Beyond Your Backyard - Serving Our Friends

The first week of June, our Children’s Ministry will kick-off the summer with God’s Big BackyardVacation Bible School. (Click here for more info about all the Camps at Cumming FUMC) It is one of those, don’t miss it experiences.  Because of that, I feel like it isn’t fair for all the fun to get hogged by the Children so like last year, we’re kicking off “Beyond Your Backyard.”  It is like Vacation Bible School for all of us!

I love this year’s theme because growing up, the “backyard,” any yard for that matter, was where our imaginations ran wild.  I remember the countless football games played between the Cowboys and Steelers in David’s front yard across from my house.  I can remember Star Wars, the original trilogy, played around my club house and swing set.  And there was the winter of our fifth grade year when cafeteria trays became the best sleds ever as the ice storm of that year created a winter wonderland.

What all these had in common was how these adventures and the countless one’s like them, were made possible by one factor being present: my friends.  Now we did not always get along.  We fought hard and went home with a few bloody noses and hurt feelings now and again.  But after a day or two we would be back at, riding bikes that had become X-wing fighters or playing spotlight after dark.  Backyards, rock.  So do side yards and front yards too!

Now I say this because I do not want you to leave here today without considering the question - how important are friends?  There is something in this message on healing often overlooked and it is that it was made possible by friends.  For one thing, this man’s healing would not have happened had these friends not picked up his mat and him with it.  But secondly, the healing was based on faith.  It is just that the faith wasn’t the paralyzed man’s.  Jesus said it was the friends.

This paralyzed man had four of them.  Some of us may have one or many.  Some of our Facebook pages say that we have 500 or 1,000 or even more.  But it is what one does for another which really shows who your friends are.  This was something Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play Major League baseball discovered.  If you’ve seen the movie “42“ or have read about his story you know that Robinson was not warmly greeted when he got the call to join the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Everywhere he went, he was called names, pitchers threw pitches at his head and even on his own team, he found himself alone.  It came to a head one game following an error that caused the stands to errupt in jeers.  Shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, called timeout, walked over to Robinson and with all eyes on the two men, Reese put his arm around Robinson’s shoulder. 

It is one thing to say your a friend.  It is a whole other thing to act like it.  Friends are not going to heal us when we’re sick or bring back a family member who has passed away.  What friends can do, what friends do, is they stand beside us and offer us a ministry of presence.  Friends are going to be there when we need them.  

There was a whole crowd of people in that town who stood at the door on that day.  It was a whole town of people, many, I suspect who may have known this man or his family.  They too could have gone to his home and picked up the mat, but they did not.  They may have thought, as many did and many still do, that this bad thing happened because he had “taken God off the throne of his heart.” 

After seeing the faith of these friends, Jesus deals with the full extent that healing requires.  Jesus does offer the forgiveness of sins for that is the condition of all of us - we’ve all taken God off the throne of our heart, Jesus dealt with what couldn’t be seen.  But then Jesus goes on to address the physical: what everyone could see.

Jesus didn’t dwell on the specifics of the sin - he went to the root - all of us need forgiveness.  What we all need too, is that friend or group of friends who love us enough to get us to Jesus when we can’t, to carry our soul and prayer and our body to the gathering of believers called the church.  But we also need is to be the kind of friend who does this very same thing to others, to our friends.  We need to be the ones who won’t let the crowd stand in our way.  We are called to be the ones who won’t let a roof or a wall keep our friends from Jesus.  This is how we serve friends.

Not Made To Be Sinners

A fellow pastor asked me to respond to help him respond to a couple questions he had received regarding the image of God in our lives and how sin effects us after salvation.  It wasn't what I had intended to put it in a blog, but as I thought about all the approaches and thoughts people express and share about, few think about the premise.  The premise is at the heart of this one.

Thomas Oden writes, “We are not originally made to be sinners” (298).  This statement is important to remember in reflecting the optimism and hope that is at the root of Wesleyan/Methodist theology and practice.  We chose to become sinners because of how we have been created, which includes free will, and is in the threefold image of God which Wesley talks about in his sermon, “The New Birth.”  Wesley divides the image of God three ways:

1.  Natural image of God.  It is in this form of the image we have free will & immortality.
2.  Political image of God.  It is this form we are stewards of creation and order society/enact justice.
3.  Moral image of God.  In this form, we show how we are made for righteousness and holiness (298).

In the fall, the image of God is defaced.  “…the Fall entails the complete loss of the moral image, while the natural image and the political image are retained, albeit in a distorted manner.  The moral image, however, is the image proper” (48, Colin Williams).  While not always received well, Wesley clearly understood, in agreement with Calvinists, humanity suffers from a state of total depravity.  Williams writes again, “The loss of the moral image spells total depravity because separation from God and the substitution of self-government in place of acceptance of the Lordship of God means that the good capacities of man are twisted from their true course and used for wrong purposes” (49, Ibid).  See also Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament, Romans 6:6 when writing about “our old man,” states, “ …for that entire depravity and corruption which by nature spreads itself over the whole man, leaving no part uninfected.”  But the grace of God is an intervening gift, a gift which works to make possible a decision for God to intervene – to save us.

So to answer the initial question, “can the image of God be lost?” The moral image, is lost to us until salvation while the natural and political image of God is twisted and marred.

I like the way Bishop Scott Jones paraphrases Wesley when he writes “…justification is something God does for us through Christ, while sanctification is something God does in us through the Holy Spirit” (178).  There is simultaneous nature to these gifts of God.  But if, as Jones notes later, “Sanctification is a real change, where righteousness is imparted…(179),” then it seems to me that it is in the gift of sanctification we find the moral image of God renewed within the life of the Christian.

Can we later lose our salvation?  Can we, by our actions, regress in to a fallen state?  Wesley thought so as he describes in “The Great Privilege of those that are Born of God.”  Thomas Oden outlines this in far more detail, but in essence, the longer the Christian gives into temptation, remaining unattentive to the Spirit’s corrections and warnings, if  becomes a downward cycle.  The power of the Lord eventually leaves BUT their always remains prevenient grace present and at work.

1 John 3:9 contains the promise that “whoever is born of God does not commit sin.”  To this Oden, attributes that the sins of “voluntary transgressions of the law” are what is meant.  What Wesley understood as the “Wilderness State” and “Heaviness” reflect two distinct states on the Christian journey.  The “Wilderness” is descriptive of the downward cycle when the Christian begins to give into temptation.  The time of “Heaviness” is comparative to St. John of the Cross', “dark night of the soul,” wherein the Christian finds temptations abounding and are called on to be in prayer continually, seeking after God even in the struggles. 

Oden, Thomas.  “John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity.” Zondervan. 1994.
Williams, Colin W.  “John Wesley’s Theology Today.” Abingdon. 1960.
Jones, Scott J. “ United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center. Abingdon. 2002.

What an Old Tom Turkey Taught Me About Biblical Spirituality

For most pastors and church staffs, the week after Easter Sunday is like a big exhale and collapse on the couch kind of week.  It is a bit more than that for those of us who define the start of spring not by the cycles of the sun and moon but by the sounds of barred owl calls and spring turkeys gobbling from their roost.

It was an incredible Easter worship that we celebrated.  Definitely in my top five and maybe even the number 1 for me.  The thing about Sundays, my friend and fellow pastor, Tommy Willingham reminded me a number of years, is that after Sunday comes another Sunday, and another, and another.  Somewhere in there, clergy have to take Sabbath rest.  I found some of that rest time on April 1.

I have permission to hunt on some private land not far from my home.  I got home a little after 5pm, donned my camo, checked my calls, got my shotgun and headed out for what I thought would likely be an hour or so taking a walk in the woods listening for a non-existent gobbler nearby.

It was 5:30 when I began my walk, crawling under the barbed wire fence and walking up to the highest ridge.  Taking my time, I sent a few gently yelps and clucks out to let any turkeys know a "hen" was in the area.  No one picked up on my advances.  So about ten till six, I did something I rarely do.  I set up a turkey hen decoy on the ridge, found a nice pine tree and I sat down.  I played a game on my phone.  I checked e-mail.  I remembered my prayer beads in my vest and began to pray.

Then I waited.

I’ll admit I don’t wait well.  I get antsy, bored, and anxious.  I also know that I need those feelings and turkey hunting is a sport able to teach patience more than most.  It sure seemed like a lot more time had gone by but right around 6pm, I gobble sounded off right in front of me.  Game on.  I paused a moment and responded with a soft cut and purr from my call.  Nothing.

So I waited.

Five minutes later, the gobbling came from my right.  I turned my head slightly to see that old turkey had covered about 100 yards in five minutes and was anxious to get a glimpse of the hen he had been hearing.  I gave him another cluck and purr and watched his head perk up.  He began putting to hear from that hen.  Then he got a glimpse of the decoy moving in the wind.

He lowered his head down and came in on a string to that decoy.  When the tom was about 15 yards from my pine tree, I brought the hunt to an end.  In reality, my time with this bird was far from over.  I got him back home, took measurements and took to work cleaning him.  I think I'm one of the few who treasure this part of every hunt because it is a time for me to give thanks to God for the blessing of food for my family and the joy of being part of God’s creation.  I give thanks for the bird, for the life and for the hunt.  In these moments after a successful hunt, I am reminded of my own mortality, those sacred words we as clergy say on Ash Wednesday and at funerals: “Ashes to ashes.  Dust to dust.”

Why do I share this story?  In part, I have come to see and experience the camaraderie in hunt stories.  Sportsmen and sportswomen have a shared language and find meaning and life in the stories.  I have sat with folks in hospital rooms, at home or over a cup of coffee, who had no life in them but who caught spark when the stories of days in the woods came up.  It was people sharing their lives that have help me to come to hold stories, psalms and allegories in a much higher regard than I used to do.  In his article, “To Taste With Heart,” Dr. Mark Burrows writes about this when he observes, “Allegorical reading with its creative interest in possibility, finds its grounding in a spirituality of movement and change.  But this occurs only for readers who are willing to stay put, to remain at the still point within the text... (176, Burrows).”

In our rush toward advancements and achievements, human beings speed by the stories and poems around us.  In our commitment to quiet times with God, we become more interested in checking off our to do list.  In our hurry to be right, we fail to read and live what is written.  In fact, we fail to live at all.  The root of allegories and poetry in the Scriptures are the revelations of human beings who became still; who waited.  The reading and study of Scripture is more than an intellectual experience for it is intended to be spiritually transforming.  A Biblical spirituality needs a patient reading, reflection on a life lived and time in the presence of God.

On a Monday afternoon, I took time to be at rest.  I stopped my hurrying and chose to sit and wait.  I need to wait more.  I need to sit more often.  That old turkey reminded me once again what can be discovered and the stories that are written when we stop and wait in the presence of God.

Psalm 40:1-3 GW  For the choir director; a psalm by David. I waited patiently for the LORD. He turned to me and heard my cry for help.  (2)  He pulled me out of a horrible pit, out of the mud and clay. He set my feet on a rock and made my steps secure.  (3)  He placed a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see this and worship. They will trust the LORD.

Works Cited
Burrows, Mark. "To Taste with Heart," Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology.  April 2002.

Examining Spiritual Practices Through a Wesleyan-Methodist Lens Part 4

This wraps up my work in examining Ignatius' Exercises from a Wesleyan-Methodist tradition.  There were some additional thoughts and questions raised in this research.  I will continue to reflect on some of those in the future, mostly as it relates to Wesley's own works as opposed to Ignatius' writings.  I am convinced there is a real benefit we can find in being forthright and careful in examining other practices for we may find we have more in common than we thought at the outset.  

As the first paragraphs here focus on differences, be sure to read my previous posts starting here.

However, there are those practices which Ignatius’ outlines and encourages within the Exercises that are problematic in nature and ought to be addressed as well. As I have just addressed the penitential practices in week one, we must consider that beyond fasting, Ignatius encouraged denying oneself comfortable sleeping and more drastic, the chastising of the flesh. He writes on this account: “This is done by wearing hairshirts, cords, or iron chains on the body, or by scourging or wounding oneself, or by other kinds of austerities (The Spiritual Exercises, 62).” I certainly have no doubt our Methodist tradition flinches at even the thought of such practices. The response I received in an e-mail correspondence with Paul Brian Campbell, SJ, a Jesuit and Publisher at Loyola Press, confirms the same from the modern day descendants of Igantius’ practice. Paul writes,

“Penance and self-denial can sharpen our senses and help us become more receptive to God's gifts. Ignatius wrote the Exercises in the 16th Century. Our understanding of the psychosexual dynamics of "scourging or wounding oneself" has progressed considerably since his time, to say the least…I cannot endorse any form of self-harm, any more than I would allow an illness to be treated by the standards of 16th century medicine (2012).”

Additional practices not part of Methodist (or many protestant churches) such as praying the “Hail Mary” or the “Anima Christi” are encouraged throughout. One also finds references to the “dark night” or that “the Divinity hides itself (The Spiritual Practices, 92).” John Wesley’s views on this subject are somewhat conflicted as both Collins and Tuttle note in their writing. Wesley appears to misunderstand John of the Cross’ “dark night” as a place of “sin and ignorance” and not as a spiritual journey of purgation (Collins 1993, 310). A spiritual director in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition ought to be aware of this if using the Exercises.

So while both Collins and Tuttle address concerns of contemporary spirituality, we in fact are talking not about contemporary practices at all. Instead, to examine Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises is to engage in a ecumenical study and to continue in the same vein as John Wesley himself, which was to see what the practices of other denominations and Christian traditions might hold for us as a Methodist people. It seems on further reading, there is much in common with Ignatius and Wesley.

Unlike the complaint Wesley seemed to have with other mystics, namely, they tended toward the heresy of Quietism, Ignatius it might be argued, leaned more toward the Pelagian side of the equation – a salvation by works. As I have already stated, Ignatius placed his feet firmly in a belief in the atoning work of Jesus Christ. However, like other mystics (and Wesley himself), Ignatius believed the journey of our life was toward Christian perfection; a perfection in love. Ignatius made clear, “…love ought to be manifested in deeds rather than words (The Spiritual Practices, 103).” Indeed, much as the Wesleyan-Methodist movement has been characterized by “social-holiness," a faith of serving others, Ignatian mysticism could be described as at once a “mysticism of love," it is a striking “service mysticism" (Egan1978, 415). In one meditation, Ignatius calls the exerciant to reflect on the Nativity story, taking upon the role of a slave and caring for the needs of a the Holy family, who themselves are poor. This is done so a person might gain an understanding of the poor estate into which Jesus was born. All of this is consistent with Jesus’ own words given to his followers, "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13 NASB)

By examination using the Albert Outler's, "Wesleyan Quadrilateral," I have presented already the heavy emphasis on Scripture in the Exercises. In addition, the intent of the Exercises is to provide the exerciant with an experience of knowing Christ Jesus and imitating Christ Jesus. But what of tradition and reason? Rabbi Kushner makes a statement, I think, both Ignatius and Wesley would agree upon when he writes, “Religious rituals are a funny sequence of things we do to help us remember that we have forgotten why we have been created, and gently provide us with the instruments of return (Kushner 2006, 88-89).” Ignatius’ Exercises incorporate many of the rituals and traditions of the Church. Yet, the Exercises offer us additional instruments to return to the world with humility, “...that I may obey in all things the law of God our Lord (The Spiritual Practices, 81).” In addition, the exercitant is not asked to suspend reason in the exercises but employ it in the reading of Scripture, meditation, and in the use of imagination. In week two, Ignatius addresses making good choices and the exerciant is challenged to, “...use my reason to weigh the many advantages and benefits...(Ibid, 85).” While not solely ecumenical, clearly The Spiritual Exercises put to use the criteria of the Quadrilateral.

What then does it mean for us as Wesleyan-Methodists if we find a mystical practice does fit within the criteria of both Collins’ questions and the Quadrilateral? In the case of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, where it is intended for a person to participate under the direction of an experienced spiritual director, finding an experienced director would be the first requirement. Secondly, it ought to be addressed that there are practices which fall outside the norm for the Methodist Christian (already named). Ideally, a Wesleyan-Methodist spiritual director will have already participated in the Exercises and would be aware and available to those seeking to practice the exercises.

It would benefit the spiritual director to have an understanding of what Gary Thomas terms an exerciant’s, “sacred pathways” or personality type, such as Myers-Briggs. This need not be required but worth the time to consider. Because of Ignatius’ use of imagination, Eucharist ritual, and full engagement of the senses, to name a few practices, having an understanding of either the pathway or personality, the spiritual director might be more attentive to the work of the Holy Spirit during certain aspects of an exerciant’s experience. This is not to imply the director manipulate the exercise, but to be aware of where an exercise might overlap with a natural pathway in the life of the exerciant.

Worth considering as well, is the use of the Exercises as part of a Methodist Select Band. Daniel Prechtel references the work of Morris and Olsen in regards to group spiritual direction as they highlighted the unique aspect of the Select Bands in the Methodist Societies. Not only were the select bands a unique peer group, the focus of these small groups had to do with the coming to live out a perfect for God and for one’s neighbor (Prechtel 2010, 65). The unique process of The Exercises would need to be honored and so would the typical ways we might measure success in a small group (Dougherty 1995, 65 & 67). Directors in the United Methodist Church should also be aware of the reporting structure of the Vital Congregations reporting format.

The Spiritual Exercises are given the flexibility by Ignatius, through the spiritual director, to be accessible to all, regardless of ability or education. Ignatius writes, “A person who is uneducated or of little natural ability should not be given matter which he could not…bear or…get no each should be given those exercises which will be of the most profit…(The Spiritual Practices, 41).” This is certainly in accordance with John Wesley’s wish for us to speak “plain truth for plain people (The Wesley Study Bible 2009, 592).” The director ought to be attentive to making the Exercises available to all so all might grow in grace.

In our time of societal upheaval and religious exploration, churches are being both challenged by searching voices and offered practices from differing faith traditions. The growing field of spiritual formation as both an academic area and ministerial practice, as well as the vocation of spiritual directors, presents us a unique opportunity to re-examine faith practices within our Christian traditions. John Wesley’s own journey provides the Methodist people with an example of this practice of questioning and assimilating and Kenneth Collins’ questions provide us with a modern means for this endeavor. A further refining of these questions might benefit us in exploring spiritual practices to be introduced into our churches.

In the case of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the questioning work has demonstrated the Exercises to be beneficial to the life of Christians, regardless of their denominational background. The theological and practical similarities between Wesley and Ignatius prove at times to be striking. Under the guidance of an experienced and gracious director, both Methodists and Roman Catholics could find a meaningful middle ground to journey together in grace toward the perfecting love which both Wesley and Ignatius clearly desired and prayed for in the followers of Jesus Christ.


Campbell, Paul Brian, SJ.  email message to author.  December 11, 2012.
Collins, Kenneth J. 1993. “John Wesley’s Assessment of Christian Mysticism.”
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Coppedge, Allan. Summer 1995.  Theology of John Wesley, DOC 628.  Asbury
 Theological Seminary.

Dougherty, Rose Mary. Group Spiritual Direction. Paulist Press. 1995.

Egan, Harvey D. 1978. “Christian apophatic and kataphatic mysticisms.” Theological
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Foster, Richard.  Streams of Living Water.  San Francisco. Harper Collins,  1998.

Jones, Paul W.  The Art of Spiritual Direction.  Nashville, TN. Upper Room Books. 

Kushner, Lawrence.  God Was In This Place & I, I did not know.  Woodstock, VT, 2006.

Mabry, John R. “Generational Ministry: Spiritual Guidance for the Five Adult
            Generations Alive Today.”  Presence 18, no. 4: 13-22. December 2012.

Prechthel, Daniel L.  Where Two or Three Are Gathered. New York, 2010.

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The Wesley Study Bible.  Nashville, TN. Abingdon. 2009

Thompson, Marjorie J. Soul Feast. Louisville, KY. Westminster, 2005.

Thomas, Gary. Sacred Pathways.  Grand Rapids, MI, 2010.

Tuttle, Jr., Robert G.  Mysticism in the Wesleyan Tradition.  Grand Rapids, MI.
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Vennard, Jane. Praying With Body and Soul. Augsburg. 1998.

Wesley, John.  The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition.  Grand Rapids, MI., Baker,

Westminster Shorter Catechism Project. (accessed Dec.
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