My gracious Master and my God,
Assist me to proclaim,
To spread through all the earth abroad
The honors of Thy name.
Charles Wesley, O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing
Okay, let me just get this off my chest: Colonialism! Colonialism! Colonialism!
I feel better now, sort of.
When I was a child, I was a proud member of the Christian Youth Crusaders. For those of you who didn’t grow up around Wesleyans, this would be the Holiness Movement equivalent of scouting, trading out “camping” for “Jesus.” The idea, as far as I remember, was to conquer the world for Christ, be faster at Bible drills than the rest of the class, and eat brownies.
The second most exciting moment of CYC was receiving my John Wesley Award at the end of sixth grade. The only thing I remember about earning this award is that we memorized a catechism, although I can’t tell you now what one it was- I don’t think that Wesleyans have one of their own, and I don’t know from whom we cribbed it. The most exciting moment, on the other hand, was when some cousins and I convinced another child to climb out the window onto the roof during a snowstorm. My mom had only left for a few minutes, but we were fast like that. She came back into the room to find us standing by an open window with snow blowing in, saying in our most earnest voices that nothing whatsoever had happened. She briefly considered killing us all to start over with more reasonable progeny, so thanks, Mom, for taking those few minutes to reflect! And also for getting the other kid off the roof. All I learned from that, though, was that some kids are stupid, but Mom won’t give us brownies for endangering their lives. Less excitingly but more, um, life-affirmingly, we memorized Bible verses, told each other Bible stories, and colored in pictures of Bible characters while eating Bible themed snacks.
The things I learned the most deeply, though, are the things that I have the toughest time articulating. I was a crusader, a warrior for Christ. If you sang out “Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus,” I stood as straight as a sword. If you asked me “Who will leave the world’s side? Who will face the foe?” I was already at the chorus, committing myself to go. When we sang “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing,” I could picture myself as an evangelist, striding across the globe leading people to Jesus. I had a touch of the melodramatic, so in this picture I would wear a safari vest and sensible boots, and perhaps have a pet monkey or something equally exotic. The perspective of the movie in my mind would pan back and up, and I would get bigger and bigger, so that I could see myself striding across North Africa like it was a sandy treadmill, then through the Middle East, stepping over the Himalayas, and onward, spreading through all the earth abroad the honors of God’s name.
There turned out to be many problems with that vision, but the chief among them was sheer stupidity. Not that I was a stupid child, exactly- I was making a reasonable story out of the information at hand. It’s still pretty stupid, though, except the part where I was a giant. My church placed a premium on serious faith, though, and I was an absurdly serious child, so how did I end up with a mental movie that was so bizarrely hokey?
Here’s a list of potential reasons:
1) “Bad words! They’re funnier when said in a church bathroom. Wait, did I miss something important, like a sense of perspective?”
2) I wasn’t allowed to watch good movies, so I didn’t know any better.
3) This mental movie was quite a bit more focused on my honor than on Jesus’ honor, and somehow I had missed the distinction.
4) My movie didn’t connect “being an evangelist” with “actually talking to someone;” people just magically converted. Whoops.
5) Didn’t Wesley say in the phrase immediately prior that he wanted God to assist his proclamation? Maybe that should have been in my little movie, too.
Wesley, in this stanza, is praying that God will assist his proclamation. The proclamation, grammatically speaking, is subordinate to the assistance- Wesley doesn’t intend to go anywhere or say anything without God’s help. I think that focus was missing from my hopeful image of myself as a safari-vest-wearing evangelizing giant. I knew how to pray that I would be good enough, that I would be pure enough, that I would be strong enough- but not how to pray that I would be helpless enough, that I would recognize that there would be no proclamation without God’s assistance.
That’s the difference between talking about the gospel and proclaiming the gospel. Talking about the gospel is just me running my mouth. I’m decent at that, but it has yet to bring anyone closer to Jesus.* Proclamation of the gospel, though- that switch from a script featuring me as the star evangelist to a script focused on the work of Jesus is the whole ball game. Proclamation lets the Word run loose; talking about the gospel is just loose words.
If that switch is the ball game, though, then making a similar switch on a corporate level is what? The season? The league? The rules of the game? I remain troubled by the way that I once imagined striding across other nations and converting their lost souls, not because I think I was a particularly bad child, but because I haven’t grown out of it. I still have that impulse to domineer, to erase the people I say I want to reach, not to mention the Jesus for whom I say I am reaching them. I still have that impulse to make myself the star of the show, even just on a personal level.
How much more do I want to do so with my culture? How much more powerful is that impulse when it’s magnified by everyone at my church, who (more or less) look like me, act like me, talk like me, and want to reshape the world in our own image? Abstractly: do I trust people with less social privilege than me accurately narrate their own movies? Do I respect them enough to watch those movies? Often, no. It’s easier to cast salvation in the image of my own culture. I’m happy to use their pictures, but I want to do the narration myself.
This may have been the kind of evangelistic fervor that took the Wesley brothers to Georgia, but it’s good to remember that their conversions happened well after that.
*That I’m aware of. Perhaps it happens all the time! If you find me evidence of this, I will share all of my future lottery earnings with you as a reward.