Head and Heart

“I wanted to go on the senior high Costa Rica mission trip this summer,” said Isis York to the congregation during worship. “I’m not even sure exactly why because I really don’t like manual labor. My parents said that the only way I could go was if I received a partial grant, so I decided to apply for one of the scholarships awarded from the proceeds from the annual summer Garden Tour.

“I didn’t know what to write on the application, and when I finally sat down to complete it, my mother read it through and basically said, ‘This is pathetic! You’re going to have to do it over again.’” At this point Isis had the congregation in stitches. Here was an articulate high school student, humorously admitting that she was stumbling. Of course, we’ve all been there before, so Isis had our full attention as we admired her vulnerability.

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Isis went on, “I talked to my grandmother about the application, and she said, ‘Isis, when you write for the church, you need to write from the heart, not from the head.’ My grandmother prompted me to take a hard look at my life, and I realized that my relationship with God was not very strong. I thought about the mission trip and said to myself, ‘This is my chance to make a difference. This is my chance to help others. This is an opportunity to learn from others and transform my life.’ That’s why I want to go to Costa Rica.” Isis’ honesty and courage touched every heart in the congregation.

Right after Isis spoke, the choir sang an arrangement of the hymn that Charles Wesley wrote and sang with his brother John immediately after “conversion” experiences they both had within days of each other.

And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood!
Died he for me? who caused his pain! For me? who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

This coming Sunday is not only Pentecost Sunday, it’s also Aldersgate Day in The United Methodist Church. I like to think of it as the day when John Wesley’s faith moved from his head to his heart. On May 24, 1738, Wesley was in the midst of a spiritual crisis. Having recently returned from a disastrous journey to the colony of Georgia to convert the Native Americans, Wesley felt like a failure. He also realized that all of his spiritual disciplines were nothing more than an attempt to earn his salvation. Wesley yearned for a faith that completely trusted God.

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On May 24, 1738, John Wesley attended a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. He said, “In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where he 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 finally realized that the holiness he sought does not begin with head knowledge or human striving. It begins by opening our hearts and trusting the pardoning and empowering grace of God in Jesus Christ. Amazingly, John’s brother Charles had a very similar “conversion” experience three days before.

On May 21, which happened to be Pentecost Sunday, Charles wrote in his journal that the Spirit of God “chased away the darkness of my unbelief.” Also, “I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ… I went to bed still sensible of my own weakness (I humbly hope to be more and more so), yet confident of Christ’s protection.” The genius of Charles is that he was able to express the warmed heart of Methodism in poetry and song.

‘Tis mystery all: t’ Immortal dies! Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries to sound the depths of love divine.
‘Tis mercy all! Let earth adore; let angel minds inquire no more.
‘Tis mercy all! Let earth adore; let angel minds inquire no more.

John’s Aldersgate experience was so intense that in the first days and months afterward he claimed that he hadn’t even been a Christian before. Later, John realized that he had, indeed, been a Christian. The difference was that now his faith wasn’t just in his head. It had moved to his heart. Both John and Charles underwent spiritual recalibrations.

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One of the hallmarks of Methodism is that we hold in tension the duality of head and heart. Balancing the quest for holiness with trusting in God’s grace enabled the Methodist movement to explode throughout England and then America.

Knowledge was always vitally important for John, and he insisted upon an educated clergy. However, it was at Aldersgate that Wesley’s heart was warmed by the unconditional love of God. From that time on, John’s spirit was at peace with the promise that no matter how many souls he saved and no matter how many times he failed, he was assured of God’s grace.

It happens to many of us. The apostle Paul. St. Augustine. Martin Luther. You and me. Our parents read Bible stories to us as children. We hear the stories of Jesus in Sunday school. We learn what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in confirmation class. But it often takes an Aldersgate experience for the head knowledge we’ve gained to warm our hearts with the unconditional love of Jesus.

How interesting, then, that when John went back to Oxford University and other Anglican churches to preach, he was so filled by the Holy Spirit that he offended people by his seeming fanaticism. Wesley was even called an “enthusiast,” which was not a polite term at the time. His most famous sermon, The Almost Christian, was preached at St. Mary’s at Oxford, before the University, on July 25, 1741.

Wesley compared the “almost Christian” with the “altogether Christian.” John acknowledged that “the almost Christian does nothing which the gospel forbids.” They have the outward form of religion, for their sincerity to serve God is real, and they do everything right. John claimed that he himself was an “almost Christian” for many years.

On the other hand, the “altogether” Christian is characterized in three ways.

  • The altogether Christian loves God.
  • The altogether Christian loves their neighbor (they are not rash or hasty in judging).
  • The altogether Christian believes that faith that does not bring forth a warmed heart is not faith.

Wesley writes, “Faith is a sure trust and confidence which a man hath in God, that by the merits of Christ, his sins are forgiven.” John was never invited to preach at Oxford again.

He left his Father’s throne above (so free, so infinite his grace!),
emptied himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race.
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free, for O my God, it found out me!
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free, for O my God, it found out me!

On Saturday night I called Isis and asked permission to share her story on my blog. I told her that she had warmed my heart by her sincerity in sharing that she was faltering in her faith and that her grandmother had advised her, “Isis, when you write for the church, you need to write from the heart, not from the head.” Isis gladly allowed me to use her name. Then she said, “I got up front to speak, and I didn’t say a word that was on the paper in front of me. I just spoke from my heart.” And my heart was strangely warmed once again.

Amazing love, how can it be?
‘Tis mercy all, Let earth adore.
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!

Blessings,
Laurie

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