Simply Enjoying the Dance

One of our family’s favorite shows is So You Think You Can Dance. And we’re not alone. Even though it dipped in popularity a little this year, it was still a strong top 20 program during the summer months when television viewing is at its lowest. It has won 7 Emmy’s, 5 of those for Outstanding Choreography.

I’ve written about it before here, but So You Think You Can Dance is, if anything, a celebration of the human spirit. My wife and I are often compelled to remark, “Dancers are the happiest people EVER.” Even though the temptation to compare SYTYCD to other similar shows such as American Idol and Dancing With The Stars is certainly in play, they really couldn’t be more different. While Idol and DWTS are “made for TV” cheese with little to no substance, So  You Think You Can Dance only addresses and perpetuates the art of dance. These guys know they aren’t going to get rich quick so they—the judges, the contestants, the choreographers—are engaged only for the sake of advancing their art form. And even though I got dragged kicking and screaming into its viewership, I am admittedly drawn by the show’s sincerity as well as its simplicity.

We just recently watched the finale during which the last 4 dancers/contestants are whittled away in 15-20 increments down to the champion. Surprisingly, this year’s finale was a little disappointing. There was one particular performance in which the dancers clearly failed to meet the standards of the choreographers. (I do know more about dance now that I ever thought I would have. Good thing? Only time will tell.) At the end of course, the dancers were all smiles. The camera shot turned to the choreographer, whom I expected to express at least a degree of frustration or disappointment or both.

The SYTYCD choreographers have become my favorite “characters” on the show. After watching several seasons and developing would-be relationships with each one of the regulars, we’ve become somewhat familiar with their work. What’s generated the most wonder, however, is how these creators conjure the dance from their own imagination and experiences, show the steps to dancers they’ve only just met, work intimately with them as they impart their vision and their art, all before taking their seat with the rest of the audience as the dancers give life to what was just days earlier only an idea—if that’s the right word. Watching their physicality and facial expressions as they sit in the audience, I’ve wondered aloud what it’s like for the choreographers to trust someone completely with the dance they have created. Just sitting there. Surely there are steps missed, personal touches both added and taken away, or even a complete mis-interpretation of it all.

That’s what I expected to see on the face of this choreographer after this particular what I would call “disaster” in the finale. But it wasn’t. The choreographer seemed just as pleased as she would have had the dancers hit every step, showcased every nuance, and bared all the heart she expected. “It must be the nature of choreography,” I said to my wife, both of us noticing the same thing. “Maybe it’s not about hitting all the steps just right, getting it perfect.” Fair enough.

Because I’ve been taught to pay attention; to note those things that move us, strike a personal chord, and even haunt us, I continued to wonder why I find the choreographers so interesting and the relationship between the dancers and the choreographers so fascinating. For one, they share the dance. One creates the dance but at some point steps back and allows the dancers to put their own touches on it. What emerges from the relationship is a shared art that allows the unique giftedness of each dancer to shape the performance. Second, it’s about intimacy. Not the kind of intimacy that is all over the sit-coms, magazine ads, and feature films these days; rather, the kind of intimacy that edifies, builds, and creates. It’s the kind of intimacy that allows both the dancer and the creator to be known to one another. This is the kind of intimacy that requires effort and, yes, even work. But will always end with something beautiful even if all the steps are not hit exactly right.

And lastly I feel that there is something divine in the nature of the relationship between the choreographer and the dancer. Not necessarily in their relationship, but in the nature of their relationship. Because God is infinite the list of metaphors and illustrations for our relationship with Him is just as endless. But there seems to be an aspect of God as Choreographer—a Choreographer for our lives as a dance. He creates the dance. He knows our strengths. He gives us the steps. He enjoys the intimacy and teaching. He shows us why we fall and helps lift us back into motion when we do. But when the time comes, I can’t help but think that He always enjoys watching us dance. Our responsibilities are multiple, but at the top of the list has got to be (1) pay attention (2) bring everything you’ve got. And don’t forget this “what if” question: What if you don’t have to be perfect?

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Will vs. Shall: Two Roads in the Woods

While a student at the University of Kentucky I had junior seminar in Renaissance Lit. English 422 I think it was, but don’t hold me to it. We read John Donne (OK in a renaissance sort of way) and Christopher Marlowe (way ahead of his time). Of course we examined Shakespeare’s sonnets—I never really and still haven’t “gotten” the sonnet. The sonnet seems more like a mathematical marvel than an artform. I remember liking Edmund Spenser a lot. Muiopotmos: or The Fate of the Butterflie was great. So was The Shepherd’s Calendar—loved Colin Clout. (I was not ready either emotionally or intellectually or mentally, for The Fairie Queene at the time. I just remember finding it easy to believe that Spenser never finished it.)

Our professor was Dr. John Shawcross and he remains one of my all-time favorites. Dr. Shawcross was one of those college professor types that they portray in the movies—equal parts funny, informed, and mad scientist. In fact, I discovered some time later that he was somewhat famous in Renaissance Literature circles. In fact, because of my association with Dr. Shawcross I was little bit of a celebrity in the mind of my Renaissance professor in graduate school.

As a class we were looking at something from one of those people mentioned above when Dr. Shawcross told us about the difference between “will” and “shall.” “Will,” I remember him saying, suggests determination. Most of the time “will” means trying really really hard to make something happen eg, “I WILL make this happen if it kills both of us!” “Shall,” on the other hand, has much more of a prophetic bent. In some ways “shall” removes you and I from the equation in favor of some greater force; some natural or supernatural ripple that will bring about some end. If not the opposite of “will,” “shall” suggests an ease and sense of providence that “will” simply lacks. Or maybe the most profound difference between “will” and “shall” is understood as the juxtaposition between “knowing” and “believing.”

As a part of my devotional life I’ve been reading and re-reading John 1 every day. It’s always interesting what new insights bubble up during these kinds of exercises—which is why one might undertake such a practice I suppose. So when my eyes kept rolling over John 1:12-13 I recalled that moment in English 422 when Dr. John Shawcross explained the nuances of “will” and “shall:”

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

We become children of God not by the will of the flesh or the will of man. In other words, clinched fist, bare-knuckled “will” holds neither sway nor currency in our transformation and renewal. When it comes to our relationship in this context it’s all about “shall”, not the clinched-fist determination that is so often esteemed by others. So maybe it’s not a matter of “willing” some sort of outcome, but “allowing” God to work.

So it comes to this … what if we find ourselves in moments when we’re trying too hard; moments when we tense our jaw and grab as tight as we can and squeeze with everything we’re worth, but instead of freezing up in tension we should be letting go. Seems a difficult concept for Agonistes to grasp, frankly, when so much of my formation is owed to the wrestling match.

The Discipline of Remembering

The January–February issue of Outside Magazine features a dietary experiment performed and reported by endurance athlete John Bradley (All Systems Go, p.47). The exercise, as it were, included spending eight weeks each on six different diet plans ranging from popular fads to clinical studies: the Abs Diet, the Paleo Diet for Athletes, the Mediterranean Prescription, the Okinawa Program, the advice of a personal nutritionist, and the USDA’s nutritional pyramid. Along the way he recorded every meal, snack, and caloric drink, and workout, and made bi-monthly visits to his doctor for blood work, weigh-ins, cholesterol checks, and body composition analysis. You can read the entire article by clicking here.

The most interesting piece of this article to me, however, were the conclusions of the nutritionist, Laurent Bannock, he worked with during his research. Apparently Bannock has spent years researching diet strategies based on ethnicity. Bannock believes that one’s genes have “equipped” him or her for specific foods. Furthermore, Bannock contends, a diet comprised primarily of these “remembered” foods leads to greater wellness. For his part, Bradley experienced improved blood profiles, a leaner body, more sound sleep, and consistently higher energy levels using Bannock’s diet strategies. So it appears that our genes have what may be described as a “memory” that reacts positively to reminders of our heritage—in this case dietarily, but perhaps this phenomenon has broader application.

I remember hearing a few years ago that, in some sort of informal poll, the word “home” was acknowledged as the most favorite word in our vocabulary. (Who comes up with this stuff?) Like most people, I had never once stopped to consider my favorite word. But after thinking about the results of the poll, I can understand why “home” was voted the most favorite. It has the long vowel sound that is so pleasant in our poetry and music. But it also asks us to … remember. And if “home” is our favorite word, then “remember” just might be our most profound word. In one of his most recent releases Peter Gabriel sings the words “I … I remember” from the most inner part of his heart. His vocal is both primal and profound at once. There’s something so perfect about remembering—even the hard stuff. “Remember” beckons us to consider our own stories, where we are, and the road we’re on. Scripture tells us, “… if a man should live many years, let him rejoice in them all, and let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many.

A diet that reminds us, a word that stirs the heart, and a word that invites us into our own stories. Ecclesiastes 3:11 reveals that God has put an eternity into our hearts. I’ve seen this explained in more than one way, but what makes the most sense to me is that God has created us predisposed to “remember”—not only our own stories and the stories of our times, but the loss of Eden, the wonders of creation, and beauty of the gospel. Our hearts—our emotional seats—are wired to recognize our personal stories when we sense them bubbling up around us.

And so I wonder if along with the spiritual disciplines of study, worship, service, prayer, community, confession, and submission, if we should also practice the discipline of remembering. It seems, in the spirit of Lauren Bannock’s dietary conclusions, that our hearts also have a “memory”. There’s truth to be discovered in retracing the paths that led to where we are in our own stories—powerful memories, the things that move us, and the things that won’t seem to go away. Consider those things that have been lost, those things that have been gained, and those things yet to be born from the womb of time, yet the heart still manages to “remember.” There’s karthasis in the process.

Agonistes On The Edge

San Simeon, California. Photo courtesy of Karen Daniel

And I have felt a presence that disturbs  me with the joy of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and the round ocean and the living air, and the blue sky, and in the mind of man: a motion and a spirit, that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought, and rolls through all things, from William Wordworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”

We’ve spent a little time here on the topic of tension. We’ve addressed the notion of new romanticism—the postmodern age in which emotion and heart may take their rightful places alongside reason. New Romanticism not only amounts to the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling, but also asks us to set aside the pragmatic for the magical; the formula for mystery; the predictable for the unknown. At San Simeon, CA I was able to stand on what seemed like the edge of the world; beyond which at one time was identified on the maps as just that: “Unknown.” There on the rocks, looking out in the gray, was the sense of some sort of demarcating line between where I stood and the call of some other world beyond anything I could ever know.

In reality it’s the line we walk every day between comfort and calling. And here is where the tension builds—to take another step, forsaking the known world so to speak; or to wait another day. Standing on the rocks, feeling the cold air and the sea spray in such a real way, Wordsworth’s words echo with each lash of the waves on the shore. There certainly is the joyous presence. To be disturbed by the joyous presence is exactly what we wish to imply when we decide to embrace the tension, thereby refusing to abdicate the fights of our lives. To struggle with the line; to wrestle with tension is ultimately the culmination of life. The “sense sublime” is akin to Elisha’s “still small voice,” so powerful in its softness and subtelty. True majesty need not boast. But it does ask us to remain engaged.

More Than You Realize

I’ve wondered aloud for years if fiction isn’t somehow more true than reality. When I look around at reality—my reality—it doesn’t seem as real to me as the pages of a novel or the lines from a movie or even that which springs from my own imagination. It just seems like … there’s more. More to life. More to the days. More than reality. 2 Corinthians 4:18 suggests that we look “not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.” It continues, “for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

This is a strange set-up for thoughts on spiritual warfare I realize, but the fact is that there is an “unseen realm” that is very real—likely more real than what we are able to see, hear, touch, and feel. It’s not fiction but neither is it what we normally associate with reality. (In fact, it’s more closely aligned with an integration of the fantastic.) And in this unseen realm we are not without certain specific and powerful weapons. Psalm 139:14 reveals to us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Ephesians 2:6 goes as far as to say that we are “seated with” Jesus. The sum of it is … are you more than you realize? Here is a video from the first release in the Small Group Life series. It’s short, less than 5 minutes, but author Ron Keck poses some very provocative questions worth considering. Take a look.

Unlocking Desire

In his book Rules of the Red Rubber Ball, Kevin Caroll asks 6 very simple questions that ask us to probe the deepest places of our being:

What would you do for free?

What activities inspire you?

What in life do you find irresistible, a source of inspiration, a reason to get out of bed?

What dream do you chase?

What topics do you love to discuss and ponder?

What’s your primal source of joy?

The book itself isn’t significant here. But as I begin to get a few years under by belt (and come into a whole new appreciation of what is meant by “experience”), these introspective moments and times of longing become, to be honest, unbearable. The truth is that God wants us to be more. I’ve found these 6 questions to be the foundations for the “from this point forward” conversation that is beginning to take more and more of a center stage for me as I wrestle with greater intensity the haunts of yesterday and the calls from tomorrow. And why aren’t these questions easier?

The Strange and Fascinating Twists of Spiritual Formation

fictionI read in the last year or so that author Richard Foster said in an interview, “We are always being spiritually formed.” For whatever reason—and although a relatively simple idea—I haven’t been able to put this away nor have I been successful at fully unpacking the reasons why these words and this thinking continue to reverberate for me.

It’s my opinion that in the world of spiritual formation we have entered a time that requires next-level thinking. Although the integrated counseling movement has moved the flywheel, so to speak, we’ve yet to establish a definitive understanding of what it means to be spiritually formed. While not a student of spiritual formation, I nevertheless have been afforded the opportunity to consider what it means, how it happens, and the heart of the matter for the last several years.

I’m convinced that “story”— both the Larger Story that God is revealing, has been revealing, and will to continue to reveal as well as our own stories (that is, where we have come from and what we have experienced and what we have felt and what we have seen and the people that have spoke into our lives both functionally and dysfunctionally)—play a crucial role in how we are spiritually formed. In fact, taking Foster‘s words into account, I could say that “story” is the absolute means by which we are spiritually formed: at every second of every day we are being spiritually deformed, reformed, and transformed, one upon another like layers of the atmosphere, not really sure where one begins and the other begins until we’re either colder or warmer, breathing easier or heavier.

Its easiest to think of this process as a critical path for demolishing the false selves, (also understood in terms of strongholds quite possibly) we have created. We are born in Saving Private Ryan, as John Eldredge suggests, and as we storm the beaches of our own stories through our adolescence and youth we realize a couple of things: (1) the bullets are live and (2) the stakes are high. So as we make our way from point A to point B we are able to deflect some of enemy’s shots, while unable to avoid others as they hit their mark. We are wounded. And into these wounds the enemy, our antagonist and the villain of our stories, speaks lies. Over time, like a boxer receiving short blows to the body over the course of his bout, we agree with the paralyzing lies of the enemy. These agreements lead to vows, the “I’ll never” vows, that create the false selves that stand in immediate and direct opposition to the person we were created to be.

Unfortunately, these disorienting events take place before we have enough experience to place them into their appropriate context. So what we assume to be “normal” as a child, for instance, we begin to understand as something other than normal as adults—or do we? Inherent in this paradigm is the sentiment that, yes, we have fallen as a result of Original Sin and continue to be plagued with all the resulting circumstances, but with our new hearts we are also able to recover, to some degree, Original Glory as God’s image bearers.

The critical path for demolishing the false selves is the same critical path that also lights the dusty roads that point us back toward our Original Glory. And even though we can never completely overcome our depravity on this side of life, we can live out of it less and less, while living out of our glory more and more.

So why all of this now? Oddly enough it’s the result of a novel I’ve recently picked up. Even though spiritual formation continues to be a part of my internal dialog, being exposed to John Irving’s latest novel Last Night on Twisted River at least for me begs a re-imagining of spiritual formation. All his books tend to present childhood as a very dangerous, heavy-handed, and unwieldy place, but Last Night on Twisted River—so far—is chilling in exposing the pitfalls, land mines, and live ammo we all face in the earliest, most formative years.  In so many ways Irving is able to capture this leg of the “story” for all of us in that’s it’s messy, unpredictable, and even offensive. Perhaps his greatest gift, however, is his ability to articulate heartbreak without ever saying it. You’ve just got to be willing to go on the journey with him. (And also willing to suffer the first 100-120 pages. Pretty doggone dry.) And I would add that this—so far—is my favorite Irving novel since The Hotel New Hampshire and The World According to Garp.