Using All Our Gifts: Get Your Spirit in Shape

Many of us have gifts that don't fit neatly into the typical church structure, but God has given us those talents to serve Jesus, the Church, and our neighbors.

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Get Your Spirit in Shape features conversations to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. Logo by Sara Schork, United Methodist Communications.

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When the Rev. Charlie Baber was about to be ordained, something felt not quite right. His aunt, a spirtual director and United Methodist deacon, prayed for him and sensed the Holy Spirit telling her that Charlie had left something behind. "Within 24 hours it hit me that what I'd left behind was my art," Charlie tells us in this conversation, "the love for drawing comic strips."

After a nearly 10-year hiatus, Charlie returned to his art. Soon after the Wesley Bros. comic was born.

We may have been taught that we're "Bilbo Baggins going on this huge life quest, and God is Gandalf that has set you personally on this world-changing thing," Charlie says. "But life does not feel like a Lord of the Rings quest. It feels like making breakfast for my kids and, just everyday normal stuff."

The Rev. Charlie Baber and Wesley Bros.

Wesleys Take the Web: John and Charles tell the history of The United Methodist Church

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This episode originally posted on July 11, 2018.

Transcript

Prologue

Joe Iovino: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.

Today’s guest is the Rev. Charlie Baber, a deacon in the United Methodist Church who serves as the Associate Pastor of Highland United Methodist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is also the author and artist behind the Wesley Brothers comic available at WesleyBros.com. His comic depicts Methodist founders John and Charles Wesley as our contemporaries, and Charlie’s John and Charles were recently animated by United Methodist Communications. You really should check them out by going to our page umc.org/podcasts.

In this conversation, Charlie and I talk about how we can use all of our gifts—even the ones like cartooning that we don’t typically think of as church gifts—to serve Christ, the Church, and our neighbors. In fact, Charlie offers a great way to understand what it means to be “called.” 

Charlie Baber: I grew up in ‘90s youth ministry, and we all felt like… You’re Bilbo Baggins going on this huge life quest, and God is Gandalf that has set you personally on this world-changing thing. And like life does not feel like a Lord of the Rings quest. It feels like making breakfast for my kids and, just everyday normal stuff.

Joe: Let’s explore how we can use all of our gifts to serve Jesus.  

Conversation in studio

Joe: Charlie, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.

Charlie: Thank you.

Joe: I have been a fan of your Wesley Bros cartoon for several years now. And I’m fascinated with the way that you are able to bring together all of your gifts in service to the church and in service to God. And I wanted to know, how did you come to create the Wesley Bros cartoon?

Charlie:  Yeah, sure. I grew up drawing all the time and wanted to be a comic strip artist when I grew up, or an animator. I got some pretty cool opportunities as a teenager. I entered a contest with The Richmond Times Dispatch and won. So, me and several other teenagers had our comics published once a month, from the age of 13 until I was 19.

Joe: Wow.

Charlie: I continued to do editorial comics for my college newspaper. Then after I graduated just stopped all together. I pursued ministry and that was kind of all-consuming, and my art really just kind of fell to the side.

I pursued ordination after a while and went through the whole long process with Methodism towards ordination. Finally, once I passed my interviews I got cold feet and I wanted to back out of ordination all together. My aunt is a spiritual director who is a deacon in the Western Pennsylvania Conference, and I called her just to tell her that I had cold feet. She started praying over me and said that she sensed the Holy Spirit was telling me I have left something behind that I needed to find again in order to move forward in ministry. I was crying in the car in the parking lot. Like, within 24 hours it hit me that what I’d left behind was my art and this…the love for drawing comic strips that I had…. It had been almost 10 years.

Within just a little bit of time I started doodling John and Charles Wesley, and got them in ways that I wanted them to be. And I was like, I’m just going to try web comic and see if it works. So I called my aunt up and told her. And she was like, “Hmm, comic strips is not what I had in mind when I was praying over you.”

[Laughter]

Charlie: So really it began as a way for me to weekly get back in the habit of producing art, but more so to process what I’d been learning theologically and my experiences in the church and my love of Methodist history, kind of in a public way. I did not expect to have any following at all because it’s pretty niche to make a modern comic about John and Charles Wesley. But eventually it picked up and has gained a pretty good audience.

Joe: One of the gifts seems really church-related. You have this love of church history and especially of the Wesleys. Where did that begin?

Charlie: I grew up in a rural United Methodist Church a three-point charge in Cumberland County, Virginia. I didn’t have pastors in my family, but everybody was pretty Methodist. As a teenager in a rural community there wasn’t a lot to do. So I attended like 3 different youth groups. One of them was Assemblies of God, but the other was the District United Methodist Youth and our youth pastor there, Dwayne Stinson, was a Duke Divinity School student. He was a total Methodist nerd and really, like, engendered a lot of that passion for our roots and kind of holiness and grace and holding all that together. Then I actually attended a Baptist college and was one of like three Methodists there, and that like just solidified all of my Methodism, like being in that environment.

Joe: Kind of owning it? Like, this is who I really am.

Charlie: Yeah, this is who I am and I wanted to study it more. And so it was easy to make A’s in a Baptist school in the religion department when you’re writing papers about John Wesley because nobody there knows who he is. I’m kidding.

But that really…the studies through that time really like burned this idea in me that these guys were really normal people who were dissatisfied with the Christian blah of their century, and re-discovered this passion for faith through Scripture and studying of the early church fathers. There’s just this huge influence of all Christians upon each other that I kind of was seeing in studying more about John and Charles Wesley. The people they read highly influenced the ways that they thought. And that’s true for me, too.

Joe: So you see the history as something that helps us in our faith lives today.

Charlie: Totally. I have a friend who once referred to these spiritual writers of the past as his current friends because you’re in conversation with them even if they can’t talk back to you. Sometimes you talk back to them.

Joe: Yeah, yeah. They may not  hear it, but…

Charlie: And so I just…in creating the comic loved the idea that the communion of saints will all day one co-exist in a way we can interact with each other, but we believe that to be true now, maybe in a more metaphysical way. I don’t know. So the comic was meant to sort of just portray all of these people as if they’re alive right now, interacting with each other.

Joe: So, one of the atypical church gifts that you share in this is your humor. You find some humor in John and Charles Wesley and bringing them into the 21st century.

Charlie: Right.

Joe: How did you find that place of humor and a little bit of that sibling, kind of…. I get a sense they kind of needle each other a little bit, and go back and forth.

Charlie: Well, I had always really just learned about John Wesley. So it was more in learning about Charles Wesley that I kind of… I identify more with him because he feels more down to earth, and he’s very much like a poet and an artistic kind of person, and he struggles with anxiety and depression. He just feels more like a normal person to me, that’s going along with… because he really admires his brother.

But John is like…. if I ever were to meet John Wesley in real life, I would not like him at all. Like, he is so motivated. His personality is one that would not jibe well with me individually. So I really liked that these two stuck through it all together. Then at George Whitfield, their third partner in crime. Their personalities were all so huge and so different, and they did not all get along most of the time. Yet they were the leaders of this great awakening.

So, for me that resonates in that these people we hold up as heroes in church history are honestly people just like us. And so that’s like a huge point of hope for me.

Joe: And then the other gift that you bring to this is your drawing ability, or cartooning. How did you work that in? I know you said you were re-discovering it. But it would have been easy to do that outside of the church. What made you kind of bring it into this kind of using it in your gifts for the church?

Charlie: I always loved comics and graphic novels because they helped visually describe things in a way that’s different from describing them with words. So it’s just a different medium for story-telling. For me it’s one that maybe engages a different part of your imagination.

I wanted to do comics that are all stand alone. You can read it in one day and then walk away, then next week come back and it’s something totally different because I think comics challenge us to take complex ideas and put them into really small, tangible, bite-sized things. But the art also allows you to…for it to be more than like a Tweet on Twitter. There’s more nuance in art than just like a real quick bite of information. That’s always the struggle actually with doing complex theology in a comic strip. I think the art actually helps me make it more complex than if it were just written.

Joe: And you’re really good at it.  I’ve seen some of the cartoons. The Road to Salvation one; that’s John and Charles in a car where you explain grace in a way that we don’t often talk about. Or you have one on the Rules for Singing, which is one of those really fun ones with John Wesley. It’s in the front of all of our United Methodist hymnals, and a lot of us don’t know it’s even there. But they had rules for how to sing these songs. And you’ve made them presentable in ways that we can kind of take a look at them and get them in new ways. How do you find those pieces that you want to bring forward?

Charlie: Well, I read a lot of Methodist nerd culture. Often I find myself finding some old academic paper that somebody wrote and nobody is ever going to read. And I’m like, “There’s so many cool ideas in here.”

I have a history in youth ministry, so my job has always been to take something complex and explain it to a teenager in a way that matters to their heart and their life. So that was another instigating factor for me through divinity school and coming back into the church, was so much of this language doesn’t resonate with anybody outside of an academic setting. So really I just enjoy reading things about our history and then thinking through: how can this resonate with the people today?

Joe: I imagine there are lots of us that have gifts that don’t neatly fit into church roles. What advice would you give to somebody who says, I have this gift that I don’t know what to do with, that’s underappreciated in the church. What advice would you give them to finding that place where they can use that gift in a way that glorifies God?

Charlie: Totally. One of my favorite things about our faith is that we talk about the ministry of all Christians and that we may speak of, like, pastors as being vocationally called to be in ministry. But honestly everybody’s in ministry wherever we are. So paying attention to the gifts that God has given you and thinking that these are gifts that were given to me by God for glory to God and also to enhance the life of others in this world. So if it’s creativity or if it’s financial gifts, I don’t…. You do math way better than me. You know. All of us have legitimate gifts that may not make sense in the committee life or worship life of the church itself.

I’m an ordained deacon. So for me like reaching into the world is a huge part of ministry. And most of the people in the church spend most of their time in the world. By that I mean not in the church building. So thinking through what are the gifts that I’ve been given, or the talents—if you want to use that word—and doesn’t have to be Christian cartoon. But learning what you believe and being able to express that in a non-confrontational way, in a way that just makes sense to other people around you. It transforms people’s understanding of Christians because we’re people just like everyone else. We’re not all aggressive. I believe we’ve been given gifts to enhance… to be the salt of the earth, so to speak, in the way that we share the love of Christ through those gifts.

Joe: Tell me what it felt like to know there was something missing. You talked about how you had for years put this aside, and there was just something in you that said something’s missing. What was that longing like? I imagine that wasn’t an easy time.

Charlie:  Mostly I had put my heart aside because it didn’t seem lucrative. I was a young guy in my 20s. I was married and I was working in the church. I could see no way that making a comic strip would make any money for my family, and it’s time consuming. Ministry was really fulfilling, so I just poured all my time into that.

I feel like the ordination itself, the moving into that relationship with the church, felt like I was marrying the church. I was going from the guy that can point at the man, to becoming the man. So there was a lot of, “Maybe I’m not taking as good care of my soul as I thought,” as I’m entering this period in my life where it’s a more intense relationship with the church, honestly, to be in that kind of ministry. Maybe it was just this conviction that I had given up the spiritual practice that God had given me uniquely maybe is a way to put it. I would describe it as a feeling, like, a heart feeling. Not like this intellectual thing, but like I have left something aside. What is it? I don’t know if that answers your question solidly.

Joe: Yes, but did you know it was the cartooning?

Charlie: No. Not at all.

Joe: So what brought you to that? How did you get to that place where, like, “Oh, this is the thing; this is what’s been missing”?

Charlie: No. I did not all think that’s what it was.

I remembered several periods in the 10 years before where I would think, “Oh, this would make a great comic,” or “there’s so many interesting church history people,” during my studies, “it would be so cool if I had time to do stuff with this.”

So there was hints of it in and out of those years. I think it was more I remembered that my art used to be the way I processed life, if that makes sense. It was the way that I could focus. You think of a centering prayer or something where you’ve got the one word that brings you back to attention with God. Art tends to be that for me. And the one word would be whatever theme of the comic strip. I t was a way for me to engage prayer from a different…for not necessarily that I’m always talking to God, sort of way. But art tends to be a listening activity for me.

Joe: That’s super…that’s just fascinating, and fascinating that that there was a time when that felt outside of your spiritual life, when actually it was central to it.

Charlie:  Right.

Joe: One of the things that our listeners know that we talk about on Get Your Spirit in Shape are those practices that we use to stay closer to God, that we say help us keep our spirits in shape. Sounds like drawing…art is one of those for you. Do you ever…. Do you draw just for the sake of drawing, or do you always have in mind like this is going to be a Wesley Bros cartoon?

Charlie: That’s the risk now. It’s become a side business for me. It’s almost like a preacher who has to preach every week. There’s a huge element of your spirituality in preparing the message, but then there’s also this, “I’m presenting this before a group of people,” and this sense of, “I’m putting everything out there”—and in this case my spiritual life, so to speak.

So unless I’m bored at a meeting, I’m not often doodling or making art outside of this comic right now because it has become fairly time consuming outside of church. But it still remains a spiritual practice even if it is one that has become very public, if for no other reason than people comment on it. It either speaks to them or really irritates them.

In both cases, it causes me to more deeply pray about: What was behind my thoughts here? Did I put something out there that genuinely I shouldn’t have? Is it irritating in the wrong ways? Never assuming that just because I was in a spiritual place while making this that I produced something that was 100%.... I mean, I’m not writing Scripture, right? Learning from my audience, I feel, enhances my prayer life as well, for the next comic.

Joe: I just want to extrapolate that out a little bit about your listening to what’s going on inside of you to find that place. How might others be able to do that, find…like the way you found cartooning again, or your drawing, your art, again? How might others be able to find that way of what they’ve left behind or what that gift is that doesn’t seem useful?

Charlie: You know, as solitary as art may sound because it’s just you and your art board—and occasionally your child crawling all over you. It’s all based in community. I don’t think I could have rediscovered that if it wasn’t for my aunt praying with me and others kind of affirming—you should give this a try, and me being in conversation with others even as I was creating the characters and throwing storylines out there. Just talking to people. Does this feel spiritually useful?

And even still having close friends that will talk about spiritual issues and political issues, and just life. All of life has God in it somewhere. The question is, “Where am I plugging myself into what God’s up to already?”

My advice would simply be: Talk to the people that know you the best and share, I’ve been thinking about this. Try it, practice it. See what sticks. And see what brings you life out of it because if it’s just going to drain you, then it’s probably not the thing you need to be putting all your time into.

Joe: How do you think this helps you in your youth ministry? When you’re talking to youth about looking at career or looking at college, how have you been able to infuse that with this energy?

Charlie: I’ve worked with youth forever, and it’s funny because this was like my project. My own youth group would just roll their eyes because, I’m like their dad at this point, because I’ve been there for so long.

But my conversation has shifted in the way I talk to them about calling. So I grew up in ‘90s youth ministry. And this was not just me, but lots of people I’ve known that grew up in that time in youth ministry. We all felt like God was leading us to this epic, like, you’re Bilbo Baggins going on this huge life quest and God as Gandalf has sent you personally on this life world-changing thing. And then…. I’m 37 now and like just adulting in general you’re like life does not feel like a Lord of the Rings quest. You know? It feels like making breakfast for my kids and, just everyday normal stuff.

So it’s shifted how I talk to my own youth and college students about calling and reminding us that the ministry of all Christians is exactly that. Even if it does not feel like you have changed some national policy or saved Nicaragua, or whatever. All of us have something to contribute in building up God’s kingdom on this earth… even in the tiniest of ways. So, engaging that with your community of spiritual brothers and sisters and working through that together, it makes calling feel much more over every part of your life, even if you can’t name “God has called me to this specific task, for this specific time.” God has called you to know and enjoy God and to share Christ’s love in what you do, everything. So that’s kind of how it’s shifted.

Joe: So if I asked, Are you called to your art, you would say….

Charlie:  Totally. Yes and…

Joe: And what? What do you mean?

Charlie: Yes, and I’m called to associate ministry as a deacon in the United Methodist Church. And I am called to raise my kids and be a good husband. And I am called to be a decent neighbor. And just it’s like everything that is before me…. I don’t see that as this, like, overwhelming task. God gives us enough for each step.

Joe: So often we’ve narrowed that idea of what a call is, and you’re kind of broadening it in a way that I really appreciate and really love.

Let’s spend a few minutes talking about the Wesley Bros. Describe it to me. Let’s hear a little bit about how you see it and how it gets used.

Charlie:  Yeah, sure. So, Wesleybros.com is a weekly web comic. I’ve got about 250 comics under my belt now. I’ve been doing it for 5 years. John and Charles Wesley are almost always present, they’re the main characters, and any other side characters are people that were influenced by them or people that influenced them. Occasionally, I’ll bring in just completely fictional characters that represent modern church problems or scenarios.

Each week I’m addressing either a real-life issue in the church, whether it be really big, or as small as something misprinted in the bulletin—just things that stress people out in the church. Or it’s presenting some element from John and Charles’ actual life. Now granted, this is not a pure history lesson because it’s meant to be taking place in our world right now. So I try to re-envision it so that they feel real to the audience today. Or, I’m trying to use art to creatively teach a theological concept in a way that’s more easy to grasp just by looking at a one-page picture. So those are kind of the 3 different things that are happening in Wesley Brothers.

I’m finding people are using it in churches to teach theology or to have either youth or adult Sunday school classes. People are always asking for permission to use the comic to start conversation because it’s almost like you can just say, “Read this; well what do you think about this?,” rather than read this whole chapter of a book before you come to Sunday school class. I’ve found professors in religious studies and in seminaries have used it to make things click for their students to learn.

I’m selling Wesley Brothers playing cards right now that have 54 different images of church history figures. Each one is just their name and the dates they were alive, and one sentence of why they matter. My daughter and I play Crazy 8s with it all the time. But if you wanted to you could actually learn a little church history with it.

It’s just been a lot of fun, and for me a way to teach that makes sense to me. It’s kind of cool that it seems to make sense to enough other people to keep doing it.

Joe: You recently collaborated with some of my colleagues here at United Methodist Communications to have John and Charles animated and give a history of the United Methodist Church. Can you tell us a little bit about that project?

Charlie: Yeah. It’s really exciting. So Communications contacted me with this interest in animating Wesley Brothers in these 60-second shorts so they can be shared on Instagram or any other social media. And I really was excited about the project especially because I love the British voices they used for them.

They wrote the videos and I helped create the art, and then they animated it. The idea is that you can just very easily, in one minute, share a quip of Methodist history. It’s capturing the spirit of the comic in that it’s modern language and modern stuff they’re talking about. Hopefully in a way that reminds people that these are people like us. And that means that we can make a difference today.

Joe: We greatly appreciate those. We’ll put links to those comics and links to the Wesley Brothers and all of your contact information. All of that stuff will be on our site. So if people go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode they’ll find all kinds of links and easy ways to access all of this information.

The question we kind of touched on that I want to get back to, is…

At the end of every episode I ask the guest for advice or a tip or something that we might try out to help keep our spirits in shape. What’s something that you do to help keep you close to God that might be something that others should try?

Charlie: So, every Friday my best friend Jason and I meet at Cup o’ Joe on Hillsboro Street in Raleigh. We sit down for at least an hour. It’s like pure soul check. We sit down. We call each other “our secret keepers,” like from Harry Potter.

It’s just a time for us to pray together and to check in on how our spirits are, and like the very, like, how is it with your soul sort of way. We call it ski trip meeting because we’re both youth pastors, and we always thought ski trip was like the most asinine part of youth ministry. So we just have it as a regular schedule for us as ski trip meeting on our calendars. Keeping that discipleship practice of actually being open with another person and praying with that person, and being accountable to one another has been really life-changing and life-giving for me and for him. So I would kind of add that to what I was talking earlier about the importance of community as you’re discerning your gifts, is to have someone that you just really trust and have built that relationship with, and can talk to. A soul friend or soul brother or sister. I encourage that.

Joe: Excellent. Well, Charlie Baber, thank you so much for the Wesley Brothers and thank you for this conversation. This has been a wonderful time together. Thanks.

Charlie: Thanks a lot.

Epilogue

Joe: That was the Rev. Charlie Baber, a deacon in The United Methodist Church, an associate pastor, and best known as the author and artist of the Wesley Bros. comic available at WesleyBros.com. To learn more about Charlie, to explore the Wesley Brothers, and to see the animations, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode. We have a bunch of links on that page to help you out.

While you are there, send me an email and tell me how you are using your gifts to serve Christ, the church and your neighbor. I’d love to hear from you.

Please share our podcast with your friends and fellow church members. And if you feel so inclined, take a moment to review Get Your Spirit in Shape on iTunes. Reviews help people find us.

Thanks for listening, downloading, and subscribing. I’ll be back soon with another conversations to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies.

I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.