1 Timothy 1:15 and Francis Asbury’s Favorite Verse

francis-asbury-statue-27_hdrFrancis Asbury was the one man most singularly responsible for the spread and growth of Methodism in America.  He was truly the Apostle of the Long Road.  Calvin Coolidge gave a wonderful dedication speech when Asbury’s memorial statue was unveiled in Washington, D.C. in 1924 (free download here).

Throughout all his travels and the thousands upon thousands of sermons preached, Asbury said that his favorite verse to preach was this one:

This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I’m the biggest sinner of all.

This is neither pietistic platitude nor is it unnecessary self-flagellation.   All human beings sin.  And we are never privy to the motives or struggles of any person besides ourselves.  As a result, we can never truly judge another human being.  This means that the only true way to understand ourselves in light of God and all other people on the planet is to see ourselves as the greatest sinners.

We know how often we miss the mark of God’s ideal.  We know the inner thoughts, vices, and prejudices.  We have seen the darkness within our own hearts and souls.  Others may commit sins we can see, but we have no clue as to the interior state of their souls.  I may not commit the same outward sins, but I may be more twisted and evil on the inside than they are.

As far as I know, I am the biggest sinner of all.  And that is good news, because if God could love me and work in my life, transforming me step by step into a more perfect reflection of the image and likeness of Christ, he can do it with anyone.

Until this verse becomes a reality in all of our lives, those outside of the Church will always have an opportunity to level a just criticism at us for being judgmental.  When this verse defines our reality, the world will see love and compassion from us.

To Lead or Not To Lead

Leadership-headerI worked with a guy in a church once who thought he was a great leader.  He read all the books from leadership gurus (Christian and secular) and was always trying to implement the next greatest time management system or leadership paradigm.  He once offered me all of his materials and notes from a John Maxwell seminar he attended a few years earlier because he “was beyond all this now.”

The problem, though, was that he was not a leader.  First of all, arrogance never leads.  It is one thing to be confident in one’s own abilities, but outright arrogance is an immediate turn-off to those whom we are supposed to lead.

Second, for all his leadership knowledge (and I am using the term loosely here–knowing vocabulary from books is one thing, knowing how to implement it is quite another), he was a very poor communicator.  He would have a big picture idea that was never truly communicated, and then would end up taking over or micromanaging in the extreme to get the job done because no one else understood the same idea.

Third, he never looked around to see if the people around him were actually following him.  Someone once said that if a leader is not bringing people along with the vision and has no one following him, he is simply taking a walk.  This man was talking a walk quite a bit.

Finally, for all his understanding of leadership and organizational principles, he never inspired the people around him to follow him.  He expected people to follow him.  After all, he was the leader.  It never occurred to him that he needed to encourage people, inspire people, and work with people to make sure they had the same vision, and then move forward.

When leading in the church, God does indeed raise up leaders.  God does give some visions for the future.  But we function as a body together.  There must be consensus among the body that the vision is actually God-given, and not something that came from somewhere else (pride, ego, devil, etc.).  And if it is a God-given vision, God will include others in on the vision and provide the people with the gifts and graces to accomplish that vision.  (For all his autocratic tendencies, even Francis Asbury understood this aspect of leadership.  He was appointed by John Wesley to lead all the Methodists in America, but Asbury would not accept the appointment until all the preachers who would be under him voted to elect him to that position.  He wanted the preachers to voice their approval of the vision and would not exercise his authority until they did.)

Then it is up to the leader not to dictate how things should happen, or worse take over when it doesn’t happen exactly how the leader thinks it ought to go, but rather it is up to the leader to consistently reinforce the vision and share the vision with those around him or her.  Since the vision is from God, and the people with the abilities to accomplish it are from God, the leader becomes a bulletin board for God.  Every time the people see the leader, they are reminded of what God has called them to do, just as every time we pass a bulletin board we see announcements and flyers and are reminded of what is going on in the community.

Leaders are successful, then, when they see the vision, communicate the vision to others, and reinforce the vision for the sake of the kingdom.

The Christian Life According to the Allman Brothers

One of my favorite songs is Ramblin’ Man by the Allman Brothers.  It’s a great tune.  The lyrics are pretty good, too.

I like the song because I really enjoy songs about journeys (I like songs by Journey, too, but that would be for another post.)  Songs like these tell a lot about life, because we all are on a journey.  Life is one continual journey from birth through life through death to life.  It never stops.

And yet, sometimes it seems in churches, where the never-ending concept of the journey of life ought to be lifted up the most, we speak of life in terms of destination: “I found Jesus” or “When I get to heaven…”

Dr. Steve Harper, retired Professor of Spiritual Formation at Asbury Theological Seminary (and who blogs at Oboedire), once wrote, “We prefer a terminology of ‘finding’ Jesus, rather than ‘following him.’  We opt for plans with arrivals built into them instead of invitations with journeys at their heart.”

Our life in Christ is a life of following Jesus.  It is no coincidence that Jesus said he was “The Way” and that the movement was originally called “The Way.”  Jesus is taking all of creation on a journey, and he has invited us to join him on that journey.

This has radical implications for our spiritual lives.  There is never a point when we can say we have “arrived” at a destination.  Even the major points of the journey, salvation and sanctification, are themselves merely entry points to deeper sections of the journey rather than destinations to stop and stay.  Our God is infinite and he invites us to spiritually travel with him.  It will be an infinite journey.  For some it is a physical journey as well (think missionaries), but for all it is a spiritual journey.

So when I hear very well-meaning Christians speak of their salvation or their relationship with Christ as a destination (and one for which they are eternally grateful for their arrival), I have the Allman Brothers run through my head.  There is always more to the journey.  It is always time for leavin’ in order to go further on the spiritual  journey with Jesus.  We never remain spiritually stuck in the same place in our relationship with Christ if at all possible.  I just hope you understand, in God’s economy, it is completely appropriate to be a Ramblin’ Man.

Holiness and Rules

When I was a student at Asbury Theological Seminary, which is a school with its roots in the Holiness Tradition, we used to joke about a caricature of holiness: “Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance, don’t chew; and don’t go out with girls who do.”  The reality of this statement is that it is, albeit tongue-in-cheek, a good summary of many people’s understandings of holiness.

There is a mistaken idea that one arrives at a holy state by following the rules, the commandments.  In this line of reasoning, things such as smoking become a litmus test of sorts for holy living.  You smoke?  Then you are not grace-filled and not truly embracing the holiness tradition.

This is not right.  Plain and simple.

Salvation, let alone holiness, is not found in following the rules.  John Wesley wrote in The Character of a Methodist in 1742:books

We do not place the whole of religion (as too many do, God knoweth) either in doing no harm, or in doing good, or in using the ordinances of God.  No, not in all of them together; wherein we know by experience a man may labour many years, and at the end have no religion at all, no more than he had at the beginning.  Much less in any one of these; or, it may be, in a scrap of one of them: Like her who fancies herself a virtuous woman, only because she is not a prostitute; or him who dreams he is an honest man, merely because he does not rob or steal.  May the Lord God of my fathers preserve me from such a poor, starved religion as this!  Were this the mark of a Methodist, I would sooner choose to be a sincere Jew, Turk, or Pagan.

If one wanted to be saved by following the rules, then one ought to be a part of a religion that rewards its adherents for following its rules.  Christianity is exactly opposite this line of thinking.  It is only when a Christian realizes that he or she cannot be good enough or righteous enough to earn God’s reward of salvation that we call on God for help, forgiveness, and enter into true repentance.  When this happens, God gives us His grace to transform us from the inside out.  Salvation is about that transformation.

Now, to be sure, when people are transformed/saved/born again/regenerated/justified they will naturally follow God, and that means obeying His commandments.  But the key here is that this kind of living is the result of that saving relationship with God; it is the result of God the Spirit living in us.  We do not follow the rules to get saved.  We follow them because we love God for saving us.

And the same relationship between our lives and God’s grace is at work in the pursuit of holiness.  We do not follow a long list of do’s and don’ts so we can earn more of God’s grace in our lives and thereby become holy.  We become holy when we respond to God in love by opening ourselves up to more and more of His presence in our lives and allow Him to continue to transform us more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ.

It may seem like a subtle difference, but it is one that makes all the difference in the world.

Learning to Follow in order to Lead

strawbridgeOne of my favorite quotes by Francis Asbury comes from very early in his ministry in America.  In 1774 Asbury received a letter telling him that Robert Strawbridge, one of the very first Methodists in America, was administering the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.  Asbury’s response was direct:

“Why will he run before Providence?”

Strawbridge was a layperson and not ordained.  At that time in Methodism only ordained persons could administer the sacraments.  Up until this point (and for a few years following), Methodism was only a renewal group within other denominations, and as such their preachers were not ordained and their meetings did not have the sacraments.  They were like other parachurch ministries we have today.  Strawbridge was convinced that if God had called him to preach as a Methodist, God had also called him to baptize and offer Communion.  This may very well be true, but the problem was that he was a part of a movement that did not have the same opinions on the issue that he did.  Asbury himself was convinced that, sooner or later, Methodists would have the sacraments in their own meetings, but not yet.

Because of Strawbridge’s actions, the Methodists in America during the Revolutionary period had to spend an inordinate time debating the sacramental issue and infighting among themselves.  This is because some believed, like Strawbridge, they ought to be a completely independent church in their own right and offer the sacraments, and others believed that for the time being they ought to continue as a renewal movement and attend other churches for the sacraments.

The true mark of a leader is to learn how not to “run before Providence.”  Leaders in the church, whether ordained or lay, need to remember that it is not our church.  Therefore it is not our decision in which direction to lead.  We do lead, yes, but it is God’s church.  Jesus Christ is the head and we are parts of it.  We need to remember that we can only lead where God is calling us to go, because ultimately He leads the church.  We have to let “Providence” dictate where, how and when we go.

The difference this makes practically in the life of the church boils down to how we make decisions in focus groups, committee meetings, and the like.  Do we make a decision and ask God to bless it or do we pray and seek confirmation for a direction in which we feel God is leading us?  Do we jump and pray for God to give us wings, or do where God’s Spirit is already blowing and allow Him to lift us to the heights?

In the church, we can only truly lead insofar as we follow God.  This goes for our own fellowship and our stand as Christians in the world around us.  May we learn to follow in order to lead.