THIS year Methodists all over the world celebrate the 300th birth anniversary of Charles Wesley – God’s poetic gift to the Methodist movement and the larger Body of Christ. Charles was a gifted poet and song smith, the psalmist who inspired the early Methodists to have faith in Christ, and to go on to Christian perfection in Christ, and who continues to inspire Christians.
Charles Wesley was a prolific poet. From his heart and pen flowed more than 9,000 poems, about 6,000 of which became hymns. Many of these hymns have become much-loved classics in the worldwide Church, hymns such as “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”, “Rejoice, the Lord Is King”, “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”, and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”.
We often talk about John Wesley’s heart-warming experience on May 23, 1738 which transformed the man into a passionate evangelist and inspiring leader of the Methodist revival movement in 18th century England. What many people may not know is that the younger brother, Charles, had his own heart-warming experience three days earlier, on Pentecost, May 21, 1738, when he was deeply touched by God, having been moved by the care and concern shown by his hosts in a Moravian home where he was staying, recuperating from an illness.
Charles read Ps. 40:3: He hath put a new song in my mouth, many will see and fear and will trust in the Lord. The living God who touched Charles’ soul with His love, called him to a lifetime of creating poetry and song for the Church. Charles set out immediately to write his first hymn, “Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin”. On the first anniversary of his conversion experience, he wrote the well-known “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” which he recommended as a song to be sung on the anniversary of one’s conversion.
These are but two hymns in a huge stream of hymns and poetry that flowed from this man’s heart and soul. It was as if a river of words and tunes flowed endlessly from Wesley, demonstrating what Jesus said in Jn 9:38: Whoever believes in me … streams of living water will flow from within him. Oh, what a great river of poetic language and melodious tunes that was!
Even on his death bed in March 1788, the river kept flowing as Charles dictated his last words to his beloved wife, Sarah Gwynne:
In age and feebleness extreme, Who shall a helpless worm redeem? Jesus, my only hope Thou art, Strength of my failing flesh and heart, O, could I catch a smile from Thee And drop into eternity!
There are many lessons we can learn from the life and ministry of Charles Wesley. One particular lesson is to understand the place of poetry in Christian thought and life.
Christian poetry is a special gift we need to appreciate and experience. The Bible is a good place to start because significant sections of the Bible are written in the form of poetry. An obvious example is the book of Psalms, ancient Israel’s hymnal. Many of the prophetic writings were also written in the form of poetry. Why is one-third of the Bible written as poetry? The answer must be that divine truth needs to be conveyed not only through prosaic language but also through poetry. There are two things about poetry that are particularly relevant for our discussion.
Firstly, poetry is rich in metaphor. “The Lord is my Shepherd” is metaphorical language. If you take Psalm 23, much of it is filled with metaphors such as “still waters” and “green pastures”. A metaphor conveys more than the words used. The word “metaphor” means “carrying over or beyond”. A metaphor brings us to a larger world, from our mundane prosaic existence to another world bristling with deeper and more significant truth.
We can understand why God’s truth needs metaphors to carry and communicate it because it points us to the things that are unseen, to a world beyond this world that we see and touch. Without metaphor and poetry we can get stuck in the narrow and fallen reality of this world, our eyes blind to a deeper reality in, around, and beyond us.
Secondly, poetry is rich with reflective emotion. “All good poetry,” defined William Wordsworth, “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” A quick reading of Psalms or many of Charles Wesley’s hymns will show powerful emotions carried in them. Christian poetry, however, is not just about mere sentiment. If correctly rooted in God’s truth, and if it arises from a living relationship with God, then it would be enlivened by deep and powerful feelings.
Our knowledge of God is not just an intellectual one, expressed in the philosophical language of speculation or the mathematical language of pragmatism. Because our knowledge of God is meant to be deeply personal and intimate, it has to be expressed in the rich emotional language of love. And poetry helps us to do that.
We live in a pragmatic world where everything is increasingly broken down to facts and equations, charts and numbers. Surely, A. W. Tozer was right when he wrote, “We ought to stop thinking like scientists and think like psalmists.” I do not think Tozer was dismissing science but he lamented the loss of poetry. Even the best of scientists resort to poetry when they talk about the “big bang” or the “black hole” or attempt to explain various theories. How much more, we Christians? We must have a place for good poetry that transports us to God’s landscapes and deepens our experience of Him. Many of the old hymns, unlike many (thankfully, not all) modern choruses, help us in this, and we must retain them. Also, good Christian literature and poetry should be rediscovered.
We must thank God for Christian poets, whether the biblical writers or those who belong to the same tribe, such as Charles Wesley. For even if we may not be gifted poets like them, their language can become our spoken, sung, and prayed languages, as we are drawn closer to the loving God who, as the Bible says in Ps. 17:8, loves as us the apple of His eye, and guards us in the shadow of His wings.