Wesley Wisdom: One man’s story

For the past several weeks I have been writing about the need to regain both the language and understanding of conversion in our life together as United Methodists. Last time, I shared my belief that conversion happens within a specific context, and shared that I wanted to share MY story with you, so that you might know the context of my faith and writing. I hope that in telling my story you will begin to catch a vision of one experience of conversion as you think about the meaning of conversion in your own life and congregation.

My own story of  being a Christian has little similarity to the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus nor even Nicodemus with Jesus on the rooftop.  My conversion was neither sudden nor identifiable by date, place, and invitational hymn!  If your definition of conversion requires the specificity of a time and place when instantaneous conversion happened,  you might question mine!

I am told that by the time I was three, Mama had  taught me to recite my first verse of scripture—Revelation 3:20: “Behold I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens  the door, I will come in a sup with him and he with me.”  I was taught to say “Now I lay me down to sleep….” every night. I was taught the table grace, “God is great; God is good, now we thank him for our food…” Without a singing voice, I learned with the other children in Sunday School to sing “Jesus Loves Me.”  The context of my earliest childhood was the building of Christian memories.

Sunday School was at the back of a one room church on a five-point circuit.  “Preaching” was once a month—third Sunday afternoons at 3:00.  Twenty was a huge crowd; often, until a great revival in 1945, attendance was about a dozen, mostly women and children.  In good weather, Aunt Eva took us out to the homecoming table under the oak trees for class. The lesson was always from a card with a biblical picture on one side and the story on the other side.  This way we gradually became acquainted with the patriarchs, prophets, Jesus and his teachings, the Twelve Disciples and Paul.

In addition to Sunday School, Mama encouraged me to read daily a Bible story from Hurlbert’s Stories of the Bible.   I remember wanting to be like Samuel, David & Jonathan, Daniel, , Andrew, Peter, John, Paul and Timothy.  The major women I remember having lessons about were Rebecca, Rachel, Deborah the woman judge, Queen Esther, Ruth, and in the New Testament Mary the mother of Jesus, the woman at Jacob’s well, and Mary Magdalene on Easter morning.    I still  have a memory of those simple but shaping vignettes of biblical characters.

When I was fourteen a lady offered to take me  to “camp meeting.”  I had been to 4-H camps and would later go to Future Farmers of America (FFA) camp, but this was John Wesley Holiness Camp Meeting.  It  lasted ten days and had a hundred young people who worked the kitchen and formed the huge choir.  The theology was “Wesleyan holiness” and  the preachers were “powerful” in oratory, motivational stories, and exegeting scriptural narrative.  The camp had a strict holiness code—no dancing, no handholding, no make-up for the girls, and a daily regimen of Bible study, testimony meetings, and worship with powerful preaching and motivational music accompanied by brass and strings.  For a country boy, it was exciting. For a young Christian it was theologically shaping.

I learned a lot of scripture, read a lot of John Wesley’s sermons, and witnessed daily conversions and “baptisms of the Holy Spirit” which meant  sanctification.  The latter was defined as being purged of all “carnal nature” and being “Spirit filled and Spirit led.” Devotees claimed sanctification instantaneously.  After many trips down the pine-shavings dirt  trail to the mourner’s bench, I never had an emotional “cleansing” and gradually decided I would never be like Nicodemus or Paul!

The impact of the holiness movement was positive and negative.  I learned a lot of scripture and theology as a teenager and was “armed to the teeth” as a biblical literalist when I went to college. I was prepared to defend the faith against the “modernists.”  When most college freshmen could not have cared less about the authorship of the Pentateuch, I had a prepared brief to proof it was Moses!    I was not taught “Dispensationalism” like W. A. Criswell was teaching at Dallas Theological Seminary, but was taught that I should live in constant expectation of Jesus’ return.  (They said if He came and I was in a movie, I would be left behind!)  However I owe my hearing God’s call to ordained ministry to this theological climate. I walked down the pine-shavings aisle at age sixteen, saying “yes” to the preacher’s invitation for any who felt called to “fulltime Christian service” as a preacher or missionary.   The die was cast in that context.  God was working with me.

In college I resisted every lecture and textbook that employed any higher criticism of the scriptures.  I was belligerent, unchristian, and obnoxious.  At  the end of every “blue book” exam, I would write, “I have answered the questions  as I have been taught in this class, but personally do not believe what I have written in this book.”  I never could accept “19thc entury liberalism, but was confused when  a godly “liberal” professor gave me six “A’s” in his religion and philosophy courses!  God was working with me,  but I “held out” and  was graduated magna cum laude as a Fundamentalist.

In seminary at Duke, three godly men coached me out of my Fundamentalism.  My homiletics profession, Dr. James Cleland, said, “Donald, you cannot  cabin, crib, and confine Almighty God.  Your boxes are too small for Him.”  Another, William H. Brownlee, from the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, chose me as his reader for post-exilic prophecy and shared with me his own journey from rigid Calvinism and biblical literacy.  His wise words were, “Mr. Haynes, the Bible is an anvil that has worn out many hammers. God will defend himself.  Just as Ezekiel led the Hebrews out of their temple worship with burnt offerings, I urge you to let God go free.”  In Dr. McMurry Richey, professor of Christian Education, that I saw so clearly the “mind that was in Christ Jesus.”  I certainly did not have that spirit but his patience, kindness, gentleness, and intellectual brilliance led me to new light.  God was working with me in a new way.

In Bible study, I was delighted to read C. H. Dodd’s “unity within diversity” of the New Testament.  In historical theology H. Shelton Smith agreed with my resistance to the naiveté of 19th century liberalism in religious education, but planted my theological feet in neo-orthodoxy as I read Karl Barth and Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr.  I inhaled the writings of C. S. Lewis, J. B. Phillips, and Leslie Weatherhead.  Harry Emerson Fosdick’s sermons became my model as a “topical” preacher. Though we had very little “Wesley” in seminary in the 1950’s, I never forgot that Mama had taught me to be an Arminian, not Calvinist.  I believed increasingly that God works differently in different people. God does not have a cookie cutter!  Conversion is contextual.

As a pastor, I never stopped reading, learning, listening, and keeping current of the changing winds of doctrine.  I never knew Albert Outler, but he  was like a personal coach with his helping Methodism recover Wesley.  In Robert Cushman’s last years, he too became a great Wesley coach.  I was on two seminary faculties dominated by liberation theology, and learned from them though never feeling comfortable with Arias, Cone, and Gonzales.

In a continuing education course, I heard Dr. Thomas Langford say, “The Achilles’ Heel of theological liberalism is that “liberalism never reproduced itself.”  He explained that while it  re-shapes the construct of the Gospel for us who were nurtured in a more conservative context, liberalism makes few converts to Jesus Christ.

I am blessed to have had my journey with Jesus lit  from many lamps. .   I have drunk deeply from many springs and am grateful for them all.   I have had many mentors, some of whom turned me off and some of whom led me so wisely.  I have had to “unlearn” which is more painful than learning.  I had to shed, painfully,  the shackles of moralistic legalism and biblical literalism—a debt I owe my “liberal” but Christ-like college and seminary faculty.

At  the same  time, I have no doubt I am a minister, a life-long student of the Bible, and an avid Wesleyan because of the influence of the “Methodist holiness” mentors in my teen years.  I also owe insights to some very liberal friends, especially one who says he is a “Christian Marxist.”   a developing conscience about social justice and the reality of residual evil in the cultural systems of racism, sexism, and ethno-centricity.  I owe much to Donald McGavarn and the “Church Growth Movement” out of Fuller Seminary   In recent years, my mentors have been Len Sweet and Lovett Weems and Randy Maddox and Billy Abraham and many other “young generation Wesleyan scholars” to whom I am so grateful.   I appreciate Richard Heitzenrater for sorting out my Wesley mythology from genuine Wesley!  With every new book, I am still exploring the “mind of Christ,” the elusive Mr. Wesley,  and the mission of United Methodism in our times.  I’ll “praise my Make while I’ve breath….”, writing, preaching, working in the vineyard.  After all, I am only seventy-eight!

This is the context of my journey with Jesus Christ.  When was I converted?  I cannot point you to a place and time.  I cannot claim a sudden, cataclysmic baptism of the Holy Spirit. I identify with John Mark whose mother Mary had the disciples to meet in her house where I am sure her little boy overheard their conversations(Acts 12:12).  I identify with Timothy whose faith was shaped by his grandmother Lois and his mot her Eunice.(II Timothy 1:5)  I still can’t dance with my clumsy feet, but love Len Sweet’s metaphor that as Christians,  we “dance the dance that is called by Christ Jesus.”  Gradually, the dance itself shapes the mind and spirit of the dancer.  Jesus said, “Come and see.”    Or, as Mr. Wesley found hidden in II Kings 10:15(CEB): “Are you as committed to me and I am to you?  …If so, then give me your hand.”

Whatever the context of your conversion, can we join hands in bringing others to faith?  Will we?  If not now, when? If not where you are, where? If not you, who? The harvest is white; we need laborers for the harvest.

UMR Columnist Dr. Donald W. Haynes is a retired pastor, an adjunct instructor at  Hood  Theological Seminary, a Church staff “visitor,” and a follower of Jesus.

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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