A Dance Worth Learning: Of Swing Dancing & Faith

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The lights go down and the music begins, loud, quick, and perky. I stand on the side in my pretty dress, waiting, hoping for someone — anyone, mostly, though hopefully one who can lead me well and make good conversation — to ask me to dance with him.

Soon enough, he sweeps me up with his expected request, “Would you like to dance?” He reaches out one arm for me to take and we find a spot on the crowded dance floor. His hand goes to my waist, mine to his shoulder, our other hands intertwined.

“I’m Elizabeth,” I say and he introduces himself, too. We talk a bit, but mostly we just dance. He leads me beautifully, giving me grace I never knew I had.

“Ugh, sorry, I’m not very good at this,” I explain, embarrassed, when I falter.

“It’s OK. Don’t apologize.” He smiles to assure me it’s alright.

Feel don’t think. Release don’t controlGive don’t hold back.

I remember and begin again, feeling, releasing, giving, and suddenly I’m floating on musical air, moving in ways I never thought possible for any person, let alone graceless, awkward, and uncoordinated old me.

The song ends and he dips me. I let my body fall to the side he leads it, resting in the sole control of his strength. It is scary and exhilarating. That dance is finished. We thank each other and part ways, the smiles still living on both our faces as we look for new partners.

 

To tell you the truth, dancing scares me more than a lot of things. It’s something I’ve been around my whole life, and because of that, I have this built-in shame from all the memories of getting it wrong. It’s like I don’t remember a time when I ever got it right in the realm of moving my limbs to music.

And so it’s hard for me now, at twenty even, past the childhood years and teenage awkwardness. My memories haunt me in the church halls, the classrooms, and the theatre floor, as if they were happening all over again. Sometimes I can’t take it anymore. I can only move to the music for so long before I have to go relax or even cry.

I was never able to explain it till this April, when these fears really began to meet in conflict with the need to dance and the need to be. In tears, I began to explain to others and to myself. But it still felt like it was too late. The dance call had come and I’d done as poorly as ever, yet I knew it wasn’t just that. Beneath it all, there was a river of tears and I let them out, agonizing forever over the strange pain I felt. The movement I’d been forced to distribute had caused this unquenchable pain, I was sure. From then on, I vowed never to do what I couldn’t, never to move to the music and ignite this pain again.

Because this shame and pain and utter exhaustion would always be there, whether in the church halls, the classrooms, or the theatre floor. And the pain, I decided was just not worth it. 

 

I don’t remember how it started — probably with a text from my friend, Holly. She asked do you want to go swing dancing and I thought about it for a while and decided Sure, I’ll go make a fool of myself because it was sort of fun when I went before. I took a risk and gave up my vow in part. “This is different,” I decided.

I wasn’t good right away, but I found that I wasn’t entirely bad either. I still had trouble with the same old things — coordination, rhythm, remembering what to do, and getting so nervous I forgot the steps.

But I began to find comfort in the fact that I was a follow, and if I could depend on my lead, everything would be alright. Some leads swept me off my feet and I felt as if I were flying through galaxies and worlds of jeweled sunsets, and flowing waterfalls.

I began to feel more than I thought. A slow release occurred as I let go of bits and pieces of my beloved control. And I started to give openly and with courage.

 

Some days, I feel like I’m losing hard battles. My head becomes a maze, and beyond the joys and beauty of life, I feel tight and hard.

I’ve realized that I have this mountain size need for control. I don’t know where it came from, yet I’ve come to see where it is leading me and it is a place of more restlessness and battles and discomfort.

It is not worth the shame and pain, I’ve learned.

 

“You dance gracefully,” he said before bowing and departing after our song had finished.

I almost laughed in his face. Instead, I stuffed my laughter with a smile and a gracious, “Thank you.” Another boy asked me to dance and as we did, I pondered the last leader’s words and my heart soared.

When you hear something, whether good or bad, you begin to believe at least part of it. And this was the summer I began to believe that peaceful living is a dance that I can learn, a beat that I can swing to, a rhythm that I can find. Because even though my heart filled with shame in every church hall, classroom, and theatre when the music began and the dancing started, when the lights went down in the dance hall, I could only feel a very peaceful kind of joy that held room for more.

And faith is a dance, too. One I’d like to fall more and more in step with everyday.

 

This summer, I’ve realized that I like to lead way too much. And I’m really not very good at it. Well, not at the kind of leading I try to do. The control I try to take. The unnecessary worries, and big, unneeded plans.

“If you want to lead, that’s fine but go to the other side,” a dance instructor said to the follows at the last lesson.

I’ve been trying to lead from my follow’s place, but this leader’s position is not one I can take. Life and faith are dances, too. Dances in which I must follow and surrender and most of all dance without abandon. 

 

I went swing dancing for my twentieth birthday. To most, that would merely seem fun, cool, or interesting. Only I and a few others know the true significance of choosing to do that activity on my special day. It was something I wanted to do, and chose firmly and freely. That makes me laugh and almost want to cry at the same time.

On my birthday in particular, my limbs loosened and my heart felt truly light. I began to really dance without abandon, follow without leading, and fall in love with something worth caring for.

I’ve found dance to be a great analogy for faith. God leads; we follow. He creates and we create out of His creations.

God invites; we accept. We enter in to a covenant of many, many dances. Some are tricky, messy, and odd. All are beautiful.

His hand’s at my waist, mine’s at his shoulder, and our other hands are intertwined. Locked together in an unbreakable embrace. His breath’s in the music, in the movement, in my tangled steps, my graceful ones too, in every spin and dip and jump.

The pain and the shame weren’t worth it, but the dance was one worth learning with the Father of dance to lead. 

Jesus Wants The Best For You

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had several uplifting and interesting conversations with friends, many of which have skittered around in the dust of faith and life, and have latched onto the topic of fear.

It eats us. It destroys us. Fear is not our friend.

Yet I cling to it with all my mite at times, I follow in its path, I let it seduce me into silent worship. I give it my joy, my life, my faith, and my love. When it comes down to it, my Friends, we sacrifice peace for fear. Life for death, love for bitterness, happiness for grief.

Why? I don’t know. It’s just a thing. Everybody’s afraid of something. The excuses haunt us from the day-to-day.

When I was a child I was afraid to go downstairs by myself. I thought someone might catch me. I was afraid of my room when the lights first went out. I feared the octopus under my bed and the salt and pepper shaker monsters that lived downstairs. Those fears, small and silly and ever so insignificant as they may seem, lost me sleep and confidence and joy and peace.

The years went by. They are going, flying by, at the moment. And yet I still fear.

There are the little, physical elements of life, built into our everyday. There’s the job interview or getting lost on your way to a new place, the first day of university or a really tough final. Those we fear and reasonably so. But they’re gone in span of an hour or day, and the fear flies away with them, too.

But then there are the deeper, longer fears. The ones that take hold deep down, from the core of our being, from our very toes and knees, growing and moving up into our hearts, and clogging our heads. The ones that stick to us like glue and spread like syrup on pancakes. Falling like the rain and growing like dandelions, this inner fear is deep-seated, wild, and ferocious.

It swallows me and I’m Jonah in the whale, tossing and turning about, trapped, consumed by something much larger than life.

It’s the reason I can only dance when the lights dim. The reason I can’t get where I need to in my acting  and singing classes and why I leave a dance call crying. It’s the force behind me when I run away, either physically or metaphorically, and why I had trouble wearing shorts on the bus for so long. It’s the reason I’m glad to be single for now because the thought of romance is somewhat petrifying. It’s frequently the why behind my “no” when a friend invites me somewhere. It’s the halting speech and change of thought, refusing to follow through on a sentence and the swallowing of physical impulses.

And I think it’s my sin, I often tell myself. I think I’ve done something wrong. I think that fear is a warning, that this is how it should be, how it’s meant to be since the fall. 

Yet in fear, there is nothing but misery and pain, discouragement and discomfort. My heart burns with bitterness and discontent. I’m utterly unhappy. Is this what God wanted for me? Is it what He wanted for us? I wonder in the wake of a thousand tears, trembling after something that should have been easy.

God, who said, do not be afraid for I am with you, the Lord who promised to strengthen us and uphold us with His righteous hand. 

Jesus, the one who calls us, all who are weary and burdened, to follow him who is gentle and humble in heart, and He will give us rest for our souls. 

The Holy Spirit, who fills us with power to do the things we need to do, who prays for us, who intercedes, and fills us up.

While on earth, Jesus wept, Jesus, loved, and Jesus bled. It was all for us.

I can only imagine, only know, only trust, only believe that Jesus wants the very best for me. For us. For you. 

1 John 4:18 says that perfect love drives out fear. God is that perfect love. He possesses it and carries it, provides us with it and gifts love freely. He is love, the perfection of it that we could never be and always crave.

We have a thousand reasons to fear, yes. But we have a God who created us for more than the shame of the flesh. Jesus never intended fear to drive us. Love, peace, joy, praise, yes. But not fear. Because Jesus wants so much for you.

He wants the very best. So take Him up on that today, tonight, this minute.

Come to Him, all you who are weary and burdened, come to Him who is gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.

Of Fridays Past & Future Joy

“It must have been sad when Jesus died,” I remember thinking, as I went through Good Friday services as a child. Even at a young age, I thought of Jesus’s friends and followers, of Mary Magdelene and Peter and doubting Thomas, of how Jesus told John to look after his mother, as he hung from the cross.

But Sunday always came swiftly, ever beautiful and painted with spring, making us all happy again.

I remember one Easter in particular, when I was quite young. It was the first time I’d discovered the Easter bunny and it was a glorious morning indeed. I couldn’t believe my eyes at the chocolate trail leading from my room to a pile of presents in the living room. It was a gold mine. My own gold mine. I was so excited that I picked up my sister’s chocolate, too!

And I recall these strange thoughts running through my head, as I contemplated my childish joy. I often spoke to myself aloud and I did then. I remember saying, “I’m not going to sing again,” “I’m not going to play dolls again,” and the like. I still don’t understand exactly why I said those words. But perhaps suddenly, as I was hit by that sweet five-year-old bliss, I thought I’d got it all, I thought I didn’t need to keep on trying, I thought my joy was complete at last.

That was a long, long time ago now.

Now I sit in church on Good Friday, watching a beautiful service unfold, much like the one it was last year. It’s one of five services happening around town and so various members of the church community gather in my own place of worship today. I enjoy the beauty, try to worship, and contemplate it all.

But I’m distracted, caught up in the memory of Fridays past. Of Easters gone by. My thoughts lead me far through life and back again to the present as the band starts up again and we take the communion cup.

I’m wearing black today. But I remember a Good Friday when I wore a light blue dress and greeted visitors at the door. I was just a baby then, in my faith, in my growth, in personhood. There were so many things then I had yet to do and know and learn. My immaturity, the poor decisions, the bitter disappointments of past days haunt me as I sit in the pew. Sometimes I hate to think of what and who I was. But I remember the fragrant joy with which I had towards life, and the love I was growing for God and church and people, the love that was only beginning, the love that still churns now.

“And if only I knew then…” So many things. So many words. So many problems.

Four years ago, I was fifteen, sitting perhaps in the same row, in a blue dress. I remember the older Dutch man who became a friend to me and my family that year and that day in particular, as he helped us greet folks at the door. But that was four years ago and a lot can change in time and now he’s not even here and he won’t be coming back.

“It must have been sad when Jesus died…” I think again. I’m sure it was, for his friends and followers. But then He rose again.

I remember that dear old Easter when a trail of chocolate made my little heart soar high. He came to make our joy complete.

I remember the person I was yesterday, last year, and four years ago. The pain, the mistakes, the strife. He came to change us, to set us free, to give us life.

I remember the ones who have died, the ones who will never sit in church pews again. I regret, I mourn, and I wonder. He came so that we might never die, so that we could live forever, so that we could find perfection with Him.

Good Friday reminds me of the strife of this world. It reminds me that there is something better, even than a living room full of chocolate. And with it all, I remember the joy past, and most of all, the joy that is yet to come.

Be Still

I wanted to stay home last Friday. I’ve been at school nearly every day except Sunday for the past month. I decided I’d take the day off, since I don’t have classes — well, sort of. I’d sleep in, do home work in the comfort of my own home, drink tea, and maybe even visit the store.

But then I got an email. I had to go for a costume fitting in the middle of the afternoon. I grumbled and griped and wondered why a 20 minute costume fitting an hour away had to ruin my Friday.

Yet from some place inside of me, I heard the words: Be still.

I wanted to get out of there as fast as I could. I put the costume on hastily, passed people with a warm smile to avoid small talk, and walked as fast as I could. But then I remembered: be still. And I tried to breathe and remember that this day might be good in other ways I’d never expected.

I spent the rest of the afternoon at Starbucks. A Pumpkin Spice Latte, courtesy of a coupon, and my History home work in hand. And in the buzz of the afternoon coffee shop rush and my growing to-do list, I heard the voice again. And it told me to be still.

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Be still. Be still. Be still.

As you practice the songs for your voice mid-term and try to reach the high notes and act and sing from your core at the same time. While rehearsing the scene that scares you and makes you better at the same time. When you’re in rehearsal all Saturday, but painting sets instead because they’re behind on the show. In all the chaos of school, and the mess of life. As you try to live, love, and breathe. I told myself this paragraph again and again and again this week.

But its hard. Impossible, almost. To quiet yourself in the midst of the pain, angst, busyness, and pressures of life. To be still when you have to run everywhere just to keep up. To trust in the God who holds you in His hand and know that He is with you. Yet, all He asks is that we just be still in His presence.

For a second. Try it. For a minute. Not too long. Just be still.

That’s been my motto this week. In the tough times, the weak times. In the rush and the hub and the worry and fear. Be still. Be still. Be still.

I had the voice midterm on Tuesday. I got a B. My teacher says she rarely gives A’s on midterms. But I’m still not happy with how I sang and I know I could have done better and–be still, the Voice says.

We presented our scene — my scene partner and I. We did our very best, after weeks of working, trying, risking, failing. And at the end, I remembered to be still.

I’m dead tired tonight. I spent the evening, unmotivated, trying in vain to find sources for my History project. I should do some more homework and my room’s a mess and I should pack lunch for tomorrow, but all I want to do is curl up in bed. Be still.

This post was supposed to be published a week ago, but it just wasn’t. Be still.

There is so much I want to write and share and communicate. But the clock is ticking and I have homework to do and a bus to catch. Be still.

He says, ”Be still, and know that I am God;

I will be exalted among the nations,

I will be exalted in the earth.”

Psalm 46: 10

Fail Boldly

My first memory of failure is from Grade 9. I failed a Science test. I’ll never forget the shame I felt. Like I was stupid, unable to do anything well, an idiot. That’s how failure made me feel that first time.

I think I was always kind of afraid of being a failure. I think we all are.

I spent high school watching my step and setting unreachable goals. And hoping I’d never fail again.

Then, I started university. And they told me that I had to fail to pass.

I don’t remember when they said it — whether it was during orientation, in my first acting class, or when I went for my advising session. But I know I heard this strange and impossible quote: Fail Boldly time and time again throughout September, October, November, and December.

I didn’t get it. Failure wasn’t good. I’d spent my life striving for just the opposite and I couldn’t imagine why anyone else wouldn’t.

Maybe they meant that you just had to be able to admit your mistakes and show that you were humble. Maybe failing boldly was just being able to laugh at your self. Maybe it wasn’t really “failure.” Perhaps it was just an artsy phrase or a figure of speech, I convinced myself and continued to hope for perfection. Because I couldn’t comprehend why anyone would ever want to fail on purpose.

I didn’t get it. My first monologue mark in the beginning of second semester reflected that. And I hated my work, felt like a failure, and considered giving up. I just couldn’t really, flat on my face, fail boldly.

The rest of the semester unfolded in a weird, tearful mess of beauty and growth. And slowly, I learned. I began to undo, to understand, and to fail.

I can’t explain it completely. But I do remember when I willingly failed boldly for the first time.

It was the end of March. The day had been bright and spring like. I’d memorized and learned and cried over a monologue for weeks. And now I stood, a bit breathless, a bit tired, a bit nervous, after the group audition, in the middle of the stage. I was alone and absolutely vulnerable. Right there, I lay one of my greatest hopes out and put myself on the clothes’ line. And as I opened mouth and began the text, I lay everything I had down and just let it go.

I had that actor’s moment where you don’t feel memorized and the words just slide out of your tongue as if you’re saying it for the first time. I stopped thinking about my audience or how I looked. I let myself be, for a moment. I felt a strange peace in my soul and my stomach, instead of the butterflies that usually reside there. I think I let the Holy Spirit in and it felt like He carried me on His wings.

And I think I failed. Boldly.

And I realized that failing boldly isn’t really what I thought it was after all. Failing is allowing yourself to be human. Its giving yourself the freedom to live and breath and let yourself move. Failing boldly is finding rest and growing and trying again. Its submitting yourself to the gift of Jesus and letting him take control of your life and future. Failing boldly is about grace and peace and life.

I don’t know if this is really what my professors meant about failing boldly. But this is what I learned when I tried. And as I think about this coming year, I hope to stay in this state, to tumble a bit, and fall on my face and then get back up again.

I hope you’ll try it too — failing boldly isn’t so bad as we thought.

Is God Enough?

I grew up hearing that God was enough, that God always satisfied, and He was all we needed.

I said ‘the prayer’ at the age of four because I believed, as strongly as I could in my little heart, that God was the One and Only.

Years of Sunday school lessons and singing songs and hearing people talk about how God is enough. And God will always be all you need. There’s nothing else that could compare.

Then, the well-meaning friends who went so far as to say that God obviously wasn’t enough for someone if they did such and such. But God should be enough for you if you’re a true Christian. Again, God was supposed to be enough.

Turning from that stream of thought, I kept going in my Christian walk. God was still enough — I just didn’t want to be judgmental about it. God is enough. God is always enough for me. That’s why I prayed every night and went to church several times a week and taught little kids in Sunday school. Because God was enough for me and enough for them too and enough for us all.

And that’s why I stood up on the stage at church, wearing a white dress, next to my youth pastor who held an open book, and answered ‘I do’ to questions on faith and shared my testimony about how God had always been enough.

But what about when God isn’t enough for us?

When I’d rather read a novel than the Bible. When I lie awake, thinking of other things and loves instead of praying. When I felt so alone and thought I could never do anything in Mexico. When I plunged into relationships, school, or theatre, hoping they would fill the void. I didn’t know it then, but I’d stopped believing that God was truly enough.

But the other day, as I lay in bed, I heard Him whisper in my ear that He is enough for me. And for the last quiet moments of the night He was that.

I realized then that God hasn’t always been enough. And he won’t always be enough for me or anyone. God can’t be enough for us all the time.

God wants to be enough and He is enough, but in this life at least, I believe, our sinfulness precludes us from truly loving Him in this way.

So please, let’s stop pretending and saying that God is always enough. Let’s not force friends and family members into that place when they aren’t ready. Because that just isn’t how it is.

God is enough. But we can’t always see Him that way. And that is OK.

When The Ground Falls Beneath You

We spend our lives building ourselves. Subconsciously, we add a thousand pieces of life to our identity. Who we are is rooted in countless places and people.

The family we’re from or the friends that we have.The straight A’s in school. A boyfriend or a girlfriend. A hair style, a skinny body, or a tall figure. Designer clothes, achievement in sports, or the lead role in every play. The church that we go to, the Bible verses we know or even our entire faith.

And one day, all of that can fall apart and everything is gone. The ground falls beneath you and you’re the only one left. You. Just you. You’re naked, hunted down, ravished, alone.

I say this because it has happened to me. Maybe to you, too.

Until this week, I never knew how much I put my identity in things that would fade away. Relationships, who I was in high school, even dreams that I had that I knew would never come true, school, theatre, and my faith. I built them all up. I allowed them to fulfill me in ways they never could. But recently, as the weeks have gone by, one by one, each precious jewel has been taken from me. Torn. Ripped from my soul. Until now, in which I feel as though there is nothing left but me. Naked, empty, struggling, searching me. Alone and undone without all of those things that I thought made me who I was.

I used to think that faith was a good thing to root yourself in. Turns out that I was wrong.

I used to say, ”most of all, build your identity on your faith because you can’t trust anything or anyone else completely.”

I used to know that everything would be alright as long as I just had faith.

That is, until it all fell. Until I heard things I’d never heard before from someone I didn’t think would tell me these things in a place I never expected to hear them. Until I started to question, doubt, wonder things I’d never questioned, doubted, or wondered. Until everything around me was falling but I knew that I’d be fine and safe with my faith but then that went, too. Until it was all, all gone.

When the ground fell beneath me and I wound up in the pit. Naked, empty, alone. Identity-less.

I lost everything superficial about who I was. No, those things weren’t ”bad” particularly, but I’d let them define me and that was wrong. And of course, at one point they got the better of me and fell. Even my faith.

So now I’m building again. Crawling out of the hole and back up onto my faith. Building a new identity, a new faith. Trying to leave all of those old ideas of who I was behind. Trying not to do the same thing again.

This time, I’m putting my identity in God. Not faith.

The Quest For God

I remember asking, ”Who is God?” Again and again, I’ve pondered this; tonight I ask it again.

The little girl on her knees, four-years-old, folded hands and eyes closed, reciting a prayer on the floor of the church.

The child, feeling grown up, collecting money in an Easter egg basket, filling little cans full of quarters and dimes, bringing them to Sunday school for the missionaries’ fund.

The one whose braids almost met her waist, who prayed every night for her Dad to believe  and her friends’ parents not to get a divorce.

The ten-year-old girl, feeling displaced in a big old church, missing her friends from the old one, wondering if she could really feel at home here.

The girl-turning-woman, Sunday School helper, nursery attendant, GEMS leader, greeter, friendly smile, cookie-maker, role model.

The one in the dress as white as snow, up on the stage, lacy pink shrug covering her shoulders, long brown hair down about her, reciting her testimony in front of a crowded church, saying ‘I do,’ hugging people and receiving cards over Black Forest cake.

That crazy girl with messy braids and bright pink shorts, running with children on her back, hammering and painting, fumbling out Spanish and smiling a lot, learning that God loves her, learning to trust, believe, and love.

The teenager on the verge of what she thinks is love, spending her nights on the phone gabbing out issues of God, callings, and marriage; the heartbroken one, wondering how God could not give her the first love she wanted.

The one who has lost, the one who phones a number with only an answering machine falling along empty walls, who loses passion for everything; the one who is found, the one who grows through suffering, the one whom God has breathed life back into.

The girl who graduated with a pretty purple dress and friends by her side, whose speech was about God and ‘running the good race,’ who thought she was so strong in her faith, and thought she knew what ‘good’ Christians did and didn’t and knew she would do what it took, never guessing the lies she believed.

And now she sits in the Old Testament class, the same girl who prayed a simple prayer on her knees at four, the same girl who said she knew nothing but thought she knew everything just a year ago, listening, thinking, asking questions, wondering if she really knows God as well as she thought.

The quest for God does not end — in this life or the next.