Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Mystic Way of Evangelism

I thoroughly enjoyed Elaine Heath's The Mystic Way of Evangelism. If you're looking for something to do in a prepackaged, programmatic sort of way, you'll need to look elsewhere. Those supersaturated with fads, trends and gimmicks, I recommend it! Heath's narrative style invites a lingering read.

From the beautifully told biographies of the saints Heath, I think accurately, describes the present state of the church (in the U.S. I presume) as one of the dark night of the mystics. The way negativa- or the steps of purgation, illumination, and union, is the way through the night. You might find it interesting that Heath applies a basically personal spiritual category to the corporate church, and so several pages in the Appendix well explain her metaphor. Pointing to the loss of fruitfulness, dearth of desire, and true longing for more of God among our denominations, her description, however, is right on target.

In purgation, we can choose to learn in the dark night or just continue on the same deadening path we've grown accustomed to. Seminaries do not, according to Heath, teach us to pray contemplatively, so our ministry is seen as a production of the false self and whatever feeds ego needs, not something that grows out of what we receive from God's love and gift in prayer. In ministry, we hit the wall, literally running out of new stuff to do, fall exhausted staying on the merry-go-round, or a little of both.

The kenotic, or self- emptying and life-giving love of God is our true coming home, our illumination. And this story in the lives of the saints is what Heath brings to life so well. Our healing is from the three- fold wound of sexism, class-ism, and racism. St. Julian's own vision tells the story of our original wounding and how God looks on us with pity, not blame. The choice of these three particular wounds is effectively argued, using not only the ugly statistics of sexual abuse (1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men are survivors of childhood sexual abuse), but also in sharing the struggles of saints like Phoebe Palmer and Henri Nouwen, John Woolman and Thomas Kelly.

In keeping with a narrative form, Heath tells how an imagined community, as it grounds itself in the spirituality of the mystics, will also be attractive to those not present, because love will be genuine. There will be an egalitarian sense of shared ministry with bi-vocational pastors leading the way. Ministry will come out of what people receive from God's love in prayer, not from what they score on gift inventories. Earth care will be practiced alongside of, not in back of, financial stewardship.

Heath's book is more than just an accounting of our current spiritual malaise. She also is apart of New Day, a monastic-like community in Dallas, where she also teaches evangelism at Perkins School of Theology. So I'm pretty sure she telling us a little of her own journey too. Her book is a rare one on the practice of evangelism, so needed to be relished contemplatively, prayerfully. What else would you expect?

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