Armstrong, Wilberforce, and Character Formation

October 28th, 2012

Preacher: The Reverend Doyt Conn

Mark 10:46-52

I said recently from this pulpit that “God is good,” to which you responded, “All the time.”  “All the time,” “God is good.” And I believe this.  I believe this for many reasons, but chiefly today because we have been running a sermon series on character, and Lance Armstrong has entered the picture, leaving, I might add, seven blank slots in the Tour de France record books.

And I wonder why we are so compelled to link achievement to character credibility?

Maybe it has something to do with our admiration for the process of formation.  We are, after all, awed by our innate capacity to become a particular kind of person based on the particular things we practice.

We know Lance formed himself into the kind of person that could win bike races.  And this took a lot of time and training, and a little bit of chemistry.  The world that watches guys go fast on bikes took notice and invited Lance into the club that competes in the Tour de France.  It turns out that it was a club more concerned with achievement than character.

In the world of Lance Armstrong, as in so many venues in life, practice focuses on achievement, measured by a perceived standard toward a particular reward.

But Christian practices are different. The motivation and reward is God.  This formation has nothing to do with achievement and everything to do with faith.

We see it in today’s Gospel.  Bartimaeus was sitting on the side of the road.  He was a blind beggar and considered on the low end of the achievement scale.  This status gave him a nothing to lose lifestyle.  So when he heard Jesus coming and he called out, “Son of David have mercy on me.”  They told him to be quiet, to which he shouted even louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me.”  And Jesus heard him, and took notice.  Why?  Because it is faith, not achievement that captures the attention of God.  Jesus responds, “Bring that man over here” and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Bartimaeus replies: “I want to see! I want to see!”

To which Jesus says, “your faith has made you well.”

Your faith, not your score, not your accomplishment, not your status, but your faith – that settled, unwavering trust in God, known through the person of Jesus – it is your faith that has made you well.

Now faith has some benchmarks, four according to Thomas Wright, the former Bishop of Durham England, in his book After You Believe.  These benchmarks are humility, patience, charity and chastity.  These are the fruits of Christian character formation. They are countercultural, not only because they are humility, patience, charity and chastity, but also because they can’t be measured: though we know them when we see them.

Here is the other thing about well-formed Christian character; the fruit of their work always accrues to someone else in a manner that can’t be wiped off a plaque or a trophy.

I’ll give you an example.  The name is William Wilberforce.  He was small.  He was weak and sickly.  He had a bright mind and was a skilled orator.  And he came from a wealthy family in England at the end of the 18th century.

He lived in an age that valued wit and sarcasm.  He had a razor sharp tongue and the resources to be cavalier and frivolous.  And upon these gifts he made a meteoric rise to the heights of English Parliamentary power by the age of 24.

Then he became a Christian, a real Christian, no longer a nominal, cultural Christian.

It started with a curious mind and a 600 mile carriage ride from Nice to the Calais coast with his friend, Isaac Milner.  Milner was a Professor of Math and Chemistry, occupying the prestigious Lucasian Chair at Cambridge University, which is today occupied by Stephen Hawkings.  To this day Milner is considered one of the greatest minds to ever teach at Cambridge. (p. 43)  And he was a Christian; which then, as now, challenges popular perceptions.  But the reality is many, many people of great Christian character first encounter faith through the reason of their minds. By the weight of his logic, Milner turned Wilberforce’s mind toward faith, and like blind Bartimaeus, Wilberforce gains his sight.

Eric Metaxas captures this moment beautifully in his book Amazing Grace.  Of that carriage ride, Metaxas writes,

“a seed had been pressed into the soil of Wilberforce’s soul,
and had been watered,
and would soon burst
and spout green
and grow beyond all possible concealing.” (p. 48)

As this seed grew, what Wilberforce saw first was himself, a man prone to pride, ambition, greed and passion.  What he saw next was a nation tethered to the powers and principalities that perpetuated the slave trade known as the Middle Passage that moved from West Africa to the Caribbean.

Wilberforce’s conversion was slow and cautious and in direct proportion to the amount of time he gave to study, prayer, and fasting.  As he turned toward God more and more, he slowly turned away from the things he once valued.

Pride receded into humility. Ambition morphed into patience. Greed was redirected towards charity.  Passions settled into chastity.

Folks started to notice.  Some thought it was great, others were unnerved.  As Wilberforce’s character changed, there came upon him an abundant joy which shattered some of his community’s coveted belief that Christians were dumb, dull and dower.

Of the Christian character traits Wilberforce possessed all of them in abundance. The two I’d like to focus on are humility and patience.

Humility comes from the Latin humilis meaning lowly and from humus meaning earth.  It is a word that places persons in their rightful context, in relationship to God.  For Wilberforce this right relationship was known and maintained through study, prayer and fasting.

As he read the bible he heard:

From Deuteronomy: “God led the Israelites into the wilderness for forty years to humble them.” (Deut. 8:2)

From the prophet Isaiah: “The Lord dwells with him that is humble.” (Isa 57:15)

From the Gospel of Matthew: “Whoever humbles himself like a child, is the greatest in the kingdom of God.” (Mt 18:4)

From Psalms “I humbled my soul with fasting.” (Ps 35:13)

These last words must have had a particular impact on Wilberforce because he applied them liberally.  He fasted frequently (p.68) as a way of stilling his body, so he could see where God was leading him.  Fasting was and remains one of the primary tools for Christian character formation.

Wilberforce’s wit and frivolity had propelled him to the top of the English Parliamentary pecking order, but it was his humility that compelled England to take notice of the horrors of the slave trade.  It was his humility that freed people from pushing back against his ambition, allowing them to see the rightness of his cause.

But it wasn’t quick in coming.  For twenty-three years Wilberforce brought bill after bill to the floor of Parliament.  He was defeated over and over again, and each defeat broke his heart.  For with each defeat he knew tens of thousands of people were dying in the hellish hulls of the slave ships moving across the Middle Passage.  There could be no patience and he pursued this cause with the urgency it deserved.

And yet patience was demanded, and so he retained it… knowing, knowing full well that victory was eminent because it was right.  He continued on, sustained by the practice of prayer and Sabbath.  For scripture reminded him:

“In your patience you possess your souls.” (Lk 21:19)

“Let patience have her perfect work, that you may be complete.”
(James 1:2-4)

“Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him.” (Ps 37:7-8)

Some of these defeats nearly killed Wilberforce.  One in particular landed hard on his heart.  They lost a vote to abolish slavery by just four votes in 1796.  It was a vote that could have been won, had the city not been visited that night by two Italian brother’s performing an opera at a London theatre called The Two Hunchbacks. Eight committed abolitionists skipped the vote to see the performance and as a result 11 more years passed and immeasurable suffering continued until in 1807 Wilberforce’s forces for good finally abolished the slave trade.

The powers and principalities of evil, as John Wesley predicted in a letter to Wilberforce years earlier, live in the banality and apathy of the human heart. (p. 165)  Wilberforce was humble and patient and fought this banality and apathy with faith until all England could see what he saw.  So you might say, “I am no Wilberforce and there is no slavery in the world today like there was then.”

But I say, “Yes, there is and yes, you are.”

In the kingdom of God, faith, not achievement, is the measure, and only God holds the ruler.  You were brought into this world by God, not for banality and apathy, but to battle some Middle Passage, may it be big or may it be small.

Somewhere in each of our lives there is a Middle Passage that must be abolished. And if you’re not sure what it is, then consider your character.

Wilberforce had his Middle Passage pushed into the soil of his soul by Milner.   Maybe that is happening for you today.  Water it and soon it will burst forth green, beyond all possible concealing. (p. 48)