It’s the largest wooded city park in the United States. Forest Park is just minutes from downtown Portland, Oregon and has seventy rolling miles of single track, dirt and gravel trails. After the Pre-General Conference briefing in January, I spent two extra days with my daughter, who drove down from Seattle. One morning we decided to do a ten mile trail run through the woods. It was spectacular, exhilarating … and messy!
Because of the many trees in Forest Park and frequent drizzle/rainfall, the trails rarely have a chance to dry out in the winter months. At first it was fun trying to sidestep the mud and keep up with someone half my age. I imagined myself to be part of a sacred dance, gracefully attempting to avoid disaster around every corner, at the same time willing myself to look up and enjoy the spectacular views.
Alas, four miles into the run, I slid sideways into a muddy morass and fell on my back and side. We erupted into gales of laughter, knowing that my entire back and legs were caked with gooey mud.
It reminded me of author, psychologist and psychotherapist, Bill Plotkin, who writes in his book Soulcraft about Harvey Swift Deer, a Native American teacher who says that every human being has both a survival dance and a sacred dance. The survival dance, which occupies the first half of our lives, is what we are paid to do to make a living. When we leave our parents’ home, we need to become self-reliant and support ourselves physically and economically.
By contrast, the sacred dance is what we are called to do to live well: the work and/or play that nourishes our soul. Many of us expend so much of our time and energy in the survival dance that we never get to the sacred dance. The sacred dance is not about ego, money, status, power, advancement or being right. It’s about wholeness, passion, fullness of life and kingdom living.
I was a sight in Forest Park and enjoyed watching the smiles and astonishment of other walkers and runners, who would comment, “What happened to you?” Even though my daughter made me sit on an extra jacket in the car so I wouldn’t get mud on the upholstery, I felt fully alive. I also came to realize just how much I have come to love “messy.” The more life experience I gain, the more I am willing to blow the wad and risk all and the more eager I am to leave the safety of what is comfortable to stretch my wings and fly wherever God leads.
Portland, Oregon is going to be a messy place from May 9-21 when General Conference comes to town! As we consider the most important issues facing The United Methodist Church, I see three ways in which God is calling us to dance into our future in the midst of the mud.
- Ditch the survival dance.
It’s safe to say that a sizeable number of United Methodist congregations in the US today are hanging on by a thread. For a variety of reasons, attendance, membership and ministry have declined to the point where those who are left just want to survive. No longer able or even willing to reach out to the community around them, the remnants hunker down in their sacred cow buildings, living off their endowment and determined to keep on going until one of two things happen: the money runs out or their funerals are held in the sanctuary.
Last week Lovett Weems, Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, published his summary of the 2015 report Faith Communities Today, where sociologist David Roozen and his colleagues at the Hartford (CT) Institute for Religion Research describe the pulse of current congregational life in our country. Weems writes, “‘In a rapidly changing world,’ the report says, ‘thriving congregations are nearly ten times more likely to have changed themselves than are struggling congregations.’ So churches that grow have to change, but there is no assurance in the uncertain religious landscape of today that a particular change will be effective. This may be one reason the ‘willingness to change to meet new challenges’ has dropped from 74 percent to just under 62 percent in the past ten years.”
Ditching the survival dance not only implies change, but it can lead to conflict as well. Change often evokes a sense of loss, as church members lament the good old days when life and church were much simpler. When congregation leaders carefully manage change by communicating well and providing pastoral care and encouragement for those who feel disenfranchised, conflict is less likely to tear a congregation apart. Congregations are much more receptive to releasing the grip of the survival dance when they understand why “doing a new thing” can lead to new life.
Will The United Methodist Church have the courage to ditch the survival dance in Portland by giving ourselves away to our world? Will we recognize that we need all perspectives in order to enact healthy change at every level of our denomination?
- Engage the sacred dance.
Bill Plotkin writes in Soulcraft, “Your sacred dance sparks your greatest fulfillment and extends your truest service to others. You know you’ve found it when there’s little else you’d rather be doing… To find your sacred dance, after all, you will need to take significant risks. You might need to move against the grain of your family and friends… Swift Deer says that once you discover your sacred dance and learn effective ways of embodying it, the world will support you in doing just that.”
Every Christ-follower and every congregation has its own unique sacred dance. The challenge is to uncover that dance and allow it to thrive. The sacred dance of spiritual growth, Bible study and small groups is directed related to vitality and fruitfulness in ministry. Continual innovation in worship also correlates to thriving congregations. Moreover, churches that take their sacred dance out into their communities through unique acts of piety and mercy are more likely to grow. When people sense the Holy Spirit moving in their midst, they are inspired, and inspired disciples tell others where to find spiritual food.
When will The United Methodist Church recognize that the sacred dance of our Wesleyan heritage of personal and social holiness is the greatest witness we can offer to the world? Will we engage our sacred dance in Portland with a renewed commitment to mission and ministry that both nurtures our own spirits and makes a difference in the world?
- Welcome God into the messiness.
All congregations that are doing great ministry experience messiness. Being on the cutting edge means making mistakes, assessing what went wrong and trying again. It’s part of our story. After all, isn’t that what God did? After calling Abraham, leading the Israelites out of Egypt, raising up judges, anointing kings and lifting up prophets, God realized that none of it could bring us back into right relationship with God. Finally, in the fullness of time, God sent Jesus. But even then, it was messy. There’s nothing pretty about a cross.
One thing I’ve learned about mud is that it’s a gooey, slimy, sticky mess. And you never know when you’re gonna go down. But I still love the mud because getting mired in mud is humbling. And it reminds me of my vulnerability because I could make a fool of myself at any moment.
What I like best about mud, though, is that it’s forgiving. There are all kinds of running surfaces, including concrete, asphalt, grass, sand, gravel and dirt. When we fall on concrete, we fall hard. Asphalt can be filled with potholes, especially in Michigan. Grass can hide surface irregularities that can trip us up, and sand can bog us down. But mud? It’s forgiving! When we slip, the mud cushions the impact, and we fall into God’s grace.
Will we look for forgiveness in the muddy messiness of General Conference in Portland? Will The United Methodist Church move beyond the mud-slinging of the survival dance to the mud-embracing of the sacred dance? Will we smear mud on our faces, on our crosses and on our clothes and shoes through repentance and reconciliation? Will there be mud in worship, in our legislative sessions, and in the plenaries?
The soul of The United Methodist Church yearns for the sacred dance. It’s our future. Yet the sacred dance is what the world wants and needs as well. When we ditch the survival dance, embrace our sacred dance and welcome God into the messiness, the world will also become a more just, humane, forgiving and grace-filled home for all. Bring on the mud!