Thrive
Podcast

Overview

Dr. Christine Johnson, Registrar and Affiliate Professor at Asbury Seminary, joins me on the podcast today. In this episode, we talk about Holiness and Death in the Theology of John Wesley, how to build a theology of death, the relationship between death and holiness and how to navigate our own mortality without fear because we are people of hope.

Let’s listen!

Dr. Christine Johnson, Registrar and Affiliate Professor at Asbury Seminary

Dr. Christine Johnson earned her Ph.D. in Wesley Studies from the University of Manchester and currently serves as the Register and Affiliate Professor at Asbury Theological Seminary.

Heidi Wilcox, host of the Thrive Podcast

Writer, podcaster, and social media manager, Heidi Wilcox shares stories of truth, justice, healing and hope. She is best known as the host of Spotlight, (especially her blooper reel) highlighting news, events, culturally relevant topics and stories of the ways alumni, current students and faculty are attempting something big for God. If you can’t find her, she’s probably cheering on her Kentucky Wildcats, enjoying a cup of coffee, reading or spending time with her husband, Wes.



Transcript

Heidi Wilcox:
Hey everyone. Welcome to this week’s episode of the Thrive with Asbury Seminary Podcast. This week on the podcast, we’re talking with Dr. Christine Johnson, Registrar and Affiliate Professor at Asbury Seminary. In this episode, we talk about how to build a theology of death, the relationship between death and holiness, and how to navigate our own mortality as a living people who can live without fear because we are a people of hope. Let’s listen.

Heidi Wilcox:
I’m really looking forward to our conversation today, talking about your study of death and holiness and the Theology of John Wesley and how we can just develop a theology of death as living people for it not to be something to fear.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah, I’m looking forward to today.

Heidi Wilcox:
But I have to comment on your boots first. I always love your shoes.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Thank you. Shoes are very important.

Heidi Wilcox:
They are. And it’s a great boot day.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah. Yes, it is. It’s very rainy.

Heidi Wilcox:
It is. It is. Yeah. So thank you so much for coming by.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah, well I’m excited about our conversation too. A lot of times people don’t want to talk about the topic of death, and so I always joke that I have to have a captive audience in order to get anyone to actually listen. But I have been surprised at how many people have been interested in my work in the area and they also have either had a loved one die and suddenly this area of death becomes much more interesting in a topic of conversation.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah, for sure. That’s where I am right now. It hasn’t been something that I wanted to talk about because it was hard, but then as you get older, family members pass away and being like, for me, I cry when I start thinking about it or talking about death and wanting to learn ways to… I might still cry, but to have peace in my heart about it and not be something to fear, because I’m like this is something I don’t want to talk about because I don’t want it to ever happen, but it’s part of living.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
That’s right. It’s an inevitable part of life, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Is that we are all going to die because we’re mortal creatures, but somehow we have made the topic of death taboo in our culture. So then it becomes very difficult when you either lose a loved one or you are ill yourself and are facing the prospect of your own death.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah.

Heidi Wilcox:
How did you first become interested in this subject? Well, tell me what your subject is officially for sure.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Sure, absolutely. Well my dissertation was holiness and death in the Theology of John Wesley. And if you have read any of Wesley’s works, you’ll notice that the theme of death is incredibly prevalent throughout his writings. He struggled with the fear of death in some of his younger years and when he was first starting in ministry, in fact, one of the more famous instances where Wesley struggled with this whole area of death was his encounter with the Moravians on the boat ride over to Georgia.

Heidi Wilcox:
Oh, okay.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And they encountered this incredibly strong storm. And Wesley himself was very fearful about the prospect of dying, and people were screaming and crying and just into utter terror over the thought that they might perish. And he noticed the Moravians, and he said, “Even their women and children were just calmly singing praises to God.” And he asked them, “Are you not afraid?” And their response was, “No, we’re not afraid to die.” And that made such a strong impression on Wesley because that fear of death for him made him recognize that he was actually lacking something in his faith and in his relationship with God.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And then… I know it’s really powerful.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And then as he develops this theology of Christian perfection or what you might call entire sanctification, he uses death as a metaphor for that work of God in the soul. And so I really became interested in how he is linking holiness with this kind of theology of death and dying.

Heidi Wilcox:
Wow! So he was using death as a metaphor for the final sanctification process? Is that…

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yes, for that work of Christian perfection or entire sanctification.

Heidi Wilcox:
Wow! That’s fascinating.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah.

Heidi Wilcox:
How did you become interested in that?

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah. Well, my topic actually came out of a conversation with my dissertation supervisor, Dr. Ken Collins. We had been talking about entire sanctification and just how Wesley is describing this work of God in the soul that it is, the death of the sin nature and how oftentimes it looks like the death of us as well. And Dr. Collins had mentioned that there were these accounts that Wesley had published in his Armenian magazine of deathbed scenes or deathbed experiences of those early Methodists.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And as I began to do research, I found out that there are over 280 deathbed accounts that Wesley published in his Armenian magazine that just described what it was to die, like these Methodists, early Methodists, experiences of dying. And they are such powerful testimonies that I was captivated and I couldn’t turn away.

Heidi Wilcox:
Wow!

Dr. Christine Johnson:
However, there was also a bit of a personal aspect to this as well. When I was 17, my grandma died in our home. She had terminal cancer and-

Heidi Wilcox:
I’m sorry.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
It was a difficult experience, but also a beautiful one. My grandma was a believer and she died a very beautiful death. I know it sounds strange to call death beautiful-

Heidi Wilcox:
No, I know what you mean, yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
But she died at peace and in love with the Lord and just had such a strong testimony that when I came to Wesley’s theology, it finally gave me a framework for what I had experienced with my grandma’s passing. And it was such a powerful description of what can happen in the Christian life that I immediately kind of focused in on this area of death and dying, and I still love to talk about it.

Heidi Wilcox:
Right. Yeah. As you think about it, it seems like a morbid subject, like you were saying like a taboo subject, but it’s one that’s also full of hope too.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
That’s right.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. Could you tell us one of those deathbed stories that you read about that sparked your interest?

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah, absolutely. It’s hard to choose this one.

Heidi Wilcox:
Sure, yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Like I’m already thinking about several.

Heidi Wilcox:
It can be more than one, it’s up to you.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
You know what’s really fascinating to me about the way that the early Methodists died, is that they really did die well. Charles Wesley had a doctor that wrote a letter to him and in that letter he said, “Most people that I encounter die, almost die out of this fear of death. Like they’re not dying well. But your people, they’re not afraid to die. Your people die well.” And so that description, “Your people die well,” really does describe these deathbed scenes such that Wesley didn’t try to clean them up because death can be messy and ugly, but he would describe the way that the grace and love and peace of God just rained over their lives in that scene such that you have these incredibly powerful testimonies.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
I think of a woman named Elizabeth Fluke that she was describing how, on her deathbed, how she felt like she was just soaring over death. And so she, in her final moments, reached out her arms and proclaimed wings, wings, like she felt like she had these wings, that she was just triumphing over death.

Heidi Wilcox:
Wow!

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And then there was an elderly man named Jonathan who would just continue to raise his hand and they kept saying, “Jonathan, why do you keep raising your hand?” And he said, “It’s my sign. It’s my sign that I’m triumphing over death, sin and the devil.”

Heidi Wilcox:
That’s beautiful.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And in his final moments, he just flung his hand up over his head and died at peace with those around him and with the Lord. And those are the scenes that it just makes me so excited to be able to share how we can die as believers, it doesn’t have to be this terrifying event.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. You talked about dying well, what does it mean to die well? Because I think, as I think about it, I think part of it you have to live well to die well, so it’s a both/and. Tell us a little bit more about what it means to die well.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah. Well, you hit the nail on the head with the living well, right? Wesley described death in three different ways. Of course, death he says, is a result of sin. And he talks about death as spiritual death, physical death and eternal death. So when he talks about spiritual death, he recognizes that as a result of sin we are separated from a Holy God. And that separation Wesley felt like was the worst type of death of all. Physical death, of course, is a result of humanity’s sin. And eternal death, you would describe as that final judgment, that final eternal separation from God. So when Wesley talks about redemption, redemption is really overcoming death in all of its forms, spiritual, physical and eternal.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Therefore, Christ’s death and resurrection, well in his atoning work on the cross, really is the story of us overcoming death, whether it’s spiritual, physical or eternal. And part of that is living or participating in the life of God. And to live well, Wesley would say, would be that we live the life of God, that we are living Holy and pure lives. And if we live well, we’ll die well. In fact, that’s one of Wesley’s key phrases that they died as they lived, meaning that they died Holy deaths just as they died Holy lives.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. Yeah. Wow! Because I’ve known people who, like you were describing, they just seem so at peace with what is about to happen. And at times I think they seem to know that it’s going to be today or whatever. And the people that I’ve known that that has happened to, have just been people that I think of as saints, but I think watching them, it doesn’t seem like that it’s dying, it just seems like it’s going on living. And I think that’s really beautiful. They’re not afraid.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. So how do we see death as something not to be afraid of? I think maybe one of the things that maybe would be helpful to talk about is developing a theology of death. Would that…

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yes, absolutely.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Well, back to Wesley’s doctrine of holiness, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Okay. Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection. Well, what does First John tell us? That perfect love cast out all fear. And Wesley believed that not only could Christians become completely Holy in this life, now he never claimed a sinless perfection, and that’s a conversation for another day.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. Yeah. But that’s an important thing to note though.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Right. It is important, but that we could become perfected in love. And Wesley believed that not only could Christians become perfected in love, that we also will become perfected in love. And oftentimes he said this holiness looks like death to the self, right? That if God’s love is all in all, then where am I? Where’s Chris Johnson in that? Or where is Heidi in that? And so that’s why he’s using this metaphor of death when he talks about Christian perfection or being perfected in love. Well, we know that’s not true. That the more Holy we become, the more Christ like we become, the more we become the people that God created us to be, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Yes. Yes.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
But in our very warped perspective, it oftentimes looks like that. But in any case-

Heidi Wilcox:
It’s an ending.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah. It seems like it’s ending. Yeah.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
But for those who were approaching death, Wesley believed that oftentimes it was on the deathbed itself that people would become perfected in love. And those who have perfect love reigning in their hearts don’t fear death because love has pushed out fear and sin.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. But it sounds like it’s one of those things that you have to get to that moment maybe before it happens. Like-

Dr. Christine Johnson:
That’s right.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah.

Heidi Wilcox:
Because I can look at it in the future and it seems like a terrible thing because fortunately I’m not there yet, you know?

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah.

Heidi Wilcox:
But it’s encouraging to know that that work happens.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
That’s right.

Heidi Wilcox:
And you have seen it happen for other people too.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
That’s right. Wesley actually dealt with this very topic and he encouraged people because he had a young woman who wrote to him who said, “Wesley, I’m not quite there yet. Like I look at death and I still have some fear, some lingering fear.” And Wesley was incredibly encouraging to her. He said, “Use the grace God has given you today as you’re not yet called to die. You have grace for living. But use the grace God has given you today and he will give you the grace that you need for tomorrow.”

Heidi Wilcox:
So good.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
It’s so beautiful.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yes.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
But part of that using the grace that we have today means that we are actually to use this lifetime to prepare to die. Well, what does that mean? It means-

Heidi Wilcox:
What does that mean?

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah. It means that we should live the dying life, much like Paul called believers to in the New Testament, that we are to die to self, we’re to die to sin. And that is a daily activity that we do.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yes. Yes, it is.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And so we are called to live the dying life so that when it comes time for us to die, whenever that may be, that we have already done the work of the deathbed. We don’t have to do that work when we get… we don’t have to wait to do that work when we become ill. In fact, Wesley would say, “It’s incredibly unwise to wait until we are sick to do this work. That we should live the dying life every day.”

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. Wow! That is so good. So good. We were talking about developing a theology of death too. Are there other ways that we can do that? Because, I guess, I don’t know if this is realistic, but I’m looking for like here’s three things that you need to do or think about to develop a good theology of death. But I don’t even know if that is practical. Because some things… it’s not like 10 easy steps and there you go.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
That’s right. That’s right. And it’s not easy to die to self either, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
No.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
So, yes. To be faithful, I do need to say that Wesley didn’t come up with this. He’s not alone in this leading the dying life. Within the Christian tradition there has been the Ars Moriendi tradition. Well, what does that mean?

Heidi Wilcox:
Yes.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
It means the art of dying. And what that is is it’s a recognition that just as it takes time and energy and a full commitment to learn the art of anything, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Christine Johnson:
To do something well, takes time and energy and commitment. So to the art of dying well takes a full commitment.

Heidi Wilcox:
It takes a lifetime.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
It takes a lifetime. That’s right. And there has always been this recognition within the church, Jeremy Taylor, Richard Baxter, others, that Wesley read and that influenced him, that talked about using our life, using all of what we are in the here and now today to prepare for this moment of death. And once again, I’m going to go back to what does that look like?

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
It looks like leading the dying life. It’s practicing self-denial, it is being in the means of grace, it is leading the life that denies sin. This is a great phrase. Sin, self and the devil. And really inculcating those Holy virtues within the soul. Well, of course we can’t do that alone, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Right. Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And so that takes the grace of God, the work of the Spirit in our life and being in Christian community.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. Yeah. Wow! I love thinking about it that way because it’s more about living.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah. And to die well means to live well, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
There is a phrase one scholar uses that the early Methodists, they were stealing a march on death.

Heidi Wilcox:
I love that.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. So how do we put that theology into practice as living people, as people around us die and that we start facing our own mortality?

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Right. Well, I think what we’re doing today is an important step toward that, that we actually have to start talking about our own mortality-

Heidi Wilcox:
Which is hard.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
It is hard, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And as I said when we first started talking, this whole subject of death is taboo in our culture. We isolate the dying, we isolate the sick, they are not a part of our community. And so it becomes really difficult to have honest and open conversations about death and dying. And we have not developed good theology around death and dying and because we’re not willing to talk about it.

Heidi Wilcox:
Right. I think it’s as if we keep them away that it won’t happen to us.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. But of course we know that’s not the case. And so I think having open conversation is a good place to start. We also know that it’s really difficult to live a life of self-denial and to oftentimes die to ourselves and that’s why Wesley called for Christian community, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
That we cannot do this life alone. He said, “There’s no such thing as a solitary Christian.” And that means opening ourselves up to being accountable and to being in Christian community.

Heidi Wilcox:
What do you mean dying to yourself? Because it’s a phrase we use a lot, but want to make sure we know what it means.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah. Exactly. Well, Wesley will describe this in a number of different ways, but probably one of his key sermons on this is his sermon on self-denial and he talks about bearing crosses and taking up crosses, and he makes a difference between bearing crosses and taking up a cross, bearing a cross are those circumstances that are out of our control. Like we all have crosses to bear, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
For sure.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And we don’t get a choice in the matter. But Wesley said as we follow Christ, there will be a cross in the path that we will either have to choose to take this up and deny what our will is, what our self is, and to take up this cross and to continue to follow in the path of Jesus Christ. And what that looks like can often be times different, but Wesley will even push beyond that and he will say that it is not just like giving up things or oftentimes we think of taking up a cross is very negative-

Heidi Wilcox:
Right, yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
But Wesley will look at this in a very positive sense as well, that it’s even the good things that we do, those things that we identify as parts of ourselves that are so good and that we’ve invested ourselves in, that even those things we need to be willing to surrender to God and to-

Heidi Wilcox:
Like what good things?

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Like our ministries and those things that we’ve invested ourselves in, our work. Like our…

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. For sure.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
That those two need to be surrendered to God. And Wesley said, “Don’t look at this in a negative way, but look at this as opportunities for us to become more and more Christ-like and more and more alive in God.”

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. Yeah. I think about time when I think about death and thinking about eternity and no time, and that’s hard for me to wrap my mind around, and like how we fit in the time spectrum. Because when death happens to us or to somebody we love, time seems to stop, but at the same time it doesn’t stop for everybody else.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
That’s right, yeah.

Heidi Wilcox:
And so, what does that mean and how do we deal with that?

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah. I think it presents us with a really unique opportunity in those moments because we live in the here and now, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Yes.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And we are so focused on the everyday world. And in those moments we get a little glimpse of what it means to be an eternal creature and that we actually are participants in something much larger, much greater than ourselves and that we participate in the very life of God and in eternity. And I think those give us those moments that are often very painful, when you lose a loved one, and it does, it feels like time has stopped for us in some sense, but it’s also an opportunity to recognize that we participate in eternity and that it helps us to remember that we need to not get so wrapped up in the temporal but that there is something beyond the life of eternity.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. Yeah. How can we respond when a loved one passes away with our good theology of death and like thinking about that. How can we respond?

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah, absolutely. Well, first of all, I would say how the Methodists responded in Wesley’s time is a beautiful picture. I’m sure you know about Wesley’s societies and classes and bands-

Heidi Wilcox:
A little bit, yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
A little bit?

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Okay. Well, Wesley called people to be in community with one another and he would put them in classes or in bands where they would encourage one another and they would call each other to account. They had a list of questions that they would ask one another to encourage and to help prompt one another on in the faith. And as a person in one of these classes or bands would come to a point in time where they were either ill or dying-

Heidi Wilcox:
Naturally?

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yes, exactly. When they were too ill to go to the class meeting, the class meeting would come to them and they would be surrounded with this community of love and support and they would surround the deathbed and ask them some of the same questions that they asked them while they were in full health. How is it with your soul? One of the questions that they would ask is: Are you happy? Because Wesley realized that the more Holy you were, the more happy or joyful that you were. And so these are the types of questions that were being asked, and they would cover the prayers of the dying person and they would ask for their encouragement. So the loved one that was actually dying was still a part of the community and they were recognized-

Heidi Wilcox:
Still apart of the living.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah, as a valuable part of the community of faith. And that is something that I think we’ve lost today.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yes.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
As we see the approach of death either for ourselves or for our loved ones, I think it’s really important to still incorporate that person as a valuable member of our community of faith, and then to be present with them. We tend not to be… want to be around people who are dying because it’s very uncomfortable, but yet it can be-

Heidi Wilcox:
We don’t know what to say.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yes, but it can be so beautiful. But I don’t think we see that in our culture today because we’re not around people who are dying anymore.

Heidi Wilcox:
No. No, we’re not.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. How can we… I love that. I love that so much. That’s very beautiful. Like the community, the communion of the saints, because you’re on the edge of a saint who has gone on and being surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses. And I think that’s beautiful.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yes, absolutely. And it’s interesting. The person in the dying role, so to speak, became the most important member of that community because the early Methodists believed that the veil between heaven and earth was very thin in those moments and that that person was closest to God. They were getting ready to step over into eternity. And so they really did take on this role where they were the most important person in the room, where their words and their prayers were coveted and people just wanted to be close to them in that moment.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. So as we think about this, sometimes we have unexpected passings of loved ones. How does the theology of death help to prepare us even in those unexpected times where it could seem like there is no hope?

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Right. Well, we are not a people without hope, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Aren’t we glad!

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yes, absolutely. Amen. And we’re told that we don’t grieve as those who have no hope. And Wesley was asked actually very similar questions. A sudden passing was considered not to be a good thing. Like we, today, I encounter lots of people when they want to talk about death, they say, “Oh, I just want to die in my sleep or I don’t want to know that it’s happening,” but-

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. I think I want to be surprised.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah, exactly. That’s our approach. But that was actually not considered a good thing in Wesley’s time.

Heidi Wilcox:
Really?

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yes. Because not only did it rob the person of this ministry to their community, but it robbed the community of their testimony or of their dying ministry.

Heidi Wilcox:
That makes sense. Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah. But of course, sudden deaths happen. And so Wesley was asked this question, “How do we respond to this?” And Wesley’s response, he’s always an optimist of what God’s grace can do, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And really there is no surprise to God. And so we live our lives in God’s grace and God’s grace always goes before us. And it is the recognition that even in these tragic, unexpected deaths, that God’s grace was already there, and that God’s grace will be sufficient in our lives as well-

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah, for sure.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Even in the very painful and difficult moments.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. How has what you’ve learned, because you mentioned your grandmother’s passing sparking a personal interest in this subject, how has what you’ve learned shaped and formed you as you’ve learned to think about this differently?

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah, that’s a great question. One of the things that I really love about Wesley’s theology is what I mentioned earlier, this optimism of what the grace of God can do in our lives. And oftentimes, we think, “Oh, well I couldn’t possibly live a life without fear or I couldn’t possibly…” This thing that I struggle with in my life, this sin, we see it as this false humility, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Christine Johnson:
That we’re only human, this is always going to be a struggle for us, but that is not Wesley’s approach, not when it comes to death, like overcoming the fear of death, not when it comes to truly becoming Holy people. And that is that God’s grace is greater than all of our sin, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Yes.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And that we can live, we can truly live, as people of hope, as Holy people. And that it is a joyful life, it is a life that is filled with the power of the spirit and that we really can be triumphant. And it becomes so evident when we look at these deathbed accounts, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Yes.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
That was the one thing that was truly fascinating to me is that Wesley has this really great theology, but how has it worked out in the here and now, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Right.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
How did it make a difference in people’s life?

Heidi Wilcox:
Yes.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And I think the deathbed is actually where we see this theology played out in its strongest ways. And that is that, we don’t have to approach death with this fear and trepidation because we can be assured, we can have full assurance, that we are the children of God, that our sins have been forgiven, and that we are living in the love and the purity and the holiness of God, so that we can… like Charles Wesley’s saying, we can boldly approach the throne of grace because of what God has done in our lives. And that to me is just the most beautiful message.

Heidi Wilcox:
I want to live as a person of hope, but I’m not quite sure how to do that. So how can I start doing that? Because I believe everything you just said, and I’m sure there may be people who are going to be listening to this, who are like, “Yeah, I know that, but I don’t know it in my heart. I do know it in my heart, but I still have this sense of fear and anxiety.” So how can we become people of hope?

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah, absolutely. That’s an excellent question. And one that Wesley of course would deal with in his own time, and I’m going to go back to that phrase, live in the grace that you’ve been given today, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
That’s beautiful. Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And so what does it mean to live in grace? Well, Wesley’s going to say, “To abide in the marks of the new birth, which are faith, hope and love.” To abide in the means of grace. God has given us so many ways, pathways, to his grace, like being in Christian community, like being in a class or a band, like abiding in scripture, whether that’s through our own personal reading or placing ourselves under the preached word, it is practicing the Holy disciplines of prayer, of being in Christian community, of fasting, of self-denial, all of those things that are these means of grace to us that have to be done daily, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Yes.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Oftentimes, people would criticize Wesley by saying, “Oh, you’re just telling people to work for their salvation.”

Heidi Wilcox:
Right. Yes. I’m glad you brought that up.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah. But Wesley is saying, “No, these are avenues or pathways which God has already given us in order to receive his grace.” Like we oftentimes want to say, “Oh, well, I’m just going to sit back and let God miraculously zap us,” you know?

Heidi Wilcox:
Right. It doesn’t work for any relationship that you have with another person.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
No, exactly. Exactly. And really what it is, is it’s placing ourselves in the avenues of grace by practicing these Holy disciplines. So if I had any advice, it would be to remain in the means of grace that God has provided us.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. Oh, that’s so good. Thank you. Thank you. Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about today?

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah. I would just like to say that I would really encourage these continued conversations because there are so many ramifications to us not talking about this topic of death. Even though it’s difficult at times and we’re afraid we’re going to say the wrong thing-

Heidi Wilcox:
Afraid we’re going to cry.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yes, afraid we’ll cry, all of those things, it has so many ramifications. Because first of all, I think it’s a tragedy that we are leaving people alone in these very difficult moments of their lives, their final moments of life, when we sit on top of such a rich heritage of, that we are people that are known to die well and we have not put forth a pattern for people to follow, which is one of the beautiful things that we find in these deathbed accounts is that people were familiar with death and they knew what it would look like when it was their turn and they knew that the grace of God had been there for others and that God’s grace would be there for them.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
That’s for the dying person, but it also has ramifications for those of us who are left behind, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Christine Johnson:
We have not grieved well, and we don’t know how to help people in grieving because we can’t talk about death, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Right.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And so it has left people incredibly isolated, and I just think that is a real tragedy when we have been given such a great gift of hope and peace and grace and could really help others in this difficult time. So if there’s anything else I’d want to talk about, it’s that we need to start talking about death more. Like I would just challenge, when was the last time we heard a sermon about deaths?

Heidi Wilcox:
I don’t know that I ever heard of one or if I did, I’ve blocked it out because I didn’t want to face that. Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. That was one of the strengths of this Ars Moriendi tradition that Wesley was a part of, is that we don’t leave death until we’re facing end of life issues, but that we incorporate it every day in our spiritual lives, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Yes.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
But that we also are very open and honest about our own mortality and can use that to help others.

Heidi Wilcox:
I like what you said just a minute ago about, we leave people alone when they’re dying, but then we also don’t grieve well. I want to talk about that for a minute too. How can we grieve well and I guess grieve with hope? Because it doesn’t negate the fact that you’ve lost something or someone.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
That’s right. That’s right. Because Wesley, even though Wesley recognizes that death has already been conquered through Christ, through the death and resurrection of Christ, it’s still that last enemy to be conquered, that won’t ultimately be conquered until the return of Christ. And so we have this kind of odd relationship with death, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Yes.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
That it is both that last enemy of God, and yet it is that thing that propels us into the very presence of Christ. And so it’s both seen as enemy and friend for believers, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Yes.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And so to this issue of grieving, we can rejoice in the fact that our loved one has gone to be with God. On the other hand, there’s this very real separation. We miss them, we grieve them, sometimes every day.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yes.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And this grief that we have, it is real and it should be acknowledged, and it should be acknowledged in community. There is this really fascinating journal account where Wesley talks about this woman who had been physically ill and she’d been to doctor after doctor and they just could not help her. And Wesley finally sat down with her and began trying to figure out what the issue was and he recognized that this woman was in deep grief over the loss of her son. And when she started, Wesley was helping her deal with this grief, the physical manifestations of it she was healed from. And there’s this… We-

Heidi Wilcox:
There’s a connection between it all.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yes, there’s a connection between all of this because we are so unwilling to talk about things like death and dying, like grieving, and we’re leaving people in isolation to try and cope with this on their own and we miss real opportunities in ministry.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah, for sure. For sure. Yeah. How did you get to Asbury? Because we’re very glad that you did.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah, I came to Asbury as a student. I came in, completed my M.Div here-

Heidi Wilcox:
No way.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yes, I did. And I have just never left. I went on, I actually lived and worked here while I was working on my PhD. And then-

Heidi Wilcox:
Where did you do your PhD? You did-

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yes, through the University of Manchester directly through the relationship with Nazarene Theological College.

Heidi Wilcox:
Okay, cool.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And Asbury has a relationship with them and so it was a very hard life, but somebody had to lead it. I had to travel back and forth to England-

Heidi Wilcox:
Oh yeah, so hard.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
So hard, yeah. But I really enjoyed my program and clearly am still enamored with my topic. It’s been just a really beautiful journey and I’m very grateful.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. Yeah. So you were a student and then you came back as the registrar?

Dr. Christine Johnson:
I did, yes. My primary role here is to serve as registrar, but I also do some teaching as well.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. What classes do you teach?

Dr. Christine Johnson:
I teach Theology of Wesley, of course.

Heidi Wilcox:
Of course.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Church history, and then I also I have team taught UM History and Polity, with a fellow faculty member.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah, you should teach a class on this.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
I would love to. I absolutely would love to. There’s just so much to talk about here.

Heidi Wilcox:
I’m really glad that we got to talk today because I have a fear of my own family members passing, and for me, it’s my parents and thinking about like when I see them, is this the last time? Or like other people, like uncles, aunts too, it’s not just my parents, but is this the last time? And trying to savor every moment that we have together, but it’s because of that fear, it’s not out of that joy of like, we get to spend this time together. It’s like, “Oh my goodness, what if this is the last time and I didn’t enjoy it to the maximum possibility and this is the last time that we get to see each other?” You know?

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I can understand that because I have family members who are also aging and it does become an issue where we recognize that our loved ones are not going to be here forever.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
I know I’ve had several encounters in my own family. My dad had cancer and now of course he’s beyond that and we are very grateful to God for that healing, but I think he’s had his own recognition of his mortality and we’ll often times speak about that he’s not going to be here forever, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And that’s really difficult, right?

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
We’ll get teary about it and it’s really hard. However, there’s also that… I recognize in some ways that the death of some of the loved ones that I have had, like my grandma, like my… we have to be real, my parents will pass, they’ll die. And I can think about that that makes in some way, it makes heaven just that much more real to me.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Because I know of course we have this beautiful relationship with God and we can be assured where our stand is with God. But in some sense it almost makes heaven tangible that I know that when I die, that I’ll see my grandma, I’ll see my aunt Cathy, that I’ll see my friend Tammy, Tammy Bennett, who passed away. And that it makes heaven real. Like that’s the reality of it. And in many ways, it loosens those ties that bind us here to earth, it makes heaven that much closer.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Because I think my dad and your dad are similar in some ways, because I know your dad was a firefighter, too my dad, and they both have had… my dad had open heart surgery and I think that started him thinking, he’s doing fine now, no offense to your dad, but just started him and me thinking. Because until that point in time I had blocked everything out and I was like, “Oh yes, everybody I love will be here forever because I’m not going to think about it.”

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Right. Exactly.

Heidi Wilcox:
And so now sometimes my dad want to talk about it and be like, “Hey, I’m not necessarily going to be around forever, you know?” And I’m like, “Daddy, don’t do that.”

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah, because we don’t. But I think it’s really important that we provide the space for even our loved ones, the people that we never want to see die, because they’re… Our parents are an everyday part of our lives.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
And it’s incredibly difficult to think about they’re not being there, but on the other hand, it’s important that we are able to address this because it helps us deal with the death before it actually happens.

Heidi Wilcox:
Right. And there is part of me that wants to have those conversations too and talking about the pattern of dying well and surrounding the person who is dying to receive their prayers and their blessing and to model how to do it well.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
That’s right. And I think we do need to create this culture again where we pattern for others what it means to die as a believer. And if we refuse to talk about it or we don’t want to talk about it, because it’s not something that we want to think about, that we lose those opportunities and those moments where… We lose something very beautiful that it can turn from something that’s terrifying and ugly into moments of beauty. And I think that’s what I experienced with my grandma’s passing was that recognition that this was something so beautiful, her passing from this life into the next, that it gives us real hope.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah, because we see it.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah. Yeah. It becomes a tangible thing for us instead of this theory that we’ve never experienced.

Heidi Wilcox:
Right. And I can tell that the hope is something that you really believe too. Because throughout our entire conversation it’s just been radiating off of you, and I think that’s beautiful too.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Well, thank you for that, Heidi. I appreciate it.

Heidi Wilcox:
As we wrap up the podcast today, we have a question that we ask everybody on the podcast. So it’s called the Thrive with Asbury Seminary Podcast. And so what is one practice, it can be spiritual or otherwise, that is helping you thrive in ministry right now?

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah. I love that question and I think my answer is going to be expected. And that is to abide in the means of grace, those means that God has given us. So practicing those Holy disciplines, being in a group or a band where we can be accountable to one another and be encouraged by one another, and just really living faithfully in our day-to-day lives.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. Are you in a band right now?

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah, not a formal band. Although I will say I have a group of people that I can pick up the phone at any time and say-

Heidi Wilcox:
You have a band.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
I have a band, right. Where I can say, “I’m struggling, pray for me,” or, “This is scenario of where I need some encouragement.” And they can do the same for me as well. So in some sense it’s not a band that meets every week but it is a band of believers that have surrounded me and that I have been able to help in their lives as well.

Heidi Wilcox:
Yeah. That’s a beautiful thing.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Yeah.

Heidi Wilcox:
Thank you for the conversation today and just helping us talk about it so that we don’t have to be afraid. So thank you.

Dr. Christine Johnson:
Thank you.

Heidi Wilcox:
Hey, you all, thank you so much for joining me for today’s conversation with Chris Johnson. I’m grateful for the hope that she radiates about this topic that we often avoid and for the gift that this conversation has been to me personally. I hope that you enjoyed it as well.

Heidi Wilcox:
Subscribe in iTunes or wherever you listen to your podcast. You can follow us in all the places on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @AsburySeminary.

Heidi Wilcox:
Have a great day you all, and go do something that helps you thrive.