Eeyore, Mud & Grace
Audio: Eeyore, Mud & Grace
Slow. Lethargic. Dilapidated. Moribund. The English language has such lugubrious words to describe something nearly devoid of energy. Like an old horse who has drawn far too many heavy wagons, we plod forward sluggishly with eyes cast down. The world is viewed through Eeyore’s eyes, about whom Wikipedia says: “He is generally characterized as a pessimistic, gloomy, depressed, anhedonic, old grey stuffed donkey.” As a member of the cast of A.A. Milne’s beloved Winnie The Pooh books, Eeyore never changes and provides some dark humor in contrast to the other characters. If a real person were actually stuck in this dilapidated state, it would be depressing, possibly even dangerous. But when religious institutions become moribund, followers lose hope and either drown slowly in the muddy, stagnant water, or grasp at anything, no matter how antithetical to their faith, that might keep them afloat.
Such is the story of John Wesley who, with his brother Charles, founded the Methodist Movement in the late 1730s. On May 24, 1738, John went to a reading of Martin Luther’s preface to the book of Romans in Aldersgate Street, London. While listening to the reading, Wesley received a revelatory experience that he too could be saved, even such a sinner as he, through the faith of Christ. He viscerally understood Paul’s claim that salvation comes through faith, not works. The moment changed him profoundly, which ended up changing the world profoundly as the Methodist story of grace and justice took England and America by storm. Good works, Wesley realized, are the result of justification in Christ, not the cause.
But in the decade that preceded this revelation, Wesley suffered through a low period of personal mistakes, rejection by the church, and doubt. He had been convinced of his calling to energetically pronounce the Gospel, but was discouraged by a moribund and exclusive institutional church, and handicapped by his own fumbling. It had all gone wrong and Wesley – unmarried and unmoored – became Eeyore: gloomy, pessimistic and anhedonic. But by 1740 Wesley, along with brother Charles and a famous preacher named George Whitfield, were drawing huge crowds with enthusiastic preaching of the Gospel followed up by spiritually in-depth small groups. At the center lay the moral and spiritual teachings of the Bible. Wesley desired and advocated for social change and believed that such change would come about as more and more people came to Christ. The cart of justice could only be hauled by the horse of Christ.
Wesley had a large pool upon which to draw. In the 1720s while Wesley was at Oxford, he noticed a general lack of moral behavior in his fellow students, and a nearly complete lack of both Biblical knowledge and Biblical discipline. This seemed reflective not only of the usual callowness of university students, but of a general society that had ceased to take the Gospels seriously. Even the Church of England, into which Wesley had been ordained as a priest, seemed comfortable with rote doctrine, committed to a lifeless understanding of the Christian faith, and satisfied with society just the way it was (i.e., with unassailable class divisions). While Wesley respected the sacramental nature of the church institution, he was deeply disturbed that those sacraments were not readily available for the lower classes who were discouraged from coming to church and comingling with the upper crust. By airing these views to his superiors, he found that pulpit after pulpit was closed to him. A lifetime stipend from the university, given before he became too controversial, kept him materially afloat. But without a voice, he felt he was losing his faith, and that he had badly misjudged what he thought God had wanted him to do. But in Aldersgate Street, where God opened the door for Wesley’s personal, inner revelation of grace, he also opened the door for Wesley to fulfill his evangelical destiny.
Since Wesley’s day evangelical fervor has waxed and waned over time, and, just as it was for Wesley, it can be difficult for the faithful caught in a waning period to stay confident in their faith. As the water drains from the lake, we wonder if it will fill up again in a world engulfed in a spiritual drought. It is hard to imagine a more apt description of our own times than one of spiritual drought. We live in a time, as Wesley did, of great Biblical ignorance, and even less obedience. It is a time when all too often church members and leaders seem committed to putting the cart of social justice before the horse of Christ’s grace. As the more pervasive Christianity of the mid-20th century began to ebb, there remained a spiritual after-effect that led most people in western society to follow basic Judeo-Christian moral strictures even if they were unaware of where they came from. But today even that echo effect is waning, and more and more people are simply making up their own moral codes or following ones made up for them by people who never even consider salvation and think of grace – if ever they do – as a personal choice. Wesley believed that one of the fruits of an acceptance of the justifying grace of Jesus Christ would be improvements in society. In other words, justice follows Christ when self is de-prioritized. But today many of our nominal Christians use grace like a cudgel to try and enforce their own priorities on society. The self is dominant, and Christ and justice are after-thoughts.
In Wesley’s day, a stagnant institutional attitude towards the Gospel led to a generally moribund and lackadaisical engagement by those who were participating at all, and a sense of exclusion and unworthiness for those outside the church doors. We find in our times that by placing the cart of justice in the lead position, the Gospel is left dragging behind, often dismissed or trivialized. The currently popular relativistic worldview results in the Bible meaning whatever one personally, and conveniently, wants it to mean, and the general antinomianism seizing church leaders is producing spiritual anarchy. These are conditions not too unlike those that Wesley faced. Can we learn from his experience and become enthusiastic proclaimers of the Gospel? Can we learn to trust God and to say we trust God? Can we learn to trust that acts of charity, mercy and justice will flow freely only when God is their source? By finally hearing the Word of God, Wesley could banish his inner-Eeyore and convert his sluggish, self-oriented philosophy into a high-octane and selfless leadership that helped open up the Word of God for millions. We can do the same.