What Is And Is Not A Tool

Does this happen to you? You’re going along, just living your life, and then, BLAM, a cluster of seemingly unrelated things come to your attention that each address something you really need to hear. I call that God, others might call it the universe, or synchronicity, or coincidence. Whatever you call it, it just happened to me in less than 24 hours.

1. The Artist’s Way by Julia Campbell: Week 6, Recovering a Sense of Abundance

“All too often, we become blocked and blame it on our lack of money. This is never an authentic block. The actual block is our feeling of constriction, our sense of powerlessness. Art requires us to empower ourselves with choice.”

2. Seth Godin’s blog: Thinking About Money

“If money is an emotional issue for you, you’ve just put your finger on a big part of the problem. No one who is good at building houses has an emotional problem with hammers. Place your emotional problems where they belong, and focus on seeing money as a tool.”

3. Brain Pickings: How to Worry Less About Money, about a book by John Armstrong:

“The crucial developmental step in the economic lives of individuals and societies is their ability to cross from the pursuit of middle-order goods to higher-order goods. Sometimes we need to lessen our attachment to the middle needs like status and glamor in order to concentrate on higher things. This doesn’t take more money; it takes more independence of mind.”

4. Brain Pickings again, an article about Milton Glaser (graphic artist):

“Do you perceive you live your life through love or fear? They are very different manifestations. My favorite quote is by the English novelist Iris Murdoch. She said, ‘Love is the very difficult understanding that something other than yourself is real.’ I like the idea that all that love is, is acknowledging another’s reality.

Acknowledging that the world exists, and that you are not the only participant in it, is a profound step. The impulse towards narcissism or self-interest is so profound, particularly when you have a worry of injury or fear. It’s very hard to move beyond the idea that there is not enough to go around, to move beyond that sense of “I better get mine before anybody else takes it away from me.”

5. Writer Unboxed post by Jeanne Kisacky: What Not to Think About When You’re Writing, in particular the advice not to “indulge in endless fantasies” about how a piece of writing is going to change your way of life:

“A good story is like a dream brought into momentary focus. It is ephemeral, fleeting, perhaps even surreal, but whole and perfect unto itself. During its crystallization (the process of writing) prosaic thoughts that take the writer outside of that coherent whole turn the writing from a story into a tool. This makes the work simply a step towards something mundane (a better life for the author) not an otherworldly destination of its own (a shining jewel of believable characters, delightful interactions, and gripping tensions).”

6. Sermon on how we often come to God with a list of things we’d like him to make happen for us, and, in return, we will praise him, thereby making God a tool for making our dreams come true.

Some themes I pull out of these quotes:

  • making the wrong things into tools
  • making tools into things to get emotionally twisted about
  • living out of fear rather than love

The idea from the sermon that stuck with me was, “A tool is at its best when it’s being used for what it was designed for”;  God is not the tool, I am the tool, designed for love and worship and service. A story is not a tool to make my fabulous life happen; I am the tool for bringing a transportive story into the world.

Money is not a tool for happiness, but it is a tool for food, clothes, housing, transportation, entertainment, doing good (aka, giving), but also for facilitating creative expression, even mine; I need to stop feeling guilty when I spend money on my creative expression and stop finding excuses not to spend on my creative expression.

Twitter and blogs are tools for exploration and connection. Are they also marketing/networking tools that will be important to my writing career? Yes. But I need to stop getting myself emotionally twisted up and discouraged because they are netting me limited marketing/networking opportunities (not to mention the puniness of my numbers) now. I need to stop projecting the scarcity of now into the future, because that makes me anxious and doesn’t help me use Twitter and my blog for their proper uses. I have enough Twitter followers and blog readers for now, and there are enough in the world that there will be more in the future (aka the time in which I will actually have something to trumpet via marketing and networking). In fact, using Twitter and my blog as tools for exploration and connection will be the thing that will get my numbers higher and make future networking/marketing possible.

But the thing all of those articles above spoke to me most about wasn’t writing, storytelling, publishing, money, or God. It was dance.

I want to dance on stage again, in a group, doing choreography that is not my own. I want to be in class again. Which costs money, and means that I will have a schedule that other family members will have to work around. I’ve been making every excuse for why it wouldn’t work for years. But I can’t do that much longer. I’ve still got a reasonable amount of flexibility and strength, so I think now might be the time. This might be the year it will not denied. That I will not deny myself.

Promises Cut Both Ways

This promise from Romans 8:28 is one of my favorites:

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them (NLT).

I repeat it to myself a lot when things aren’t going well or when terrible things happen to people I love. Depending on the distance from and severity of the event, it’s either encouraging or almost offensive — or both. The idea that trauma can somehow work for good is offensive — why not remove the trauma and figure out some other way for the good to come about? But there it is. In the Bible. And I’ve seen it in my life. I have a friend who can acknowledge the good things that happened in her family because her father died when she was young. Another friend went through a horrible illness, yet in the process of needing so much care, came to know in her bones that her father loved her — something she’d felt insecure about before. So there is pain in this promise, but also hope.

I’ve been part of churches that had to cling onto this promise by our collective fingernails. In one church, there was a situation that halved the membership. It was traumatic and upsetting and terrible. And yet. There were some of what is called, “blessed subtractions” — people who’d become negative voices in the church left. Which meant we could move ahead in different ways than we could when they were there. It took some time, but we were stronger and more unified and built a firmer foundation for growth.

I’m not saying it wasn’t hard. It was, in fact, one of the worst years of my life, at the end of which I blew up at someone who didn’t deserve it, had to apologize to her and ask her forgiveness and accept it when she gave it (yes, it was difficult to accept forgiveness). It was awful. But what came of it was deeply good, both in the life of the church and in terms of my spiritual growth.

Despite knowing what it felt like to be one of the remnant, I left that church last year. It was hard. I’m still sad about it. But I can see things working for good in my life and my family’s life because of it.

And here’s the kicker: I can see it my old church, too. My leaving made people sad, but it did not devastate the congregation. In some ways, it set people free and things are better because I’m gone.

We like to think of ourselves as setting people free from their insecurities, pretensions or anxieties by the wise and insightful things we say or our warm heart, or the intentional way we live. But sometimes we need to leave.

My previous church is experiencing a glorious renaissance in dance. I was a dancer there. Although I’d always been happy to dance under someone else’s leadership (and three of the best dances I’ve ever done were under someone else’s leadership and choreography), the last several years there, I was the sole one who organized and choreographed group numbers. I loved doing it, and did some wonderful work with kids and adults there, including my favorite, the Lord’s Prayer dance in the picture to the left. But I was also the sole one left doing children’s worship, as I had been off and on for many years. I was burned out.

People would encourage me to dance more, always out of enthusiasm and an appreciation for my gifts, and the kids who loved to dance always wanted to do it more (including my own child), but I had no “more” to give. I’d politely evade the request/comment, while inside I was a stew of stress, guilt, and exhaustion.

Somehow, I never said to anyone that I didn’t have to do all the dance stuff, that if someone had an idea, they could go for it. It would have been easy to say. So easy. It wasn’t like I thought I needed to hang onto control of the ministry, but that was the result. I feel bad about that now, because I held people back. One woman in particular only got to dance a couple of times while I was there, but I’ve seen her in church videos many, many times now, almost weekly for awhile, and I haven’t been gone a year.

When I first started seeing this, oh the guilt I poured down on my head. But I’ve gotten to the point now that I can recognize that it’s God, making everything work together for good. It’s embarrassing to me that it took me leaving for my church to get really into dance, but I’m happy for them. And grateful that God used me, even if it in a negative way.

Anyone else out there brought positive change to a group or organization by leaving? Or am I the only one?


SYTCD: Performance Show 3

I love So You Think You Can Dance. The dancers are young and at the top of their game. They show every style of dance. It is wonderful and inspiring! And because I have a blog in which I write about things I think are wonderful, I can indulge my passion for the show and my many opinions about the dancers and dancing. If this isn’t your thing, I’ll catch you next time.

George and Tiffany: That was some great, precise, fast hip hop. I was impressed with how they did, although those outfits didn’t do them any favors — way too heavy with the cutesy. Their moves had more toughness than their costumes gave the impression of. And I remember how great Christina Applegate was as a judge last year; love her suggestion to make the slow moves “soupier.” She was right on.

Brandon and Amber: This is one of the new partnerships after last week’s eliminations, and I’m looking forward to it. Brandon is a better partner for Amber than Nick was. She looked so much physically stronger than Nick, but Brandon is big enough to make her look little and delicate. Amber was amazing. Her smile was so personal, not at all a big “I’m dancing on the stage and don’t I look pretty” smile. Her dancing was free and strong and gorgeous. It came from way inside. She way out-danced Brandon. He was fine, but this one was all about Amber. In that way, it kind of reminds me of several seasons ago, the dance Twitch and Katie did to “Mercy” — Katie did all the athletic and amazing stuff and Twitch mostly strutted around looking hot and lifting her now and then.

Darien and Janelle: It wasn’t a particularly sexy Latin dance, and it wasn’t technically great, but it was cute. I have a thing for men on this show who have eyes-only for their partner, and he looked at her like they were dancing for real. I’m worried that they’re in the bottom three, because these comments are worse than I would’ve expected (and the judges already know who’s in the bottom).

Cole and  Lindsey: The first week, they did the best Paso Doble I’ve ever seen on this show. For the first time, the dance didn’t seem like a histrionic joke. However, their choreography didn’t do them any favors last week. Fingers crossed about them getting Mandy Moore this week. I didn’t get the “story,” but that was gorgeous, the two of them so strong with such long, beautiful legs. The lighting was the best ever, not distracting, helped us focus on the dancing. Cole is so explosive with his movement, and can be so light, just wonderful. Christina is right about the hair hiding her face too much. I really liked this one.

Will and Amelia: There really was something about Will in this number. I would never have thought to put him in a white suit, but he looked great in it. His movement worked well with it. I didn’t think Amelia’s quirk fit with this number. There wasn’t enough to connect with. But he did the “care for his partner” thing that I like so much.

Ryan Gosling, oops, I mean Matthew and Audrey: Oh no. I have a sense of foreboding. They are wearing the kiss of death matching red shiny costumes that Daniel and whatsername were stuck with the first week. Fingers crossed that these two pull it off and that Audrey can lose her “cute” for the salsa. Nope. No sex appeal. Great moves and tricks, but little connection with each other. The music was too grandiose for them.

Chehon and Witney (yes I spelled that correctly): I have high hopes for these two, especially if Chehon can finally release his ballet posture. I love me some Stacey Tookie. LOVED THIS. On a purely frivolous note, Chehon should always dance shirtless. But this had emotion and tenderness and passion and I loved it. Great combination of speed and slow. Crazy big opening lift. Insane for the move when he pushed her across the stage from behind. The two times she just put her head on his arm. It was all just perfect. It made me teary and gave me goosebumps. Best number of the night, and possibly of the season so far.

Cyrus and Eliana: Big hopes for this. The last time a real hip hop person and a ballet dancer did a Nappy Tabs routine, it was insanely good. This was really good; not as exhilarating as Twitch and Alex Wong, but so, so good. The charm of these two dancers was off the charts. And Eliana locked and isolated so well. Actually, Christina came up with the best word for this routine: sublime.

Nervous about the bottom three. This time, it contains people I really like, and people who danced really well tonight. I predict Amber and Brandon will go home. Their solos didn’t connect; they were too flaily (yes, I just made up that word, means “too much flailing about”).

And we get Alvin Ailey dancers. I am a happy woman. Although I am also a little shallow. The skirts these men are wearing look like the kind of skirts the women on this show often wear during the paso doble — reversible matador capes. This is a little distracting to me, but now that I’ve gotten that comment out of my system, maybe I can concentrate on the dance a little better. I’d call this, “histrionic androgyny.” It was physically demanding and cool, but I wasn’t feeling it.

I was right about both. At least Amber got to go out on such an amazingly high note.

Voice: Other Artist

I haven’t done a voice exercise in way too long, so here we go:

If you weren’t a writer, but could be any other kind of artist/musician, what would you choose? What would be your tools? why?

I’m pretty sure anyone who’s known me since college could tell you: dancer.

Before college, I circled around dancing, doing figure skating, rhythmic gymnastics. At Calvin, I made a beeline for the Dance Guild. I loved it. I reveled in it. By my junior year, I was dancing 20 hours a week. I was in fully half the dances in the programs. I joined the liturgical dance group at the church I went to. I took every official dance class Calvin offered. I even got to be in a Glenn Bulthuis video (an alumni weekend thing). I eventually led both the Dance Guild and the church program.

In New York, I didn’t dance, except for boogying down at parties. It was too intimidating. There were professional dancers everywhere and they’d surely know I was an amateur. When we moved back to Michigan, I started up again.

So I’d rather be a medium fish in a small pond, than a minnow in the ocean. I’m fine with it.

We went back to the same church, where I danced again. I got to dance twice as Mary while I was pregnant. Grateful doesn’t begin to express how I felt about that. In fact, I danced until my due date with both kids — dancing felt more natural to my body than walking (ahem, waddling), at that point.

And then came the true making of me as a dancer: we joined a multiracial/multicultural church that had a very different history of dance. Dances weren’t just something nice to do that might move people. Dances could change lives, they could lead the viewers to deeper faith, to faith to begin with. There was also a tradition of “flowing” — dancing as the Spirit moves you, without planned choreography.

Most of my favorite dance experiences are from City Hope. I’m both a more powerful dancer and a freer one. I only managed to “flow” once, but I have motions for a third of the songs we sing that I do in the pews. If the praise team sings a song I have a dance to, I’ll go up front (after making sure that my outfit doesn’t show skin if I bend over or raise my arms) and just do it, unplanned, no uniform. Lately, I’ve taken to waving my big ribbon (thank you, rhythmic gymnastics training) during praise and worship, mostly as an encouragement to the congregation during the tough time we’re having.

I’d always loved the storytelling aspect of dance, the ability to embody emotion, especially the angsty ones. The peppy numbers were fun, but the first dance I choreographed was called, “Gaelic Mourning,” and I went on to specialize in numbers for Lent and Good Friday. The Bible verse that best explains my approach to dancing is about something else entirely: Romans 26:8 (NLT), “the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.”

Is this the place to mention the dance others (not me!) called my “sex on a chair” dance? It was in good taste. I know this because nobody wrote a letter to school paper complaining about it. It was to Maria McKee’s, “Breathe” — “I will let you breathe through me, I will let you be through me.” If one is trying to embody those lyrics….

It’s funny, but as a dancer, I’m mostly word focused. I explicate the lyrics with my body. This is especially true in my church dancing, but it was before, too. Lately, I’ve been using a lot of enhanced American Sign Language, especially in the kids’ church dance numbers. It provides a wonderful framework. Someday, I’d like to put together a seminar for the Calvin Institutes of Worship conference on that topic. I think it would help a lot of churches who want to have dance, but may not have “pros” already in their pews.

I’d say it’s pretty clear that, if I weren’t a (wannabe) writer, I’d be a dancer, because I am one. But that doesn’t answer the “Why?”

Because I was made to move. Just like that character in “Chariots of Fire,” I feel God’s pleasure when I move and when I teach others to move. And I’m not giving that up.




Strange Bedfellows

Last week, my family and I went on a crazy trip to New York City — crazy because we drove for, essentially, three days to be in the city for one full day, an evening and a morning. Nuts. But fun.

It all started with a Groupon for a hotel in Williamsburg. We were thinking the Williamsburg we knew when we lived there: where our friends lived, where Michael’s band, The Haints, practiced and did weekly open mic nights at the local pizza parlor. We knew the neighborhood had been gentrified, with new hotels and everything, and were excited to stay there.

However, out hotel was in way South Williamsburg, in a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood. We were expecting to hang out with young, rich hipsters and wound up intruding into an old, old world in which we were not welcome.

It was fascinating to walk the same sidewalks (although not always: they crossed the street to avoid us if they could) with men with silky, long curls bobbing on either side of their faces, dressed all in black until Friday night and Saturday morning, when some men sported white knee socks, black loafers, UFO-shaped fur hats, and beautiful black and white fringed prayer shawls. The women were less interesting to look at, but that’s the point of their clothing traditions.

When I run across groups that separate themselves so fully and deal with strangers so suspiciously, I tend see their culture as fear based. Fear of contamination by the other, fear of dilution of belief, fear of female sexuality (which is actually fear of male sexuality, as if seeing the outline of a thigh or unadorned hair will drive men insane with lust). I have no problem with modesty and I appreciate the comfort they may take in their clothing traditions, the pride in expressing their culture so visibly. I admire their determination to be who they are in the face of pressure to conform to the wider society. But fear-based, nonetheless.

And then, upon coming home and doing a little reading on Hasidism, I come across this description of their message and lifestyle: they “stressed joy, faith, and ecstatic prayer, accompanied by song and dance.”

That sounds like my church, and like me. The white denomination I grew up in stressed knowledge of God, but my multiracial church stresses experiencing God, hearing from God, freely expressing joy in God, deepening faith and trust in God. I’ve been known to go up front and dance (sometimes planned, sometimes not), to raise my hands and do actions while singing, to twirl my big purple ribbon on a stick, to cry, to immerse myself in the experience of worship in a way that might make people suspicious of emotion in worship uncomfortable.

It’s interesting that a group that stresses joy in following God’s decrees is beyond strict about following them. When I read all those decrees in the Old Testament last year, I was struck by what seemed to be God’s tone: desperation. It felt less like a precise list of what you must do to be holy than a plea to do anything, anything to help you remember the Lord: as in, “Wear my words in a box and tie it to your arm, wear tassels on your garments so you see them flapping and think of me, write the words of the Shema on your doorposts — whatever it takes!”

Indeed, the people we saw in South Williamsburg must find it impossible to ever forget God and the history of what God has done for them. Even the simple act of getting dressed is spiritual. In my entirely modern world, it’s easy to forget God, to slide through my day without taking even five minutes to read the Bible. I’d had a strong almost-daily habit of Bible reading and prayer, but I’ve gotten haphazard again. I need better remembering. Not to the point of shaving my head and wearing a wig and scarf in public, but something. Something joyful.