Saturday, April 19, 2008

Perfect Timing!

I wrote the following paper as a theological reflection during the doctrine section of my United Methodist Studies class. I wrote it in February; it just came back to me on Friday. It is exactly the message I needed to see right now as I prepare to attend and observe the General Conference of my United Methodist denomination. And, the next three weeks are lining up to be my most stressful of seminary, with a trip to General Conference for three credits needed for graduation, a 15-page research paper due the day after my return, two class presentation/projects, and a 20-page academic paper on the transfiguration in the Apocryphal Acts of John due the following week. And, oh yeah, a report on attending General Conference.

Reading Randy Maddox and Richard Heitzenrater on John Wesley’s theology of grace and how that understanding affected his ministry, I understood, perhaps for the first time, why I am a Methodist – why I am Wesleyan.
For Wesley, grace was not simply or exclusively one moment in a lifetime but the ongoing presence of God (my language here might be Divine Spirit). The experience of grace is a possibility in every moment in every lifetime. And the human response to that grace creates a dynamic relationship between humanity and the Divine.
For several years now, without knowing it was Wesleyan, I have asked – not just at Easter but throughout the year about the events of that time – “What’s your response to the resurrection?”(I might try to reframe the question this year to better match my theology – “What’s your response to this gift of grace?” but I would lose the alliteration.)
This understanding of grace as an ever-present reality, allows salvation for Wesley – for Methodists – to be about spiritual healing through the Divine but also with the Divine. Humans participate in that grace through their response to such merciful love.
Maddox explains it this way: “God has chosen to allow a place for our participation, both before and after our justification – not as a means of meriting salvation, but as a ‘condition’ that upholds our integrity within the relational process of saving grace.”
This is the point where everyone feels a need to demonstrate how this is not works-righteousness. I understand why the scholars and theologians need to do so, but I find the debate tedious, so I will not repeat it except to say that I accept that this grace is freely given and it is the human response to that grace that engenders action.
For Wesley, for Maddox, for me, this active response to God’s grace – what Heitzenrater identifies as our awareness of God with us – is gradual and lifelong. The dynamic and relational interaction with the Divine allows for growth over a lifetime not simply a “legal transaction” of an instant that secures a final outcome. In this way, Maddox writes, “the fundamental goal of salvation remained therapeutic transformation.”
For Wesley, Heitzenrater notes, that this dynamic relationship with God as evidenced in Jesus was not just about his death and resurrection but also about his life and passion – his ministry, his own response.
For Wesley, this response in humans is enabled – empowered – by the Holy Spirit. And it is that Spirit that brings the sense of the active presence of God with us. I found Wesley’s own words, quoted from his “The New Birth” sermon beautiful: “God is continually breathing, as it were, upon [a human’s] soul, and [a human’s] soul is breathing onto God.” Those words give voice to my experience of the Divine and the relational nature of that Divine presence in my life and in Creation.
Astounding for me, though, was to find that Wesley had also given voice to a concept I have struggled with throughout seminary – and, perhaps, throughout my life. What about doubt? What about our brokenness and the breaking we do? What about our anxieties? In a life given breath by grace, why are they even present? Why do they sometimes feel ever-present? Is our humanity such that we will not know a relief from them until some future culminating grace? That has never been my understanding of grace. And, these readings on the ever-present nature of grace – unearned grace – would seem to contradict a sense of eschatological delay. And that certainly doesn’t seem very Wesleyan either. Wesley has a grace for every life stage.
Wesley struggled with this human reality, too. What he concluded, Heitzenrater writes, is that “pardon could co-exist with sin, that faith could stand beside doubt, and that both fear and joy were continuing parts of the Christian experience.” That’s big. Our humanity does not hinder our Christian experience; it informs it.
Accepting our humanity as reality and not as something to be overcome or ashamed of gives me an even greater sense of gratitude for grace – a grace that allows me to be fully human, fully me while seeking to be in partnership with the Divine. That sense of grace increases my response to grace. The result is a life – and, I hope, a ministry – that allows me to live and work and love in ways that demonstrate that loving and breathing presence of God and share its hope and soul-healing possibilities with others.
What Maddox calls “response,” Heitzenrater calls “results.” For me this nuanced difference is helpful in understanding grace manifest in a variety of ways. The response to grace is how we live our lives in relation to this Divine love. The results of grace – our human actions with one another and with the Divine -- are our eschatology. They are the end results.
Through years of experience and discernment – perhaps even coupled with scripture and reason if not tradition, I have concluded that I am clearly Protestant. I began my faith journey in the Unitarian-Universalist church and became a Christian through the United Methodist Church at age 14. In my early 20s, when my parents converted to Catholicism, I did, too, though more for family dynamic than theological reflection. My self-determination to return to the United Methodist Church was based on my sense that I was far more Protestant than Catholic. What I have found through these readings, though, is how unique John Wesley’s theology is even within Protestantism. His sense of grace and salvation seems far more freeing to me than the theologies of grace and salvation in other Protestant faiths. His sense of grace seems to relieve an anxiety over salvation that still seems present in theologies of other Protestant faiths.
These readings helped me affirm that I am a Methodist – a Wesleyan Methodist – with a passion for living in response to this gift of grace through loving action and service and breath.

1 comment:

Jeri said...

Yes,yes, yes. A good theologian indeed, and a good Wesleyan. It is all about grace, which is healing and divine.
Wesley wasn't afraid of doubt, wasn't afraid to engage other religions and be influenced by them.
He embraced God's grace wherever it could be found. AMEN!