by Chris Ritter
“And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Romans 5:5
During my seminary days I was roped into participating in a men’s outreach to the Mardi Gras celebrations happening in and around New Orleans. About 300 of us camped together to worship, pray in small groups, and ready ourselves to be bussed in among masses of rowdy revelers. Telling hostile strangers about Jesus was (and still is) way, way out of my comfort zone. But we preached on street corners and struck up one-on-one conversations with anyone who was willing to talk. I never would have guessed it, but there were actually people who experienced a spiritual transformation during those encounters. Ongoing correspondence with the people afterwards proved that the Gospel changes lives in even the most unlikely settings.
I was spiritually changed, too. There was something about sharing ministry in a hostile setting that transformed fellow believers into a band of brothers. We prayed for one another, vulnerably confessed our sins to one another, and dared each other to be bold. The four-day outreach ended with a silent march slicing through the Bourbon Street crowd on Fat Tuesday. We took turns carrying a large wooden cross across cobblestone glazed with beer, vomit, and urine. And then we travelled home through the night.
My body was depleted, but my heart was full. Not wise enough to take a day for recovery, I aimed to tackle a full schedule of classes waiting for me on Ash Wednesday in Atlanta. There was just enough time, I calculated, to take a shower, kiss my wife, and drive the eighty miles from my house to Atlanta.
It was raining through an early morning haze. I was running late and driving fast. The blue lights of the Georgia Highway Patrol flashed behind me. I was about to earn myself a $75 speeding citation.
It was not my first ticket and it would not be my last. But there was something incredibly strange about this encounter that has stuck with me for twenty-five years. As the officer walked up to ask for my license and registration, I remember loving him from the bottom of my heart. I didn’t tell him I loved him (that would be weird), but I felt it with my whole being. Normal Chris would have been fearful, resentful, or thinking about how to talk myself down to a warning. But my heart was completely open to this officer’s well-being. I apologized that he had to spend his time on me and thanked him for his work. After the ticket was written, I prayed for him and thanked God for him.
This was an alien love pulsing in my heart. I also noticed a sense of overwhelming gratitude directed toward God. I realized my foolishness for speeding through the rain with no sleep. This ticket, I perceived, was a gift from God preventing me from a I-85 crash in which I could have killed myself and others. Tears came to my eyes as I praised God for His mercies. Not normal.
Go ahead. Chalk it up to exhaustion combined with the after-glow of a spiritual mountain-top. My analysis is that God gave me a glimpse of the way we are supposed to live our entire lives. We will never be infallible this side of heaven. But yes, we can live in perfect love of God and neighbor. John Wesley believed this, too. Love is at the heart of his often-misunderstood doctrine of Christian Perfection.
In “The Almost Christian,” John Wesley said a real Christian is not someone who is religiously observant and upright. This is just the outer husk of our faith. An “altogether Christian” is someone who has had the love of God shed abroad in their heart by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). This strange encounter on Ash Wednesday was a brush with this altogether, overflowing love. Christian perfection is not some super-sanitized, legalistic rigor. It is the fire of God’s love burning brightly in our hearts. It is divine love perfectly enthroned in fallible humans.
It will come as no surprise to those of you who know me: I got over it. The old, impatient, prideful, yelling-in-traffic Chris soon enough reared his ugly head. But there have also been times of reconnecting with this divine love. The experience of this Georgia traffic stop gave me an enduring glimpse of a radically different way of living. My fifteen minutes of Entire Sanctification provided a taste of the Kingdom of God… and left me longing for more.