Ellsworth Kalas ~ Wesleyan Songs for Lent

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In my 38 years as a Methodist pastor I tried to make Lent a growing time for my people. I hoped that something about the season, the Lenten preaching, and the special midweek events would inspire some perfunctory church members to find new life in Christ, or a deeper daily walk with their Lord.

I wish I had done better! I wish I had drawn in the net with more vigor! And I wish I had made better use of Charles Wesley’s hymns.

I don’t know what hymns Wesley might have written for Lent; a better scholar could tell you that. I only know that if you’re looking for the Wesleyan accent for Lent, you can find it in scores of Charles’s hymns. Because for the first generation of Methodists the best of the Lenten spirit was not a seasonal thing, it was an everyday way of life.

Few hymns say it better than one Charles wrote in 1749, “I Want a Principle Within.” See how he sets the standard for a life of growth in Christ:

I want a principle within, of watchful, godly fear;
a sensibility of sin, a pain to feel it near.
I want the first approach to feel of pride or wrong desire,
to catch the wandering of my will, and quench the kindling fire.

A contemporary sociologist or psychologist might find Wesley’s language quaint, and probably inappropriate to our times. “Principle” is one of those words we come upon less and less in our writing and speaking. Marilyn Chandler McEntyre reminds us that “when a word falls into disuse, the experience goes with it.” We should worry when a word like “principle” begins to be obsolete.

And of course “watchful, godly fear” is downright offensive to many. They want no fear in their religion; they want a God who affirms them constantly; after all, what are we paying Him for?

For many in our culture, “a sensibility of sin” is the last straw. It’s strange that it should be so, because the ancient landmarks are going down so rapidly that hardly anything is now seen as sin. Matters which shocked us a few years ago are now greeted by a shrug of the shoulders. It’s hard to have a sensibility of sin in a culture where almost anything goes. It makes you feel as if you’re wearing high-button shoes, and walking with a man adorned with a top hat.

But then Wesley leads us to the heart of Lent and to the heart of every day of seeking the fullness of life in Christ: such a longing to please our Lord that we want the Holy Spirit to check us at the first sense of pride, wrong desire, or the wandering will — anything, that is, that might “quench the kindling fire.”

I wonder how it is that I have so often sung those words without being moved to repentance? It’s good that in this Lenten season we’ve given up some comfort of body, or that we’ve engaged more fully in the Scriptures or prayer or service. But beyond that there is the tough, deep-down cry for God to take over the privacy of our thought-lives.

That is, a Lenten invasion that would leave Christ on the throne.

1 COMMENT

  1. Your opening paragraph caught my eye. I have been more than a perfunctory member of the Methodist Church for more than a few decades. And I have to wonder if the perfunctory church members had any real clue what Christianity is about. The church gave me a deep sense of God, but I was dumb as a post when it came to a clear understanding as to what Christianity is about. At times I even wondered if Christianity had a place in my messy life. Five years ago I had a face to face encounter with a walking talking follower of Christ and I immediately knew I was missing something. A year ago I engaged the Heidelberg Catechism and the book about it, “Body & Soul”, by M. Craig Barnes. My life has not been the same since. Just the other day I was finally able to nail down a description of the impact the Heidelberg and the book had on me:

    I have searched for a way to explain the enormity of
    the impact the Heidelberg and the book Body & Soul had on me. Give
    this a whirl: imagine staring at something for a very long time. You know there
    is something there, but the lighting is poor so things are hazy and ambiguous;
    but nevertheless you can pick out bits and pieces. Then, all of a sudden,
    somebody flips on a series of high intensity lights so that all of a sudden you
    can pick out tiny details that you had no idea existed. The Heidelberg and Body
    & Soul are the series of high intensity lights coming on one after the
    other at a dizzying rate. Reading them was an overwhelming experience of
    finally seeing and understanding things at a level I had thought impossible.
    All the random pieces of the puzzle of Christianity I had been gathering had a
    home. What had felt like rocket science in its ambiguity was not rocket science
    at all—it was simply Unfathomable. The Bible started making more sense. But the
    most blinding realization of all was God’s plan of salvation did most
    definitely include me warts, bag and baggage.

    I am simply a local church member, but after a lifetime of being a Methodist, I have my own opinion why the United Methodist Church is failing. She makes what I call a fatal assumption: the people within the church are well grounded in and have a working knowledge of the gospel with an understanding that it applies to “me” as an individual. Based on my experience, basic orthodox Christianity with any kind of accent has not been consistently shared/taught in over 50 years.

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