Today in the Anglican cycle of prayer we commemorate the brothers John and Charles Wesley, whose revival movement within the Anglican Church gave rise to the Methodist denomination. James Kiefer at The Daily Office tells this story of one Wesleyan preacher’s creative misreading of the Bible:
[A]lthough Wesley found it natural to approach the Gospel with habits of thought formed by a classical education, he was quick to recognize the value of other approaches. The early Methodist meetings were often led by lay preachers with very limited education. On one occasion, such a preacher took as his text Luke 19:21, “Lord, I feared thee, because thou art an austere man.” Not knowing the word “austere,” he thought that the text spoke of “an oyster man.” He spoke about the work of those who retrieve oysters from the sea-bed. The diver plunges down from the surface, cut off from his natural environment, into bone-chilling water. He gropes in the dark, cutting his hands on the sharp edges of the shells. Now he has the oyster, and kicks back up to the surface, up to the warmth and light and air, clutching in his torn and bleeding hands the object of his search. So Christ descended from the glory of heaven into the squalor of earth, into sinful human society, in order to retrieve humans and bring them back up with Him to the glory of heaven, His torn and bleeding hands a sign of the value He has placed on the object of His quest. Twelve men were converted that evening. Afterwards, someone complained to Wesley about the inappropriateness of allowing preachers who were too ignorant to know the meaning of the texts they were preaching on. Wesley, simply said, “Never mind, the Lord got a dozen oysters tonight.”
God bless the human mind that brings order out of chaos, a humble imitation of God’s own creativity. Because he understood the heart of the gospel, this preacher wrestled with a text that initially appeared absurd, finding meaning, and birthing a fresh and powerful new image of salvation, where literalists would say there was only a mistake. How is Jesus like an oyster-man? (What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?) Poetry begins with the kind of deep seeing that such a conundrum provokes.
One of my favorites among Charles Wesley’s 6,000+ hymns is And Can It Be . Sing along at CyberHymnal.