Left Over Ashes

The ash residue from last weeks Ash Wednesday service has finally washed out of crevices under and around my fingernail. During the imposition of ashes, the person who marks the forehead carries them longer, as the sooty grime works its way into the days ahead. Ashes symbolize our mortality. They are reminders that all we have will one day be gone. We won’t live on this earth with these bodies forever.

As I walk through the days of Lent, I’m reminded that if I am to do any good in this world, it will have to be now. Years are passing, and I doubt that I will have the stamina of a Jimmy Carter if I make it to his age. My family history of dementia and memory loss are not soothing messages to me of my future reasoning ability. We have this one life to use. I want my last years to be marked by grace, compassion and a generous spirit. I wish I could say that I succeed in this daily.

At our ordination United Methodist clergy are asked “Are you going on to perfection?” Everyone laughs, even as we say “yes” to the question, knowing the impossibility of perfection.  John Wesley began the tradition with the first group of clergy he ordained.  He did not see going on to perfection as  impossible at all. Wesley  thought of these words as a means of grace, where each of us attempts every day to love God and our neighbor as perfectly as we can. So, I work on the perfection piece, knowing I will fall short, but trying each day to love my neighbor and to love God a little more faithfully, than the day before.

 “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  

Matthew 5:48

John Wesley’s “Aha” Moment on Aldersgate Street

We call them “Aha” moments, where an insight, a truth or an awareness touches us in a way that has never happened to us before. The same words we have heard for years suddenly hit us in a uniquely different way. John Wesley had one of those moments on May 24, 1738.   People of the Wesleyan heritage continue to celebrate the day as Aldersgate’s Day. For Wesley, the  founder of Methodism, it was a life changing experience . . One that would influence him for the rest of his life. He writes in his journal: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

John Wesley carried a heavy burden when he headed to Aldersgate Street that night. He had returned to England after a short time as a missionary in the Georgia Colonies. Feeling the sting of failure and defeat,   he was painfully aware of the mistakes he had made and the attitude which got him sent home by the governor of the colony. The night of May 24th, 1738 Wesley  left home with a heavy spirit.  He returned with a joy in God’s compassionate love.  That transcendent moment became foundational in John Wesley’s life. Before he was only saying the words of faith, now they came alive. Before he knew about faith, after he experienced the presence of the living God. Before he believed with his intellect, forever after he would believe with his heart.

That night, he knew with a certainty that whatever he had done wrong, whatever mistakes he had made, however foolish he might have been and even the hurt he had inflicted – were not greater than God’s love and forgiveness. God was telling him in that moment, that  he was forgiven. God’s love for him was real. This knowledge and assurance gave Wesley new courage to move beyond the limitations of yesterday and moved him out into the world. God was working in his life to bring renewal and hope to millions of people. From then on, he would face the world with courage hope and faith.

Throughout the centuries there have been men, women and children who have also  experienced the warmed heart . . . People of all ages and stations in life. The message of assuring grace is a reminder of our place in God’s heart. It is a source of strength and hope. God’s touch can turn a life around. It can make friends out of strangers  . . . it can guide us to God’s truth. Our one common awareness of God’s Spirit can transcend differences in theology, doctrine and belief.

John Wesley would ask people of other traditions, “Is  your heart right, as my heart is with yours? I ask no further question. If it is so, give me your hand. For opinions, or words, let us not destroy the work of God. Do you love and serve God? It is enough. I give you the right hand of fellowship.” John Wesley was on to something. When we see each other as God’s beloved children – even those we disagree with, we can begin to transcend our differences and work together for good.

The Mystery of Prayer

Last summer a group of us worked our way through the book, “Marks of a Methodist.” John Wesley was the founder of the Methodist movement. The book was based on his Five Marks, one of which is “to pray constantly.” That brought up a considerable amount of conversation about how anyone could possibly do that. Not having any special knowledge of the workings of John Wesley’s mind, I can only conjecture just what he was trying to say about prayer. As one person kept asking, “How can you do all the rest you have to do, if you’re praying constantly?”

I know that when one of my children is having trouble or mired in a crisis, the concept of praying constantly isn’t hard to fathom. Prayers flow quickly and frequently through the day when I’m worried about a loved one. I think when the scripture teaches us to “pray without ceasing” as it does in I Thessalonians 5:17, that it means to have an attentiveness to the world around us. It means to be conscious of the gentle nudges God gives, to open our hearts to love with God’s love those who we encounter. I think it means to pay attention to the hurt and pain in our world and pray for those impacted by that pain. I think it means to dream God’s dreams and to pray those dreams into reality.

There is a lot about prayer that I don’t understand. What happens in prayer is a mystery. We are encouraged, strengthened and loved in prayer. Both in the praying and in the being prayed for. I don’t know how or why I should be able to sense another person’s prayer for me, but I do. There are times when I’m baffled by a situation in my life, and in the time of prayer come to a moment of resolution and peace. Thoughts flow into my mind and spirit. I decide to take in a retreat I was avoiding, and discover grace in that decision.

To pray constantly, opens a portal between us and God. In prayer we are led to love one another. Something in us changes when we pray. Letting God into our heart and spirit touches a part of us held as sacred space. Maybe, what all of us need is a little more prayer. Friends holding us in prayer and each of us praying for those in our circle of care. What the world needs is each of us, praying for God’s dream for our world to be made real. Jesus said it another way, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”