The will of God is not arbitrary or autocratic. It is comparable to the actions of the lead partner in ice-skating. In ice-skating, as in any form of dance, there must be a leader. One partner leads, the other follows. The one who follows is not passive or limp, but eagerly engaged in response. There is give-and-take, point and counterpoint. The one who follows exercises a personal will in the dance. The lead skater does not drag the other across the ice. Rather, the genius of the dance on ice is that as the one leads, the other follows in full response. Both are fully engaged.
What does it mean to follow, eagerly engaged in response to the leading of the Holy Spirit? First it means that we have to stop trying to lead out of our own ego. I don’t want you to think for a second that I believe that God has everything planned out and that we have to guess what that plan is. God has given us free will and the freedom to choose our own path in life. Our freedom is a gift of love. God’s will is that we return God’s love and love one another as we have been loved. God wills that we be responsible with our freedom. That’s where our egos get in our way. We want to be in charge of our lives and we want to do what pleases us, even when it does not take into account what is most loving to the other. The spiritual journey is a journey of ego transformation in which we become willing dance partners with God. How do we do that?
The first step is willingness. It doesn’t matter whether or not we think we’re ready, or whether we think we know the steps, we simply need to be willing to engage and be taught. We have to be game. We have to say “yes” to God. Then the Spirit takes the lead. But how on earth do we follow a Spirit that we can’t see or hear or touch? We listen. There is not one right way to listen for the Spirit’s leading. We are created as such unique people that there is no one size fits all in the Spirit’s leading. The good news is that the Spirit works within our individual unique styles of listening and learning. It’s up to us to figure out how we listen and learn and to practice listening. I suggested experimenting with a number of spiritual disciplines over the last year. Did you try those disciplines? I teach a class in the doctor of ministry program in the School of Theology and Ministry and assigned those same disciplines to my class. They had to write about their experiences and share their writing within small groups. What they wrote was fresh and thoughtful and moving. And no two experiences were alike. Some loved walking prayer and walking a labyrinth reminded them that their best prayer times were walking in nature. Others didn’t remember how to play when play as prayer was the assignment. Some had been so busy working, had been so serious about their discipleship that they forgot what gave them joy. Playing was a revelation in their relationship with God. Some of the most beautiful reflections came from rediscovering God’s delight in laughter and recreation, literally re-creation. Some found surprising guidance in writing morning pages, even though some needed to adapt those to evening pages. Writing focused thoughts and emotions and was a great release for those issues that we gnaw on that distract us from our best work. For some writing was a way to hear the music so that they could respond to the Spirit’s moving. Most agreed that they were allergic to fixed hour prayer, an allergy that I share. A few loved that particular prayer tool, but many had to adapt it to fit their ministry and work patterns. One chaplain learned from a rabbi co-worker to pray every time she washed her hands. I love that new prayer discipline! Now every time I wash my hands, I share a quiet time with God and am refreshed and re-engaged in the dance. There is no perfect, one-size-fits all prayer discipline. You need to find the one that fits your listening and learning style.
Learning to dance with the Spirit requires our attention and effort. We need to learn to hear the music and feel the beat, and that only happens when we set aside time to listen to God, whether it’s in quiet time, walking prayer, play, writing, journaling, or any other prayer discipline. There’s a saying about Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire’s most famous dance partner. She did everything that Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in heels. That kind of power and grace takes practice! And it is made possible by trusting the lead dancer.
The long tradition of faith tells us that the Spirit works holiness in us when we say “yes” to God. Our goal as Christians is to be holy, which simply means belonging to God. In our metaphor, holiness means being a great dance partner. Gertrud Mueller Nelson tells this delightful story about her young daughter’s first steps toward holiness:
Some years ago, I spent an afternoon caught up in a piece of sewing I was doing. The waste basket near my sewing machine was filled with scraps of fabric cut away from my project. This basket of discards was a fascination to my daughter Annika, who, at the time, was not yet four years old. She rooted through the scraps searching out the long bright strips, collected them to herself, and went off. When I took a moment to check on her, I tracked her whereabouts to the back garden where I found her sitting in the grass with a long pole. She was affixing the scraps to the top of the pole with great sticky wads of tape. “I’m making a banner for a procession,” she said. “I need a procession so that God will come down and dance with us.” With that she solemnly lifted her banner to flutter in the wind and slowly she began to dance.
May the Spirit lead you in a dance that will take your breath away. Amen.