“Trust is crucial. If we’re going to share our faith with integrity, we have to stand on a foundation of trust.”
A New Metaphor: The Embrace of Evangelism
I think metaphors are helpful. They help us grasp things that are often too deep for words. A metaphor that helps me is that of embrace, which I’ve adapted here from Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace. It’s useful because it focuses firmly on the Trinity and brings together three crucial themes for the Christian life: the mutuality of self-giving love in the Trinity (our doctrine of God), the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross for the godless (our doctrine of Christ) and the open arms of the Father receiving the prodigal (our doctrine of salvation).
Embrace is an integrated movement with four consecutive stages: open arms, waiting, closing the arms and opening again. Without all four, embrace is incomplete. If we only open our arms and wait, embrace never occurs. Similarly, if we open our arms, wait, close our arms but don’t open again, we’ve created an oppressive grip. We need all four stages.
Stage one: Opening our arms. Open arms convey our desire and point to the void that is created by the absence of the other. This is significant for evangelism because God promised Abraham he would be the father of one family and currently, many are missing from that family.
Open arms signal I’ve made space within myself and am reaching out. This aspect is important because it parallels the stance of our triune God toward all creation—always reaching out, continually caring and sustaining creation throughout the history of humanity.
Stage two: Waiting. Open arms lead to a full embrace only when we wait. We reach out, but don’t yet touch. Though open arms initiate movement, they don’t invade or force a response. We create space within ourselves and move beyond our own boundaries, but don’t cross the boundaries of the other. Rather, we wait for a response, a reciprocal opening of the arms.
Waiting can be difficult—especially in evangelism; but it’s an exercise of self-control for the sake of the integrity of the other—who may not want, or be ready, to be embraced. Waiting may also appear unbalanced, but rather than being powerless, waiting is the power of vulnerability and openness, undergirded by expectant hope. A power that recognizes that without reciprocity, there can be no embrace.
Waiting is also crucial because it creates space for God’s Holy Spirit. When we make space, opening our arms and waiting in the power of expectant hope, God’s Spirit is given room to work for transformation. Waiting provides the opportunity for discernment, a heightened awareness of what God’s Spirit might be doing within us, within the other, and between us and the other.
Stage three: Closing our arms. This is the essence of embrace, but it is impossible without reciprocity. It takes two pairs of arms for one embrace. A full embrace is both active and passive; we hold and are held. There may be varying degrees of giving, but each enters the space of the other, makes its presence known and feels the presence of the other. A full embrace depends on such reciprocity.
The transformative power of embrace affects both selves. When we reach out from a stance of embrace, it always involves openness to the power of God’s Holy Spirit to work, not only through us toward the other, but through the other toward us as well.
Stage four: Opening our arms again. For embrace to be complete, arms must always open again. Embrace never creates one fused body—instead, identities are preserved. Yet, an imprint remains—like the lingering aroma of a dear one’s perfume.
There is a circular movement to embrace: The open arms that release are the same open arms that create space; the open arms that wait are those that encircle. The end of one embrace is the beginning of another, even if time may pass.
This circular nature is intrinsic to the internal life of the Trinity, which is why it grounds our life and witness and provides a good metaphor for the stance we’re to take. Having been transformed by God’s embrace, we go on to be a transformative presence in the lives of others.
In the beginning there was nothing but God. God made space for the newness of creation. As time passed, humanity rebelled, evil flourished and that good creation became mired in the depths of sin and brokenness. God determined the only way to restore God’s broken creation was God giving of his very self, becoming human in Jesus and dying for the sins of the entire world. In his death, Jesus drew us all to him, and in his rising, Jesus restored us to new life. When we engage in evangelism from a stance of embrace, we model the space- making, self-giving of our triune God, and in making that space, the power of God’s Holy Spirit is given room to move and breathe and transform.
Kimberly Reisman is executive director of World Methodist Evangelism, a ministry that brings the global Methodist/Wesleyan family of Christians together around the work of multiplying witness for Jesus Christ.