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It isn’t the size of the dog . . . .

 

It isn’t the size of the dog . . . .

 

Since I was only eight years old when the guest teacher spoke to my Sunday School class I can’t remember all the details. Still, I shall never forget Rufus Spooner, the tall, lean, fiery fellow who touched me and torched me that afternoon. He claimed to stand in the tradition of John Wesley, and he was telling us stories of how Christians in the Methodist heritage continued to “fight the good fight of the faith.” (1 Timothy 6:12) The gist of his story was that we must never waver on account of discouragement or capitulate in despair or surrender through fear. The illustration that gripped us was his vivid depiction of a gentle, small dog dragged unwillingly into contending with a slavering Doberman. The conclusion that climaxed it all and thereafter seared itself upon my mind and heart was, “Remember! What counts isn’t the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog!” And I have remembered.

When John Wesley was asked what he needed to unleash the mission for which he believed God to have raised up Methodism (the mission being “to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land”) he replied, “I need only a dozen people who hate nothing but sin and fear no one but God.”

Only a dozen? Would so very few be enough to spread, or even begin to spread, scriptural holiness throughout the length and breadth of England? The people who gathered around him worked and witnessed and sometimes wept; still they won. The story of how they leavened English life and laws and church and populace has been told in history texts beyond number. When I was a teenager and beginning to read of the eighteenth century Awakening I thrilled to the accounts of the diminutive Englishman forthrightly addressing crowds that exceeded twenty thousand. Naturally enough I imagined the numbers gathered into the burgeoning movement to resemble a tidal wave. Decades later I learned that by 1750 the Methodist people totalled no more than 10,000 amidst Great Britain’s ten million. In other words, even after twelve years of unrelenting love and labour (he began in 1738) his people were only one-tenth of one percent of the general population.

“Only”? It’s the size of the fight in the dog! By 1790, one year before Wesley’s death, Methodist membership had swelled to 71,463 in a population of twelve million. On the one hand they were proportionately six times larger at six-tenths of one per cent. On the other hand, they were still far less than one per cent. Was Wesley dismayed? I have never read that he quit or ever thought of quitting. Did he abandon his convictions or sell his soul or hide the hardships of discipleship in order to attract hordes and allow him to boast a howling success? On the contrary he never slackened in his insistence on “doctrine and discipline.” His Journal tells us that when he visited the Methodist communities in Newcastle or Leeds or Bradford or Bristol he sat down with local leaders, queried them concerning the spiritual condition of the people, and then proceeded to delete names from the rolls. Members who had made a profession of faith at one time but who were never found now at worship or who flaunted their dissolute ways or who sneered at the gospel and its spokespersons — these people Wesley unhesitatingly pronounced as “no longer walking with us.” To be sure, upon repenting they would be welcomed without qualification. Until then, however, he would not use their names to pad rolls dishonestly. The truth is, as small as the Methodist movement was, Wesley never worried about making it smaller. In the wake of his visit, however, the same community was always stronger and more effective.

 

There are other Sunday School lessons I remember, especially the oft-told story of God’s rescuing the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt and bringing them safely through the Red Sea. The old flannel-graph lesson board always depicted the Red Sea waters piled twenty feet high like snowbanks in the Rocky Mountains. The portrayal was so very dramatic that those beholding the event would have to be startled, know that God alone had done it, and forever suspend their unbelief in the Holy One of Israel. Actually, the event appeared so very ordinary to the Egyptians that their annals record no more than that a relatively small group of slaves escaped during a storm and were never missed since they were never going to accommodate themselves to Egyptian ways in any case. Then what did happen? Something happened apart from which our civilization is unthinkable. Can you imagine our civilization without the Ten Commandments? Can you imagine public institutions or our social environment or our society’s “illumination by indirect lighting” in such areas as care for the marginalized or the value of the individual or the nature of the criminal justice system apart from what Israel has always called the “Ten Words”? And all of this from a handful of recalcitrant slaves so few in number and so despised in any case as never to be missed!

During the eleven years my father lived in Edmonton he visited the Fort Saskatchewan Penitentiary every Sunday afternoon in order to provide piano accompaniment at a service of worship and also to address the convicts. Years later when I was a temporarily frustrated clergyman I asked my dad if he had ever seen any fruit of his eleven-year sacrifice. “I didn’t do it because I expected to see fruit,” he corrected me, “I did it because it was right.” But of course there was fruit. (An ex-convict thanked him on an Edmonton streetcar in front of my mother.) And of course a vastly greater reward awaited him the day he was “sent home.”

Elijah came to know that there were far more than he once thought who had neither bowed their knee to Baal nor kissed him. (1 Kings 19:18)

“It isn’t the size of the dog in the fight, but the sizeā€¦.”

 

Victor Shepherd
(written for the Community of Concern Newsletter, March 2001)