A Trace of Grace

Someone has said it well, “A trace of grace works better than a pile of guilt.” My conclusion is that this is surely one of those things easier said than done. I know better thanks to a mother who was patient and eager to forgive. My father was like most dads I guess. His love was very conditional: if you made good grades, had the right friends, performed your tasks, and behaved like you should then you were okay with him.

When I thought as a teenager that I was doing some new misadventure or sin that my two older brothers had never done Daddy would pull me aside and remind me that it had all been tried before. He spoke good theology to me: “Son, There isn’t anything original about original sin.” What I got from that was the affirmation that though I thought I was unique in my contrived plans, I really wasn’t. Either he or my brothers or somebody else had already done it, so he offered that I should save myself and everybody else the trouble and follow the straight and narrow path. When I tried it anyway, as we are all bound to do at some time or another, he came down pretty hard.

 Mother had expectations just as high, but her love was unconditional. She authentically and simply loved. One of my biggest tests of her love was one of my many adventures. I was between fourteen and fifteen and didn’t have a driver’s license. Mother and Daddy were gracious enough to go ahead and let me start practice driving and fix up her old car. I relished taking driving trips with Mother down back roads. I took great pride in “souping” up her old car. I did all that I knew to do or afford to make that 4-door 1967 Chevy into a hotrod. But I still didn’t have a driver’s license.

Nevertheless, one weekend “Red” Rainsford was spending the night over at our house. On a lark, when Mother was at work and Daddy was busy, too, “Red” and I sneaked out, got into my car and I started driving. Here’s when I should say that no one else should try this when they’re underage! We first drove the eighteen miles from Edgefield to Saluda. Then we kept going as our bravado increased and drove the next twenty-something miles to Newberry. It was at Newberry that we made a fateful turn.

We got on the interstate, a fairly new experience in those days, and, therefore, one we thought was worth trying. We headed north on I-26, passing exit signs for places we had never heard of until we got just inside of Spartanburg. My conscience was bothering me about what we were doing. I was concerned that my parents might be worried sick. So we stopped. I tried to call home, but nobody answered. In a last ditch effort to assuage my guilt I called my Aunt Florence. I asked her to call my Mother and tell her that “Red” and I were fine and would be back in a couple of days. I hung up too quick to get any sage advice.

We kept traveling up the interstate and it was getting dark. By this time we were somewhere between a plan to find out where the interstate ended or go to Chimney Rock State Park above Lake Lure, North Carolina. My middle brother and some friends took me there several years before so it was vaguely familiar as an okay destination. Then the highway made the decision for us about finding the end of I-26. You may not remember the days when the interstate ended just below Saluda Grade between Tryon and Rutherfordton, but it did.

 We took a right and I drove through Rutherfordton, no license and all, and then headed north on NC 64 if I remember correctly. We ended up in Chimney Rock some where around 2 a.m.We saw a roadside campground and we pulled in. In my false bravado I told “Red” that he could sleep in the back seat of the car. The console prohibited that for me so I stepped outside and tried to sleep on the ground. It was warm even for the mountains, but I still couldn’t sleep. You know what kept me awake: my conscience! I kept thinking about my poor Mother in particular, worrying. She didn’t deserve that, so after maybe an hour I got back in the car and we headed home, arriving somewhere around9 a.m.Mother just hugged me. She hadn’t told Daddy. He thought we were at the Rainsford’s. In her grace I learned a lot about unconditional love. When she finally told Daddy what I had done years later, he still got upset that I would dare do such a thing. I was even more grateful for Mother’s grace. Indeed the Scripture is correct: “Love covers a multitude of sins.”

The word for me today is that though I will certainly make mistakes whether as a District Superintendent, a husband, father, friend, and in the roles of life – God is ever more gracious and will hear my plaintive cries for mercy. I should forgive as God in Christ has forgiven me. Nobody is perfect so I’ll do my best to live Jesus’ love and let that guide my thoughts, actions, and reactions. I’m glad for a wise Daddy and even more grateful for a loving forgiving Mother. Thank you, Jesus! I hope that I’ll be more like Christ today.

John Wesley, United Methodists, and Me on Love


Valentine’s Day may be almost a week past but love’s importance is forever. I have been reading a lot in preparation for my weekly lectures at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. I’m in my 4th week of teaching “UMC History.” It has been a great refresher and good experience. This week I have been especially taken with all the dalliances that John Wesley had with women. This was a guy who said as a young man he probably wouldn’t marry because he wouldn’t be able to find someone like his mother. Ah, “Mother” issues. Well, we all know the story of Sophy Hopkey in Georgia and how that got Wesley in trouble with a grand jury and on a boat back to England.
Interesting, too, how all of the people in his society/class meeting in Georgia were female teenagers at least 10-15 years his junior – sounds like a “safe sanctuary” problem to me. Then shortly after Charles gets married in the early 1740’s, Wesley is nursed back to health after an illness by Grace Murray, a serving girl 15 years his younger. Brother Charles is so upset at the differences in stations in life that he hijacks the woman and marries off to one of Wesley’s preachers. By all accounts she would have been a great partner in both family and faith! Wesley was very close to lots of women in the Wesleyan Revival. Some of his contemporaries even suggested that this was because women had the spiritual disposition to grasp his “practical divinity” and “holiness of heart and life” better than men. This assessment must have been pretty true. Wesley wrote pseudo-love letters about God to lots of women, many, no doubt, who became enamored with God and/or Wesley.
But then, 15 months after the famous Grace Murray incident, Wesley fell on some ice on London Bridge and was nursed back to health in the home of a wealthy widow, Mary “Molly” Vazeille. In two week’s time, in 1751 at age 48, John Wesley is married and Charles is too late to stop it. Like Grace Murray, Charles thinks this marriage will derail the revival. It almost does. There seemed to be maybe 6 good years of marriage then the toll of Wesley’s travels and the issue of female soul-mates and the letters to prove it became the undoing of their marriage. They separate off-and-on for the rest of their marriage. They exchanged heated words, letters, and plenty of triangulation with other people about “She said-he said” evidence surrounding John’s relationships with women leaders in the revival. Molly Wesley, some would say, actually helped the revival and kept Wesley on the preaching circuit so he wouldn’t have to go home. When he was away she compulsively tore into his desk looking for evidence in his letters or journals of his moral failings. Nevertheless, he finally told her he would come home if she would, “Suspect me no more; asperse me no more; provoke me no more. Do not any longer contend for mastery, for power, money, or praise…” After 30 years of fitful marriage she dies October 8, 1781. Wesley was away from London, returning the day of her burial, but was not informed of it until 2 days later. Wow, and how sad.
Some of Mary Wesley’s actions remind me of a speaker at a woman’s club who was lecturing on marriage and asked the audience how many of them wanted to “mother” their husbands. One member in the back row raised her hand. “You mean you really want to mother your husband?” the speaker asked. “Mother?” the woman said. “I thought you said ‘smother.’”
In a true marriage smothering doesn’t take place, by either person. There is a free mutuality of purpose and a partnership of respect. Unfortunately John Wesley never experienced married bliss. I’m not saying it was Molly’s fault. Wesley had plenty of issues and would have been a therapist’s nightmare concerning intimacy and love. On loving God and others he was great! Unfortunately, like many of us in the church today, we can love everybody and not be intimate with anybody. We can more easily bless people from a distance by a donation or a check than by our close involvement, especially if they’re different from us. We’re good on paper like Wesley, and, like him, we’re good with friends and strangers. It’s the people we live with that know the truth about us. They have seen the pretense disintegrate and fall to the floor. A man asked his children one day why people thought he was a Christian. Their hasty response was, “Maybe because they don’t know you!” I pray that people will know us and our true personal love. I hope that we United Methodists will love people, really love people – not by giving a donation but by giving ourselves.