Prayer Life is Dance Life

A song was shared to me the other day entitled "O Life Is Like A Sacred Circle". Here is the first verse and chorus:

Verse: I life is like a Sacred Circle when we walk the Good Red Road. We dance to pray. We pray to heal. We heal to live. We live to dance.

Chorus: We dance to pray. We pray to heal. We heal to live. We live to dance. I life is like a Sacred Circle when we walk the Good Red Road.

The person who shared this song with the group I was in then asked us to reflect on the lyric "we dance to pray" and what it could mean for each of us.

It was quickly pointed out that both dancing and praying are acts of vulnerability. That is, for many of us, dancing is not something we are trained in and as such we tend to shy away from. For as many people as I have heard say,  "I can't dance" I have heard that many people say "I can't pray." Dancing in public and praying in public each take a level of trust and vulnerability that our time does not encourage. 

It has also been my experience that there is a deep draw that dancing has on many of us. That is so many of us want to know how to dance. We want to be able to have the confidence and the moves, the rhythm and the smoothness of body to dance on the floor. The dance desire is also echoed in the prayer desire. That is many of us desire the words and speech, the poetry and prose to pray, and since we feel like we don't have those things - we don't pray. 

Prayer life is dance life. That is to say, the ones who I know have a vibrant prayer life are the same ones who are comfortable dancing. Through prayer, these individuals are accustom to being vulnerable and so the act of dancing is just another expression of the vulnerability they have practiced in prayer. 

Rev. John Thornburg, who was leading the discussion, said that the US is the only place and time that has a culture of "I can't dance". I would add that we may be the only place and time that has a culture of "I can't pray." 

I ask you to consider the mantra:

"We dance to pray. We pray to heal. We heal to live. We live to dance." 

Confusing Traditions as Customs

One of the greatest gifts of the Church is the preservation of Tradition. Tradition is the wellspring of life that was present prior to our arrival. Traditions invite us into a relationship so that we can dance with and build up the life of those that came before us. In some of the more beautiful moments Traditions help move us into a new level of understanding or even better, relationship with those around us. And like all life, I believe that Traditions are to be protected and respected - because life is Tradition. 

Waling a sacred path as Tradition

Waling a sacred path as Tradition

At a core level we know that Traditions are life, which is why sometimes we are over-protective of Traditions. Much like a parent over-protecting their child, sometimes we feel that to change or stop engaging with a Tradition will some how wound the Tradition to the point of death. We forget that one of the things that make a Tradition so powerful is the Traditions ability to adapt, grow and roll with the punches. Traditions are hearty and thick skinned. When we feel a Tradition is not strong enough to handle new realities we either don't understand Tradition or are not actually handing a tradition.

We may have a custom on our hands. 

Customs can look like Traditions and in fact we sometimes use the words interchangeably. However, Traditions and Customs are not the same. For instance no matter what you try to do YOU cannot start a Tradition. You can start a custom. If that custom is built upon by the next generation, then the custom is moving toward becoming a Tradition, but one person does not create a Tradition.

Customs are those practices that serve a particular situation. They are specific and often times, bound by time and circumstance. Because of these limitations, customs are not very adaptable and are fragile when attempting to change. 

The Church is at her best when we honor Tradition for all that Tradition is. When we respect Tradition with a life unto it's own. Like a mature person who is able to respect being invited and not invited to a party. Tradition is strong enough to be set down for a time because Tradition endures. Customs need constant attention and tending.

Customs fear death, Traditions transcend it.

And this is the frustration that some have with the Church - confusing Traditions as Customs: treating a Tradition of the Church as helpless practice that needs our attention least it dies. Trust me, Traditions can handle death because Traditions have seen it before - it is what makes them Traditions.

Are we confusing the Tradition of unity as the Custom of uniformity? Are we confusing the Tradition of Love alike as the Custom of think alike? Are we confusing the Tradition of orthodoxy as the Custom of fundamentalism?

A Chef and A Rabbi Help Explain Preaching

Not long ago I was eating with a chef and it reminded me of a Jewish Rabbi. Here is what happened. 

The chef and I were eating and she began to talk about how she would have prepared the dish differently. She had comments on the quality of ingredients and the role of salt at different stages of cooking. Due to her training and love of food, she could see and taste things that I could not. While she was talking about the brilliant use of the kalamata olives to balance the dish, I was thinking about why some olives are sold in cans while others are in jars. 

She and I were on different levels. And then I recalled Rabbi Joel Nickerson's interview by Rob Bell

In the interview Rabbi Joel said that in his tradition there is a way to do exegesis of the scripture and it has four layers: 

  • simple
  • hints
  • commentary
  • mystery

Here is a quick breakdown of these layers as I understand them (which is limited as I am not Jewish): 

The simple layer is just that. When you read a text there is a simple (literal) understanding. It is when you read the story of the good Samaritan and hear God saying it is good to take care of those in need. 

The "hints" layer is what many preachers do in their sermons. The preacher will then go though the scripture then point out all the other scripture that is "hinted" at in the particular preaching text. So when you hear about John the Baptist, the text hints at the story of Elijah. For many, this is the essence of what passes for "biblical preaching."

The commentary layer is that layer where one finds their own voice in the text and contributes to the story. It is the layer that some fear as "diverging" from the Word and is sometimes met with resistance with phrases like, "where in scripture do you read that?" or "The Bible says ..." Commentary is something that we all do, but not every tradition values as commentary.

Let me tell you a mystery...

The mystery layer is that layer that needs the Spirit of God to breathe upon us in order to expose. It is that layer that we get glimpses of at and it is this layer that makes Scripture the inspired word of God. It is a layer that is hidden in plain sight but we are often looking for other things or just plain blind to being able to see it. It is this layer that Jesus exposes the world to when he says, "you have heard it said... But I say..." or "Blessed are the poor..."

When I listen to a preacher, much like the chef I ate with, I too am busy analyzing the sermon, commenting on the delivery, making note on the way the "salt" was used. I am constantly in search of the preachers who expose the mystery. And too often I find myself frustrated at my own inability to expose the mystery as I only stay at the other levels. 

And so, for those who are feasting on the word of God in Christ it is my prayer that we may all find ourselves exposed the the deep mystery and not just fill up on the simple, hints and commentary.

Human Sexuality is Devil's Rope and the brilliance of "The Way Forward"

Roman Mars' story on Devil's Rope is one of the great episodes in his already great podcast. The story of Devil's Rope (AKA barbed wire) is an abridged history of the fencing in the United States. Those of you who have read this blog for a while now, may recall a post about Devil's Wire and perhaps even a sermon on the matter. And if you have seen those, then you may have already seen how the plan dealing with human sexuality proposed by the Bishops of the UMC, called "The Way Forward" is Devil's Rope. 

Credit: Logan King

When some people see Devil's Rope they will find it scary and dangerous. It is thorny and can make you bleed if you are not careful. So, for reasons of self preservation and safety it make sense that when we see an issue that is just as prickly that we would think twice before touching it. For many of us, the issue of human sexuality in the UMC is a thorny and potentially bloody issue to handle. And so, many see human sexuality and turn the other way. 

Others might see Devil's Rope and get angry that such a material exists to divide and chop up the land. As Mars' points out, there were the famous "Fence Cutting Wars" beginning in 1881. There are those who see human sexuality and do not understand why this is an issue that divides us as a denomination. These people have clear beliefs thoughts on the presence of Devil's Rope. In human sexuality, one camp sees the presence of Devil's Rope to be a good thing as it keeps the boundaries of what is orthodox/Christian/True while others see the presence of Devil's Rope to be an affront of what it means to be orthodox/Christian/True. So we have within the UMC a group of people maintaining the integrity of the fence while others are cutting it. And just like the fence cutting wars that were ended with the intervention of the larger body in 1885, so too the UMC has appealed to a larger body in the Bishops to put an end to these wars. 

The Way Forward is the attempt of the Bishops to put an end to the wars. It is not perfect and we can talk about overreach or kicking the can or whatever, but the fact of the matter is in doing so we overlook the brilliance of the Way Forward. It is the similar to the same brilliance that was embodied in the early inventors of the telephone. I yield to the concise words of Roman Mars on this point:

"Right around the same time that barbed wire was invented, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. At first, telephone companies were laying telephone wire in cities, but they weren’t interested in the rural market. Still, farmers also needed phones, which meant that they needed a network of wires to connect the farms. Barbed wire fences could serve this purpose. The barbed wire couldn’t transmit a signal quite as clearly as a nice insulated copper wire, but for many years, they did the trick. A dozen or so farms might be connected on one system and for about 25 dollars, farmers could buy a kit to rig themselves into the network. In 1907 there were 18,000 independent telephone cooperative serving nearly a million and half people.  Because of this, farmers were some of the earliest adopters of telephone technology."

Rather than steering clear or cutting we see an alternate response to encountering Devil's Rope: building connection. This is what the Way Forward is and this is also it's brilliance: using one of the more thorny issues of our time, the same issue that some avoid, or build up or cut down, the Bishops saw the Devil's Rope as a potential tool to connect the denomination. 

It is my prayer that we the people of the UMC will be willing to have the same creativity and courage of our Bishops, to see even the most difficult things as the very conduit of the Holy Spirit to build up the Body of Christ in the Kingdom of God. 

May it be so. Amen.