Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit,
Into every troubled breast!
Let us all in Thee inherit;
Let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its Beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.
-Charles Wesley, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”
Thomas a’ Kempis’ Imitation of Christ is the best selling devotional book of all time for good reason. Combining a deep personal piety with the realities of living among others (in his context, a monastery), the little-known monk who penned these words has been a source of spiritual renewal for generations of faithful. Sir Thomas More and Ignatius of Loyola considered it among their favorites. St. Therese of Lisieux is said to have memorized it, and Thomas Merton credited the Imitation in part for his conversion. Methodists should be no less impressed with this treatise. John Wesley considered Imitation of Christ the greatest extant summary of the Christian life, and made an abridged translation available to his early followers.
Contemporary United Methodists – and all Christians – would do well to recover the wisdom of a’ Kempis, who knew what it meant to follow Jesus among others. And isn’t everything easier when others are not involved? Unfortunately, we are called to live into the reality that is the church, jerks and all. So I suggest we apply what Thomas wrote about life in the monastery to life in the church:
“It is no great accomplishment for you to live with those who are meek and good, for this is something naturally pleasing to everyone. Everyone enjoys living in peace and love with those who think the same as they do, but if you can live in peace with those who are difficult, obdurate, and undisciplined, ah, that is a great grace…a praiseworthy deed.” (Book 1, Chapter 4 from the Vintage Spiritual Classics edition)
In the UMC, we need to learn to live with each other despite our differences and even despite those who are “difficult” and “obdurate.” Left to our own devices, it is natural for narcissistic and impatient sinners (which is most of us) to only want to be among the like-minded and peace-loving. That’s why schism is so easy, and such an attractive temptation. Sin is what happens when we do what comes naturally. Unchecked, the acrimony that is building in our denomination could easily lead to something dire. But it need not be so.
At root, we are a holiness movement. We believe, and pray, and strive for the Spirit’s sanctifying work. Chuck Wesley was not being idealistic or facetious when he asked God, in one of his greatest hymns, to “take away our bent to sinning.”
To be sure, it may be a fool’s errand to expect a change of hearts or a great leap forward in Christian perfection at this late hour. But we worship a God who has done more foolish things, like entrust his mission to fishermen and conquer the world through a cross. So my hope and prayer for the UMC is that we would spend the lead-in to 2016 petitioning; not petitioning the GC or our Annual Conference or even the Council of Bishops, but rather petitioning God for this “great grace” of learning to live among one another, difficult as we – as I – can be.
That would require our openness to God’s grace to take away our natural bent, a bent to sin, to division, and schism. Grace is co-operative, after all.
God is able. Are we willing?