Practice Makes Whole

I was last year asked by Cross Purposes - a Uniting Church journal for theological dialogue, to offer some insights on the subject of evangelism. Here is what I wrote (and it's not what you might usually see on this topic)....

Practice Makes Whole

As a reflection on the article "Sharing the Faith We've Got" by Brad Harris and the concept of evangelism for the Uniting Church in Australia

- by Adrian Pyle-

I recently experienced the funeral of my longest lived friend. We shared many things including a Christian faith and the day of our birth - even though our birth years were at opposite ends of the twentieth century. But equally at "different ends" were some of our core understandings of the Christian faith as well. If labels were appropriate I might have called her faith "rigid." Her rejoinder might have been that mine was "loose." But for all of the perceived truth in such labels it was impossible to have an argument about faith-understanding with my friend. I don't mean that "she was a dear, sweet old lady and you didn't want to argue with her." I mean that something in her told you - right at the point of engagement - that she understood that surface understandings and human arguments weren't, ultimately, what faith was all about. It was an amazing paradox to see someone so deeply convinced about their surface level understandings and yet equally convinced that there was something deeper - something more important.

According to one of her eulogists, my friend thought she was not much good at "spreading her faith." Now the faith sharing she wasn't good at was the sharing of strictures, prescriptions, checklists and definitives of the surface level. Yet she was expert at sharing how her radical (that is, deep rooted) trust in God led her beyond her own agenda - led her to be an agent of hospitality to families on post-war farms across the Mallee; led her to engage faithfully in prayer as a connection to God, led her to use the Bible as a guidebook to personal humility - and - led her put aside a comfortable eastern Melbourne lifestyle to practice midwifery in Papua New Guinea.

There is a Sufi parable about a banquet where the king is yet to take his place at the table. A dishevelled man walks in to the banquet hall and takes a place in the king's seat. The prime minister, incensed, asks who the dishevelled man thinks he is. To questions of whether he is a cabinet minister or king the man says "No. Higher."

Are you then God?" asks the prime minister.

"No. Higher" says the man.

"That is impossible" says the prime minister, "nobody is higher than God."

"That nobody" says the man, "is me."

My friend seemed also to take the role of "that nobody." She was so fundamentally humble that she seemed always to be getting herself out of the way so that you saw her "through God's lens" or "on the other side of God" or "transparent to the light of God" or as "God acting through." To experience her was to experience Christian Good News - to experience pure evangelism. This article is about our opportunity to "experience evangelism" within the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA).

Brad Harris's article explores the concept of evangelism and some of the difficulties we (the UCA) appear to have with the concept. As always it is an insightful and provocative piece of writing by Brad. However in the call to action on evangelism I notice that there is typically a frenetic sense evident. "It needs action." "What do we do?" "Five years to respond." I want to relieve myself of such a frenetic burden, so this article is less about avoiding a perceived institutional melt-down and more about being authentic transmitters of God's light.

To further my argument (and because we know evangelism and "Good News" are etymologically the same) it will help to offer a definition of "Good News." There is neither scope nor space to develop this definition or the support for it, so I offer it with some frustration that may be shared by the reader. Nevertheless I see "Good News" as the realisation (made known to Christians in the event of Jesus of Nazareth's life and death and carried on from that point through the body of Christ) that the human urging towards separateness and selfhood (which is necessary, in part for evolution but ultimately leads to spiritual and physical death) can be moderated through participation in a divine dance towards wholeness. Simple, more psychological language might be that it is possible, by moderating the ego, to enter a spiritual realm.

Like all concepts that are difficult to master however, such moderation requires practice - just as my friend practiced individually and in community. Whilst the subject of Christian practices is a large one, here I only want to start the conversation with a few basic points about Christian practices. And I want to suggest that to be authentic ego moderators (or evangelists) we need some "fluid re-traditioning" of the practices. What fluid re-traditioning realises is that tradition is a "why' word and not a "how" word. This means that tradition is about a practical effect (why we do it) rather than a particular way of producing that effect (how we do it). Knowing this opens great scope for creativity that can be applied to our practiced traditions. Reshaping our approach to evangelism - being an experience of "Good News" - will require such creativity in our practices. Here are some simple suggestions for where to start:

Knowing ourselves and one another more deeply: If you are currently a member of a Christian faith community, what is the depth of post-worship-service conversation? From the conversations I've heard I suspect we need to re-teach the art of conversation. Think of it as a starting point for learning the practise of spiritual friendship. If I can't create the place to ask "but how are you really" I can't begin to create the type of community where we help each other with ego moderation - a community of evangelists.

Making space: Soren Kierkegaard[1] famously noted that the true person of prayer "simply attends." Like or loathe such a provocation it is true that ninety percent of corporate prayer I see offered in UCA settings "speaks to God." If there are forty different prayer instances at a yearly Synod meeting might they offer forty different ways of being transparent to God? Might not different people appreciate different ways of placing themselves in the humility of the divine dance?

Connecting the Christian story to our lives: Our primary practice vehicle in this area is the offering of a sermon. I am not anti-sermon. Front-and centre delivery has its uses. Yet I estimate that about 1000 person hours a week is expended on sermon preparation within the Uniting Church in Victoria and Tasmania alone at a cost of approximately $38 000 per week. At the same time educators tell us that extended verbal presentation is one of the least successful engagement techniques. What are the new ways of merging scholarly reflection with input of personal experience from greater numbers of people, for the ebb (ego advancement) and flow (ego moderation) that is evident in scripture is our story too!

Acting justly in the world: The Uniting Church's substantive work in social justice is essential and the people of the Uniting Church are held up as "generous" and "concerned." If I offer a comment in this area I am most often confronted with "what more can we do?" Yet I am not looking for more - "more concern" or "more charity". What I want us to do is rediscover the practice of stewardship. Our UCA squabbles about "holding on" to material possessions suggest we need to relearn this practice. True custodianship is the goal - the sense of "take what you really need and pass on the rest" as is so evident in the (ego moderating) reflections of the early Jesus movement.

What I have written in this article may not seem like the usual reflections on the subject of evangelism. After all isn't evangelism something you "do" to spread the message? Shouldn't we get cracking with it? But if we are going to attempt to spread the Good News, then I first want to see us authentically "being an experience of Good News." It's time to re-learn the tradition.

[1] Prayer: Whatever Comes to Thee; Papirer X, A, 229

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