Interview With Mary Albert Darling (Jul-Aug 2007)

By Matt Dabbs

by Greg Taylor
July – August 2007

What is mystical Christianity?

Mystical Christianity is about having the kind of intimate relationship with Jesus that empowers and fuels us to really do what Jesus calls us to do, to share the good news through our words and actions.

You talk about three elements of holistic Christianity ….

Yes, these three are the gospel: The first one is personal–having a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, which means knowing that we are loved and accepted by God through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The second one is interpersonal–treating the people we come in contact with (our family, friends, and the person in the grocery store) with loving kindness and compassion. The third one is societal or political—working for justice at systemic levels and building societies that are just (all three of these are adapted from Catholic missionary and theologian Donal Dorr]. Most people view the first relationship as essential, the second we pay lip service to, even if we aren’t consistent in living that way, and the third, at least in the way many of us live our lives, is optional.

But if you—and I—read Micah 6:8, which is the holistic gospel in a nutshell, we see that they are all essential: to do justice, love tenderly, and walk humbly with your God.

How do contemplative practices of Christian mysticism lead to a deeper commitment to evangelism and to social justice?

I think the key is knowing Jesus in an intimate way—when you get to know and love someone, you care about what they care about. Getting to know Jesus results in caring about what Jesus cares about, and he cares about the lost, and the poor and oppressed. Perhaps the biggest lie in Christianity is that we can in fact be Christian without developing and intimate friendship with Christ.

Jesus says (John 5:39-40) “you search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life. It is they that testify on my behalf, yet you refuse to come to me.” I think a lot of people think that following Jesus is about following a certain set of beliefs, but Paul talks about Christ dwelling in us, the God of the universe is dwelling in us, and we can keep hidden or cultivate. So it’s relational and doctrinal, both. Getting to know Jesus better is what fuels us for what Jesus wants us to do, and so many of us miss that. That, I believe, is what empowers us to do what Jesus commands.

How do we help create a deeper awareness of all of these three?

On some level, it’s simply awareness. I remember hearing about justice and going, yeah, but when I first heard Donal Dorr talk about three components of conversion, I thought wow, I have treated social justice as optional. We do lift up certain verses or ideals over others, and that becomes a lot of what we’re about, and we lose the totality of the gospel that way.

Studying the early church is helpful too. The holistic gospel is really strong in the Bible. So many verses on justice, on spreading the good news, and on intimately knowing. The Hebrew word for knowing—Yada—was an intimate knowing. After we notice—become aware, we have to be open to seeing the gospel in new ways. Peter was challenged to see Jesus in new ways that really stretched him, as did many saints and mystics after him—that’s why I love the saints and mystics—they are so opened to unreservedly receiving and acting on God’s love.

How do you make ancient saints real for college students, for your own children?

I’ll start with my kids . . . My husband and I just did a seminar at a Free Methodist Youth Conference, and in preparation wondered, how do you talk to 13-17 year olds. I was trying to figure out a way to be cutsie, but I realized plain, honest talk is better. I can talk in similar ways I use in the book because teens are hungry for this. I talked about “How to get a friend in ten days.” The most important thing is to think about the kind of friend we are and I took them through a lighter version of the ancient self-awareness prayer of examen. I also talk about centering prayer and silence to college students and they are very receptive.

So I think to tailor the prayers to where they are at really helps. Many of us are really self-centered with our relationship with Jesus and don’t even know it . . . The fruit of intimacy with Jesus is the fruit of our lives: if I’m really just living like other people, not showing the fruit, not concerned with thirsty, hungry, strangers, then something’s wrong.

I like the authenticity and journey in your writing, your relationship with your friends that you talk about, the spiritual journey, but you talk about your family—you’re not a college student, you can address “normal people”—talk about that.

One way, in our everyday lives, is to model this life for our children. What do we do with our time, our vacations with our kids. That’s one of challenges for us. Making them more aware of this holistic gospel. Kids are self-focused, they go through stages, and you have to help them see beyond their own worlds to the world Jesus saw—the world of serving others.

We start small with our own boys. We’d like for them to get up and in first five minutes, have a little centering or quiet time and they can pray, sit in silence, whatever they want to start their day focusing on things Jesus focused on when he walked the earth. But I’m trying not to come on too strong if I can help it (like avoiding trying to get them to structure their quiet time just like I do).

What I also try to do involves our everyday conversations—car time is wonderful. I remember within the last year, my sons were saying about a person, “he’s so gay.” I said, “Let’s talk about that a minute?” I said, What if someone really is gay and struggling with it, and how would he feel about hearing you say that? Just try to pay attention to everyday conversations and build on them. We’re so good at compartmentalizing; for example as parents we can show intense anger about something pretty trivial, and our kids notice. But do they see us caring about what Jesus cared about? What kind of talk do they hear from us? Are we modeling a Christ-like attitude in our every day lives?

I hear you talk a lot about everyday life—so holy habits are not just when we have our Bible open or when we’re bowed in prayer?

Nope. They also include ways we act when we drive, talk on the phone, make choices about our purchases and how we spend our time, and just about anything we could name that we do. I try to get (my children, college students) to see Jesus in everyday life. And then we need to cultivate a spirit of thankfulness, rather than complaining. I have a pastor friend who is convinced that cultivating a spirit of thankfulness is the single most important spiritual discipline. Just be thankful instead of complaining. It’s that simple. The thing that’s discouraging is that many of us are looking for some “Secret” or latest fad for living better. But there’s no secret. It’s the every day stuff. Every day my children brush their teeth or put their seatbelts on. But for months there were constant reminders before they ever developed those habits on their own—it’s the same with living with and for Jesus—we have to intentionally train to be like Jesus, and that training means developing holy habits.

We get lazy with Jesus because we can’t see immediate fruit—we are so result oriented, and it doesn’t fit with our materialistic society.

We can cultivate these things in our everyday lives. You wouldn’t believe what I said in a radio interview. I said, “We live with so much noise.” I said in a radio interview that we ought to turn off the radio! The interviewer—Father Keenan—was so gracious and laughed and salvaged it.

So what we need to do is be intentional with our spiritual lives, much more than we are with our materialistic lives. The Suzanna Wesley story is my favorite. This woman gave birth to nineteen children and John Wesley was her fifteenth. She literally sat in the kitchen and put her apron over her head when she wanted quiet time. I doubt very much that that she thought that in two hundred plus years people would know that. But that’s what she did and it had an effect on her children and on people even today. John Wesley was tremendously affected by his mother. So what we do, they watch. A lot of it’s about us, how we act, more than what we say. I think we know that but we forget it when we start acting!

Children at certain ages parallel us in conversations, listen, don’t they?

One day my son was sitting in the back seat of the car and my friend and I were talking about somebody, and from the back seat my son said, “Are you gossiping?” And I really had to think. My first response was, “No,” but I said, “Michael, that is a really good question, and I have to think about that, is what I’m saying really necessary, is it gossip? Thank you.”

My children have big ears too.

It’s an old phrase, but we really do have to practice what we preach.

How does the practice of Lectio divina encourage friendship with God?

The short answer is that it helps me to get to know Jesus more by interacting with Scripture. Rather than just getting into Scripture, God wants Scripture to get into us. I use an Ignatian method often, entering into Bible stories. I become part of story and interact with Jesus in those stories, and they really do help me see what Jesus wants with me, what he wants me to do, become his friend and do what he commands. It’s a more reflective reading where I have those kinds of verses absorbed into me during quiet time. When I enter into the stories, I feel more intimacy and friendship with Jesus—I picture myself in the scenes and I’m one of his friend.

Do you feel like the disciples who turn away?

I relate a lot to Peter. He helps me realize I can mess up and Jesus is not going to give up, he believes in me and he challenges me to live more freely in him by doing what he does. Jesus says, “You are my friend if you do what I command” and “I command that you love one another.” I don’t often hear that one preached. We always say, “Jesus wants to be your friend,” but he also wants us to do what he commands! A one-sided “just Jesus and me” spirituality can seem so right yet can greatly hinder us from engaging in Jesus holistic gospel.

How does spirituality relate to and lead us to be concerned for environment, poverty, AIDS, world crises, animals, etc.?

Sometimes as Christians we are too narrow in our concerns. Jesus cares about anything in any part of God’s creation that is oppressed and suffering, whether it’s people or other parts of creation. God created the whole earth, not just humans, and called it all good—and then the first two humans messed it up; our job is to help care for, reconcile, and restore all that God created—humans and other animals, vegetation, water, and air. And that’s not just so humans can have a decent, healthy environment—it’s so the whole of creation can rejoice and fully worship God as they were intended to do.

Mary Albert Darling is associate professor of communication at Spring Arbor University, a Protestant who has been trained in spiritual direction in the Jesuit tradition. She also teaches in her university’s Spiritual Formation and Leadership graduate program. New Wineskins

Greg TaylorGreg Taylor is managing editor of New Wineskins. He is also associate minister for the Garnett Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His newest book, co-authored with Anne-Geri’ Fann, How to Get Ready for Short-Term Missions, was released by Thomas Nelson in May 2006. His novel is titled High Places (Leafwood, 2004). He co-authored with John Mark Hicks, Down in the River to Pray: Revisioning Baptism as God’s Transforming Work. Greg and his wife, Jill, have three children: Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Before moving to Tulsa in 2005, the Taylors lived in Nashville, Tennessee four years, and they lived in Uganda seven years, where they worked with a church planting team. His blog is http://gregtaylor.cc.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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