February is Charles Wesley month for me. Early March I am doing two lectures in Cardiff on Evangelical Spirituality and I've chosen to explore the theological rhetoric (rhetorical theology?) of Charles Wesley's hymns. The tercentenary of his birth in December 2007 has once again focused attention on a hymn writer whose poetry articulated evangelical experience in all its immediacy, diversity, strangeness and controversy. During and after the Evangelical Revival the hymns provided emotional and spiritual narratives into which converts and those seeking a deeper sense of God, could enter as participants,recognising that they shared many of the experiences described. And for those who sang them or heard them sung as observers, they proclaimed the spiritual realities of a Gospel scandalously accessible, free from ecclesial or doctrinal disqualification.
It's a commonplace hardly worth mentioning that a poet who wrote thousands of hymns consequently produced a corpus of mixed quality; hilarious doggerel co-exists with joy-filled devotion, banal cliche with inspired invention, repetitive predictable rhymes with some of the most precise and original spiritual theology. I've read and studied Wesley's hymns for years now, and I still think his best hymns represent an original high point in Evangelical spirituality, and some of the finest spiritual theology in our language.
This morning I discovered a hymn I hadn't know before, entitled 'Forgiveness'. The first two stanzas begin by asking the question, "Forgive my foes? it cannot be:/My foes with cordial love embrace?" Then for ten lines Wesley describes the helplessness of the 'fallen soul' to draw the "envenom'd dart", and laments that till the Spirit is recieved and grace renews, forgiveness is impossible. Then come the last two stanzas in which the destructiveness of hate and anger are described in powerful images, and in the context of prayer, the miracle of forgiveness takes place by the coming of Christ into heart and will so that the offender is now thought about through the Saviour's mind:
Come, Lord, and tame the tiger's force,
Arrest the whirlwind in my will,
Turn back the torrent's rapid course,
and bid the headlong sun stand still,
the rock dissolve, the mountain move,
and melt my hatred into love.
Root out the wrath thou dost restrain;
And when I have my Saviour's mind,
I cannot render pain for pain,
I cannot speak a word unkind,
An angry thought I cannot know,
Or count my injurer my foe.
Tiger, whirlwind, torrent, blazing sun, rock, mountain - images that make you think of cruelty, violent energy, destructive force, white hot rage, hard implacability, immovable persistence. And only the work of the indwelling Saviour can tame, arrest, turn back, halt, dissolve, move, melt such naturally destructive forces - and not by power but by love.
Now - there's a hymn to sing at the end of a fractious church meeting; or as a prelude to sharing the broken bread and poured out wine we dare to call communion. Forget the emotionally fluffy, self-absorbed feel-good praise songs - here's a hymn that requires a bit more honesty before God. My experience of Evangelical religion, theology, spirituality - choose whatever word - has not always been consistent with Wesley's Evangelical ethic of relationships which are rooted in a theology of reconciliation, and which are repeatedly repaired through the inner renewal that is the work of the indwelling Christ.
I have long felt, in my own heart and spirit, and in wider Christian experience, that forgiveness and love, as actions and attitudes of the renewed will represent one of the tougher tests of our devotion, much harder than singing ourselves into devotional reveries; readiness to forgive, and awareness of how much we need to be forgiven ourselves, are truer marks of genuine discipleship.
Now Charles Wesley could give as good as he got, and had as much need of grace as the rest of us. Some of his verse written against others drips with sarcasm and is positively corrosive of goodwill. But here, in a hymn like this, the Gospel is shown to be the power of God unto forgiveness, redeeming love miraculously melts hate, and the grace of God converts my foe into one whom I now see through the eyes of the Saviour. Evangelical spirituality is not only about a renewed heart - but about a heart indwelt by Christ - the evidence of which is a ministry of reconciliation, reconciled reconcilers reconciling, forgiven forgivers forgiving.