A KY Farmer on What It Means to Be Human

During my days as a student pastor in rural Kentucky, I learned a great deal of theology that I did not find in the books I was reading at school. My teacher was an elderly deacon who had spent his life working the soil, loving people, and being a faithful church member. Often he would lead in prayer in morning worship, and we knew to expect one phrase, in particular. He would always ask God to help us “remember where we came from,” “how much we’ve got to do,” and “how much we need one another to do it.” I think his prayer offers a good summary of what it means to be human.

Molly T. Marshall, What It Means to Be Human

Advertisements

A Review of Elaine Heath’s “The Mystic Way of Evangelism”

In The Mystic Way of Evangelism, Elaine Heath draws from the vast wealth of Christian mysticism to reimagine the present and future for the church and its evangelistic mission in the U.S. Her vision is not merely based on the mystical sources; it uses the threefold mystical path of purgation, illumination, and union as the lenses through which to view the church’s vocation. Before laying out this mystical vision of evangelism, Heath provides a helpful definition of key terms. She defines evangelism as a local faith community’s practice of initiating people into God’s reign that ends only when those people are fully incorporated in and active with that faith community. For Heath, holiness is at the heart of the mystical tradition and central to her mystical way of evangelism. Holiness is being set apart to be in partnership with God in God’s mission. Therefore, mysticism is not a way of escape from the world through private, spiritual experience but a way of being holy that is concerned with bringing wholeness and healing to persons who then increasingly pursue the love of God and neighbor.

According to Heath, the U.S. church has already entered the first step in the mystical journey – purgation. She bases this conclusion on a series of dismal statistics about falling church membership and participation along with a loss of authority in the lives of individuals and communities. The church’s days of power and influence as an institution are over; this includes both mainline and evangelical denominations. However, instead of fighting this decline, Heath calls the church to a posture of surrender which acknowledges God’s faithful, yet hidden presence in the church’s struggles and suffering. As the church surrenders, God is working to free it from its deeply held idolatrous views of God as a being it can control as well as its accommodation to the consumerist and individualist ways of the world. God longs to restore the church, but this time of exile is necessary for its holy transformation.

In order to emerge from this “dark night of the soul,” Heath unearths and integrates the work of ten Christian mystics both ancient and modern over the course of five chapters to “illuminate” five central, theological themes the church must consider as it pursues a renewed way of being holy. Julian of Norwich and Hans Urs von Balthasar reveal love as the essence of God’s meaning. Phoebe Palmer and Father Arseny embody a life of kenosis – self-emptying – lived for the sake of others. Thomas R. Kelly and Henri Nouwen mark the journey through the false self into the true self at home in God’s love. Julia Foote and Methchild of Magdeburg expose the church’s great need for healing from its threefold wound of racism, sexism, and classism. Finally, St. Bonaventure and John Woolman cast a vision of ecological redemption that grounds the practice of evangelism in the stewardship and care of creation.

In the five remaining chapters, Heath explores how the practice of evangelism will be transformed if and when the church takes the step past illumination into union. Since love is God’s meaning, evangelism becomes a way of serving and loving Christ in the persons we meet. The life of kenosis highlights how radical self-giving beyond the typical financial tithe leads to new, more light-weight yet more costly ways of doing church which are vital to the work of evangelism. For Christians to be truly hospitable towards those they evangelize, the practice of evangelism must be grounded in a life of contemplative prayer that facilitates personal healing and wholeness. Evangelism that takes the threefold wound of racism, sexism, and classism seriously calls for egalitarian church leadership structures, intentional church plants in poor neighborhoods, and ministries devoted to violence prevention and recovery. Finally, the mystical way of evangelism must include multi-dimensional efforts to steward the evangelistic witness of creation by confronting consumerism and teaching simplicity and sustainability as core values.

In this work, Heath has masterfully developed a thorough, compelling, and holistic vision of evangelism in a mystical key for the church today. Her command of the ten mystical sources she uses in the “illumination” section is impressive and her ability to synthesize the works of two sources – sometimes across vast distances in history and culture – shows great skill and creativity. While every chapter in this section is a gem, I want to make special note of Heath’s chapter on Hans Urs von Balthasar and Julian of Norwich which lays the foundation for the rest of the section. This chapter illuminates God’s being as pure love in a unique, provocative way. When God’s being as love is discussed in typical fashion, one usually finds a discussion on God’s being as Trinity, as a perfect communion of equal, mutually self-giving and other-receiving love. Heath avoids this typical Trinitarian discussion and focuses instead on how God’s being as love shapes our view of eschatology via Hans Urs von Baltahasar and sin via Julian of Norwich. This move is important not because it “skips over” Trinitarian theology but because it extends Trinitarian theology in a way that entirely subverts the project of evangelism that has dominated the Protestant church in America for decades which has been characteristically a-Trinitarian. With von Balthasar’s hopeful, inclusive eschatology, evangelism is freed from its tendency to devolve into manipulative fear tactics. With Julian’s definition of sin as “original wound,” evangelists can address the actual pain and violence of sin endured by those who live apart from the loving God instead of abstracting sin to an otherworldly realm of divine transactions. Upon finishing this chapter, I felt excited about evangelism for the first time – and I was raised in a Southern Baptist church! Evangelism is no longer about convincing someone to feel bad about their sin to save themselves from a god of wrath; it is an introduction to the God who exists as love and is moving all creation towards a hopeful future where all its wounds are healed.

In the third and final section, Heath looks for ways the church’s practice of evangelism will need to change as it seeks a “union” of holiness with God. Unfortunately, this section seemed very repetitive and Heath’s goals for it were unclear to me. At first I thought she was “applying” the “theory” she had developed in section two. In most of the “union” chapters, she does focus on practical applications and changes to be made, but she had already discussed many of these changes in the “illumination” chapters. The chapters in this section also included short vignettes which follow the life of a man named Sam who encounters a church which practices a mystic way of evangelism. These vignettes attempt to communicate the truth of each chapter in a narrative format. However, I found these stories added little to what had already been said in each chapter. The stories were too brief and underdeveloped to say anything new. This added to the sense of repetitiveness I found throughout this section.

One redeeming feature of the “union” section was Heath’s discussion of a “new kind of Pentecostalism” in chapter ten. As a member of a charismatic church, I appreciated how Heath reformulated the Pentecostal doctrine of “initial evidence” from a performance which somehow proves an individual’s holiness to a life committed to the creation of communities which have been divided by race, class, and gender. The “evidence” of the Spirit’s work is renewed life in community, i.e. the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” which the apostle Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 13:14. Evangelism that is Spirit-filled will invite others into a renewed and renewing community which embodies the new creation reconciliation Christ has made possible.

I would recommend this book to all Christian leaders who are concerned about the future of the church in the U.S. Heath has provided a refreshing and hopeful way forward that does not ignore the church’s issues but nevertheless trusts in God’s active presence to renew and restore God’s people. This book would be especially helpful for church planters who are forming their vision for the community God has called them to cultivate. They may find Heath’s stories about “Sam’s” experience with the mystic way of evangelism more helpful than I since they paint an explicit image of how her process could work. This book may also be helpful for the typical church member to help them deepen their understanding of evangelism. However, the second section may be too theologically in-depth for some general audience readers. On the whole, I give this book a very hearty recommendation because it has given me new hope and excitement about how evangelism can be practiced in truly life-giving ways for both our churches and our communities.

A Psalm for Peace

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.

Barada River Damascus, Syria

God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
Be still [Stop making war] and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.’
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Prayer: A Crutch or A Surrender?

Henri NouwenWhen it comes to prayer, Henri Nouwen is my man:

Don’t we use the word “prayer” mostly when we feel that our human limits are reached? Isn’t the word “prayer” more a word to indicate powerlessness rather than a creative contact with the source of all life? It is important to say that feelings, experiences, questions, and irritations about prayer are very real and often the result of concrete and painful events. Still, a spiritual life without prayer is like the Gospel without Christ…

Prayer is often considered a weakness, a support system, which is used when we can no longer help ourselves. But this is only true when the God of our prayers is created in our own image and adapted to our own needs and concerns. When, however, prayer makes us reach out to God, not on our own but on God’s terms, then prayer pulls us away from self-preoccupations, encourages us to leave familiar ground, and challenges us to enter into a new world which cannot be contained within the narrow boundaries of our mind or heart. Prayer, therefore, is a great adventure because the God with whom we enter into a new relationship is greater than we are and defies all our calculations and predictions. The movement from illusion to prayer is hard to make since it leads us from false certainties to true uncertainties, from an easy support system to a risky surrender, and from the many “safe” gods to the God whose love has no limits.

Henri Nouwen, The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life, edited by Wendy Wilson Greer, p33-34.

Henri Nouwen on Prayer and Action

Prayer and action… can never be seen as contradictory or mutually exclusive. Prayer without action grows into powerless pietism, and action without prayer degenerates into questionable manipulation. If prayer leads us into a deeper unity with the compassionate Christ, it will always give rise to concrete acts of service. And if concrete acts of service do indeed lead us to a deeper solidarity with the poor, the hungry, the sick, the dying, and the oppressed, they will always give rise to prayer. In prayer we meet Christ, and in him all human suffering. In service we meet people, and in them the suffering Christ.

Henri Nowen in Compassion

 

A Review of “Writing – A Way to Pray”

In Writing – A Way to Pray, Arnold Cheyney presents writing as an essential skill for deepening the life of prayer. After briefly explaining his theoretical foundations, Cheyney devotes the rest of the book – nearly 75% – to helping the reader put his ideas into practice. The strength of his book lies in Cheyney’s pragmatic focus and strong Scriptural basis. However, he balances the entire book on a single educational theory known as “writing for learning.” Further, there is an overemphasis on human language that ignores the mysterious and unspeakable nature of God. Overall, this book is a helpful tool for the formation of an enriched spirituality in the lives of Christians – for beginning writers and expert novelists alike.

Cheyney begins by placing his work in the Ignatian prayer tradition, which focuses on the use of images to experience God. “Writing,” he says, “by definition and exercise, is imaging.” He outlines his basic assumptions on thinking, writing, time, motivation, and benefits to prayer throughout the first chapter. Most importantly, he introduces a main component of his thesis: “Writing promotes learning.” The theme of his work is described as learning to allow the thoughts of God, found primarily in His Word, to transform the minds of believers.

The idea of learning through writing is expanded in the second chapter. Cheyney shares how writing forces the reader to think with language and not only about language. He connects this idea with Scripture by saying that writing enables the reader to think with Scripture and not only about Scripture. He continues by presenting several positive consequences of writing for the reader’s mind. It helps the mind keep its focus, shape meaning, stimulate flexibility, and engage complex thoughts. Essentially, it enables the reader to learn by creating an environment where the reader can experience the meaning and purpose of Scripture instead of simply thinking about it.

The third and fourth chapters are comprised of several methods for practicing the art of prayer-writing. While the third chapter focuses on shorter, less time-consuming methods, the fourth chapter challenges readers to invest more time in fully exercising their imaginations. An example found in chapter three would be answering the questions posed by Jesus throughout the Gospels. In chapter four, Cheyney suggests script writing or poetry based on a Psalm. He offers a wide array of methods that will appeal to writers of all varieties. The book ends with several application sections where Cheyney provides resources for getting started with most all of the methods he described in the third and fourth chapters.

Throughout his book, Cheyney is encouraging readers to use writing to develop their mind and come to a deeper understanding of God’s Word. This idea finds overwhelming support in Scripture, especially in the New Testament. In all three Synoptic Gospels, Jesus includes loving God with a whole mind in the greatest commandment. The Apostle Paul is nearly obsessed with this idea and includes it in several of his letters. To the church in Rome he writes, “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” At the end of his famous exposition of love, he tells the church at Corinth in his first letter to grow up and let go of their childish ways of thinking. In his second letter to Corinth, Paul commands the church to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” To Philippi he writes, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” Peter also takes up Cheyney’s cause in his first letter when he encourages the believers to prepare their minds for action. Finally, James expresses his desire to see the Church develop their minds in order to avoid the folly of double-mindedness. Clearly, Cheyney’s argument for exercising the mind is supported in Scripture. For the reader who respects the authority of Scripture, it is impossible to discount the necessity of a sharp mind in following Christ. Since writing is an exercise in thinking, it is an essential skill for Christians to master as they seek to love God with all their minds.

Cheyney does not leave readers guessing about what this practice will look like in their everyday lives. He uses nearly three-quarters of the book to explain a wide array of prayer writing techniques. By providing his own prayer writing schedule, he gives the reader an even more concrete image of prayer-writing in action. If this were not enough, Cheyney ends the book with a workbook-like section containing resources for implementing many of the prayer-writing methods and techniques he has just described. These resources allow the reader to begin prayer-writing immediately. Upon finishing this book, readers will be fully equipped to incorporate writing into their prayer lives. This pragmatic focus is the book’s most compelling feature.

If the reader does not accept the idea of writing as a way to learn, this book will be a waste of time. Cheyney builds his entire argument on this single theory. He relies heavily on the work of William Zinsser whom he quotes as saying, “Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly should be able to write clearly about any subject at all.” If this idea is disregarded, the book simply becomes an interesting guide for practicing grammar.

The reader may also find Cheyney’s exalted role for human language in prayer to be problematic. His statement that “prayer is dependent on language,” seems to ignore the mysterious and unspeakable nature of both prayer and God. The Apostle Paul describes the intercession of the Holy Spirit as groans that cannot be expressed in words. Paul goes on to tell the church at Corinth that the mind cannot even conceive of the things God has planned for those who love Him. While God is certainly knowable, as He chooses to reveal Himself, human language will always fall short of describing Him. Cheyney does not seem to be aware of this limitation.

In conclusion, Cheyney has compiled a very useful tool that equips the Christian to fulfill an essential part of the greatest commandment – loving God with the whole mind. The reader is given more than enough examples to begin prayer-writing immediately. Since the idea that writing does in fact lead to learning is widely accepted, readers have no reason to fear their time is being wasted. As they write, they will inevitably learn; as they write about Scripture, they will learn how to think with Scripture. As the knowledge of Scripture moves from the head to the heart, the reader will be empowered to love God and neighbor with a fresh passion and creativity.