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Sunday, March 16, 2014

In Need of Analysis: The “Four Hour” Rule

Some help here, anyone?

I read this on Tuesday but have had no success at tracking down the original quote on the web (and since Wesley died in 1791, it’s unlikely I’ll be able to get it from the horse’s mouth):
“John Wesley said that he had a very poor opinion of Christians who did not spend at least 4 hours every day in prayer.”
I found a number of quotes from Wesley on the importance of prayer (some good stuff there too) but nothing first-hand about the amount of daily time he deemed appropriate. Wikipedia, while providing a bio, was no help either. The closest I could find was this, from micahcobb.com: “John Wesley used to say that he thought very little of a man who did not pray four hours every day.” Slightly different wording, no direct attribution, no book reference, nothing to follow up, but perhaps it was the source for the quote I read on Tuesday.

This site referenced another called arminiantoday.com, which amplifies a bit: “We all have probably heard the stories of how John Wesley would rise up at 4 AM every day to seek God for the first four hours of the day.  In his later years Wesley was known to spend up to 8 hours in prayer.”

Huh. “Stories.” Okay, not much help there.

I’ve found a number of references to Wesley praying two hours a day, and a number to his mother doing so. But no direct confirmation in Wesley’s own words that he prayed four hours a day regularly or thought ill of those who didn’t. Other than stories, of course. It may well be true, and I just haven’t been able to confirm it.

It may be utter hogwash.

Why does it matter how long John Wesley prayed daily or what he thought about prayer?

It doesn’t, really. Except …

Except I find it troubling that, many times, we Christians just cannot seem to get our facts right.

We work very hard (certainly in the local churches I know well, this is true) at rightly dividing the word of truth. At sourcing our scripture quotes accurately. At not taking things out of context. At not using a quotation to “prove” something its author clearly did not intend. We catch each other up on such things when we slip because, well, it’s the Word of God. It requires appropriate care and reverence.

But our anecdotes … good grief, our anecdotes!

When I was young and often in church out of duty, habit or necessity rather than desire, the best part of every sermon was the illustration or illustrations — preferably as many as possible. I found Bible stories intriguing, but doctrine very, very dry. In a 45-minute (or longer) message, colourful stories were a wonderful relief to a child or teenager. It kept us from kicking the pew in front of us too vigorously.

What I noticed though, after a while, was that the same stories and illustrations began to recur, especially the ones that had to do with old preachers; not just their habits, but all kinds of neat things that they did and that happened to them. And often the stories, though ostensibly making the same point, differed radically in their details. One account or another may be truthful; contradicting accounts cannot both be.

Sometimes the stories were just too good to be true. Sometimes they were quite unbelievable.

They may have been employed as illustrations of eternal truth, and may even have made a deep, emotional impression that resulted in ongoing good works in the lives of those who were moved by them, but there were definitely aspects to them that were not entirely truthful.

Is there a book of these things somewhere that nobody has ever loaned me, or are we all just playing spiritual “telephone”?

You know, the kids’ game where you all sit in a circle and someone whispers a sentence to the person next to him or her. He or she whispers it to the person beside him, and the sentence goes around the circle from person to person until it reaches its original source. I’ve never seen the game played where the original statement reaches its author in any kind of recognizable form.

It’s a good lesson to learn, not just about gossip, which can take on a life of its own with horrible speed and intensity, but about perfectly well-intentioned news items or pieces of information that travel in Christian circles with no malice aforethought.

By all means, tell us a story. It makes the thing you’re teaching real to us. It gives it a practical, real-life context.

But please, check the story out first. Source it correctly. Make sure it wasn’t made up out of whole cloth by some well-intentioned fabricator, or accidently distorted out of all recognition by reverent but inaccurate retelling.

The Lord Jesus is called “the Amen, the faithful and true witness”.

Shouldn’t we bear witness with the same degree of transparency and faithfulness to detail?

P.S. If anybody can find a trustworthy first-hand source for that Wesley quote, I’d love to see it. Because that’s another blog post in itself …

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