Marva Dawn – a joyful Christian life

Marva Dawn

Back in 2008 it was a pleasure and rare privilege to spend some days with Marva Dawn and her husband Myron Sandberg. With my IBI hat on I had invited her to come over from America and speak at our annual Summer Institute.

It was a delight to get to know her and Myron. I recall reading in The Atlantic some time ago that research showed that marriages that flourish have kindness at their heart. A lack of kindness is the surest indicator that a relationship is in trouble. Theirs was a kind way of being that brought others into its generous orbit. And a michievous wit and sense of humour as well.

She taught on themes related to her books on worship such as Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture (1995), A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World (1999) and my favourite Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God (2002) which won a Christianity Today annual book award.

If you haven’t read any of Marva’s work then you have something to look foward to.

In class yesterday by coincidence I was talking about Marva’s book Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting as an example of a rich, thoughtful and life-giving theological response to our restless and frentic culture, driven by an insatiable desire for more.

Today I learnt from a friend that Marva had recently passed away (April 18) aged 72. She had suffered from an array of serious illnesses for many years. I think it was polio that meant that one leg was in a brace, and she had had a kidney transplant, cancer, blindness in one eye and other ailments. She wrote a wonderful book called Being Well When We’re Ill: Wholeness and Hope In Spite of Infirmity that has been a help to many many people. But she was not defined by her infirmities! She was a far from infirm thinker and she displayed fierce courage not only in dealing with her frail body but in her bold and uncompromising call to the church to spiritual faithfulness in an age of compromise and confusion.

It is hard to think of a more joyful Christian. She radiated joy – joy in the Lord, joy in being with fellow brothers and sisters, joy in her marriage with Myron and joy in teaching. She leaves a rich legacy – not only of significant books, but in and through many lives enriched by encountering her along the way.

She was a prophetic voice in calling the church to authenticity, prayer, humility, connection to the Great Tradition of historic church worship and liturgy – and to love. We need voices like Marva’s – and Eugene Peterson with whom she worked closely – more than ever. Gentleness, kindness, joyfulness, love, peacefulness, patience – these are characteristics of the power of God’s Spirit at work. How ironic that so often such characteristics are dismissed or despised as not ‘strong’ enough or not ‘effective’ enough in so much church ‘leadership’ practice.

In several different ways these last couple of weeks I’ve been reminded of how short life is. As the Psalmist says

As for mortals, their days are like grass;
    they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
    and its place knows it no more.

Ps 103:15-16

Marva lived with a close awareness of her mortality. Even back in 2008 I remember her wondering how long she had left and if that would be one of her last trips abroad – travel was simply becoming too difficult physically. But death was not feared. We are back to joy again – because of Easter she had a joyful hope that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has already opened up a new future for all joined to him through faith. Death has lost its sting.

She is now in that future. Her ‘light and momentary’ troubles are over. And I can imagine her now in the presence of Jesus her Lord and his words of welcome,

‘Well done good and faithful servant’.

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