This article is from the United Methodist “Good News” publication.
I wanted to share it with you . . .
“Outwitted by God” by James V. Heidinger II
Maxie Dunnam was reluctant to write God Outwitted Me: The Stories of my Life (Seedbed). He feared it might appear self-serving. And after all, he had already written some 40 books and felt that he had told the stories about his life as he was living it. While he was urged by many to write such a work, we are deeply indebted to his wife, Jerry, for the nudge that was “the final straw that pushed me over the edge.” She urged him to write it if for “no other reason, for our children and grandchildren.” <!–split–>
As I write these words, I find myself wanting to thank Jerry repeatedly for that nudge. I also thank J.D. Walt and the Seedbed team for publishing this rich, relevant, and deeply moving memoir. The word memoir, rather than autobiography, is Maxie’s choice. “I’m reminiscing and reflecting,” he writes. “Some may even say I’m ‘preaching and teaching’ about my experiences.” These are, indeed, the stories of his life, and Methodists around the world will be deeply moved, instructed, and blessed by them. Bishops would do well to recommend it to their pastors.
Maxie Dunnam was born in deeply rural Mississippi in 1934, when the country was still feeling the seismic effects of the Great Depression. He knew poverty and deprivation and paints vivid word pictures of the bleakness of his childhood years. His home had no electricity or plumbing, and a pathway led down to the outdoor toilet with its memorable, pungent odors. He recalls the 200-yard trek the family made to get water from a spring.
It was from this humble, backwoods setting that Maxie Dunnam, at age 13, responded to the Gospel he heard preached by Brother Wiley Grissom at Eastside Baptist Church. As he went forward, his father was right behind him to profess faith in Christ. The next Sunday, they both were baptized at nearby Thompson Creek. I admired Maxie’s telling of Brother Grissom’s influence on his life. Though the Baptist preacher had only a 5th grade education, Maxie showed no condescension toward the uneducated Baptist preacher who had brought him to Christ. Maxie noted that later, while president of Asbury Theological Seminary, he often thought of Brother Grissom. “Memory of him kept me aware of the fact that calling and anointing are as important (ultimately, maybe more important) as education.”
From this rural Mississippi setting, came a humble young man who became an effective Methodist minister, served churches faithfully, became the World Editor of the Upper Room devotional, and while there founded the church’s Walk to Emmaus program and helped launch the Academy for Spiritual Formation. He became a leader in the World Methodist Council, served as senior pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, and then in 1994 was elected President of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. After serving as seminary president for 10 years, Maxie, along with his wife, Jerry, returned to Christ UM Church in Memphis where he serves today on the staff as minister-at-large along with senior pastor Shane Stanford. What an extraordinary journey! One senses in this compelling work the pivotal role that prayer has played in Maxie’s ministry, as well as the impressive reality of how Maxie and Jerry were always a team doing ministry together.
In fact, Jerry was a working partner with Maxie in the World Methodist Council. At the 1991 World Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, Jerry envisioned each national church being asked to create in advance an artistic representation of their church in the year prior to coming to the ‘91 Conference. In the words of Dr. Joe Hale, the late general secretary of the World Methodist Council, “The overall result was a spectacular array of color, coordinated style, and …an international artistry that was stunning.” One day of the conference, these banners were carried “through the streets of the city in a great procession.” Jerry’s wonderful vision of artistry has been a part of every world conference since.
Readers walk with Maxie through the incredible racial violence that existed in Mississippi in 1963. While he was pastoring there, Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson. The civil rights leader had been helping in James Meredith’s efforts to enroll in the University of Mississippi. The whole nation was seething with emotion and anger. Maxie was one of twenty-eight Methodist ministers in the Mississippi Annual Conference who gathered to present a statement. “Born of Conviction,” to the church in Mississippi. The statement shook Methodism to its foundations as it got wide media coverage in the state.
One feels the emotion as one of Maxie’s most active members, a doctor who had delivered both of their daughters, “stormed into my office, threw a copy of the Times-Picayune (a New Orleans newspaper) down on the desk and shouted, “What the hell is this? I have never been so disappointed in my life!” Maxie’s handling of this encounter is a beautiful example of how Christ was forming his mind and character in the early years of his ministry.
Maxie recalls that, “Within 18 months of the signing of the document, 18 of the 28 signers had left Mississippi, two left later, and only 8 continued their total ministry vocation in the state.” In June of 2013, on the 50th anniversary of Evers’ death, the Mississippi Annual Conference was meeting in Jackson. The conference presented the The Emma Elzy Award, and award celebrating those who had contributed to the improvement of race relations in Mississippi, to “the 28 ministers.” Eight of the 28 signers who were still living were present. Maxie was invited and was there along with Keith Tonkel to accept the award for “the 28.” Maxie said in his acceptance remarks, “Fifty years ago some young men, now old men, signed a statement, and now this Annual Conference is saying, ‘We appreciate that.’ God outwits us.” (For a complete article about the statement and its impact, see “The Long Arc Toward Justice” by Steve Beard, Good News, July/August, 2013.)
Maxie is know and loved by Methodists around the world probably more than any living United Methodist leader. They will be blessed and edified by his book. Here is a pastor who has been effective in the local church, bold in addressing issues facing the nation, a visionary leader at the Upper Room, a prolific author, a seminary president, a voice for renewal (the Houston and Memphis Declarations, and a co-founder of the Confessing Movement), and a mentor to more pastors than we might imagine.
Maxie believes his most significant contribution to the cause of Christianity and the Christian Church was The Workbook of Living Prayer. It was first published in 1974 and is still in print. The publisher estimates that more than one million copies have been printed, and it is available in at least six different languages. These numbers are utterly stunning! Maxie reports having received “thousands of letters from people who have used it” and many have testified “that their lives were transformed, and many others mark their commitment to full-time Christian ministry to the use of the workbook.”
This is a story that needed to be told. It is a book that needs to be read. For those who read it, they will find it far more rewarding than they might have imagined.
In the foreword to the book, the Rev. J.D. Walt, Seedbed’s Publisher, tells of having the task of introducing Maxie to a large group of folks gathered for a weekend of preaching and teaching. He struggled as he stood before the group and asked, “How does one introduce a hero?” With those words, he broke down and began to weep. He could only motion for Maxie to come to the stage, and he sat down. I think I understand. Maxie has been a great Christian leader of our day, is a man of genuine humility, of Christlikeness, of impeccable integrity, of seasoned wisdom, and a leader grounded in biblical truth and prayer. J.D., you are right. He is worthy of being our “hero.” May the Lord give us more like him.