With the coming of a New Year, many Methodist Communities gather to renew their covenant with God. Many will use a prominent example of asceticism within the Methodist tradition, the Wesley Covenant Prayer.
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
Exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O Glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
Perhaps you, like me, grew up with a measure of inherited privilege. Perhaps you need to pray to allow God to place you among diverse people. Perhaps you will grow by engagement in uncomfortable situations. Perhaps suffering will help you have empathy. Perhaps it is healthy for you to be told “no” sometimes, to lose sometimes, to have experiences that humble you. Perhaps you will grow spiritually through fasting, detaching from material possessions, and learning to rely solely on God. If this is true, then you are probably also like the privileged members of established churches for whom this prayer was written.
But what if you are not?
Consider a different possibility.
Consider that you went into debt and migrated to be able to work for an organization but now earn an income that is insufficient to provide basic services to your family.
Imagine yourself a perpetual outsider, working in environments where entrenched power is distributed between lifelong associates and blood relatives? Your bosses and your clients tell you where to live, how to think, what to say, who to serve. They monitor your work and your social media accounts. They require a cut of everything you produce and enjoy a much higher standard of living. You move from place to place, leaving behind everything, cutting off past relationships, and quickly adapting to new ones.
Imagine that your clients are also your landlords. Could you pray this prayer if you have been made to live in neglected slum properties filled with second-hand discarded furnishings? Would it work if your children were made to play on carpets stained with the vomit of the previous tenants’ dogs or to sleep in a room with the smell of tobacco residue? Your residence is marked with bullet holes. Your belongings are stolen, and your client-landlords enter your residence at will at any time of their choosing. Would it work if your home had a leaking roof, holes in the walls, gas leaks, mold, infestations, an open sewer?
What if you were told to work outside, constantly soliciting new clients. Inside, your workplace is a sweatshop, hot in the summer, cold in winter, neglected, adorned with candles, red velvet cushions and big gaudy chairs but largely abandoned. What if you were judged for the poverty of your own situation, your lack of popularity? Imagine being told that you are too thin, or too heavy, too young, or too old. Imagine certain clients expecting favors in exchange for money. Your services are on demand 24-7, yet complaints from a mere three or five clients made behind your back could force you out of your home, your city, your place of worship, your church, your job.
Would the Wesley Covenant Prayer help you grow spiritually if you found yourself facing such risks, such hardships?
You know, deep in your spirit, that while these risks were necessary for you to survive, pay your debts, find true love and family, save others, and fulfill your dreams, others who look differently than you do, others who grew up in greater affluence, people with unseen connections you will never have, these will face no such hardships even as they convince themselves that they deserve better than you and may someday rule over you.
Would it be right to be told to pray this prayer if you were a…
wait for it….
a Methodist itinerant minister?
The Wesleyan Covenant prayer has its place. Its place is privilege, specifically unmerited privilege. It is more than a prayer. It is an exhortation to life in solidarity.
Here’s an easy test to see if you qualify to pray it. If divine intervention is the only way for the bad things in the covenant prayer to happen to you, then the prayer was probably meant for you.
On the other hand, if the thought fo praying for bad things to happen so you can grow spiritually is totally foreign to you, then this prayer is not meant for you. If things are already hard, don’t ask for more. Ask for deliverance. Ask for liberation. Ask for providence. Ask for help. God loves you.
God isn’t arbitrary, mean, or greedy. People are.
The traditional covenant prayer should never be said to a human authority. The covenant prayer should not be said in a setting where social inequity provides a gradient of meritocracy, influence, and power. The prayer should not be said with others who know they are protected from being burdened with the same obligations. The powerful should not require their subjects to say this prayer.
While the prayer may help prepare the comfortable for the necessary sacrifices of ministry in an unregenerate mission field, this prayer should not be used in the service to distribute ministerial appointments to pastoral work among fellow Christians. There has to be some limit to “without reserve.” Clergy lives, marriages, and families are not disposable assets.
If we serve Christ, we suffer with Christ for the cause of Christ.
Context matters. Misuse of this prayer risks converting a challenge to radical surrender and solidarity into a prayer of consent to be trafficked or exploited, and that is never appropriate.
God of love.
I have always been yours. So have they.
I tried to ignore that. I was wrong.
Prospering or suffering,
Powerful or marginal,
Praised or despised,
Full or empty,
Rich or poor,
I tried to make sense of that. I failed. It isn’t your fault.
We all belong to you. We are all your family.
Help us to live that way.
Help me to love that way.
Here, there, and everywhere.