The Dance: Evangelism in The Wesleyan Matrix
This is a chapter I wrote for the book, "Pastoral Practices: A Wesleyan Paradigm." (Beacon Hill Press: 2013).
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
(Elizabeth Barrett Browning)
In Robert Fulghum’s book, “It Was On Fire When I Lay Down on It,” he tells the story of traveling back to the U.S. from Hong Kong and waiting in the Hong Kong Airport for the long ride home. He sat down at the gate waiting area across from a young American girl who was also traveling back to the States. Suddenly, the young woman in faded blue jeans and an old T-Shirt began to cry. Fulghum tried to ignore it at first but her tears turned in to sobs. Finally, Fulghum couldn’t ignore it any longer so he asked her what was the matter. A couple handkerchiefs and a box of Kleenex later she finally got out the story – she had traveled to Asia and had a wonderful adventure. She wanted to stay longer but her money had run out and she had been waiting in the airport to fly home on standby for two days with little to eat. She just received the news that a seat was waiting for her on the next flight. But the problem was she had lost her ticket. The plane was boarding and she could not find her ticket. She had reached the point of despair wondering if she was going to die in that spot.
Fulghum frantically helped her looked through her possessions but the ticket couldn’t be found. His heart was breaking for her and the only thing he could think of doing was inviting her to get something to eat. After dinner he would talk to the powers that be and try to get her home. She accepted his kind offer of warm food. Fulghum writes:
You stood to go with us, turned around to pick up your belongings and SCREAMED. I thought you had been shot. But no…it was your ticket. You found your ticket. You had been sitting on it. For three hours.
Like a sinner saved from the jaws of hell, you laughed and cried and hugged us all and were suddenly gone. Off to catch a plane for home and what next. Leaving most of the passenger lounge deliriously limp from being part of your drama.
I’ve told the story countless times. “She was sitting on her own ticket,” I conclude, and the listeners always laugh in painful self-recognition.1
There are many aspects to Wesleyan theology that adds value to the way in which we view evangelism but probably none bigger than Wesley’s doctrine of prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is simply the grace that precedes salvation. Wesley himself described it as, “...the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning His will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against Him.”2
But even before salvation, prevenient grace is a recognition that even though we humans have been corrupted by the effects of sin, the image of God remains in us to the extent that we are not totally corrupt or twisted. Every one of us, no matter how broken, lives in a God-soaked universe in which God is at work in everyone’s life, drawing them to himself. To borrow Robert Fulghum’s image, we are sitting on our tickets – oblivious to how close we are to our Creator; painfully unaware of how close we are to salvation.
Wesley’s thought stands in sharp contrast to our friends in the Reformed tradition in which the idea of total depravity rules the day. Our Reformed friends believe that because of the fall of humanity, people are enslaved to sin and estranged from God to the extent that we are deserving of nothing more than His wrath.
But for those of us in the Wesleyan tradition, we find grace in unexpected places. Often recognizing God’s grace and presence in the world is akin to an exercise in art appreciation. It takes training and it takes experience, but we can begin to recognize the fine nuances of God’s handiwork in places in which we might least expect it. We begin to find his fingerprints all over people that we may have written off. I like the way Rob Bell describes evangelism:
[Evangelism] is less about the transportation of God from one place to another and more about the identification of a God who is already there. It is almost as if being a good missionary means having really good eyesight. Or maybe it means teaching people to use their eyes to see things that have always been there; they just don’t realize it. You see God where others don’t. And then you point him out. So the issue isn't so much taking Jesus to people who don't have him, but going to a place and pointing out to the people the creative, life-giving God who is already present in their midst. 3
Wesley seemed to understand that effective evangelism begins with accurate theology – a good understanding of the nature of God. Part of Wesley’s theological influence came from the Eastern Orthodox tradition4. Unlike the Western church that we in the U.S. have been informed by, the Eastern church described God in much more relational terms. “God is Love,” the Bible declares (1 John 4:16). Orthodox theologians concluded that the love of God must exist as an eternal movement among the members of the Trinity, or “perichoresis.”Perichoesis can be literally translated as “dancing.” In effect, the love of the Trinity is the holy dance of God, a living out of the loving relationships among Father, Son, and Spirit. The holy dance exists because God is love.
Recent understanding of the nature of quantum particles suggests that the structure of the universe also appears to be based on relationships. Quantum particles do not really exist in isolation; rather, they exist in relationship to each other. Researchers have only scratched the surface of the complex relationships between matter, energy, space, and time. At the Center for Non-Linear Studies in Sante Fe, New Mexico, matter is speculated to be nothing more than vibrating threads of energy. Human bodies are the organization of, “dancing energy”.5 Every atom of creation is putting off a vibration, much like sound or a dance.
The beginning of the Bible is a hymn, a creation hymn of how God created the world: “And God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.” Creation was sounded forth, literally. Sound became sight. Cosmic vibrations became galactic visions.6 In short, the “glue” that holds the most basic building blocks of the universe is literally a dance that takes place interrelated to one another similar to the Trinity’s dance.
God’s activity in continually creating his universe is also the product of vibrations. Sound waves may have helped shape how the cosmos was structured by organizing the pattern of galaxy clusters and voids seen in the night sky. Alexander S. Szalay argues that the acoustic oscillations (matter in motion), given off when the universe was a cosmic soup and fog of protons and electrons, helped to structure the matter of the universe into galaxies and galaxy clusters.7 He and other scientists argue that the world is the creation of acoustic waves or, in effect, matter in motion.
Consequently, the God of the holy dance relates not just to himself but also to the world he has created. As one resonates with the holy dance, one is resonating with the created order of the universe. Since the creation of the world, our Trinitarian God has been constantly reaching out with love to humanity. As a result, evangelism does not begin with Matthew’s Great Commission to “go and make disciples”; rather, it begins in the heart of God, at the core of his being. Jesus speaks to his disciples in John 20:21-22: “Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Evangelism is from God, through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is not fruit of a divine strategy meeting but simply a reflection of who the Trinity is and is experienced at the heart of creation.
Yet, love, by its nature, does not stay inward focused but becomes other centered. The core of God’s being is to go outside of himself. The salvation history of God reflects the continual reaching of God out from himself: creation ex nihlo, the redemption of the world by Christ, and the ultimate consummation of history as the Spirit draws all of creation to his love. All of these acts outside of the Trinity are a reflection of the love inside the members of the Trinity.
Therefore, an accurate understanding of God as loving and Triune, enables one to see God not as a ball of energy or some kind of force but in very personal terms. An accurate understanding of the Trinity helps one to see God as one who will stop at nothing to reach humanity.
As followers of God, our evangelism is patterned after this love and, on a deeper level, participates in God’s love. Evangelism, in its purest form, flows out of one’s relationship with the Trinity. As one’s life is caught up in the inner love of the Trinity, one is also caught up in this other-centered love for creation. One is caught up in the dance of the Trinity. Jesus illustrates being caught up in the inner love of the Trinity in his prayer to the Father in “I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them” (John 17:26).
When two vibrating energies move toward each other and those vibrations are in sympathy with each other, it is called “resonance” in the world of physics. One has an intuitive sense of resonance in the common vernacular. When two people resonate, one says that they are “on the same wavelength” or “in tune with each other.” Enormous energy is released in resonance. Physically speaking, when the frequency or vibrations of one entity matches the frequency of another, a tremendous explosion of energy ensues. The explosion of energy has happened in places like the
Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington. When the wind passing through the Puget Sound created a double oscillation that matched the frequency of the bridge, the bridge collapsed. Clemson University officials discovered something similar. After an investigation as to why their stadium was crumbling, they discovered that the song “Louie Louie” gave off frequencies that perfectly matched the frequency of the stadium. 8
When one is in tune with the resonance of the Trinity, spiritually speaking, enormous energy is also released. One becomes a conduit of the love of the Trinity for the world. This is prevenient grace – resonating with a love that is at the heart of God’s creation – even when we are completely unaware of it.
The power of the truth of prevenient grace was driven home to me at my ten-year high school reunion. When I returned to the town in Oregon that I grew up in, I was able to re-connect with many old friends, many of whom didn’t know what to do with a pastor in their midst. So, in an attempt to avoid awkward conversations, many of my friends kept referring me to a fellow classmate – Ellen. “You should talk to Ellen. She’s really religious now,” they told me.
Ellen and I were not close friends in high school. Ellen was a very bright adolescent but we ran in different circles. Ellen was part of the punk rock scene of the 1980’s and was considered liberal in every sense of the word even in a liberal state like Oregon. She was not just anti-institutional but an anarchist. Not just anti-Christian but bordering on atheist. Frankly, I would have been less surprised if they said that Ellen turned in to a unicorn; but instead Ellen had “got religious.”
When I tracked down Ellen, a lot had changed in her life. She recounted to me how after high school she had been accepted at Reed College in Portland (the same Reed College that Donald Miller spoke of in “Blue Like Jazz”). She majored in agricultural science with the hope that she could drop out of society and live a self-sustaining life in the Oregon wilderness. She partied a lot, did a lot of drugs, and began dating. Her life was going just the way she expected until she got pregnant as a college sophomore. Ellen told her boyfriend that she was not going to abort the baby. So he insisted that he was going to help her raise the baby. And in a move that may have surprised even God, he proposed to her and they got married.
The honeymoon quickly ended when the realization hit them that now he was a college dropout with a young wife and baby on the way and no marketable skills to get work. So he did what every anarchist liberal does when things go poorly –he joined the army. And in an irony worthy of O. Henry, he was stationed with his young wife to Fort Hood, Texas. Ellen said that for an anarchist liberal from Oregon, this was like moving to the moon. She knew nobody and the military culture was very different than what she was used to. But Texas was the biggest shock of all – moving from the most un-churched state in United States, from the campus of Reed College, to what is in many ways the buckle of the Bible Belt, was unnerving to both of them.
Ellen began spiraling in to depression and isolating herself on the military base housing. Her next-door neighbor began making efforts to reach out to Ellen and in spite of their many differences; they became friends. Ellen said that in spite of the fact that her neighbor was a Christian, she really liked her. The only drawback to their friendship was that the neighbor kept inviting her to church -- almost weekly. Finally, Ellen agreed to give the church a try so that her neighbor would get off her back.
Ellen was nervous the Sunday she first entered the church. She had only been inside a church one other time in her life – for a family wedding – and was unsure what to expect. She told me that as the service began, the band began to play worship music. The congregation stood and she listened very closely to the words the people were singing. She recounts:
Then the most amazing experience of my life happened. There was this…Presence that came over me. It was in some ways like nothing I had ever experienced but in many ways, it was a Presence that I had known my entire life. I was so overwhelmed that I literally fell to my knees right there and began to cry. Then I began to sob. The band played on and my friend wasn’t sure what to do. I cried through the entire music set. I cried through the pastor’s sermon and never really heard much of what he was saying. When the service ended, a pastor from the church asked me, “would you like to pray?” I said, “I think so.” And that is how I gave my life to God.
These days Ellen serves at a church in Washington State as a director for worship arts and drama. But the lesson I learned from Ellen is that God is at work through his prevenient grace in the lives of people that I might think are far from Him. He is at work in places where I would never imagine him showing up. My job as an evangelist in the Wesleyan tradition is to find those points of contact where God is already at work in a person’s life: hear the music, resonate with the music, and learn to dance with the sound and movement of the Trinity. Brian McLaren uses the metaphor well:
Evangelism as dance begins with something beyond yourself. Think of a song that comes to you somehow from somewhere. At first you may catch only a note here, a phrase there, and it may sound strange. But once you really hear it, once you pick it up, once it finds its way into your soul and begins to play there, it feels so familiar, so natural, that you wonder if you have made it up yourself. Yet the song’s splendor and grandeur and mystery convince you that its origin lies beyond your own imagination.… You find yourself humming the song, tapping your finger to it, whistling it,… and you wonder “Where did this come from? Who wrote this song? How did it get into my head?”
So the gospel comes to you not like a commercial on the radio or TV or a political slogan in a campaign or a scientific formula in a classroom, but like a song. It sneaks up on you, and then sneaks inside you. Somewhere in your journey through life, you begin to hear this song whose music captures your heart with its rhythm, melody, ambience, and glory, and you begin to move to its rhythm. Thus you enter the dance.
Over time, your whole life begins to harmonize to the song. Its rhythm awakens you; its tempo moves you, so you resonate with its tone and flow with this melody. The lyric gradually convinces you that the entire world was meant to share in this song with its message, its joy, its dance. [original emphasis]9
1 Robert Fulghum. It Was On Fire When I Lay Down on It. (New York: Ivy Books, 1991.), p. 191-92.
2John Wesley, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” (sermon #85)
3Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Re-Painting the Christian Faith. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), p. 87-88.
4 Randy L. Maddox, John Wesley and Eastern Orthodoxy: Influences, Convergences, and Differences. Asbury Theological Journal 45.2 (1990): 29–53.
5 Sweet, Leonard, A Cup of Coffee at the Soul Café. Nashville: Broadman, 1998, p. 59.
6 Ibid, p. 64.
7 Ibid, p. 65.
8 Ibid, P. 69-70.
9 Brian D. McLaren, More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism as a Dance in the Postmodern Matrix.Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002, p. 15-16.