Review IV: Why I am a United Methodist – “Because Christians Are To Worship”

The title of this chapter is, of course, a rather obvious answer. Worship is the cornerstone of what it means to be a Christian regardless of what tradition we adhere to. This is the aspect of our lives that seems to come up the most for mockery from the people Schleiermacher calls our “cultured despisers.”

“Someone watches two lovers kiss, write poetry for each other, long to be in each other’s presence. The observer asks, ‘What good does that do?’ The question suggests that the questioner has never been in love.” (Page 58)

Of course such a criticism fails to take into account the fullness of Christian worship:

“When we are at our Christian best, all of our activity is worship.” (Page 58)

Our critics go after the obvious evidence of our worship but when we are at our best, everything becomes worship. Again we see the concept of perfection/theosis.

Bishop Willimon mentions for the first time a theme that I have pointed out a few times before about Methodism. Our unique positioning as a bridge between traditions:

“…In worship, the unique blending of perspectives and traditions which United Methodism comprises, is often most visibly present. Just as John and Charles Wesley took their Anglican and Catholic love of the sacraments, the noble liturgy of the Western church and combined it with the warm-hearted experience and vibrant preaching of the Wesleyan revival, so our worship blends the best of both worlds of worship…” (Page 59)

It was rather heartwarming to stumble across this passage in Bishop Willimon’s book. At least I’m not the only one to notice. I think perhaps modern Methodism has too frequently taken our form of worship as simply “normal” that its unique positioning gets forgotten. When we forget our unique position on worship, we lose one of our major strengths as a denomination. The so-called “worship wars” (contemporary v. liturgical) should not be a problem in our churches because our answer should be a combination of both.

One of the best church communities I was ever a part of, was a very high church Methodist congregation. At the same time, it also embodied the warmth Bishop Willimon mentions here. There were quite a few couples in the church where one person grew up Catholic and the other grew up some form of Protestant. It was in this particular Methodist church that they found their ideal mix.

Of course music (as one of the centerpieces of worship) has always been a Methodist strength. Charles Wesley might very well be one of the greatest hymnodists ever. Certainly he was one of the most prolific.

“Some believe the Wesleys reached the common folk of England and its colonies more through their music than by any other means. Charles sometimes even used the tunes of rather bawdy English drinking songs for some of his hymns. ‘Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?’ he asked. I suspect that, if you want to know our United Methodist theology, the real theology for the person in the pew, you should thumb through our Hymnal.” (Page 61)

Bishop Willimon relates a story that shows just how Charles Wesley was able to write some 6.000+ hymns. On a particular journey his horse threw him and then fell on top of him. His companion was worried that Charles had broken his neck. He had only suffered rather minor injuries (bruises and a sprain), but he was in such pain that he was unable to think about or compose hymns “till the next day.”

I can’t help but feel that the connection between Methodist hymnody and Methodist theology is very similar to the Orthodox perspective on liturgy. It is the songs, worship, praise, etc. that form our respective theologies. Perhaps this is one reason why liturgy is such a fascinating topic for me and why I find Orthodoxy so compelling.

Bishop Willimon spends the second half of this chapter talking about what John Wesley termed the “ordinary means of grace.” That is the ways that God shows grace to us outside of experiences such as John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience or the experiences of the mystics. That’s not to discount these experiences, but it is rather an acknowledgment that these “ordinary” graces are more… well, ordinary.

“If we would like to be with God we need not cool our heels waiting to be zapped by some heaven-sent spiritual laser beam… God more usually speaks by the utterly ordinary (and therefore even more gracious) means of preaching, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, Bible reading, and prayer… So Wesley had little patience with those who whined about the absence or silence of God in their lives because he was convinced that if they were present and speaking to God, God would assuredly be there for them.” (Page 63)

It is through our actions of living the Christian life that we maintain our relationship with God. Now, before someone cries out “works salvation!” I want to make something clear: John Wesley staunchly maintains that our salvation is a freely given gift from God. The ordinary means of grace cannot grant us salvation, rather instead they help us to grow closer to God. It is the effort that we put into a relationship. John Wesley even coined a term to describe how God is giving us salvation before we are even aware of it: “prevenient grace.” Grace before the fact. The ordinary means of grace have to do with the life of discipleship and our reciprocal and ordinary acts of love.

“The emphasis on the ‘ordinary means of grace’ accounts for our stress upon preaching and the sacraments.” (Page 64)

Unlike some forms of Protestantism, Methodism does not rely on a “get saved and then you’re set” way of thinking. We are saved, but we are expected to grow. We are to go deeper into the life of discipleship. We are to seek out perfection/theosis. Such a process does not (usually) come about by “spiritual laser beams,” rather through the much more difficult (and yet more grace-full) daily slog of ordinary Christian life. It’s not easy, but that’s why we emphasize the ordinary means of grace: Preaching, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, Bible reading, prayer, etc. In a manner of speaking, we’re all monastic to some extent in that we should be practicing daily discipline and thus pursuing the ordinary means of grace.

And the sacramental aspect is important, although sometimes sadly forgotten.

“Wedded to this stress on preaching is our love of the sacraments… So Wesley urged his people to enjoy ‘constant communion’ at the Lord’s Supper… The Wesleyan revival was, in great part, a sacramental revival…” (Pages 65-66)

I think if our denomination remembers the Wesleyan revival and the stress on the sacraments, then our General Conferences will cease to be “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” Of course the problem of the actual church failing to live up to its ideal of itself is a much larger problem than Methodism alone. In fact, it is likely a universal Church problem because we as members of the universal body of Christ so often fail to live up to the ideal of ourselves. As I mentioned yesterday, I think this is the key understanding behind the concept of “always being reformed.” We are “simul Justus et Peccator,” righteous and sinner as Martin Luther said. As members of the body of Christ, this reflects onto the Church as well. Saint Augustine once said of the Church: “The Church is a whore and she is my mother.”

Thus, our need for constant repentance and the sacraments. Thu, our need for the ordinary means of grace.

Next chapter: “Because Christians are to Witness.” And, just as a reminder, this book is seven chapters. So we’ve got three to go and possibly another post with some finishing comments.

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~ by crossingthebosporus on August 31, 2012.

One Response to “Review IV: Why I am a United Methodist – “Because Christians Are To Worship””

  1. Thank you, again, for this. I love the phrase ‘heaven -sent spiritual laser beam’ – such a good image 🙂

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