Re-post: A Love Story with Depth

In the 1730s there lived in England a man named Charles Wesley, brother to the better-known John Wesley, both of them founders of Methodism. They were ordained Anglican clergymen and ardent in observing the practices of the faith.

As an example of their serious intent to devote themselves completely to God, while studying at Oxford they and some of their companions vowed not to marry, and agreed if any of them should change their mind they would consult one another about their plans.

Years later, when Charles was approaching middle age, he began to have second thoughts about this resolution. By then, the Methodist movement had become large and he, the gifted hymn-writer, was busy traveling, preaching, and composing hymns to be sung.

At thirty-nine years of age he preached briefly in South Wales along the western coast of England. While there, a Methodist convert named Marmaduke Gwynne came to see him, and then took him to his estate — a large property named Garth, complete with a mansion, nine children, and 20 servants.

During six days of preaching in the area Charles found himself drawn back to Garth several times. Sarah Gwynne (Miss Sally) was the attraction. She was 21, he nearly 40.

After six days he crossed the waters to Ireland where there was a rapidly developing Methodist movement in the region of Dublin. He preached there for six months, sometimes several times a day. It was a tumultuous time: there were riots, Methodist homes were ransacked, and brutal murders were committed. Amidst it all, Charles was consoled and strengthened by letters from Sally.

The trip back to Garth in South Wales was rugged — first by ship, then by a coastal ferry. But the last leg of his journey was 120 miles on horseback in the face of a driving rain. When he arrived at Garth he was ill, but, nursed back to health, he was able to preach and administer communion.

Charles began to think about marriage, but two matters had to be attended to first. His foremost question: Had Sally personally experienced redeeming grace? This was the life-changing message at the heart of the Methodist renewal. That is, it was the Methodist restoration of the Gospel message of “new birth” or “the inner transformation” to new life in Christ. Charles evidently needed to know that Sally’s Gospel experience and understanding were more than piety and formalized devotion.

Both Charles and brother John would not compromise on this question. They themselves had been transformed from several years of a rigorous but unsatisfying faith by a powerful awakening of the Holy Spirit. Happily, in due time, Charles’ question about Sally’s faith was answered to his satisfaction.

The second matter was his ability to care for wife. Sally’s mother was favorable to Charles as a husband for Sally but asked what assurance he could give that an itinerant preacher without a settled income could support her. Charles consulted his publisher. He and his brother talked to a banker. The answer: royalties from his books would be more than enough to provide the 100 pounds a year that Mrs. Gwynne required. When brother John gave written assurance on behalf of brother Charles of adequate resources, Mrs. Gwynne approved.

A spiritual question and then a practical one had been thoroughly addressed. Then, on April 9, 1749, Charles and Sally were married at Garth. It was a day filled with sunshine and joy. Charles wrote that his brother John seemed the happiest of all those present.

Was it a great and durable love? In her mid-twenties Sally’s beauty was scarred horribly by life-threatening smallpox. This disfigurement in no way diminished Charles’s love for her. She went with him on his preaching circuit and the Methodist people loved her dearly. Years into the marriage his tender notes to her might begin, “My ever dearest Sally”.

Charles and Sally had eight children but only three survived childhood: two boys, Charles and Samuel, and one girl, Sarah (also called Sally). The two sons were musical child prodigies and both became well-known organists. Sally had the poetic gift of her father. Parents Charles and Sally were happily married 39 years until his death in 1788.

What do we glean from this story? A determined 120-mile ride through a pelting rain speaks of the enlivening and motivating effects of genuine love. Mrs. Gwynne’s insistence that Charles show evidence of adequate support for her daughter speaks of the parental responsibility of a mother’s heart, especially in a day when there was no significant social safety net. Charles’ tender notes addressed to Sally across decades of marriage speak of the durability of genuine love through all circumstances.

And Charles’ foremost question, above, bore witness that, above all, it was a living shared faith in Christ our Lord that bound their marriage together.

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Re-post: Thoughts About Serving Holy Communion

Young pastors sometimes struggle to see the value of liturgy, especially the service of Holy Communion. It may seem “unspiritual” to them because the words spoken are prescribed in advance. Consequently, they may feel the need to “reformat” this ancient rite of the Church.

I once heard of a young pastor’s novel come-and-go Communion service. The elements were laid out on the Communion table and people were invited to come anytime Sunday afternoon and serve themselves, without benefit of explanation, pastor, or possibly even fellow believers.

Or there was the pastor so opposed to rituals of any kind that he simply “announced” Communion and passed the elements around without invitation, consecration, explanation, or prayer. Any unchurched person would be sure to go away asking, “What was that about?”

Whatever the cause for disinterest or aversion, here are some simple suggestions to help pastors conducting a Communion service. They may also be useful for laypersons who feel the need for fuller engagement with this sacrament.

1. During the week prior to the service, live in the four brief New Testament passages that report the first Lord’s Supper, attended and hosted by Jesus Himself:

Matthew 26:17-30
Mark 14:22-26
Luke 22:19-23
1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Let the scene set itself in your imagination and let the words sink in. If the truths expressed in “this is my body … this is my blood (broken/shed for you)” seem wrapped in mystery, remember that in the early days of the Christian era the Greek branch of the church often referred to the Lord’s Supper as just that — “the Mystery.”

2. The day before the Lord’s Supper is served, spend time with the ritual itself. Read it aloud. Personalize its opening invitation for yourself. Think afresh what the sacrificial death of Jesus meant and turn that understanding into prayer. It is sometimes the savoring of words — “putting them under your tongue and sucking them like a sweetie,” as one Scottish divine advised — that releases their power.

3. Practice reading the service out loud slowly and thoughtfully. In doing so you may hear fresh truth for your own need. One teacher of pastors offered this advice to those called upon to read the Bible in public services: “Read it as if you are listening to it yourself, not as though you wrote it.” The same advice fits reading the ritual of Holy Communion.

4. If you have any impulse in your mind to diminish or neglect the serving of the Lord’s Supper, remember that, throughout history, it has often been called the central act of Christian worship. Let that understanding refashion your thinking.

5. Finally, whether you are a pastor or layperson, resist the tendency to seek innovation. Sometimes in our youth we are inclined to diminish the value of repetition in favor of new ways of saying or doing things. Innovation certainly has its place, but not with a fundamental practice of our faith such as the Lord’s Supper. Repetition is intended to fix its truths in believers’ minds.

After one communion service at which I had served believers of all ages, an elderly woman, the widow of a minister, spoke to me. She had heard the ritual all her life. She said to me with feeling, “The longer I live, the more meaningful the Lord’s Supper becomes to me.”

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Photo credit: Kathy (via flickr.com)

Why Do We Pray in Jesus’ Name?

Jesus spoke often to his disciples about prayer, an activity fundamental to his ministry and theirs. Early in his teaching he taught them what we today call the Lord’s Prayer.  Later, he told them that whatever they ask of God should be asked in my (Jesus’) name.  

Across the centuries his followers have complied, repeating the Lord’s Prayer, and offering their petitions in Jesus’ name. Around ten years before the USSR broke up in 1989, at the height of Soviet domination of Estonia, Kay and I heard the Lord’s Prayer offered devoutly by believers there.

To repeat: the larger pattern for prayer we call the Lord’s Prayer was given early in Jesus’ teaching, but in the privacy of his final conversation with the eleven disciples he very specifically added the direction to pray in his name.

Jesus says in John 14:13, I am going to the Father and I will do whatever you ask in my name. He also said: Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive and your joy will be complete (John 16:23, 24). The other references are John 14:13,14 and John 15:16.

This is not intended to be a mantra for believers to recite without careful thought. Nor is it given as a ritual to fill up space in the worship practices of believers.

It is rather a key to worship that opens heaven’s doors so that prayers reach the ears of the Father. As Jesus declares, No one comes to the Father but by me (John 14:6). That is, there is no other faith entrance to the Holy God. Thus, people of Christian faith, whenever they pray, are called to pray in Jesus’ name.  

This element of Christian faith is sometimes better understood by those who are opposed or indifferent to the Gospel. For example, some years ago a community faced a common crisis.  An auditorium was engaged and a meeting called. Some who would attend would be Christians but there would of course be some of other faiths, and still others of no faith at all.

Someone on the planning committee thought it a good idea to invite a local pastor to offer an opening prayer. When word of this intent got out a few persons protested vigorously. Their issue was not opposition against a prayer to God. That word unqualified could mean a god of any faith. Their issue was to block any prayer offered in the name of Jesus. They refused that fiercely.

For Christians, Jesus’ instruction to make all prayer requests in his name is lodged firmly in the gospels, as noted above. Was this meant for just that time 2000 years ago? That is, has the practice faded in history?

Attend a Christian gathering today, whether Episcopalian, Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist or interdenominational; listen carefully to prayers when offered and you are almost certain to hear the prayer closed with words like the following: These petitions we offer in Jesus name. Or, We pray this in the name of Christ, our Lord. 

There is power in that name and Jesus’ promises as recorded by the Apostle John tell us this.  We must pray in Jesus’ name and teach this practice to our children.

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Photo credit: Thanh Hùng Nguyễna (via flickr.com)

Dealing with Our Doubts

It’s one thing to be racked by our doubts, wondering if God exists, if He cares, if He can do anything for us in our times of uncertainty. But to feel that our doubts are sinful and that we must keep them hidden compounds our distress.

The truth is that doubt is the not infrequent experience of aspiring saints. Smug, narcissistic, or spiritually complacent Bible characters like Samson, Absalom and the wicked Herodias give little evidence of wrestling with doubts. They were all supremely self-confident.

But the godly prophet Elijah is a different case. So are Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and John the Baptist. Even Jesus had his times of doubt. No one ever trusted the Father more implicitly than he, yet from his cross he cried, “My God, My God, Why…?”

In the psalms there are many doubter’s laments. At least 40 of the 150 are called psalms of lament, and some are from people wrestling with doubt.

Psalm 77 is one of them.

The psalmist is in such distress that he cannot sleep at night. He holds God responsible for even this, since for the Hebrew mind God is ultimately involved in every human situation.

The psalmist cries out in his anguish, Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in his anger shut up his compassion? (Psalm 77:9 RSV)

This psalm must have been written as the solitary cry of one believer. But when the psalms were collected, eventually to become the Old Testament hymn book, this one was seen as a cry common to many devout hearts. Thus it was made a part of the Old Testament worship literature. Today all readers, New Testament doubters too, may use it.

Doubters want to believe that God is there for them. But they struggle to see how things could be as they are, if God really cared. Doubters have faith but it is under assault, conflicted, strained.

Frederick Robertson, great preacher of an earlier generation, was sometimes subject to profound, sometimes overwhelming, doubts. His advice?

“Obedience! Leave those thoughts [of doubt] for the present … Force yourselves to abound in little services; try to do good to others; be true to the duty that you know …”

Good advice, but there is an even deeper word in this psalm. The psalmist says: I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; yea, I will remember thy wonders of old (Psalm 77:11 RSV).

This psalmist avoided the peril of self-absorption by meditating, principally on the mighty acts of God at the Red Sea.

We can go one better. We also call the mighty acts of Jesus to mind — his perfect life, his love for the oppressed, his healings — and particularly his deliverance from death at Joseph’s tomb. The Holy Spirit, by such meditations, can renew our faith.

When trying to overcome oppressive doubts, in addition to personal meditation, it is also good to go where a company of believers is worshiping the living God. Attempt to share in their faith as they sing and pray. Join with them and listen to the word of God preached.

You will be among friends. And, of course, on any given Sunday, there will surely be others there who also need to activate Psalm 77.

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Photo credit: Ashley Campbell (via flickr.com)

New Blog Post Coming Soon

Greetings to all —

I had hoped to have a new blog post for this week but find myself tired from our trip back to Toronto. (Daughter Carolyn and her husband, Doug, graciously ferried Kathleen and me to Canada in their Honda Odyssey.) I am recovering well from the unexpected surgical procedure I received in Chicago … in fact, I’m feeling much better. That and a wonderful visit with members of my family living in the western suburbs of that city have served to buoy my spirits, and, as I hope to prove next week, my creativity.

In the meantime, here are some quotes from John Wesley that are well worth thinking about, whether you are a pastor or part of a pastoral support team:

I saw that giving even all my life to God (supposing it possible to do this and go no further) would profit me nothing unless I gave my heart, yea, all my heart, to Him.

I build on Christ, the rock of ages; on his sure mercies described in his word, and on his promises, all which I know are yea and amen.

A Renewed Heart, Full of Thanksgiving

Last week I shared that I was scheduled for a high-tech, trans-arterial replacement of a critically malfunctioning heart valve. The doctors threaded a delivery catheter through my blood vessels to deploy a new valve inside the top of my heart.

Thanks be to God, that procedure went very well, last Monday morning. After two days, I was released from hospital to be with Kathleen at Robert and Janice’s home, along with daughter Carolyn and grandchildren Zachary (Lisa) and Charis (Ben).

Recovery has been rapid and I feel tremendously better than I have for a very, very long time. I feel “repaired” and renewed. Energy I had not had for a year or two is returning, and my family tell me I look better than I have in several years.

My “spiritual heart” is overflowing with thanksgiving for a return to health. Equally… I am profoundly moved by the many expressions of support and the prayers on my behalf. My extended family and many friends in Toronto, Greenville (Illinois), Florida, and in the Free Methodist Church more broadly have been extraordinarily generous to me during this time.

After routine postoperative visits this week, we are planning to return to Canada next weekend. And I plan to resume my weekly blog the week after that.

Blog Statement: September 29, 2019

To the readers of my blog:

I had planned to have a new blog piece for you this week, but events have overtaken me, making that impossible, and I think a personal explanation would be ​in order instead.

During what was meant to be a short visit with son Robert’s family in Chicago (including Robert and Jan; grandchildren Zachary (Lisa) and Charis (Ben) and great-grandchildren Isabel, Nora, and Julia, I was discovered to have an urgent heart problem. My son, Robert, a laryngologist, his doctor son Zachary, an anesthesiologist, and ​above all Zachary’s wife, Lisa, a cardiology nurse practitioner, quickly got me in the hands of ​a cardiology and cardiac surgery team. ​The initial cardiologist promptly diagnosed the problem — a severe lack of flow through a heart valve — and put me on-stream to a high-tech replacement of that valve just ​10 days later — early tomorrow morning, Monday, September 30.

I am told that my recovery is likely to be rapid with an increase in energy evident shortly thereafter.

I am “heartened” by the many expressions of love and prayers I have received from my family, former colleagues, the Greenville University community, and parishioners and friends in Canada and the United States. Daughter Carolyn, who with Doug drove us to Chicago, ​has also read Kay and me numerous expressions of well-wishes and prayer from a Free Methodist Facebook page. Kay’s and my appreciation knows no bounds.

I feel that I am in the hands of very good doctors and above all, in the care of the Great Physician, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. By his grace I plan ​to resume filing regular weekly blogs soon.

Thank you for your interest in my blog. I am pleased to have this space in which to share insights with you from the ​life of a pastor. My ​dear wife ​and ministry partner Kathleen and I consider it an honor beyond our deserving and understanding to have had the opportunity to serve Our Lord in local churches and as bishop, both during our active phase and now in retirement.

In Christ,

Rev. Donald N. Bastian