Author Archives: Ellsworth Kalas

Ellsworth Kalas ~ Jesus, the Name High Over All

Our twenty-first century world thinks of itself as the Graphic Age. We create pictures so easily and transmit them so immediately that some argue that words are almost unnecessary.

Our culture may therefore be somewhat upset to realize that we have no pictures of Jesus. Of course we have thousands — probably millions! — of artists’ conceptions, but the best that can be said for these images is that they demonstrate the expanse of artistic imagination, and that there is something very beautiful in the tendency of these artistic renderings to reflect their ethnic sources, so that we have Italian, Flemish, Scandinavian, American, Oriental, and African images of Jesus, to name just a few.

But in truth the Scriptures give us no physical description of Jesus, unless perhaps we think of the prophet Isaiah; and that picture has more to do with our human reaction to our Lord’s person rather than his actual physical features. We don’t know if Jesus was short, tall, or average, whether slender or muscular. The Bible doesn’t tell us the color of his eyes or the texture of his hair.

But we do know his name. The apostles knew it, as Peter made emphatically clear at Pentecost when he challenged the crowd by declaring that he was speaking for “Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 2:22). Indeed, the apostles were so sure of this name that Peter and John dared to say that “there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The enemies of the faith knew the name, too, and knew that this name was the primary issue; thus after flogging the apostles, “they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus.” I get the feeling that the apostles found this legal order amusing, because “they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name” (Acts 5:40-41). And of course they only spoke Jesus’ name more, and spoke it more boldly.

So it’s not surprising that the first generation of Methodists sang the name of Jesus. I venture that none of those hymns sings it better than a hymn of Charles Wesley’s which first appeared in 1749, in “Hymns and Sacred Poems.” At that time it was titled, “After preaching in a church.” Here’s the story. Charles reported in his Journal on 6th August, 1744, that he had preached in a small church at Laneast in Cornwall, urging the people to repent of their drunkenness and be converted. Then Charles asked, “Who is he that pleads for the devil?” One man stood up to challenge Wesley, and Wesley rose to the occasion with power and vehemence.

We understand, then, what Wesley meant when he wrote “Jesus! The name high over all, / in hell or earth or sky; / angels and mortals prostrate fall, / and devils fear and fly.” A nineteenth century British historian noted that “several well-authenticated instances are known” of this hymn “having been used by godly persons to exorcise the devil.” Wesley said that this name is dear to sinners because “it scatters all their guilty fear, / and turns their hell to heaven.”

We ought to sing it more! Sing it, indeed, until we re-discover the power of this Name. Sing it until, as Charles Wesley urged, “Happy, if with my latest breath/ I may but gasp his name, / preach him to all and cry in death, / ‘Behold, behold the Lamb!’”

Ellsworth Kalas ~ Easter’s Exclamation Point

I’m at the point in my life when I ask myself what I would change if I could relive my years of pastoral ministry. Mind you, they were 38 wonderful years, and I cherish the memory of the four appointments in which I served. And I’m smart enough to know that hind sight is not really twenty-twenty, because hind sight is never accurate in recalling the circumstances in which the decisions of past days were made.

Nevertheless, there are so many areas where I could have done better; things that had nothing to do with character, ability, or the nature of the church. That is, things that were really pretty much in my control, and not lost in generalities such as wishing I had made better use of my time (which is a generality made up of specifics).

This is a specific one, and nothing kept me from it except perhaps my ignorance. I wish I had celebrated Ascension Sunday more often, both in my preaching and in the order of worship.

I know why I was slow to learn. I grew up in a long-ago world of Midwestern Methodism when the church calendar had three days, Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day. And sometimes Good Friday We learned much later about Advent, Lent, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and All Saints Day (rather than Memorial Day).

Ascension Day is actually a Thursday, of course, and the more liturgical bodies celebrate it then. But I would celebrate it on the assigned Sunday, knowing that I would reach far more people than on a Thursday.

And of course I would have a hymn from Charles Wesley: “Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise.” Wesley wrote it in 1739, when Methodism was still in its first bloom. Its Anglican roots were evident in its sense of tradition, including the church calendar, but the tradition was now aflame with the warmed heart.

The opening line of “Hail the Day” sounds as if it were another Easter hymn — “Hail the day that sees him rise” — but the next line tells us that we have passed beyond Easter; to what does Christ rise? For a few days or years on earth, then to die like Jairus’s daughter or the widow of Nain’s son? If so there is no compelling reason to celebrate Easter. Easter, with such a conclusion, would be the memory of a miracle but not the end to the power of death. Christ has risen so that he may go “to his throne above the skies.”

Our Lord’s ascension is, as I like to phrase it, “Easter’s exclamation point.” It tells us that the resurrection of our Lord is not simply a miracle, something to astonish us as with thousands of other miracles; it is a re-shaping of the order of the universe; it is the death of death. It is not simply a lengthening of life; it is a re-definition of life.

And see what our Lord’s ascension means to us, the church today:

See! The heaven its Lord receives,

Yet he loves the earth he leaves,

Though returning to his throne,

Still he calls the world his own.

I wish I had preached this more often! I wish I had reminded my people that our Lord is still active on our world’s behalf, as our Intercessor. I wish I had told them often enough that both they and I would have got the reality of it.

Ellsworth Kalas ~ Singing As If It Were Easter


I think it can fairly be said that Charles Wesley has given the world its best and most popular songs for both Christmas and Easter. The Christmas competition is substantial, because we all love so much of the music of the season. I dare to make the case for “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” not only because it is so exuberant and so easy to sing, but also because it is so packed full of basic Christian doctrine. There’s enough there to summarize the whole plan of salvation and to set your soul to rejoicing while you do so.

But Wesley’s Easter hymn, “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” stands alone in the music of Easter. There’s a vigorous “Alleluia!” at the end of each line, as if Brother Charles knew that he’d better write it into the poem because each lead-in line insisted on it – if Charles didn’t provide an “Alleluia,” the singers would interrupt the hymn to shout it. Besides, as the late Robert McCutchan noted, it was an early Christian custom for Christians to salute one another on Easter morning with “Hallelujah!”

Wesley wrote this hymn in 1739, which makes it one of his earliest hymns. As originally written, it had eleven stanzas. This means that there were forty-four declarations to which the people sang their “Alleluia.” There’s no question but that the first line ought to be the first line – “Christ the Lord is risen today” – because all else follows from that premise. If you accept that fact (and God have mercy on you if you don’t), it’s easy to “raise your joys and triumphs high,” and to know as you do so that the “heavens and earth reply.”

And if you know that He is risen, of course “Love’s redeeming work is done,” and the battle has been fought, and won, and you know that “Christ has opened paradise.” And you have reason to affirm Paul’s statement in melody: “Where, O death, is now thy sting? Where’s thy victory, boasting grave?” And you’re very sure that we can now, by grace, expect to “soar … where Christ has led, Following our exalted Head,” because “Made like him, like him we rise.”

It’s all very easy to sing if we believe the first line, that Christ is risen. And you’re glad that you can sing “Alleluia!” at the conclusion of each line because without that exclamation something inside you might burst. It’s a song that makes one sing like it’s Easter, because it is. And that’s the whole, holy fact of the matter.


Ellsworth Kalas ~ Wesleyan Songs for Lent

In my 38 years as a Methodist pastor I tried to make Lent a growing time for my people. I hoped that something about the season, the Lenten preaching, and the special midweek events would inspire some perfunctory church members to find new life in Christ, or a deeper daily walk with their Lord.

I wish I had done better! I wish I had drawn in the net with more vigor! And I wish I had made better use of Charles Wesley’s hymns.

I don’t know what hymns Wesley might have written for Lent; a better scholar could tell you that. I only know that if you’re looking for the Wesleyan accent for Lent, you can find it in scores of Charles’s hymns. Because for the first generation of Methodists the best of the Lenten spirit was not a seasonal thing, it was an everyday way of life.

Few hymns say it better than one Charles wrote in 1749, “I Want a Principle Within.” See how he sets the standard for a life of growth in Christ:

I want a principle within, of watchful, godly fear;
a sensibility of sin, a pain to feel it near.
I want the first approach to feel of pride or wrong desire,
to catch the wandering of my will, and quench the kindling fire.

A contemporary sociologist or psychologist might find Wesley’s language quaint, and probably inappropriate to our times. “Principle” is one of those words we come upon less and less in our writing and speaking. Marilyn Chandler McEntyre reminds us that “when a word falls into disuse, the experience goes with it.” We should worry when a word like “principle” begins to be obsolete.

And of course “watchful, godly fear” is downright offensive to many. They want no fear in their religion; they want a God who affirms them constantly; after all, what are we paying him for?

For many in our culture, “a sensibility of sin” is the last straw. It’s strange that it should be so, because the ancient landmarks are going down so rapidly that hardly anything is now seen as sin. Matters which shocked us a few years ago are now greeted by a shrug of the shoulders. It’s hard to have a sensibility of sin in a culture where almost anything goes. It makes you feel as if you’re wearing high-button shoes, and walking with a man adorned with a top hat.

But then Charles Wesley leads us to the heart of Lent and to the heart of every day of seeking the fullness of life in Christ: such a longing to please our Lord that we want the Holy Spirit to check us at the first sense of pride, wrong desire, or the wandering will — anything, that is, that might “quench the kindling fire.”

I wonder how it is that I have so often sung those words without being moved to repentance? It’s good that in this Lenten season we’ve given up some comfort of body, or that we’ve engaged more fully in the Scriptures or prayer or service. But beyond that there is the tough, deep-down cry for God to take over the privacy of our thought-lives.

That is, a Lenten invasion that would leave Christ on the throne.

Ellsworth Kalas ~ Songs for Sinners

Charles Wesley wrote songs for sinners. For those who were lost in sin, his hymns promised salvation, and for those who had come to Christ they were hymns that celebrated the day when it happened.

Wesley’s hymns threw out a net that was wide and sure.

Sinners of men, to you I call:
Harlots and publicans and thieves;
He spreads his arms to embrace you all;
Sinners alone his grace receive.

This was not an appeal to the delicate and the spiritually genteel. It was for people who knew they were sinners and who knew they needed a Savior. They recognized that without a Savior they were lost, both in this world and in the world to come.

Such hymns may seem out of place for the twenty-first century world, where outside of a Catholic confessional sins are confessed only in the psychiatrist’s office, and then under synonyms that are rather gratifying intellectually.

These hymns are as true as ever, however, and it is only our spiritual and doctrinal naivete that keeps us from seeing it. John and Charles Wesley were admirably upright persons, yet when they came to the experience of salvation it was with the sense that they were sinners in need of salvation.

That is, they understood that not only did they need salvation from the sins they had committed, but also from the sins of which they were capable and which often they had escaped only because of what Charles Wesley called “sacred cowardice.” It’s a phrase many of us can claim as our own. “Sacred cowardice” has held us back from conduct that our imagination and thought life may have embraced.

I was saved when I was ten years old. I wept much that night at the altar of conversion. My sin life was pretty typical of a ten-year-old who was growing up in a very earnest Christian home. I believe I wept that night not only for the few boyish sins I had thus far committed, but for the capacity of sin that dwelt within me. Only as I grew older did I learn that I was capable of almost any sin, and tempted by a full share of them.

So I’m grateful for hymns that cover not only the sins I have committed but also the sins of which I am capable and which would quite likely be destroying me even now if it were not for the cleansing blood of Christ. I’m glad to sing with Charles Wesley, “Plenteous grace with Thee is found, / Grace to cover all my sin; / Let the healing streams abound; / Make and keep me pure within.”

This is a Gospel worth proclaiming and worth singing. It’s a message we need quite desperately in our confused time and culture.

Ellsworth Kalas ~ A Song for Every Day

Those of us who love the hymns of our faith also love the stories behind the hymns. Most of us know and cherish the magnificent story behind “It Is Well with My Soul,” or “O, Little Town of Bethlehem,” or “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.” But only a student of poetry or of Methodism knows more than a story or two from the roughly 7,000 hymns that Charles Wesley wrote.

Some would say that the numbers rule against it. There can’t always be that much of a story when the songs come by the thousands, and many of them with a dozen or fifteen verses. This is true even after you’ve eliminated the 5,100 hymns that Wesley wrote as devotional studies of Scripture.

Sometimes he wrote from very specific themes, such as “For a Woman in Travail,” or “A Child When Teething,” which is highly practical stuff! And some of us who remember sending off a child to college will wish we had known of Wesley’s “At Sending a Child to Boarding School.” And of course Wesley wrote a number of hymns for particular persons, and sometimes for special circumstances in their lives.

Nevertheless, we wish we knew more exciting stories, particularly the kind we preachers can use to conclude a sermon (especially if we’re not sure the sermon has a conclusion). How come we don’t know more stories about high moments of inspiration, or of circumstances that compelled a new song?

One of Charles Wesley’s biographers tells us simply that Wesley, like Isaac Watts and Fanny Crosby, was “a compulsive hymn writer.” It was Wesley’s habit to write at least one hymn a day; on an occasion when he was thrown from his horse and suffered what was probably a severe concussion, he complained that he couldn’t write a hymn for two whole days.

Why this “compulsion”? Because his soul was full to overflowing. Not that every day was a shouting victory, but that every day was God-possessed. Good weather or bad, welcoming crowds or well-aimed rotten eggs and overripe fruit, always there was a song. As Paul would say, Wesley knew how to be abased and how to abound. He intended, as did his brother John, to live all of life under God’s hand, whatever the circumstances of any given day.

Here’s the secret. Wesley found his hymns in Scripture, and in his relationship to Jesus Christ. It’s hard to find consecutive lines in a Wesley hymn that don’t use a scriptural phrase or make a doctrinal allusion. Mind you, religious experience is woven all through these hymns, because true Methodism is highly experiential. But the experience is passing, while the Scriptures and Christ are now and forever.

So it was that Wesley could write 7,000-plus hymns with tens of thousands of stanzas, because he had a source: the Scriptures — and a theme: the Christ — that were inexhaustible. I suspect there’s a lesson there for us preachers, teachers, and day-by-day believers.

Ellsworth Kalas ~ Wesleyans Sing in the New Year


I believe in new starts. A Methodist can never be content with staying at stage one. Besides, while we Methodists believe in the power of Christ to save our souls, we also recognize our capacity to neglect our souls, which sometimes leads to backsliding, which in turn makes a renewed start necessary. We Methodists don’t “believe” in backsliding, as some have accused us, but we’re honest enough to confess a fact when it stares us in the face, and we’re sensitive enough to our spiritual condition that we can tell the difference.

All of which is to say that I rejoice in new starts. For that reason I look forward to every Monday morning, every new month, every birthday, and especially every New Year. I take inventory at the year’s end, not of my finances but of my soul. Where am I now, compared to where I was last year at this time? What is the state of my prayer life, my use of my resources (especially my time), and my relationship to others? How is my covenant with my Lord, and how shall I renew that covenant as a new year begins?

The United Methodist Hymnal has a Charles Wesley hymn for the New Year. There’s no evidence that he wrote the hymn for this purpose, but it fits.

Come, let us use the grace divine,
and all with one accord,
in a perpetual covenant join
ourselves to Christ the Lord;
give up ourselves, through Jesus’ power,
his name to glorify;
and promise in this sacred hour,
for God to live and die.

I like that! It isn’t as cozy as some hymns and choruses but it treats us like spiritual grown-ups, folks with the sense to know that we can be better than we are, and that God expects as much of us. It reminds us that grace not only saves us, but that we can use grace in joining ourselves to our Lord. And that Jesus gives us the power to glorify his name, and that this is a sacred hour, one in which we can promise to live and die for our God.

That makes a person want to throw back the shoulders and march for the Kingdom. There’s some land that the Philistines have held too long; it’s time we claimed it for Christ. And by “the land” I don’t mean some exterior cause, but contested territory in my own soul that rightly belongs to our Lord.

So it’s a new year, 2014, and the Wesleyan accent says, “Claim it for Christ! Who can imagine what He cherishes for us in this coming year?”

Featured image courtesy Kyler Nixon on Unsplash.

Ellsworth Kalas ~ Singing all the Wesleyan Way

I confess that I’m not much of a shopper, at Christmas or any other time. But I rejoice that at this season the odds are good that the beleaguered shopper will hear some Gospel. The full Gospel. The glad Gospel. The redeeming Gospel. It will come over the audio system in the shopping mall.

I’m thinking of the Gospel as Charles Wesley delivered it in “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” No one before or since has done as good a job of delivering the Gospel in a song as did Charles Wesley. Wesley wove Scripture in and out of nearly every line and he did it so naturally that you have to keep alert or you’ll miss it. And his lines are packed full of doctrine.

The first verse of “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” is an invitation to join the angels who announced Christ’s birth. In fact, Wesley wants all nations to rise and “join the triumph of the skies” in the tumultuous news, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!” Notice the exclamation point. Wesley was inclined that way. It’s hard to end all your sentences with periods when your soul is on the rise.

As for doctrine, see Charles Wesley’s Christology and you’ll understand why Methodism swept the British Isles and then the American frontier. This is not the story of a wonderful young man who grew up to be a great teacher and then history’s finest martyr, this is the story of the One who was “by highest heaven adored, the everlasting Lord.” And if you wonder about his birth, he is the “offspring of a virgin’s womb.” If that phrase isn’t clear enough, Wesley explains that the Godhead is “veiled in flesh,” because Jesus is “th’incarnate Deity.” That is, God is “pleased with us in flesh to dwell.” If after all that you still don’t get it, Wesley is talking about the incarnation.

And Wesley’s not done yet. He describes our Lord in scriptural language, and while we’re comprehending the wonder of it all Wesley gets into the mood of Paul’s magnificent picture in Philippians 2: “mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die, born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.” Apparently Wesley ended all of that with a period, but my own redeemed soul wants to substitute an exclamation point.

See what we’re singing. Our God, Jesus the Christ, lays aside all his divine glory, and he does it mildly: “ I have come to do thy will, O my God.” And why does he do this incomprehensible thing? Quite simply, so that you and I “no more may die.” He was born into this world so that he might raise this motley conglomerate of humans “from the earth,” and with it all “to give us second birth.” Don’t sell this second birth short! Not when it is Item Number One on heaven’s agenda.

There’s so much Gospel in “Hark! the Herald Angels sing” that one of these shopping days some one is going to hear it — really hear it! — somewhere between a shoe store and a snack shop, and that someone will say, “I just got it! Or it got me! Now I know what Christmas is all about!”


Ellsworth Kalas ~ Advent with Charles Wesley: Singing all the Way

Here at the beginning of another Advent season I ponder again that I didn’t know there was such a thing as Advent until I was a young man. In the Methodism of my childhood we began singing Christmas hymns and carols as soon as we heard them on the radio, which was of course at the beginning of the shopping season. It was a while before I fell in love with Charles Wesley’s great Advent hymn, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.”

This hymn is one of Charles’ first, published in 1744 in a little 24-page booklet, Hymns for the Nativity of our Lord. Before I go further, however, let me say that there was a certain logic in our singing Christmas carols weeks before Christmas. After all, why sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” when he was already here?

It took me a while to realize that I needed to sing the Old Testament so I was ready to sing the New. That is, we need to recognize how our world got lost; only then will we understand why God sent his Son to find it. I had to remember that we humans have needed Jesus from the time we stumbled out of Eden, and that our hearts have longed for him ever since Eve heard that her seed would crush the serpent’s head. When Charles Wesley prays, “Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,” he is reminding us that our longing for Jesus is as old as the human heart.

We also need to remember that while Jesus came to our planet some twenty centuries ago, he hasn’t yet come to every heart. Charles Wesley said that Jesus was born to set his people free. But we aren’t all free. As we go through shopping malls where the music tells us consecutively that Mommy was seen kissing Santa Claus and that there’s joy to the world, God is not much in the thoughts of those hurrying through the stores. Know it or not, most of them are still waiting for Jesus to come.

And still more. Our grand Wesleyan message offers a full salvation. Wesley put it succinctly. Jesus was “born a child and yet a King,” and as a King he was “born to reign in us forever.” Christmas is wonderfully sentimental, and I confess unashamedly that I love every moment of its sentiment. But there’s something tough about Christmas, too. Jesus has come, not to be cuddled, but to be our King.

That’s a tough word. Jesus isn’t waiting to be elected president. He isn’t hoping for the last precinct to raise him to office. He is King, whether I vote for him or not. The question, rather, is whether I acknowledge him as my King and become part of his Kingdom. Specifically, whether I am ready to grow up into his likeness, by submitting to his will.

So it’s Advent, and it’s just in time. Because in the Kingdom of my soul there’s an area hidden away from the King, recent territory where I haven‘t yet let him in. It’s time for Advent, time to make full room for our King.


Featured image courtesy Unsplash.