I have a friend by the name of Dr John Dempster. Each week John writes an article for the Inversess newspaper in Scotland and he kindly sends me a copy by email.
Here is a copy of what he sent me this week. It blessed me I hope it will also bless you.
Last Wednesday Alan Johnston, the BBC journalist held hostage in Gaza for 114 days was released. Tired, but composed and lucid he spoke about his time in captivity and his joy at being freed. ‘I dreamt, literally dreamt of being free again and always woke up in that little room,’ he said. ‘It’s hard to put into words how good it is to be free.’
On the first of July Inverness Methodist Church organised ‘the Big Sing,’ marking the 300th anniversary of the birth of Charles Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism.
Today, Wesley is best remembered for his hymns – he wrote several thousand, some of which, including Hark the herald angels sing, Jesus lover of my soul and Love divine all loves excelling are still sung today.
What strikes you as you read his work is the strength and passion of his faith and his experience of joy and personal freedom. ‘He breaks the power of cancelled sin,’ Charles writes confidently, referring to Jesus. ‘Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night,’ he tells us, before describing what happened when Christ intervened – ‘I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; my chains fell of, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.’
This gift of freedom seems to have been every bit as real to Wesley as Alan Johnson’s deliverance from literal captivity was to him. But in what sense was Charles ever ‘fast bound’ in a ‘dungeon’? It seems that as a young man he became acutely aware of his own sinfulness and moral imperfections, and realised these were a barrier closing his heart to the loving, holy God he longed to encounter. He believed that unless this barrier were removed, he would face God’s judgement after death, yet his strenuous efforts to live a committed, Christian life were not, he felt, really changing him for the better.
This failure drove him to the dungeon of despair from which he was only set free when he realised Christianity is not after all about trying to make ourselves good enough for God, but about inviting Christ to demolish the barrier which separates us from him, forgiving us, setting us free, empowering us to be better people. These thoughts came to a focus for Charles Wesley on one particular Sunday, 21st May 1738, and it was from then that he dated the beginning of his true Christian faith. That night he says, ’I went to bed still sensible of my own weakness yet confident of Christ’s protection.’
All of us as Christians know something of the freedom Wesley describes. Like him we’ve discovered that Jesus Christ reconnects us with God, forgiving us totally. And to one degree or another we’ve all received through faith in Christ freedom from fear, freedom from guilt, freedom from hopelessness, freedom from destructive patterns of behaviour, freedom from the negativism which tells we will never be free.
Alan Johnston described his difficulty finding words to adequately describe his joy at being free. Christians find in the Bible, but also in the work of writers like Charles Wesley a storehouse of words, helping us both to express and to understand more deeply what our minds have come to know and our hearts to feel.
Spiritual experience was important to Charles Wesley and his equally-famous brother John. On his death-bed in 1735 their father Samuel, an Anglican vicar, told John ‘The inward witness, son, the inward witness, this is the proof, the strongest proof of Christianity.’ And yet Charles Wesley was no stranger to depression, and he sometimes felt that God was working through him rather than working in him – others were encouraged by his preaching, while he was unmoved.
Many of us, knowing how fluctuating is our sense of God’s presence prefer to base our faith on more reliable evidence of the truth of Christianity, such as eye-witness accounts of meetings with the risen-from-the-dead Jesus. And so we continue to believe that we all as Christians singers in a great song far bigger than we are, a song sung by God’s people throughout the whole of history. And day by day we make Charles Wesley’s words our own – ‘Other refuge have I none…All my trust on thee is stayed…Thou O Christ, art all I want, more than all in Thee I found.’
After his release, Alan Johnston voiced his concern for the five other Britons currently being held hostage in Iraq. ‘My heart goes out to anybody in that situation, he said. ‘I do so much hope they have a day like mine. I pray for them.’ Which is precisely the impulse which motivates folk like Charles Wesley who have tasted deeply of the freedom Jesus brings to help others find him for themselves.