As many of you will know from previous writings, both Billy Graham and Nicky Gumbel were responsible for reframing the “conversion narrative” in the mid to late 20th and early 21st century. Ok, so what does that mean? It’s very interesting that the Graham organization when Billy was in charge, always referred to people who made commitments to faith as ‘inquirers’ not ‘converts’, believing quite profoundly and, I might say, accurately, that it was the work of the Holy Spirit not a counter of commitments that determined in the end whether someone had come to faith. That never took away from the urgency Graham felt, but it did encourage some humility on his part that he would never know the full picture of those who had come to faith, only God would. Nicky Gumbel, the prime encourager of the Alpha course, reinforced the notion that knowing you had come to faith in a very real way was important but the point in which that happened could sometimes be ambiguous. His famous illustration from the Alpha course uses the travail and journey of the soul as akin to one travelling on a train throughout the night. Gumbel went on to say you could begin your journey in one country (in a place of unbelief) and land up travelling through the night, maybe asleep, possibly unaware in yet another country or place of belief. Graham and Gumbel represent a wonderful tension. On the one hand, Graham is asking for immediate response, understanding that roots form by the spirit, scripture, and community. On the other hand you have Gumbel saying it’s important to arrive in the new land of faith whether you remember how you got there (I know it will annoy some of us when I say that Jane Fonda once commented when she came to faith later in life that it was better to be a late bloomer than to miss the whole flower show… I know Fonda is complicated… so am I… so likely are any who read this…). I write these preliminary observations because my coming to faith began with a conversion at the age of nine at Gull Lake camp and has gone through many iterations since. I say this because one of the turning points (there were several) was a book by Frank Boreham, an English/Australian/New Zealand pastor and writer who wrote in 1920 a book called A Bunch of Everlastings (subtitled: Texts that made history, a volume of 23 sermons on famous people and the scripture that changed their lives). In my early 20s I read Borehams sermon on John Wesley. Boreham fit neither Billy Graham nor Nicky Gumbel’s “conversion narrative”; he was fond of saying that no church or pastor nor particular occasion nor sermon brought him at a particular point to the faith. He simply felt that over time “Jesus had laid his hand on his shoulder.” You may not like the language but Boreham proceeded to take that “hand upon his shoulder” and write books that sold over 20 million copies with marvellous giftedness. I believe the book and the chapter were under the influence of my mother. It contains a biography of Wesley which included testimonials from folk like Woodrow Wilson and others. But it also contained a fairly heavy passage that asked why it had taken John Wesley so long to become a Christian. The main culprit in his own life Wesley felt was the great writer William Law. And he wrote him a very tough letter, the text of which has always bothered me. As I read it just recently, I asked myself whether there are many who could write this of me?
“The pity of it is that John Wesley was thirty-five when he entered the kingdom. The zest and vigour of his early manhood had passed. He was late in finding mercy. Thirty-five! Before they reached that age, men like Murray McCheyne, Henry Martyn, and David Brainerd had finished their life work and fallen into honoured graves. Why was Wesley’s great day so long in coming? He always felt that the fault was not altogether his own. He groped in the dark for many years and nobody helped him – not even his ministers.
William Law was one of those ministers, and Wesley afterwards wrote him on the subject. ‘How will you answer to our common Lord,’ he asks, ‘that you, sir, never led me into the light? Why did I scarcely ever hear you name the name of Christ? Why did you never urge me to faith in his blood? Is not Christ the First and the Last? If you say that you thought I had faith already, verily, you know nothing of me. I beseech you, sir, by the mercies of God, to consider whether the true reason of your never pressing this salvation upon me was not this – that you never had it yourself!’
Here is a letter for a man like Wesley to write to a man like Law! Many a minister has since read that letter on his knees and has prayed that he may never deserve to receive so terrible a reprimand.”
I feel that the stronger I am offended by this, the more I am culpable of the adage “me-thinks thou protesteth too much”… and protest I do. Maybe a little reflection more regularly in this matter would be more helpful, both for me and those I seek to serve.