Is it worth listening to someone who has no experience in the subject matter about which they’re talking?

This past Sunday, I preached a sermon about the healthy upbringing of children and shared a few directions that John Wesley had to say about the education of children in a sermon he wrote in his later years. The question above entered my mind as I prepared the sermon and some have pressed me on the matter as well given that John Wesley never had children of his own. In addition, his well-documented failure of a love life add fuel to the desire to simply ignore much, if not all, of what he had to say about family life.

Given the facts of Wesley’s lack of (fruitful) experiences in these areas of life, it’s likely wise to at least take what he had to say with a grain…or a pillar…of salt, but somewhere amidst the bathwater there might be a baby worth redeeming. John Wesley, while admittedly having abysmal family experiences in his adulthood, was raised by a remarkable mother in Susannah Wesley, who also raised his younger brother Charles. By all appearances, Charles had a rather healthy marriage, rarely traveled away from home after getting married, and did have children of his own, unlike John. The reality, it seems to me, is that John’s “family” as an adult was the Methodist movement itself. He valued the nurture of Methodists at home and abroad more than anything. Why else would he continue to travel to see them even in into his upper 80s?  This is not to excuse the hot mess John contributed to his failed marriage at home, but to acknowledge the reality of where his heart, mind, and hands were fixed.

So while his advice on the education/raising of children is certainly not perfect nor does it come from years of proven success, perhaps there are some bits of wisdom from John that are quite valuable and can be implemented in the home and in the church as we find ways to share God’s grace with children.

Here are some of the best suggestions from John that I thought worth sharing:

  • “From the first dawn of [a child’s] reason continually inculcate, God is in this and every place. God made you, and me, and the earth, and the sun, and the moon, and everything. And everything is his; heaven, and earth, and all that is therein.”
  • “With regard to the management of your children, steadily keep the reins in your own hands.” (He said this in the context of telling parents to not let the grandparents of the children manage the children, which I think he probably overstated. That said, it is vital to take ownership in your child’s development and not leave the task for someone else to do.
  • “From their very infancy sow the seeds of justice in their hearts, and train them up in the exactest practice of it.”
  • “In the morning, in the evening, and all the day beside, press upon all your children, ‘to walk in love, as Christ also loved us, and gave himself for us;’ to mind that one point, ‘God is love, and he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him’.”

Some of the other things John said in his sermons on the raising of children sound quite harsh or outdated to the modern ear and mind. To hear a couple of examples (and to hear what else I said on the matter of nurturing children), you can view one of the services at Jackson FUMC.

First Awakening service (sermon starts about 40 minutes in):

Traditional Worship service (sermon starts about 33 minutes in):

On the whole, it is worth considering that John Wesley’s aim was to spread the emphasis of sanctifying grace throughout his lifetime. I believe that when taken in this context, we have some valuable lessons to learn from the founder of our movement because these suggestions lend themselves to the following of the great commandments: “love God with all your heart, mind, soul, might” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” And in the nurture of children, we adults (parents, teachers, mentors, all people in the church) have a role to play in this. As Wesley reminded us: “Let it be carefully remembered all this time, that God, not man, is the physician of souls…that ‘it is God who worketh in us, both to will and to do of his good pleasure.’ But it is generally God’s pleasure to work by his creatures; to help man by man. God honors [humans] to be, in this sense, ‘workers together with him’.”

Let us join in that great work!

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If Advent I is hope for the longing, Advent II is love for the hurting. As emptiness may oddly convey expectant longing, pain may oddly show the process to purity. Just as dead stumps and empty branches are the images of hopeful anticipation, a metal refinery and a washboard (see Malachi 3:2) are the images of cleansing pain. I’m not intending to suggest that all pain fits this bill, but there are times when the path to being more filled with the love of God…to have, as John Wesley was so apt to put it, the “love of God shed abroad” in our hearts, is one marked with painful struggles and real hurt.

One of the helpful bits I came across in prepping for this week’s sermons came from Jennifer Ryan Ayres, who borrowed from Ralph Smith, in the Feasting on the Word commentary:

When silver is refined, it is treated with carbon or charcoal, preventing the absorption of oxygen and resulting in its sheen and purity. One writer has suggested that a silversmith knows that the refining process is complete only when she observes her “own image reflected in the mirror-like surface of the metal.” If this is the case, does [Malachi] also suggest that the imago Dei [image of God] is restored in this process?

(Photo credit: certifiedassets.com)

(Photo credit: certifiedassets.com)

The implications of this for Advent, a season of preparation for the coming of Christ, abound. This refining process is mentioned in the context of “preparing the way,” a key phrase for the season. As Christ is the “image of the invisible God,” in his Incarnation, God was (and is) refining humanity so that we may reflect the divine image once again. And that image is love (1 John 4:8).

So the path to Love’s arrival may be one marked with hurt. [That was something the Virgin Mary knew quite well as she prepared the way for the Lord.]

I don’t know. Maybe it’s too much to trust that the pain we experience in life will not be left unredeemed. Maybe the evidence that bombards our news outlets, our courtrooms, our funeral homes, our oncology wards, our unemployment offices, and so on, is too much for love to overcome…

Or…maybe, just maybe, we’ll find someday that Love’s reach is deep enough to find us in those areas of our worst humiliation and pains, like in an animals’ feeding trough because the beds were all taken up…and maybe, just maybe, Love will be strong enough to take us to a time and a place, as Mumford & Sons puts it, “with no more tears, and love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears…” and hurts.

Hurting and not sure, but hoping, that something better is ahead? You’re not alone in the fire.

About a week after Sam was born, I ran into one of my college professors, Glen Spann, who is also a pastor. I had just completed Seminary a few months prior to Sam’s arrival, so Dr. Spann, whom I had kept in touch with, was aware of my having gone through Seminary. After sharing congratulatory words, he said the following: “I’m going to pass along something to you that Dennis Kinlaw said to me when my first child was born. ‘Now your theological education begins!‘” Boy, has that ever rung true as I’ve learned things about God, myself, and human nature in the joyful journey of parenthood I have been blessed to enjoy thus far.

One of those moments happened about a year ago. I mentioned the encounter with my son on facebook when it happened, but the moment was so dear and I’ve gone back to reflect on the beauty of it several times, so wanted to share a little more about it here. One day my son Sam, who was 4 at the time, was playing in the living room floor. I was in the living room with him while Julianne, my daughter was getting a nap. In the midst of playing, Sam stopped what he was doing, stood up, looked at me and stretched out his hands and arms as far as he possibly could and said this: “Daddy, I love you *THIS* much!” In reply, I extended my arms to full length and said, “Sam, I love you *THIS* much!” He kept his arms extended, walked toward me and soon realized that his wingspan was much smaller than mine. He began to frown and get discouraged and said, “Aw, Daddy, I don’t love you as much as you love me.”

After a few moments of chuckling and getting a few tears in my eyes, I said, “Sam, this isn’t a contest. What matters to Daddy is that you love me as much as you can.” Then he came closer and tried to make his arms a little bit longer to match mine as much as possible.

Photo credit: venusstock.com

The challenge for us is that our love needs to keep up as our wingspan grows. Our capacity to love continues to grow as we get older, yet often we want to put a measure to it and keep more to ourselves. If my wingspan was 5 feet at the age of 10 and then 6 feet at the age of 20, then I ought to be continuing to extend my arms in recognizing that being a true disciple of Jesus means that I give all 6 feet of my wingspan in love to God and neighbor. As such, we are called continually to say to God, “I love you *THIS* much.” Growth in grace begets more growth. The more of God’s grace in us, means that we’re called and tasked to keep giving all, not that we give same when our wingspan was shorter.

When Sam came closer and tried to make his arms longer (out of desire to love me more), I realized that he was giving me a picture of what sanctification and discipleship is all about…our love for God and neighbor keeping up with the growing wingspan. Luke said it this way with regard to Jesus’ growth: “He grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and people.”

Now, let’s see if we can make our arms longer!

“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ…” Ephesians 3:18 (Photo credit: soulgrit.wordpress.com)

In the midst of St. Paul’s letter to the churches in and around Ephesus, Paul lifts up this glorious prayer that his audience would have the ability to know the immensity of Christ’s love. The four dimensions are illustrated in the depiction of the cross and I really like the way that John Wesley expounded on these dimensions in his Notes on the New Testament. Here’s how Wesley described it:

What is the breadth of the love of Christ – Embracing all mankind. And length – From everlasting to everlasting. And depth – Not to be fathomed by any creature. And height – Not to be reached by any enemy.”

Love’s breadth (or width) – or as Wesley elaborated, Christ’s love is one that is “embracing all mankind.” There is no nation, group, family – no person – who is beyond God’s love. Now on the surface everyone reading this may not have too much difficulty nodding in agreement with that, but let that general statement be applied to people who you find difficult to like or love: no terrorist, no immoral dictator, no dirty politician, no IRS agent, no murderer, no adulterer, no addict, no dead beat dad, no one…is beyond the love of God. When Paul speaks of the immensity of the breadth or width of Christ’s love, we get a vision of just how generous God is in giving his love. Even the deranged mind of a cannibal named Jeffrey Dahmer was able to taste and know God’s love and forgiveness.

Love’s length – or as Wesley elaborated, Christ’s love is “from everlasting to everlasting.” In the Gloria Patri that is often sung reminds us of God’s glory and that his love has existed “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.” Michael W. Smith wrote a song “Never been unloved.” He listed off the many adjectives that could be true if spoken of his life when Smith wrote, “I have been unfaithful … unworthy … unrighteous … unmerciful … unreachable … unteachable … unwilling … undesirable … unwise … undone by what I’m unsure of unbroken … unmended … uneasy … unapproachable … unemotional … unexceptional … undecided … unqualified … unaware … unfair … unfit …” But even though he’s found himself described by these “un-“s he recognizes that “it’s because of you [Jesus] and all that you went through, I know that I have never been unloved.” There has never been a time and never will be a time that you have not or will not be unloved, friend!

Love’s depth – or as Wesley said, Christ’s love is so deep as “not to be fathomed by any creature.” Perhaps, though difficult, we can grasp that God loves everyone and that he has always loved everyone and always will…but the “depth” language is where we really have the most difficulty and are faced with the impossibility of grasping it. If you go diving into the depths of the sea, the deeper you go, the less you can see because the light of the sun diminishes the deeper you go. The Apostles’ Creed says that we believe Jesus “was crucified, dead, and buried.” Buried. The darkness is where we bury things. We don’t talk about them. They’re down deep and we don’t want to bring them up. Christ’s love is deep enough to dig it out and redeem it. He had to die and be buried to dig us out of death.

Love’s height – or as Wesley said, Christ’s love is so much as “not to be reached by any enemy.” The height of Christ’s love is that he doesn’t leave us in the depths. Christ’s love is a victorious one for it does not permit sin and death to have the final word. Otherwise love is weak and grace is cheap, as if Christ were to say “I love you but you can stay there in darkness.” If we only knew the depths of Christ’s love but not the height, then we’re just allowing Jesus to polish the chains to hold us in bondage.

Let’s jump in to the ocean of God’s endless love in Christ and maybe together we can grasp more and more just how broad and long and deep and high Christ’s love really is.

If anyone I’ve ever known fit the bill for what John Wesley described as entire sanctification, it would be my Papaw (pronounced “paw paw”). Papaw loved the Lord his God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength and loved his neighbor as himself. Those who will have the burden of hearing me preach will doubtless hear many examples of how important this man has been in my life. Papaw died in 1998 and I miss him still.

Papaw and I in front of my hometown church, Oscar UMC. This picture actually made it to the cover of the Lexington Herald Leader one day, but that’s another story for another time. 🙂

One of Papaw’s spiritual gifts was that of encouragement. Being a recipient of God’s grace throughout his life and of generous support from his community during a difficult financial time, I witnessed Papaw give public and private support to others in a variety of ways in their time of need. One way his gift of encouragement manifested itself was in his craft of writing letters by hand. I was the recipient of such a letter after announcing to my family my intentions to enter into the ministry. I had just turned seventeen years old and declared these intentions at our usual family dinner (or you may call it lunch, depending on which sub-culture you live in) after church one Sunday. Later that week, I received a letter in the mail, which is pictured at the bottom of this post (in the caption is the letter’s contents, in case it’s illegible to you). This letter was the last one I received from him before his death later that year.

I share this letter with you because I have found myself opening this letter time and time again, not only for the sake of the fact that it was his last letter to me, but because of its rich and rather prophetic content. His words have proven true as my vocational journey has taken its interesting yet subtle twists and turns these last fourteen years. In particular, his affirming words that God would lead as I would pursue the area of service to which God was calling me and the final statement reminding of God’s presence with me come what may, have become etched in my memory. I think you might find his words could be applied more broadly as well, so I hope these words will encourage you!

To Jeffrey Wed PM Jan 14 1998 Dear Grandson,
Words cannot express my happiness, my appreciation for your announcement Sunday of your feeling and hearing God’s call for a deeper commitment to serve Him.
We do not think it too important for you to decide immediately the area of service you are to pursue – God will lead. But we do hereby pledge our full support, whatever it may be.
Sue & I will continue to pray for you daily (just as we have for many years). And not only for you but for each of our dear children and other grandchildren.
Just remember, always, that nothing can happen to you – no setback, no disappointment, no temptation – nothing that you & God together can not handle.
We love you.
Best regards,
Papaw