On December 31, 2017, I found myself celebrating the soon-to-be-new year of 2018 in Memphis, Tennessee, with Chris Sheldon, before the Wesley’s winter mission trip in that City of the Blues. It was, as far as I can remember, the first time I had welcomed in a new year in a public celebration. That celebration closely resembled New York’s (from what I’ve seen on television), except Memphis drops a guitar in the last minute of each year. In that minute, I was able to reflect on my past year. I had plenty of accomplishments, but I had plenty of failures.
I had an uneasy feeling when the guitar hit the floor. I wanted to be optimistic, but I had just begun my twentieth whole calendar year. The last nineteen had had mixed success: plenty of accomplishments, plenty of failures. Surely the twentieth would be the same. John Wesley had this feeling in mind when he first used the prayer we now call the Wesley Covenant Prayer on August 11, 1755, in Spitalfields in what is now London, England. Wesley claimed he had taken the prayer from the writings of Puritan Richard Alleine, but Wesley probably wrote the prayer.
John Wesley, the “founder of Methodism”, was a priest in the Church of England. After an unsuccessful appointment to Savannah, Georgia, Wesley returned to England and began attending services of the Moravians, another Protestant denomination. It was at a Moravian service that Wesley said he first felt the assurance of his salvation. Though Wesley split with the Moravians in 1739, as he continued his ministry in the Church of England, his time with the Moravians greatly influenced him.
Moravians typically have a “Watch Night” service on New Year’s Eve, in which members gather to talk about their spiritual successes, confess of their spiritual shortcomings, and pray and make resolutions for the new year. Wesley started holding watchnight services in 1740, and since then watchnight has been a cornerstone of the Methodist Church of Great Britain. Beginning in 1755, Wesley began incorporating the Covenant Prayer into his service; the prayer having been written with New Year’s in mind.
Yet, Wesley did not debut the prayer or New Year’s, nor did he intend it to only be used then. We need a constant reminder of our covenant with God, that we might be exalted for Him or brought low for Him, to quote Wesley’s prayer. Even now, the Wesley Covenant Prayer is recited weekly in most congregations of the Methodist Church of Great Britain, just as the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles’ Creed is in many of our Methodist congregations.
Lent begins two and a half months into 2018, and I already have things to contemplate by New Year’s 2019, but I won’t wait till then to remember my faith in God. Instead, like many in this ministry, I will allow the Wesley Covenant Prayer to guide my Lent, Lord willing. To quote a prayer written some two hundred and fifty years ago.
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.