Today is Aldersgate Day, which is kind of a holiday for those in the Wesleyan tradition. You may not have received an Aldersgate Day card in the mail or your Aldersgate Day present (John Wesley bobble heads, anyone?), but today is about a gift nonetheless. On this day in 1738, John Wesley had his “heartwarming” experience during a meeting on Aldersgate Street in London, which many believe set in motion the explosion of the Methodist movement–the gift that keeps on giving in churches and ministries around the world in a variety of traditions. If you’ve been around the Wesleyan tradition for very long, you no doubt remember his journal entry from that day:
“In the evening I went unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter to 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.”
It’s important to remember that these were the words of a burned out preacher, who had come home from a failed overseas mission trip exhausted, doubting himself, doubting his relationship to God, and wondering whether or not he could “preach faith until you have it” as his Moravian friend Peter Boehler had advised.
We’ve all been there at one point or another. Being a pastor and preacher is hard work and when we feel like we’re not bearing enough fruit for the kingdom, when we’re dealing with conflict after conflict, and when our own spiritual lives become as dry as dust it’s easy to lose heart.
One of the reasons I love rereading the Aldersgate account, however, is that it always reminds me God often meets us in our broken places–that in the midst of those times when we are most discouraged, God is prepared to show up. Indeed, sometimes it’s only then when we reach bottom, bereft of the resources of our confidence and competence, that we are prepared to listen to what God has to say. In those times, God’s presence is truly a gift!
But we have to be prepared to receive it, which is why I want to offer three things we can learn from Wesley’s experience about how to move away from the destructive flames of burnout toward a more settled, spiritually grounded, and “strangely warmed” heart:
Keep going, even when you don’t feel like it.
It’s always been interesting to me that Wesley went to the meeting house that night “unwillingly.” It doesn’t really say why he was unwilling, but we might speculate that the last thing a spiritually broken person often wants to go to is another church service. For preachers like you, me, and John Wesley, there is always another meeting, another service, another time to be “on.”
Wesley went to Aldersgate Street “unwillingly,” but he still went. His disciplined lifestyle wouldn’t let him skip an opportunity for God to work, even if things seemed bleak at the time.
There’s something to be said for the discipline of just showing up: showing up one more time at the study desk, one more time at the pulpit, one more time at the next church thing you need to attend. When we simply show up, it puts us in position to experience something new that we might not have expected. We are available to hear God’s voice afresh.
Is there anything more boring than listening to someone read a long quote? We try to avoid that in our preaching because adults tend to zone out when something is reading a long passage. I can’t imagine that the reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans was done in a scintillating way. It wasn’t even saying anything new to Wesley, who no doubt had studied the text before. It’s the basic gospel message.
But that night Wesley really heard it because his heart was open. He put himself in position to hear it by showing up, and God showed him that his word for Wesley’s life wasn’t a lightning strike of realization, but the strange warmth of knowing, again, how much God had done for him in Jesus Christ.
When we’re struggling with spiritual dryness and homiletical burnout, one of the best things we can do is listen carefully to what’s going on around us. Read a good book. Engage in a helpful conversation with a trusted friend. Listen to someone else preach for a change. Listen for the message God has for you, even if you think you’ve heard it all before. Open yourself to the possibility of a strangely warmed and renewed heart.
Stoke the fire.
One of my favorite passages of Scripture and one that I turn to often, especially when I’m feeling a little burnt around the edges, is Jeremiah’s complaint to God about the toll preaching God’s message was taking on him (Jeremiah 20:7-9). Jeremiah felt like quitting. The job was too hard and he wanted to tell God to leave him alone. But then he says this:
“But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (v. 9, NIV).
At a critical low point, Jeremiah found the word of God to be like a fire that he couldn’t contain. Wesley experienced a similar warmth when confronted with the word of God. When we feel like giving up, remember that it is God who gave you the fire of a call to preach. Stoke it with daily engagement with his word and with prayer. Don’t hold it in. Indeed, if you are called, you cannot!
That’s a different kind of burning than burnout–it’s the fire of passion. Woodland firefighters know that one of the best ways to stop a raging forest fire is to set a back-burn against it; literally fighting fire with fire. One of the best ways we can fight burnout is to stoke that inner fire that God has placed within us.
You might take some time on this Aldersgate holiday to do a little fire-stoking. It can’t help but make you a little more strangely warmed!