Navigating the River of God
Are we paddling with or against the current of the Spirit?
By Stephen Seamands
Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout you who have not
been in labor
The children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of
her that is married
Enlarge the site of your tent
do not hold back; lengthen
your cords and strengthen your stakes.
For almost a year
now, I have found myself drawn to these words in Isaiah 54:1-2 (NRSV). And it may seem
strange, but I believe these verses are particularly appropriate for contemporary United
Methodism. I say its strange because if you look over the landscape of our
denomination right now it doesnt appear that we have much to burst into song
and shout about. Particularly in the last year, when I think about the times United
Methodism has made the national news it hasnt been for things that should cause us
to stand up and cheer.
And as far as enlarging the site of our tent, were a denomination
thats been in decline for over 25 years. Most of our churches are in a survival
modejust doing their best to hold on to what theyve got. The average age of
the typical United Methodist is about 58. We are a denomination that for the last 30 years
has been unable to reproduce itself or hold on to our youth.
As Ive reflected on these verses in Isaiah and the ones that immediately follow,
Ive been struck by how apt the prophet Isaiahs descriptions of the Israelites,
after their 70-year exile in Babylon, are of us United Methodists today. He calls Israel a
barren one, a desolate woman (v. 1); one who has suffered
shame during her youth and the disgrace of widowhood (v. 4). She
is like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like the wife of a mans youth
when she is cast off (v. 6). She has been an afflicted one, storm-tossed, and
not comforted (v. 11).
Barren, desolate, shamed, disgraced, forsaken, grieved, cast off, afflicted,
storm-tossedthats Israel and in many ways thats the people called United
Yet it was to Israel in such awful condition, following those 70 years of most
shameful, humiliating exile that God said, Sing, O barren one...burst into song and
shout... Enlarge the site of your tent. And could it be that he is speaking the same
words to us United Methodists? I believe the answer is a resounding Yes!
I must confess that a year ago, I couldnt have said that. At the time, I was
quite discouraged about being a United Methodist. Since the mid-1990s I had been
privileged to swim in the present river of renewal that is sparking revival in churches
across the country and around the world. As a result, I had been made keenly aware of how
powerfully God is working these days.
But when I compared what I was experiencing with what I saw happening in the UM Church,
I was frustrated and discouraged. I knew I wasnt supposed to leave the UM Church,
but frankly I wasnt very excited about staying.
About six months ago I received an email from a United Methodist youth minister who
said this: I guess I need to hear from someone who still believes God is going to
use this denomination. Its hard to be motivated to revive something that many feel
is dying or should die. Those words echoed the way I felt.
Then last May 1998, I went to Pine Forest UM Church in Pensacola, Florida, to be a part
of a gathering of UM pastors and leaders focusing on revival in the UM Church. During the
meetings we had there and during the evening when we attended a service at Brownsville
Assembly of God, the Lord did a profound work in my heart.
He called me back to the UM Church even though Id never left it! He gave me a new
set of eyes with which to view our church. He showed me things Id never seen before.
And he led me to this passage in Isaiah 54. There were two things in particular that were
impressed upon me.
First, I came to realize that all the chaos and craziness in the UM Church right now,
all the turmoil that is going on in the denomination, is not the result of Gods
absence from us; it is actually the result of his increased presence and activity in our
church. In Scripture, times of greatest redemptive activity are also always times of
greatest judgment. For example, when Israel was redeemed from bondage in Egypt, Egypt was
devastated by the ten plagues. The Red Sea opened for the Israelites, but closed on
So just as some today are experiencing the increase of Gods presence as a river
of redemption and blessing, our church, by and large, is experiencing it as a river of
judgment and curse. Its like being in a canoe. When you are traveling with the
current, you experience the current as positive. It helps you along. But when you turn
against it, you experience the same current as negative. It slows you down. But its
the same current either way.
Could it be that given the present condition of our church, we are thus experiencing
the present river of renewal as a current of resistance? Thank God thats not true
everywhere in United Methodism, but it is true generally. There is much in the UM Church
that I believe is under judgment, that needs to die. Before we can experience the renewal
as blessing, those things that stand against God must be dealt with.
Understanding this idea has actually caused me to view the current turbulence in the
church as a good thing. Even though its negative, its a sign God is working in
our midst. And so Ive found myself praying, More, Lord, more! Increase your
judgment upon us if necessary. Shake us from top to bottom. Let everything that is not of
you be dislodged and blown away.
Howeverand this is the second thing I have come to believein the midst of
all the chaos and craziness, there is a righteous root of Methodism, a remnant which God
is calling forth and which is going to participate in the work God is doing right now in
bringing about a great worldwide harvest. The shaking and the turbulence is necessary for
that righteous root to come forth. Its like the labor and travail which is necessary
in order to give birth.
There is a contemporary praise song that says, Father of creation, reveal your
sovereign plan, raise up a chosen generation that will march through the land. All of
creation is longing for your unveiling of power. Would you release your anointing? O,
Lord, let this be the hour.
I believe there will be United Methodists who are a part of that chosen generation!
Whats more, I believe that this righteous root of Methodism will come primarily from
the youth. Some will come from the youth of the families in our churches. But others will
come from the youth of unchurched families who will be touched by UM youth groups and
Wesley foundations on college campuses.
Like Joshua and Caleb in contrast to the others who came out of Egypt, they too will
possess a different spirit. Unlike many of the current generation of United
Methodists leaders, who have been caretakers and even undertakers, they will be
risk-takers! They will possess the spirit of the early Methodists; the spirit of John
Wesley and Francis Asbury and the first generation of circuit-riding Methodist preachers
such as Peter Cartwright will be upon them.
I believe Gods word to us United Methodists can be found in Isaiahs words,
Sing, O barren one who did not bear
Enlarge the site of your tent... do not
hold back. Lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes (Isaiah 54:1-2, NRSV).
Please dont take what I am saying as some kind of Methodist triumphalism, as if I
believe Methodist glory days are here again. Denominationally, Im not sure what is
going to happen to us.
Think about how God answered this promise to Israel. The children of the desolate
woman will be more than the children of her that is married. Thats what it
says. But did it happen for Israel? Was she ever restored, after the exile, to the glory
of her former days? No.
In fact this promise really has been fulfilled not through the people or the nation of
Israel, but through the church. Paul says in Galatians 3 that if you belong to
Christ, then you are Abrahams seed, and heirs according to the promise (v.
But thats not how the Jews who first heard or read Isaiahs words would have
understood them. They were looking for something for themselves.
So what Im saying is this: God will be true to his promise. You can count on
that. He said to Israel through Isaiah and he says to us: you will spread out to the
right and to the left and your descendants will possess the nations (v. 3, NRSV).
But lets not assume we know what that means. Ten years from now, the United
Methodist Church as we now know it may no longer exist. But God willand he will be
faithful. He will be true to his word even though the fulfillment might look quite
different from the one we were expecting. What were talking about then is not
Methodist triumphalism but Kingdom triumphalism.
Finally, I have been struck by the fact that this passage of the barren woman singing
in Isaiah 54 follows the familiar passage of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, the one
who was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Its
because of what he did that the barren woman can sing. I believe the order is significant.
If the United Methodist barren woman is going to sing, there will need to be some
United Methodist suffering servants, those who will bear the burdens of others to make
intercession for them. This will be the order. The experience of Isaiah 53 first; then
Isaiah 54. There must be those who are willing to lay their lives downlike those
early Methodist circuit riders did.
At one point in his Autobiography, Peter Cartwright, one of those early circuit riders,
describes that early generation of preachers:
A Methodist preacher in those days, when he felt that God had called him to preach,
instead of hunting up a college or Biblical institute, hunted up a hardy pony or a horse,
and some traveling apparatus, and with his library always at hand, namely, Bible, Hymn
Book, and Discipline, he started, and with a text that never wore out nor grew stale, he
cried, Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.
In this way he went through storms of wind, hail, snow, and rain; climbed hills and
mountains, traversed valleys, plunged through swamps, swam swollen streams, lay out all
night, wet, weary, and hungry, held his horse by the bridle all night, or tied him to a
limb, slept with his saddle blanket for a bed, his saddle or saddlebags for his pillow,
and his old big coat or blanket, if he had any, for a covering.
Often he slept in dirty cabins, on earthen floors, before the fire; ate roasting ears
for bread, drank buttermilk for coffee, or sage tea for imperial; took, with a hearty
zest, deer or bear meat, or wild turkey, for breakfast, dinner, and supper, if he could
get it. His text was always read, Behold the Lamb of God. This was
old-fashioned Methodist preacher fare and fortune. Under such circumstances who among us
would now say, Here am I send me?
May the Lord raise up a generation of Methodist leaders like that today. May the spirit
of self-sacrifice that moved our Lord Jesus, our suffering servant, and that moved the
apostles, and that moved those early Methodistsmay it move upon us and our church
Stephen Seamands is professor of Christian Doctrine at Asbury Theological Seminary in
Wilmore, Kentucky, and the author of A Conversation With Jesus: Renewing Your Passion
for Ministry (Victor).
Source: Good News Magazine, July/August 1999