Are You a Mouse or a Methodist?
A Sermon by Colin Gibson
Apart from the five golden mice mentioned in 1 Samuel, the Bible pays little attention to mice, so my text must be this pair of ancient slippers; my slippers. Once upon a time these slippers were young and beautiful, as well as comfortable. But alas; see what the passage of time has done to them. Once they were a lovely cream colour; now dust and grime has settled on them and turned them to grey. Once their shape was tight and fitting; now their sides have collapsed, leaving them to flip-flop round after my shuffling feet. Once their sturdy soles proudly carried me out to collect the newspaper in the morning. Now, one of them has almost parted company with the upper, leaving it a real danger to wear. My wife would like to see them consigned to the rubbish bag, but I still keep them because they have become part of me. For all their faults, they know my feet and instinctively shape themselves to fit them when I put them on first thing in the morning. They are—like me—the victims of Time.
Recently I watched a fascinating television documentary on the subject of Time. Time, that old bogeyman. The thing we either have too much of, or too little, but never enough.
The theme of the programme was the various strategies living creatures on this time-ridden planet have adopted to overcome the effects of time—and we all know what they are. As Isaac Watts has reminded us, ‘Time, like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons—and one might add its daughters too—away; they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.’ All of creation is subject to this inexorable process; but life, thank God, resists, with all its energy and strength and passion and cunning.
Take the mouse. From the programme I mentioned I learn that this tiny creature with an average life-span of two years defeats the passage of time by breeding fast and furiously. After just a few days the female mouse is capable of producing litter after litter of the next generations of mice. The barn owl has a longer life span, of eight years, but it takes a baby barn owl a whole year to develop the skills of hunting and flying which will enable it to survive and breed the next generation of owls. Periodic cicadas survive for fifty years—but that is fifty years of pupating underground and a mere three weeks of frenetic chirping and flying and breeding.
We humans live longer—we can expect to live to eighty—though we are gradually extending even that life expectancy by the attention we give our physical health, and by the strength and security of living in families where grandparents and other members can help with child-rearing and pass on their wisdom and experience. (Sociable animals get an extension on life.) Bow-head whales do much better still: they can live for 200 years (imagine that); it seems they need all that time to fatten up and achieve their massive bulk and to find a mate in the loneliness and emptiness of the freezing oceans. But the real prize-winners in the long life stakes are….trees! Yes, some trees can live to the ripe old age of 2000 years or more: the New Zealand Kauri is one of them, and the English yew is another.
Can we learn any tricks for the survival of church communities from these plants and creatures? Can churches expect to cheat time as other creatures do?
Well, the mouse-trick isn’t much use to us here … not unless we can attract man more young couples willing to have Victorian-sized families. And these days, few children are willing to remain in Christian training within the family of the church for one sixth of their life, as owls do. Could we go underground for fifty years at a time, like the cicadas, and reappear, to amaze our bewildered neighbours with our fresh, youthful, revitalized brand of Methodism? Trouble is, humans do their best work on the surface—while they still have their life and health.
But what about the trees? In particular the English yew, which seems to have developed a technique capable of giving itself near-immortality.
You see, the yew tree in its extreme old age sends out new branches which instead of growing outward and upward reach back down into the litter and compost and nourishment of the past, down, down into its very own roots—so that its growth can continue indefinitely. A future created out of the rich loam of the past.
Is this technique worth trying among church communities? How might it be done?
Well, not by reaching back into the recent dry dust and propriety of Victorian churchianity: the dried out surface stuff of petrified creeds and old-fashioned cultural attitudes taken out into the Pacific world by nineteenth-century missionaries; attitudes and beliefs which still lie heavily on Pacific island races who find themselves trying to live twenty-first century lives with a nineteenth-century religion hangover.
Were a congregation to reach back into the rich beginnings of its own faith; were this this congregation to forget the mice and the barn owls and the cicadas and the whales and imitate the yew tree, what life-bearing rediscoveries might be made? What strategies for defeating time and reinventing itself?
We need to go back to our remarkable founders, John and Charles Wesley—to their adventurous faith and practical action—if we want to rewind our clocks and send them ticking on into the future.
Here are some of the resurrection treasures in the loam of original Wesleyan Methodism.
A refusal to be bound by creedal statements. John Wesley himself declared: The Methodists alone do not insist on your holding this or that opinion, but they think and let think. Neither do they impose any particular form of worship. I do not know any other religious society, either ancient or modern, wherein such liberty of conscience is now allowed or has been allowed, since the Age of the Apostle. Here is our glorying, and a glorying peculiar to us.
The idea of the priesthood of all believers—which makes a nonsense of silly and bitter controversies in the church over gender, sexual orientation, lay and ordained difference, rank and status.
The class meeting system. That is, practical care and constant support for the individuals within each local community—exercised by the members of that community.
The importance given to education. Wesley couldn’t abide mute, passive and ignorant congregations. He founded a first-class school for the children of his preachers; he pioneered popular education by publishing a Christian library of over 50 classics, a concise history of England, a grammar4 boo, a dictionary and a practical introduction to music. What follows is that for renewal of life we need to get into continuously educating ourselves in our religious as well as in our ordinary living. Take this seriously and you might want to sign up for the Parish’s Open Education Programme or a distance course from the many offered by religious educational organisations.
The Catholic Spirit: by which Wesley meant an open and sympathetic attitude to other faiths. How desperately we need that spirit these days!
A commitment to direct social service. Wesley himself strenuously cared for the poor and visited those in prison; in his very last letter he urged Wiliam Wilberforce to continue his fight against slavery. A passion carried through into practical action for a just society is an original energizing mark of true Methodist life.
An intelligent attitude towards the Bible. From the beginning, Methodist preachers, lay and ordained, were expected to use their minds in dealing with biblical texts, to interpret and study them in the light of the best contemporary knowledge available. That means for modern Methodists, preachers and the congregations, the readiness to challenge and critique bible texts—and not to use them as ‘infallible’ proof texts to support otherwise indefensible and outdated beliefs or attitudes.
A singing church. From the beginning, the true genius of Methodism has been expressed in song—corporate song. Hymn singing is not left to priests or choirs to do it for congregations, and Wesley insisted that there be no doggerel, bombast or cant in the hymns his congregations sang—only common sense and good poetry. He was revolutionary, too, in his eagerness to introduce new music and music by contemporary musicians. Our willingness to tackle new hymns and songs is absolutely in tune with early Methodism.
Well, are we willing to have a go? It’s a choice between slipping to the bottom of a cold sea, a two-hundred year old bloated and dying bow-head whale, or sending fresh shoots down into the true heritage of our Wesleyan beginnings. Do we want to be mice or Methodists? The choice is ours.