The Dance of Living: trusting and living Christianly

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What is first or primary?
Jesus was asked by a bystander, "What must I do to have life?" Jesus' answer was not any dogmas — either of fundamentalists or any other faith traditions.
His answer brought together two key statements from the Old Testament:

  • "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.
  • The second is this, You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Abraham Lincoln never joined a church. He reportedly said that when he found a church that placed upon its altar Jesus’ words to love God and love neighbor as its only requirement for membership, that church he would join.

Am I a neighbor?
In Luke’s telling, a lawyer after hearing this asked, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus' told of a man beaten and left for dead by the roadside. Two men saw him, and avoided him for religious reasons — I'll comment on those guys in a moment. A third man was from a hated minority, an outcast that religious people avoided, who went to the injured man, bound up his wounds, and carried him to the nearest inn. Which of these three, asked Jesus, "Proved to be neighbor to the one who was injured?" Jesus changed neighbor from the object to the actor! Not who is my neighbor, but am I a neighbor? Am I befriending? James Lynch: "One thing you get from caring for others is you're not lonely. And the more connected you are to life, the healthier you are."

John Dominic Crossan suggests that when Jesus praised the third one, the crowd would have been noisily angry — one of those people the hero?

A Pasadena, California, pastor named Karl Downs noticed that a Black teen student who had been doing very well in school was beginning to mix with gangs, and his grades were dropping. Downs noticed, he talked with him, befriended him, and after school they practiced athletics, until he again was a good student. He got an athletic scholarship at UCLA and lettered in every sport he tried. When Branch Rickey searched for a gifted athlete with the necessary resolve and character to break the color bar in baseball, Rickey selected that man — Jackie Robinson.

Being a neighbor is shown in the gutsiness of the civil rights movements of the 1960s in which thousands of men, women, children demanded and secured their rights against a hostile entrenched dominant power. Different religions inspired and motivated both sides; one religion was domineering, the other liberating.

The two religious passerbys
The two who passed by for religious reasons saw religion as individual and personal holiness — being
clean. Surgeons scrub to be clean, but not for their own sake; they cleanse so they do not contaminate others. Like the surgeon we must be holy in order to be helpful neighbors.
And being neighbors makes us healthier! Religious people must be alert to search for who is in the ditch.

It is relatively easy to take care of an injured neighbor you know. Love for one we do not know is willed by the lover, while usually love is attracted by who we love. For some sensitive Jews and Christians during the civil rights struggle, it meant going to Montgomery and other places in the South to work on behalf of people they did not know. They were being neighbors in the best sense, and some were brutally murdered for their efforts.

Being a neighbor is done by groups; in the civil rights struggles of the 60's people teamed up. Churches must be neighbors. Nations are called to be neighbors, as Amos, Isaiah, and others made clear in the Old Testament.

Notice that Jesus said little about what we believe — the beliefs or doctrines or propositions that some say we are supposed to believe. Jesus told us to love God, to trust God. Trust between persons is our most human quality that we learn as children. It builds relationship with others; it enables us to develop trust in God. If you are confused about what we should believe, click here.

Works or fruit
Being a neighbor is much more than doing good deeds. An image that Jesus often used was the tree and what kind of fruit it bears. Jesus talked about good fruit rather than good works. Good fruit can only come from a tree that is nourished and that has deep roots. How much more fruitful to use this image instead of talking about faith and works. Jesus talked about laying his axe to the root of trees that did not bear fruit. If you want to destroy a tree, go for the roots. If you want to be a neighbor, to bear good fruit, you nourish the roots of trusting relationships with the God-of-Christ and people.

Someone said heaven and hell are the same; in both each person arriving is given a very long fork and led to heaping plates of food. In hell everyone is trying to find how to use that long fork to reach their own mouth, while in heaven they are feeding each other.

Equal sign
I think I might like a large equal sign on the altar or on the cross, to remind us that we are to love neighbor as we love ourselves. We take care of our shelter and being well fed, comfortable, having fun. We are to use all of these as our yardstick to measure how actively we are being neighbors. Jesus had a very big equal sign in these commands. Love yourself is not narcissism but healthy, open love.

Jesus told us to regard other persons as we think about ourselves. We are to thoughtfully regard the needs and problems of others as we do ours. Being neighborly purposefully does for others what we do for ourselves. Our check stubs or check card receipts tell what we really care about — what matters most to us!

A provocative movie decades ago showed a young person who tried to get her church to work for the migrants who lived on the edge of town, while she was busy helping them. But at the end of the film she said, "I was doing it because I hated the dirt, and not because I loved the people." Always ask her question, why am I being neighborly?

Some people are really unlovely and unlovable, obnoxious and hateful. Some social systems are cruel and unjust. We are enabled to be neighborly because God is neighborly to us; God reaches out to us in Christ. God walked in our moccasins so as to learn what we really experience. In Christ God feels the hell and tyranny of hurting social systems. God comes to share with us grace to change systems and change ourselves.

The Dance of Living
The Dance of Living may seem a strange title; what does that have to do with being a neighbor and being empowered to be a neighbor? Martha Graham was a skilled choreographer of dances, and was asked by a critic after a first performance what she was trying to say with that dance. Graham answered, "If I could tell you, then I wouldn't have to dance it." The Christian faith and life cannot be understood; it cannot be explained. Perhaps that is why Jesus used parables and questions as his favorite way to teach. So often he began, "The Rule of God is like…." Parables like dances do not explain. They suggest. They point the way for you to think and probe.

The Dance of Living also suggests order, movement, and harmony. Some dances are very graceful and beautiful. Others are dissonant, jerky, harsh. When bad things happen to good people, we feel dissonance, we feel life is harsh. The Dance of Living offers us grace and beauty even in the ugliest of life.

The Dance of Living reminds us of the troupe of dancers — the church. The troupe works to fix its failings, supports one another, and helps one another perfect the vision of the artistic director. Working together, the troupe begins to show us what the church is to be.

The Dance of Living points to the One who choreographs and who coaches us as we work to learn the complexities of the Dance of Living — so we interact constantly with the other dancers and with the Choreographer.

Copyright © 2004, 2012 John F. Yeaman