounds similar to sentiments Wesley expressed in Sermon 23 where he interpreted the Beatitude “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8):
But the great lesson which our blessed Lord inculcates here, and which he illustrates by this example, is, that God is in all things, and that we are to see the Creator in the glass of every creature; that we should use and look upon nothing as separate from God, which indeed is a kind of practical atheism; but, with a true magnificence of thought, survey heaven and earth, and all that is therein, as contained by God in the hollow of his hand, who by his intimate presence holds them all in being, who pervades and actuates the whole created frame, and is, in a true sense, the soul of universe (par. 11).
Granted, the relationship is indirect, nevertheless I think it’s fair to say that one of the ways we can exercise the presence of God is by contemplating the Natural World as the Creation of God, that this practice can be a means of conveying God’s grace to us, and that this exercise is an aspect of Wesleyan Spirituality.

I’d be glad to receive feedback from those who think more evidence is needed to support this reading of Wesley.

Addendum:  Alban Weekly has an article on Practicing the Presence in Ministry.