Conversatio Divina

Part 10 of 15

Interview with Maxie Dunnam

Gary W. Moon

Maxie Dunnam has been president of Asbury Theological Seminary since 1994. He has also served as senior pastor to churches ranging from 60 to 6,000 members. Maxie is a prolific writer who has authored more than thirty books. His skill with words also landed him a seven-year stint as senior editor of The Upper Room daily devotional guide. Prior to that appointment Maxie was director of Prayer Life and Fellowship for The Upper Room. With that list of credentials, the editors felt he would be the ideal person to invite for a conversation about his life, Christian disciplines, and the importance of cooperating with grace.

GWM: Maxie, you were born in Deemer, Mississippi. I assume that’s a pretty small town because I’ve never heard of it. I grew up in a town of about 500, if you counted the stray dogs. Are there ways in which small town life shaped your life and ministry?


MDD: I was not only born in a small town; I grew up in a town of less than a thousand. In fact, I grew up out in the country from that little town of Richton, Mississippi.


GWM: So far out you had to drive toward town to hunt?


MDD: (Ignoring an important question) Though I’ve not deeply reflected on it, I’m sure small-town life has shaped my ministry. There is a closeness of relationship— both in terms of proximity and in terms of people knowing what’s going on in the lives of other people—that shape the dynamic of a small community.

I can’t separate, however, whether my growing up in a small town or the other dynamics of my growing-up years were more effective in shaping me. I really grew up in poverty. Neither of my parents went to high school. I grew up economically, culturally, and educationally deprived. My thoughts on that have changed tremendously through the years. For many years I rejected and was filled with self-pity about those limitations. However, as I have matured—if you can call it maturity—I have seen the value—the tremendous value—that came out of what really would have been seen as adversity and hardship. The fact that life was reduced to basic essentials—having enough to eat, being warm, having adequate clothing and housing—those were critical issues. I do believe that the heart of our spiritual growth somewhere along the way must reckon with what is essential and non-essential in our everyday life.


GWM: Your phrase,“life was reduced to basic essentials,” grabbed me. And then you adjusted the focus to include the spiritual life. What have you found to be the basic essentials for maintaining a healthy spiritual life?


MDD: The big essential is simply paying attention—paying attention to what’s going on in your life and relationships and paying attention to God. Of course, there are essential specific disciplines: prayer, worship, Scripture, confession, and what John Wesley called “Christian conferencing.”


GWM: Thank you. Some of your book titles (e.g., Dancing at My Funeral, Barefoot Days of the Soul, Homesick for a Future) are a bit unusual and remind me of titles by another famous Southern Methodist—Lewis Grizzard (e.g., Shoot Low Boys, Theyre Riding Shetland Ponies; Chili Dogs Always Bark at Night), is this a Southern thing, or a Methodist thing?


MDD: The titles of my book may be unusual—and I’m delighted to be compared to Lewis Grizzard. He was one of my favorite writers, along with Will Campbell. There may be something Southern about it, but certainly nothing Methodist about it. I wish there were something Methodist about it. The titles, more than anything else, reflect the experience that pervades the book. Dancing at my Funeral, for instance, was a metaphor for my autobiographical journey—dying to myself and the kind of resentment toward my past that I talked about earlier, but coming alive to Christ, beginning to value my uniqueness, and moving from self-pity and feelings of unworthiness and a workaholic lifestyle of being driven in order to succeed and overcome.


GWM: That book just went to my must-read list. I also noticed that you completed an M.Div. from Emory University (Candler). Were you able to finish your degree before God died?


MDD: Candler School of Theology and Emory University was a marvelous experience for me. I was at Emory before God died there. In the theology school I had marvelous mentors—especially a professor named Claude Thompson. Claude was one of the first persons who incarnated for me what we Methodists/Wesleyans talk about when we talk about holiness—both personal and social holiness. Claude was a deeply, deeply spiritual person in the classic sense of that—but he was passionate about issues like racial reconciliation.


GWM: I’m feeling badly about that Emory remark now. You’re talking about Georgia in the late 1950s, a majority holding fiercely to segregation. Say more about what that was like for you personally, having a mentor who felt so passionately about racial reconciliation as social holiness.


MDD: Those were tough days—and I have a lot of mixed feelings about my participation. I sought to be faithful—and Dr. Thompson inspired me—but being in the local church was different from being in the academy. Out of seminary and back in Mississippi, faith and conviction were tested in practice. I was appointed to plant a church in Gulfport, MS. It was a marvelous opportunity for church growth and ministry. There was no church growth literature back then. We had to do it intuitionally, by the seat of our pants. The congregation grew rapidly. It became a kind of “Cinderella congregation” of the Mississippi Conference. We built new buildings, took in many members, and had an active suburban church life.

On the surface, the situation could not have been better. But behind the scenes turbulent events were affecting us all. The civil rights movement was in full swing, and every Christian congregation, especially in the South, was caught in the tension such issues inevitably bring.

In the midst of that ministry, it became apparent that something was missing from my life, and certainly something was missing from the life of the congregation. There was little difference between the attitudes of people within and those outside the church. The pressure on me as the minister and the resulting internal turmoil and tension were totally energy draining.

Somehow, I learned of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., and I read Elizabeth O’Connor’s book Journey Inward, Journey Outward. That gave me hope and direction. In desperation, I began to bring people together in small prayer-and-study groups, believing that only through an intentional, spiritually disciplined life could we make the kinds of decisions we needed to make, relating to one another within and outside the congregation in a Christlike fashion. One of the books we used for our reflection and growth was E. Stanley Jones’s devotional classic In Christ. This book became a monumental help for me, and though I was not aware of it then, it became one of the most important resources in my spiritual journey.

In fact, looking back on my journey, the two books that have shaped my spiritual life and my theological framework most were that E. Stanley Jones book In Christ and James Stewart’s study of St. Paul, A Man in Christ. My understanding of spiritual formation, which came much later and which centers in the indwelling Christ—recognizing, cultivating awareness of, and giving expression to the indwelling Christ—that understanding was shaped by Jones and Stewart.

The civil rights movement, and the turmoil and tension within the church swirling around its issues, took their toll on a number of us young Methodist preachers in Mississippi, and many of us left the state because we had absolutely no support from the bishop and other leaders. That’s a source of deep questioning now and then—what would my ministry have been like had I been able to stay in Mississippi?


GWM: Your ministry has certainly been broad and influential. You were the director of the Upper Room Fellowship Department in Nashville and then served as world editor for The Upper Room periodical. How did The Upper Room come about, and what is the vision that drives that organization?


MDD: The Upper Room came into being in order to provide a devotional resource for everyday people. The idea sprang from a group of laypersons in a Sunday school class in a Texas Methodist Church, who felt that they needed the personal witness of other Christians as a devotional resource. The idea was realized by producing a little booklet with a devotion for each day, written by a different person—persons from all walks of life. It has become one of the most amazingly popular devotional resources in the world. When I was the editor there, we were publishing The Upper Room in 54 different languages and had a circulation of nearly 4 million.

It is more than this little Upper Room devotional guide—in fact, has grown through the years to be what I think is one of the most creative resource places for spiritual growth.

Remember, I had left Mississippi and had gone to California. Scripture study and prayer—a deeper commitment to spiritual discipline—became more and more the center of my life. As I had sought to do in Mississippi, I began to structure my congregation around study, prayer, and share groups where people become accountable to one another for spiritual growth. Somehow that word must have gotten back to the people at The Upper Room in Nashville. When I was invited to go there, I was invited to direct a ministry, primarily calling people to a life of prayer, providing direction and resources for growth and the practice of prayer and giving structure to a united expression of prayer by people around the world. I told those who interviewed me for the responsibility that the fact that they were inviting me to assume that responsibility showed the Church to be in desperate straits, since I was such a novice in the area of prayer life and in its development.

That responsibility forced me to be even more deliberate and disciplined in my own personal life of prayer. During those days I knew no one within the Protestant tradition who was talking about spiritual formation. The Roman Catholics have known the importance of this aspect of Christian growth and have used “formation” language through this interest. It wasn’t long before we at The Upper Room were talking about spiritual formation and seeking to provide resources for a broader expression of spirituality than we had known before. That’s the reason I believe that The Upper Room is on the leading edge of providing those kind of resources.

Out of that commitment came a number of different models:  The Weekend Adventure in Living Prayer, The Academy for Spiritual Formation, retreats with emphasis on healing prayer, and magazines like Weavings and Pockets (a magazine for children), Alive Now (a magazine for young people), and a vast array of published works.


GWM: Was it during these years that you developed an appreciation for the saints?


MDD: Yes, it was during those years that I became intensely interested in the great devotional classics because I was seeking resources for my own life. The Upper Room had published a collection of little booklets—selections from some of the great spiritual writings of the ages, writers whose names I barely knew: Julian of Norwich, William Law, Francois Fenelon, Francis of Assisi, Evelyn Underhill, Brother Lawrence, and an array of others. I began to deliberately practice what I call “keeping company with the saints,”seeking to immerse myself in the writings of these folks, which have endured through the centuries, expressing Christian life and becoming classic resources for the Christian pilgrim.


GWM: What are the most important lessons you learned from keeping company with the saints?


MDD: Well, as you know, I have written a workbook on Keeping Company with the Saints and a second entitled Lessons From the Saints. I started this writing project to introduce people to the saints. I began with the design of introducing four different saints in each of the two books that I planned to write. My whole idea was to introduce in a user-friendly way eight of these saints in two books. In the first volume, Keeping Company With the Saints, I started that process, concentrating on the writings of William Law, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, and Brother Lawrence. But my research and writing moved me in another direction. As I lived with these four saints in a focused way, researching and writing, and lived with other saints as well, I observed ten characteristics they had in common. So I decided to concentrate on those characteristics in my second book. These are the lessons I learned: They passionately sought the Lord. They discovered a gracious God. They took Scripture seriously. Jesus was alive in their experience. They practiced discipline, at the heart of which was prayer. They were convinced that obedience was essential to their life and growth. They didn’t seek ecstasy, but surrendered their will to the Lord. They were thirsty for holiness. They lived not for themselves, but for God and for others. They knew joy and peace transcending all circumstances.

I can’t say that I’ve learned these lessons well, but I am working on it, and I’m ready to confess with Leon Bloy that “there is only one sorrow, the sorrow of not being a saint.” I am seeking to make these characteristics common to the saints the defining dynamic of my life.


GWM: Why do you think it is so rare to hear about Protestant saints—that is to say, either no one or everyone’s a saint?


MDD: This question is a rather complicated one—I think. It’s not just an issue about Protestant saints being rare. I think it’s a larger issue about how we Protestants have tended to approach spiritual discipline. We have been so centered on the evangelical doctrine of justification by grace through faith—and so protective of faith alone for salvation—that we’ve not wanted to give any hint of a works-salvation notion. So we’ve not been willing to be forthright in calling people to the disciplines of the spiritual life, lest they use disciplines as a means of salvation.

Also, we’ve not been willing to accept the fact that there is a way to think about Christian growth in a progressive sort of way—that through discipline and careful attention to God we can take on the shape of Christ; we can grow up into His likeness.


GWM: As you are talking, that famous phrase comes to mind, “Grace isn’t opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.” Does this relate to saint-making—or to Christian formation in general—in your mind? And for ten bonus points, try to answer that without offending any Calvinists.


MDD: Thanks for the warning about not offending Calvinists. That is not easy. The phrase is on target. We are not talking about earning grace. But saint-making is a lifelong project, and it does require effort. Too many of us evangelicals—Wesleyans and Calvinists included—work so hard at protecting the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, and guarding against a works-righteousness pitfall that we offer a limited gospel. We forget that conversion brings us into a saving relationship with Christ. We become new persons. But now the condition of our life must be brought into harmony with our new relationship. This is the growth dynamic, and I could talk for hours about that.


GWM: Do you believe that the life of a saint is supposed to be normal Christian behavior or reserved for the one in 10,000?


MDD: I do believe that the life of the saint is supposed to be normal Christian behavior, not reserved for a few. That’s the reason I’ve spent so much time in my writing—even using the workbook style—because I do believe that the whole meaning of spiritual formation is to pay attention to Christ—to recognize His indwelling presence, to cultivate that indwelling presence, and to become like Him. I don’t know who said it, but someone defined a saint something like this: A saint is one in whom it is felt that Christ lives again.”


GWM: If I had to pick one theme to characterize your writing it would be authentic transformation. Do you think that’s accurate?


MDD: Yes, that’s accurate. I’m seeking authentic transformation myself, and I have a passion for other people to experience the same.


GWM: Why do you think real change—taking on the character of Christ—is so difficult to pull off?


MDD: Taking on the character of Christ is difficult to pull off because ultimately it has to do with total surrender—and that’s not an easy act. Yielding one’s will is always difficult—and certainly yielding our will to Christ, who makes some radical claims upon our lives, is sometimes especially difficult.


GMW: I have a theory—not original—that all great revival movements share something in common. Whether ignited by a desert father or disgruntled monk, urban housewife or frontier circuit rider, revival movements begin with the experience of authentic Christ-formation that produces people who begin to look more like Jesus than their former selves. But with time it seems that the statistical concept of regression to the mean takes place, and—two months to two hundred years later—we begin to look like ourselves again. If you followed that—and I’m not sure I did—why do you believe a person’s soul become less molten with the passage of time?


MDD: I’m not sure I understand all of your question…


GWM: It was probably that “regression to the mean part.” I like to drop phrases like that to get some benefit out of all those statistics courses I had to take. I really just mean that it seems difficult to continue living out of a place of total surrender (where the soul is molten and completely pliable), and that with time there is a tendency to drift away from that stance.


MDD: Then I do agree. Renewal and revival does produce people who begin to look more like Jesus than their former selves. I also believe that as time passes, the image of Christ within us, however vivid it might have been at one time, does diminish. But I also believe there is an answer to that. What I think happens is that we cease paying the kind of intense and intentional attention to Christ that we did when we “first knew the Lord.” We slack in our commitment to discipline. So, I do see the pattern of the ordinary Christian being a kind of roller-coaster—maybe not that dramatic—but certainly up and down, and we go through seasons of intensity in terms of our attention to Christ, and during those periods we do look more like Jesus. We slack in our discipline, in our paying attention to Him, so we look less like Him and more like our original selves. I’m not sure I should introduce it now—and it is presumptuous—but that’s the reason I think my definition of spiritual formation is appropriate. It’s a mouthful and a mind-full, but I share it anyway:“Spiritual formation is that dynamic process of receiving by faith and appropriating by commitment, discipline, and action the living Christ in our lives to the end that our lives will conform to and reflect the likeness of Christ in the world.”

So, as we recognize—that is pay attention to and cultivate awareness of—the indwelling Christ—the indwelling Christ shapes us into His likeness—we’re conformed to Him and we reflect that likeness in the world. If that likeness is not vivid within us, the reflection is a dim one.


GWM: Thank you. What do you make of all the current talk of spiritual disciplines and Christian formation? Is this just a Christian fad, or do you think this focus is here to stay?


MDD: I hope the talk about spiritual formation and discipline is not a fad—though experience tells us that we do go through particular emphases from time to time and these emphases become fads—and they do diminish. Also, we know that in particular times in history, the earnest spiritual quest is more real than at other times. Circumstances have so much to do with that. I was talking with a fellow just yesterday—an Episcopalian—and he was making the point—and I hesitate to share this because I don’t want to be judgmental—he was the one who said it—that Episcopalians, because of their social and economic status, have the luxury of “playing with religion.” He made the point that in his experience—and he is an Episcopal priest—in his experience, vital Christianity really was expressed by those who had been literally saved and knew what redemption was all about experientially; and he pointed especially to those who, through the power of Christ, were recovering from addictions.

So, I pray that the whole notion of spiritual formation will be completely embedded in our approach to church life.


GWM: I can’t believe you Methodists are still beating up on the Anglicans. Just kidding. I think he (and you) are making the important point that it may take someone experiencing a desperate situation (such as an addiction) before they are willing to let go totally and turn the reins of their life over to God. And I believe that point—radical willingness—is where Christian spiritual formation begins.

How does your passion for Christian formation affect your present job as president of a major seminary?


MDD: Interesting that you would ask this question. I have been asked to make a presentation to presidents of theological seminaries as to how the president of the theological seminary is spiritually shaped, or how spiritual formation is kept alive in him or her and how the dynamic of spiritual formation is expressed in the seminary. I’ve come to believe that the seminary has to be a demonstration plot for the Kingdom and a seedbed for spiritual growth and spiritual formation. So we’re seeking to make that so at Asbury. The great Scot Presbyterian preacher, Robert Murray McCheney, expressed the essence of ministry when he confessed, “The greatest need of my congregation is my own personal holiness.” So in my presidency at Asbury Seminary, I’ve been driven by this quest and question: How can the seminary become a Kingdom demonstration plot? This is to say a seminary where sound learning and vital piety are conjoined in holy union, where the pursuit of knowledge and the practice of spiritual formation live in thoughtful integration, where Christian disciples participate in intentional community, sharing a lifestyle of worship and prayer and service and shaping life patterns of health and wholeness in preparation to the end of fulfilling our historic mission—and that mission for Asbury is “sending forth a well-trained, sanctified, Spirit-filled, evangelistic ministry to spread Scriptural holiness across the land.” We long to be a seminary where the ways and means of the Kingdom of God are practiced and experienced.


GWM: How do you make time for God in your personal life during a typical day?


MDD: I begin my day in prayer. When I’m in my rhythm of discipline, that takes place first thing in the morning—and I know that most of the people who have taught us these things insist on this. I find that it’s true—if I do begin my day with Scripture, devotional reading, and a specific time of prayer, then it is more possible that I can live prayerfully through the day. I need to tell you about a practice that I began a couple of years after I came to the seminary. I began to feel a need to be more specific in my praying for our community, because I’ve sought to not only perform the normal functions of the president of an institution such as this; I have sought to be a pastoral presence and to a marked degree have seen myself as a kind of pastor to the community. A pastor prays for his/her people. But I needed to do that specifically. So I have been very deliberate in designing a way to pray for all of our students, faculty, and staff specifically. At the beginning of each school year I divide the entire community into groups—the number of people in each group determined by how many has to be in each group in order for me to pay attention to each one of them for at least one week during the year. So a couple of weeks before I’m to pray for a particular group of people, I write each one of them and ask them to share with me their joys and issues of thanksgiving in order that I can celebrate and rejoice with them, but also to share with me specific concerns about which they would like for me to pray.

This has been an amazing experience, and more than anything else has really shaped the way I am present in this community. When you know that a young couple have had two miscarriages and the wife is now pregnant and they want you to pray for the safe growth of this new baby, or that a student is deeply concerned about a father who is an alcoholic, or that there is a call that has come as the student nears graduation and she’s wrestling with whether or not to respond to that call—and on and on it goes. When you know what’s going on in the life of your community, it makes a difference in how you seek to lead that community and how you respond to it.


GWM: If John Wesley were able to send a brief e-mail to every member of the Methodist church, what do you believe he would most want to communicate?


MDD: We have a statue of John Wesley in our main quad at the seminary. It’s a reproduction of a statue that is in Bristol, England, presenting Wesley preaching in the fields. When we erected that statue, I began to think what word of Wesley would I most want our students to remember and to reflect upon when they saw him present there on the campus. After a lot of thought—because, as you know, Wesley was a prodigious writer—a preacher and teacher… So we have a great mass of material of what he said. He kept intricate journals. The word that I finally settled on, though, the one I felt I would like our students to think about, is the one I believe Wesley might send in an e-mail to every member of the Methodist family. So I printed this word on a bronze plaque that is there with Mr. Wesley: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

GWM: Last Question. Three parts. Do you believe Wesley would be pleased with the recent attention that is being given to the process of authentic Christian spiritual formation? Would he label real change in this area as “sanctification”? And, if the first two answers are in the “yes” family, where does his word “instantaneous” fit in?


MDD: say yes to the first two questions. Wesley would yearn, as I do, for more attention to be given to spiritual formation because this is what sanctification is all about.

Where does the “instantaneous” fit in? We do have instantaneous experiences. Our “conversion” may be instantaneous, and it is possible that there may be what some Wesleyans call an instantaneous “second work of grace.” But sanctification as the total re-formation of life—”being made perfect in love”—is a process.

For instance, we’re going through a tough financial time at the seminary. I have discovered another area of my life that needs sanctifying—my bent to controlling and doing it myself. I’m learning how to trust more deeply, and

to acknowledge dependency on the Lord. I’m also learning the difference between stoic resignation to circumstance and surrender to the Lord.


GWM: Thanks for being so generous with your time and insights.



About the Author: Gary W. Moon is a psychologist and author. He serves as professor and vice president for Spiritual Development at the Psychological Studies Institute and as a writer/editor for LifeSprings Resources.