Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Dancing Lessons -- The Rituals of our Faith and the Vision of God

I have always been struck by the power of Jesus' two words to Matthew, "Follow me." What was it in those two words that allowed Matthew to drop whatever he was doing in life and follow Jesus (with no guarantees) . . .eventually into his hearts desire?

Every time I am struck by those words, my mind and my heart go back to the story an old friend of mine, Ben Cheesman, told about his youth. The story began when Ben, at age 14, was enrolled by his parents in Miss Ellsworth's Dancing Class in Columbus, Ohio. For a young boy(Ben said), it was a terrible experience, having to get new shoes and a white shirt and a tie and slicking down his hair every Sunday afternoon before the dreadful Miss Ellsworth's class.

The worst part (he said) were those black shoe prints on the floor, so the boys would know where their feet were supposed to go as they waltzed, did the fox trot or the tango. He said the weekly drill included showing up squeaky clean with our hair slicked down; being respectful towards the girls, being paired off with a girl for the afternoon (and never getting my first choice) and then following the rubber or plastic feet on the floor to music none of us would have listened to on our own.

Some time later, after the classes had finished, Ben's school had its Spring prom -- and somehow (he said) after about four hours preparation, he finally got up the nerve to ask a girl to the prom. Next came the obligatory shopping trip with his mother to pick out a suit -- and then to order his date's corsage (a yellowish-purple orchid to go with her purple Prom Dress).

Then, on the night of the prom, there they were ... at the edge of the dance floor, surrounded on every side with black and gold crepe paper, their school colors ... both trying to look cool, but also trying not to let their hands touch. Both were very excited and very, very nervous. And then just as the band began playing "Embraceable You," they saw the dance floor: it was covered with those rubberized foot prints from Mrs. Ellsworth's class! Nobody. . . but nobody . . . was dancing. Miss Ellsworth had ruined their prom.

And then Miss Ellsworth, herself, appeared. She quieted the band and she asked that the footprints be picked up and put away in a box on the stage. And then Miss Ellsworth spoke to the students. She said that the footprints were important; they were the path towards dancing.but they were not the point of the dancing. "The real reason and real purpose of the footprints," she explained, "was, that in knowing them and trusting them, you are then free, while dancing, not to be looking at your feet, but to be looking only into the eyes of your date, your beloved."

And so it is with the rules and the rituals of our faith. The rules, the rituals, the sacrifices and responsibilities, they are so important. . .but they are not there for their own sake, but that by knowing them and doing them, from the inside, we are enabled to dance the dance of life, focusing not on our inadequacies and doubts, but only on the face of our Savior.

It is always a good time to honor our teachers, the ones who, week after week, lay down the plastic footprints, who give our children the very things they need to dance the dance of faith on their way to knowing fully the presence of God. There is no more important ministry in the church.

Jesus has said, to each of us, "Follow me." The invitation is to a journey -- of life and love and service and sacrifice into the presence of God. And so we journey, step by step.