“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” - Quote often attributed to John Wesley that embodies Methodist values.
In Nebraska, where my dad’s from, college football is practically a religion. From years of watching football and being a daddy’s girl, I learned the rules of the game, the names of players, rankings, cheers, and chants. When I got older, I attended UVA, a school with a D1 football team, and the Cavaliers replaced the Cornhuskers as my favorite team. Later when I moved to New Orleans, I learned that this Catholic City has more than one religion on Sundays due to its fanatic devotion to the aptly named Saints. I’ve since become a huge Saints fan. Though I still have some Nebraska fan gear and I pay attention peripherally to outcomes from my own alma mater, in the Saints I’ve found a team I’m more devoted to than any that has come before.
In a lot of ways, this is similar to many people’s experience with faith or spirituality. When you’re a kid, you usually just go along with whatever your family supports. As you grow up, you often find your own way. That was true for my parents who each found their way to another denomination, as I’ve explored in my last two posts.
Though many people continue in the religion passed down from their families, conversion stories are also quite common. A lot of Christian writers I admire chose different faith traditions than they grew up in. Rachel Held Evans grew up as an Evangelical and wrote a bestseller called Searching for Sunday about her journey away from the evangelical movement and towards her new home as an Episcopalian. Tattooed with spiky hair and dark lipstick, Nadia Bolz Weber is a former alcoholic and stand-up comic who wrote Pastrix about her journey to religion. She’s now a sought-after Lutheran pastor with a sharp wit and progressive beliefs who’s attracting a new generation of Christians to the church. Likewise the prolific writer Anne Lamott grew up with atheist parents and struggled for years with addiction, sexual promiscuity, and bulimia. As an adult, she found an inclusive Presbyterian church that became like family. She got sober, and now this dreadlocked, and sometimes foul-mouthed, Christian has several best sellers about her personal faith journey
Sometimes I’m sad that I don’t have a unique conversion story to share. I grew up in the United Methodist Church and that’s where I’ve stayed. There’s not a significant moment that stands out as being the moment where I accepted salvation. Instead, I’ve experienced a gradual deepening of both my relationship with God and my identification as a United Methodist. Though I don’t have a unique conversion story, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism does, and I think it’s fascinating. Here’s a crash-course on United Methodist history and theology:
John Wesley grew up in 18th Century England. His father was a pastor in the Anglican Church, and Wesley was a devout young person. After university, he voyaged to America with the goal of ministering to Native people. He ended up in a colony in Georgia preaching to colonists when he couldn’t find any Native Americans. There he fell in love with a young woman, but he hesitated in pursuing her because he wanted to remain devoted to God. When she married someone else suddenly, John Wesley was hurt and felt her behavior was unbecoming of a Christian. He refused to serve her communion at a church gathering soon thereafter which resulted in one of her relatives pressing charges against Wesley. Wesley stole away in the night on a boat bound back for England, humiliated, feeling like an utter failure, and experiencing a faith crisis of the tallest order.
Back in England he confided to some Moravian (a German Protestant sect) friends about his spiritual doubt. Ironically, they encouraged him to keep preaching until he felt faithful again. He did, but he continued to be discouraged until one night he begrudgingly attended a small Bible study. As he was listening to someone read, something strange happened. His body, which I imagine had been tense with anxiety for many months, began to feel a peaceful stillness. His muscles relaxed, his heart stopped pounding, his shallow breathing became more even, and his mind stopped spinning. As he would later describe it, his heart felt strangely warmed. Instead of puzzling through his doubts in his mind, he surrendered to the Holy Spirit and a deep, rooted knowing, a certainty that he was absolutely loved and accepted by God despite his past failings and regardless of any future strivings toward holiness. Wesley was able to understand the unconditional love of God that he “first felt in my heart” according to his journal from that time. After that experience he went to Germany to spend three months visiting the Moravians and letting this new peace and understanding embed itself in his being and become the foundation of his faith.
Reignited, John Wesley grew his ministry exponentially. He preached to large crowds outside on the streets and in fields – a very un-British thing to do – after he was banned from preaching at many churches there for unabashedly proclaiming himself as a sinner. He focused especially on impoverished communities like a small town of miners and farmers and on marginalized groups like prisoners. He developed a theology of social holiness, which included serving the poor. But he also believed in personal holiness, which meant having a deep, personal relationship with God. As Adam Hamilton, a well-known Methodist pastor and author explains, today many conservatives place a disproportionate weight on personal holiness while many liberals place a disproportionate weight on social holiness. Wesley thought both were equally necessary.
And indeed, I think these emphases on both the personal and the social types of holiness are what appeal to me and keep me grounded in the Methodist Church. Methodists are activists, y’all. Methodists believe in going so far as to change public laws to end evils in society. For example, Methodists were active in the temperance movement as a way to end domestic abuse. To practice our faith means being out in the community ministering to those around us. Growing up, I learned about service by making food baskets to deliver to shut-ins and supporting missionaries to far-off places. Today, my church in New Orleans has several missions in New Orleans like a free clinic for the un- and underinsured and several meal ministries for the homeless and food insecure.
However, Methodists aren’t just activists. We’re also committed to spiritual disciplines and developing a personal relationship with God. One takeaway that I still remember from my confirmation class when I was in seventh grade about John Wesley is the extraordinary fact that he woke up each day before dawn to spend three hours in prayer before continuing with his day. Other spiritual disciplines that Wesley emphasized and that we still practice today include fasting, reading the Bible, journaling, and silence.
Over the years I’ve learned about other Christian denominations as well as the other two Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam. However, I’ve never felt tempted to adopt another faith tradition because I’m sufficiently challenged and satisfied with mine. Just because I was born into a Methodist faith doesn’t mean my work is done. Much like being a Saints fan requires a time commitment, fellowship with other believers, and blind faith through challenging seasons, so too does my devotion to God. In a life of faith, the journey is the reward, and that’s a thought both humbling and exciting as I continue, despite no knowing where I’m going, to follow forward.
What about you? Did you grow up in a faith tradition? If you did, did you accept that tradition, reject it, or adopt another one? If you didn’t grow up in a faith tradition, what’s your journey been like as an adult to fulfill any spiritual yearnings?
As always, thanks for reading! And I’d love to hear from you in the comment box below.