The Power of a Pilgrimage: First In a Series

Date Posted: 11/12/2015

Whether experiencing the Wesley Heritage Tour in England, visiting historic Iona with the Advanced Pastoral Leadership class or walking the “Camino de Santiago” in Spain, leaders over the next few issues will share how a pilgrimage can provide great spiritual renewal.
Fred’s Story: Wesley Heritage Tour
In October of 2014, two members of my congregation gifted me with an educational trip overseas with my wife – a chance to focus on learning something new that would inspire me to be reenergized and lead our congregation with a renewed vigor. The word humbled barely comes close to describing my feelings on the matter, but I agreed that a Wesley Heritage Tour would be a good thing for me. 
In going to England, I had only a vague notion of wanting to understand more about the “small groups” of the early Methodists and where the ideas for them came from. I wanted to understand what made the early Methodists tick. We traveled from Birmingham out into the countryside, explored Bath and stood in awed silence at Coventry Cathedral. Oxford University and Bristol continued to inform my senses and my mind.  It was a whirlwind with a guide…
As we journeyed from location to location, several points struck me along the way:

  • First, was that Charles and John Wesley were uniquely dedicated to the Methodist way of life, but in different ways. My wife quickly recognized that John was more the martyr, sacrificing what most of us would call today “happiness” for the cause of Methodism.  He got married very late in life (making a very poor choice that ended with them leading separate lives), he gave away almost all he had, and even his friendships appear more professional in the highest sense… that is, in doing the work of God.  Where we revere the progenitor of our denomination, we must also stand back and admit that few of us would live the rigid, almost monastic, existence that he strove for. 

    Charles, on the other hand, found himself able to balance life and “life.”  He was married, had a house in Bristol and London (moving between the two as he continued his work with the Methodists), had children, wrote hymns, and was a living example of how one might both work and live as a follower of Christ. In Charles, I found a peephole into the balance that so many of us need in our line of work.
  • Secondly was the realization that John Wesley was not very original.  Most of the remarkable ideas that we credit him with were, in some way or another, borrowed from someone or somewhere else. Wesley’s gifts were not to invent as much as to innovate. He brought ideas to life.  Concepts such as small groups and outdoor preaching were fully developed under Wesley, though the ideas originated elsewhere. Learning about this very Wesleyan trait is affirming to what I see to be some of my own gifts.
  • Lastly, I more clearly understood the backstory of the Methodist movement … past and present. As our thespian tour guide was framing this within the history of England, he said, “John Wesley is a national hero. The Wesley’s and their Methodists are credited for keeping England from falling into an uprising or social revolt between the classes like what happened in France in the late 1700s.”  This was impactful as I walked the same streets, heard the stories, and witnessed my heritage in a very personal way. John Wesley and the Methodists: heroes…saving a country from falling into revolution by providing something that was desperately needed by their population: hope.
 The Wesley’s (and their Methodists) were born in a changing time from an agrarian society to an industrial one. Rarely were they able to go to church; many saw no hope for themselves or families.
What did Wesley do? He went to where they were. He spoke of a way of life that brought hope. He set up the New Room (the first building constructed by the Methodist, and now the oldest Methodist Chapel in the world) to not just be a place to worship, but a multipurpose room that would transform into a school for children, a dispensary for those who were ill, a place for small groups to gather and challenge each other toward perfection in the Christian life. By providing hope to the hopeless, the Methodists calmed a nation that could have torn itself apart. That is our heritage. 
Then and Now
Far too often our United Methodist congregations focus on making members more than disciples. Perhaps we spend more time ministering to those who we think (privately to ourselves) might already be a strong disciple and/or could bring a healthy tithe to the church.
That is not what the Early Methodists did. They went out to find those who had a need and they found a way to provide a glimpse of hope.
My father is a United Methodist clergy, retired now, but I grew up listening to his stories, his sermons, watching him “in action.” No one talked specifically about Wesley or strategized about how to be more Methodist; they just did it. However, we have come to a time where a lot of the essence of being Christians who follow a very Wesleyan/Methodical way has become oddly watered down. My experience in England left me wondering and pondering… who needs hope in 2015?
Ultimately, being on a pilgrimage gave me a much broader understanding of the Methodists and the early movement. So much so that I wonder why I did not make the journey earlier in my career. If we are so intent upon preaching, teaching, and sharing our Wesleyan/Methodist way of life, maybe it should be equally important for our clergy to take this expedition into the early Methodists’ lives, too. 
I am forever in the debt of the two members of my congregation who invested, not in me, but in my growth and my knowledge. Their gift benefits me as well the congregations I will serve in the future.
I was born into the UMC and I want to see it thrive and succeed… not because I am in it, but because we have a unique heritage and a distinctive way to live as disciples. And now I understand just a bit more of who we were and who we could be because someone helped me take a trip to see our past.
I resonate with the sentiment expressed by David Worthington, Manager of the New Room in Bristol, when he says, “If we lose our history, we lose our identity. If we lose our identity, we stand to lose our purpose.”