Sunday, June 12, 2011

Shall we dance?

Rev. Kit Ketcham, June 12, 2011

I don’t remember all the pieces of the scenario that day, but it was September and my father and I were standing on a downtown McMinnville, Oregon, street. I think we might have just had lunch before he got back in the car to go home to Athena, after helping me move into my dorm at Linfield College. I think this would have been my sophomore year.

I do remember looking at the nearby movie theater marquee and noticing that some movie musical I was hoping to see was playing. Now, I had not seen many movies up to that point in my life, mostly those shown at church, which were always with a missionary theme, and also the epic movies “The Ten Commandments” and “The Robe”. Instructional movies in school were fine, but not much else was permitted by my strict Baptist environment.

There had been a few clandestine family trips to the drive-in theater in a town 15 miles away from Athena, where nobody would be likely to see the preacher’s family swilling Pepsis and munching popcorn, in defiance of the small-town norm that proclaimed that ministers and their families must be above such worldly pleasures!

My father noticed me gazing at the movie theater and took this opportunity to say something like this: “Betsy, you are now officially an adult. You are 18 years old. You are old enough to make your own decisions about all the things we have asked you not to do while you were living at home. We trust you to make good decisions.”

I was stunned. I had not expected to be given my parents’ permission to step outside of the conventional expectations of our conservative little family.

But I tried to be cool, not betray my amazement by babbling some childish remark which might make him regret what he’d said.

We said our goodbyes and hugged each other, he hopped in the old Dodge station wagon and chugged away, while I stood on the corner wondering if he knew that his words of permission had come a little late.

I had already made the decision to go to the movies and had seen a few during my freshman year. I’d even gone to a dance or two and though I didn’t know my left foot from my right on the dance floor, it was fun to sway back and forth with my equally inept partner, in time to the music.

In fact, I had learned first hand just why the Baptists were against dancing. It was too much fun, too intimate, too encouraging of additional intimacies that might lead to …..what? well, you doubtless have heard the old jokes: Baptists don’t dance because they consider it to be making love standing up. Of course, that’s also related to why they don’t make love standing up----somebody might think they were dancing.

Of course, most of the other youth in our Athena Baptist Youth Fellowship did go to school dances, just not the preacher’s kids. And Linfield was a Baptist college at the time. Apparently not all Baptists had the same rules. And didn’t my dad drive us all to those drive-in movies every summer? Clearly there were variations in the seriousness of these rules!

There was a piece of me that was relieved to hear Dad giving me permission to make my own rules about things that had previously been taboo. There was another piece of me that struggled to get past my guilty fears, particularly about dancing. Dancing was intimate, it was moving in harmony with another person, it was tempting and sexy and scary.

And though I went to several dances during my college years, I was invariably nervous and stiff as a board in my movements. It was as though I really believed dancing was wrong and my body couldn’t relax.

Interestingly, I’ve never completely conquered that sense of discomfort and tension, even though I enjoy dancing, even got good at it during one period in my life when I did a lot of square and contra dancing. I’m uptight and stiff and nervous, at least at first, about stepping on my partner’s toes, particularly in the close-up positions.

I was thinking about dancing as I took my morning walk the other day and I was singing a little ditty as I walked, a song a friend had sent to me via Facebook on the occasion of my birthday: “God danced the day you were born, the angels did the bump to Gabriel’s horn; God danced the day you were born, so grateful for the gift of you.” Isn’t that fun?

But imagine God or the Universe dancing! What would that mean? Infinitely large entities bopping to the music of the spheres? Now there’s some toe-stepping-on behavior that we might want to watch out for! But the truth is that the universe does dance; the planets and galaxies seem to be moving all the time. And we move with them, involuntarily and more or less smoothly.

The ancient poet Rabindranath Tagore expresses it this way:
The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and of death, in ebb and in flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.

When Terra and Eileen and I met to design this service, we talked about Eileen’s idea for the topic: how to be in right relationship with people we love who are radically different from us in their religious or political outlook.

We talked about the ways we had felt uneasy, badgered, silenced, even rejected, because of our differences, the times we had felt that those differences were an invisible but smelly elephant in the living room.

I remembered the times when my dear mother, out of concern for the state of my afterlife, would send me endless tracts about salvation, write letters full of concern, and pray for my soul. I felt almost as if I was hiding inside a protective shell while she beat on it with a stick, to make me change my mind and come over to her side of the Jordan river.

Terra and Eileen had their own memories about occasions like these and as we talked, we began to see that what we were engaged in with our dear ones was a kind of dance, a dance in which both partners were uneasy, unsure of what they were doing, tense and stiff and even antagonistic.

This dance is no fun. It’s scary. We risk losing our relationships over this kind of tense, conflicted dance. We are on edge, self-protective in case our toes are endangered, we don’t know what to say, how to be true to our own dance form without hurting the partner.

And yet, we want to dance. We want to be understood; we want to understand. We want to find the steps that will let us move in harmony with each other, without sacrificing our own integrity or that of the other person.
“Shall We Dance?” (Eileen)

Shall we dance? And what dance steps shall we agree to use? What does the music call us to do? Can we relax and be in tune with our partner? Can we let them lead and we follow? Can we lead and encourage them to follow? Can we do this with humor and understanding, especially when both sets of our toes are vulnerable?

How many of us have friends, neighbors, and relatives who are very different from us in their outlook? And how do we maintain good relationships with them considering those deep divisions? The differences might be religious or political or philosophical; we might have agreed NOT to discuss certain topics for the sake of family or neighborhood harmony.

But any time important parts of our whole selves have to be hidden from those we care about, there is pain. And we can see from the tenor of our national political conversations, that NOT discussing our differences in calm and reasonable terms is NOT helping our country be its best self.

When my mother persisted in her efforts to get me to return to my childhood faith, I didn’t handle it very well. I wrote long impassioned, defensive to the point of insulting letters to her, sent her tracts back to her or tossed them in the trash. I was angry that she couldn’t see my point of view.

Finally, my sister wisely reminded her of my legendary stubbornness and suggested she quit banging her head against my wall. And she did, to her credit, though I know she kept praying for me! And her ongoing, unconditional love for me eventually opened my eyes to a way of being in better relationship with her.

Only a few years later, my mother suffered several small strokes and was unable to put many words together coherently. But one of the few sentences she could utter was one she used a lot: “I love you so much.”

It wasn’t “I love you but I’m afraid you’re going to hell” or “I love you and you ought to do what I tell you”. It was just “I love you,” a sentence that set aside the squabble about whose religion was right in favor of the clear truth of our love for each other. The squabble became meaningless in the face of the universal truth of mutual Love.

And luckily, I had learned a little more compassion by then, having gone through my own set of transformative experiences and coming out on the other side with a better understanding of relationships and their importance in my own life.

Through those experiences, I had learned to look for the common ground between me and those I disagreed with. I had learned to look at what had brought them to where they were in life. I had learned that my impassioned disagreements weren’t going to change anyone’s mind. I had learned that NOT discussing hard things wasn’t going to help; there would always be a big smelly elephant in the room.

I’m still not great at it, so when Eileen suggested this topic for today’s service, I knew it would be a good one for me to think about.

Terra loaned me a little book entitled “Gracious Space” by Patricia Hughes, described as a practical guide for working better together. It’s aimed at workplace discourse and seeks to address the issue of our coarsening national civil discourse by improving it in the workplace.

Hughes notes that nationally and individually, we have become hardened in our arguments with each other, polarized to the extent of disabling government efforts to meet our citizens’ needs. We are distrustful, conflictual, and we tend to form our opinions based on sound bytes, not reasonable conversations.

She quotes an adapted Arabian proverb, poetically expressed by Dinah Craik:
“Oh, the joy---
The inexpressible comfort
Of feeling safe with a person,
Having neither to measure words
Nor weigh thoughts,
Pouring them all out just as they are,
Chaff and grain together,
Certain that a loving hand will sift through,
Keep what is worth keeping,
And with a breath of kindness---
Blow the rest away.”

It’s universal, isn’t it? The Arab sage who first expressed this deep need for safety and comfort with another person was speaking for, I’d guess, all of humankind.

How much of human misery could be prevented or healed by the gift of safety and comfort in the presence of other people? Not just one other person, but a universe of safe, trustworthy, compassionate people.

I think we human beings want less defensive, safer, reasonable conversations with each other. I believe we want to be able to learn from each other. I believe we are curious about others and yet too afraid of hurting or being hurt to dare to ask for information.

“What if I ask my brother to tell me more about why he is so politically conservative? Won’t he just tease me again about being a liberal? Won’t he just ridicule me or try to get me to agree with him? Won’t we just go away mad?”

“What if I ask my sister to tell me more about her objection to abortion? Won’t she assume I’m trying to change her mind and get her to agree with me? Won’t this endanger our relationship if we can’t agree on the issue?”

Patricia Hughes, in her little book, speaks of two dimensions to creating Gracious Space. She points out that in order to experience the first dimension, that of Spirit, we have to create a gracious spirit within ourselves.

That inner life of graciousness is something we carry within ourselves; it is trusting and eager to learn, it is open, vulnerable, and compassionate. Gandhi once said, memorably, that we must be the change we want to see in the world.

To cultivate this spirit of inner grace, we need to examine our approach to life in this world. Do our days feel tough or joyful? Are we patient and curious about new ideas? Are we constantly rushing or do we relish a slower pace? How do we show compassion for those in need?

In this way, we can discover our innate strengths and see where we might try to improve. For most of us, it takes time and conscious effort to develop an inner spirit of graciousness and openness.

The second dimension of Gracious Space is Setting, the care we take to provide a place that is welcoming and comfortable for those we seek to understand.
In our own lives, as we play host to those who are so different from us, a little intention can go a long way. Hospitality is the foundation of a gracious setting, an intentionally comfortable and accepting space.

Remember when we were renting space elsewhere and the cross was a prominent fixture in the room? Though many of us didn’t mind it a bit, many others of us didn’t feel quite comfortable with that symbol of a different faith so prominent in the room.

It’s one reason we use the word “congregation” in our name, rather than “church”, preferring the more inclusive term. A setting in which all feel comfortable and accepted is a gracious setting. Are there ways we can create a gracious setting in which our gracious spirits can welcome others who are different, religiously, spiritually, politically, philosophically?

And once we’re there, with our gracious inner spirit and our gracious outer setting, what then? How do we initiate the dance?

“Shall we dance?” What common ground do we have? Can we start there? How can we learn more about our neighbor, our friend, our relative, without badgering, without insisting on there being one right answer, without patronizing or anger or defensiveness? Can we find compassion and understanding by just listening to another’s stories? Can we find a way to support the other’s efforts to live a life of integrity and good will? Can we respond to the other’s efforts to change our minds with gentle firmness but without rejecting them?

I wish I’d had the wisdom and compassion to say to my mother long ago, “Please, mom, these conversations are hurting our relationship. I feel badgered. Can we shape them differently so that we both feel understood?”

My sister and I have found common ground in talking about the efforts of each of our congregations to help the poor and needy in our communities. We may diverge sharply on our theology, but we are in step when it comes to reaching out to the poor and homeless of our communities.

Interestingly, I was talking recently to a realtor who lives just up the road from me, and she told me that the South Whidbey Community Church, a nondenominational evangelical congregation which is fairly new on the south end, has just bought the piece of property across the highway from us here at UUCWI.

And it makes me wonder: when we are neighbors with this very different congregation, can we reach out to them with love and care, despite our religious differences? If they are receptive, can we have a conversation that is gracious in spirit and in setting? If they are uneasy or rejecting, can we respond with compassion and openheartedness? Is there any common ground that we can share?
In other words, can we, shall we dance?

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering those in our lives who are different from us in outlook and understanding. May we look for ways to create an inner spirit of grace and an outer spirit of welcome, that we might grow in understanding and compassion for all humankind, regardless of our differences. And may we find great joy in embracing the other. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


kimc said...

A very important and difficult topic.
Yet, I find when I talk semi-political issues with my patients who are on the opposite side from me, I do this stuff naturally. (We don't do direct politics in the office.)
I find common ground, often about honesty -- if the public figures would just be honest... if people just fulfilled their responsibilities... things like that. There are commonalities, and very few people really have bad intentions.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, kimc, for your wise contribution.

Miss Kitty said...

Ms. K, this was so beautiful. It brings tears to my eyes. What a wonderful dad, and what a wonderful sermon.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks for your kind words, Miss K. You're such a skilled writer yourself--your compliments make my day!