Creative Worship

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In the middle of my ballet class last week I was struck with a sudden memory that almost made me topple out of a pirouette. (At least, that’s what I’d prefer to attribute it to, and not to mere laziness over finding my center before attempting said pirouette.) For whatever reason, my brain chose that inopportune moment to summon a recollection that was nearly twenty years old.

I was nineteen (I said nearly twenty years, mind you) and I was attending the teachers’ intensive put on by Ballet Magnificat in Jackson, Mississippi. (Y’all do know about Ballet Magnificat, right?) For three weeks I had been taking master classes from some of the best teachers in the country and scribbling frantic notes on lectures ranging from anatomy to choreography to grant writing. (Okay, I confess, I kind of checked out during the grant writing session.) Every day I got to attend morning chapel with a roomful of dancers who were head over heels in love with Jesus Christ, and every night I fell into bed wholesomely exhausted from an impossibly rigorous schedule. It was an amazing time that left a permanent mark on me, and I loved every minute of it. Almost. You see, there was one item on the schedule that made me a little uneasy.

Creative Worship.

I heard alumni talking about it in reverential tones almost from my very arrival on the Belhaven Campus. It sounded interesting, so long as it didn’t turn out to be a bunch of people dancing around extemporaneously all at the same time. That just seemed a tad—I don’t know, unrefined—to my meticulous little sensibilities. I worried, and gathered clues from my fellow dancers (I seemed to be the only one that was squeamish about it) and, long story short, that’s exactly what it proved to be. On one of the final nights of the intensive the whole company was to gather in the gym, prepared to worship God with all of our strength, as creatively as we knew how. We had had classes in improv—nothing about Ballet Mag is desultory. But making things up in front of a room of one’s peers just seemed like a whole different ballgame than—a bunch of people dancing around extemporaneously all at the same time.

I talked to my teacher about it (you may remember her—she is amazing), sitting in the car one night after a long day of classes. She heard me out, listened patiently to my litany of very religious reasons why I was uncomfortable with the idea. Then she pursed her lips and drew her breath in that way she had that always alerted me she was about to say something important. You know, one of those things I would remember all my life, or something.

“Lanier, when my sister was little—probably about four years old—she saw all of us giving presents to our dad for Father’s Day. She didn’t have a gift, so she went through the house and picked out pretty things she thought he would like, and wrapped them up and gave them to him. It never entered her mind that those wouldn’t be considered ‘real’ gifts.” My teacher looked me right in the eyes with that piercing blue gaze of hers. “And do you think that her presents were any less precious to my dad than the ones we bought at the store and wrapped up with beautiful ribbons?”

I swallowed in the darkness and admitted that I supposed they were at least as precious. If not more. That father knew the heart of his little girl, and he cherished the offerings of her heart, no matter how humble. (Or, in this case, repurposed.) I appreciated the vignette and the prayers she whispered over me in the half-light of the car, and I thought about her words a lot over the days that followed. She had so much wisdom—it had chiseled away at my assumptions plenty of times before this—but I still felt uneasy. It wasn’t my self-consciousness that was on the table, I insisted, so much as my principles. And my principles had just never considered doing anything quite this weird.

I went to the Creative Worship session. I found a girl who was almost as uncomfortable as I was and we sat down on the floor together. Someone opened with prayer and someone else turned on the music—a gentle, rippling stream of melody that I can still hear the ghost of to this day. And then, nearly as a body, the company rose and began moving around the room in an elliptical of orderly individuality. A censer was lit and gently passed from hand to hand amid the revolving throng, and the aroma filled the gym with a spice-laden haze. I remember one dancer in particular, a girl from New York I had met at the airport and one of the most gifted ballerinas I have ever seen: every movement was poetry and the look on her face was nothing short of beatific. She danced like there was not another soul in the room—or in all the world—but Jesus.

At length my friend got up and joined the quiet circle of worship. I know you’re thinking that the moral to this story is that I did, too—that I conquered my self-consciousness (or was at least too self-conscious to sit there all by myself!) and smashed my silly ‘principles’ to smithereens in the act. With all my soul, I wish I could say that was what I did. I think it would have been an experience of genuine abandonment to God, which can only and ever be a good thing. To my shame, however, I sat there, watching, longing for I scarce knew what.

And that was the memory that assailed me the other day as I was cringing at my reflection in the mirror in ballet class, hoping everyone else was too occupied with their own pirouettes to notice how badly mine had just turned out. It all came back in a rush, and I felt my cheeks grow warm, twenty years after the fact. If I could go back, I would yank my nineteen-year-old self off of her derrière and shove her out on the floor with the others. (Lovingly, of course, but, heavens, that girl could use a bit of roughing up. She thought she knew everything.) I think it’s sad that I missed such an opportunity of corporate worship, simply because I had learned to mask my fear with a set of cozy convictions. I have so much respect for the souls who are able to worship God with all of their might—wielding pens, pointe shoes, paintbrushes, cellos, what-have-you—without being restrained in the least by what others think. God knows it’s difficult—almost super-human, you might say. But it’s the joy of our souls, and the fuel to more formal pursuits in His name.

I know that Jesus is tender towards that nineteen-year-old me with all her answers and insecurities. He doesn’t despise my weakness the way I do. Twenty years from now I will doubtless have plenty of other missed opportunities to chafe at. But today, burning from an old shame yet standing in grace, I offer myself anew, re-purposing these gifts (that are not my own anyway) to my Father’s good pleasure.

Because, in the end, isn’t it all Creative Worship?

Profile photo of Lanier Ivester

Lanier Ivester is a “Southern Lady” in the best and most classical sense and a gifted writer in the most articulate and literal sense. She hand-binds books and lives on a farm with peacocks, bees, sheep, and the governor of Ohio’s leg. She loves old books and sells them from her website, LaniersBooks.com, and she’s currently putting the final touches on her first novel, as well as studying literature at Oxford.


20 Comments

  1. Brenda Branson

    Lanier, I know exactly what you mean by having a desire to be totally abandoned in worship or in loving, but holding back. You described it beautifully. How wonderful it is that God knows our hearts and has great mercy for our fears!

  2. Lancia E. Smith

    Oh Lanier, I so appreciate the grace and courage of your sweet transparency! I am grateful that you are willing to articulate not only a grace-filled comment about Creative Worship but demonstrate a grace-filled perspective on who you were. We need the model of how to treat who we have been in this long walk of becoming. Bless you, beautiful one.

  3. Julie

    Lanier – Thank you so much. The older I get, the more I believe that (at least for me), worship and repentance are intertwined. So often, my principles, or self-consciousness, or pride (the list goes on) keeps me sitting on the floor of the gymnasium. I remain in control, yet I’ve missed out on the great gift of self-abandoned worship – that for which I was created. That takes different forms on different days (or years), yet the result is the same. Screwtape wins.

    As a direct result of your recent post ( http://laniersbooks.com/2013/03/08/i-never-lose-me/ ), I could stand it no longer. I’ve been thinking of and writing about the years I spent dancing. Nothing has come close to the “for this I was made” feeling. But there were the obvious obstacles – logistics, finding the right class, and at the root – pride and fear. In an act of repentance intertwined with hope, last week I stepped back into the ballet studio after a 20 year break.

    Screwtape loses. It was great fun.

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful heart and your story. I was convicted and inspired – at the same time. I’m grateful that His mercies are new every morning. And that each day, I’m given the opportunity to “offer myself anew, re-purposing these gifts (that are not my own anyway) to my Father’s good pleasure.”

  4. Kaitlin

    Lanier, reading this –– that was me too at Ballet Magnificat! not too long ago. I was sixteen and barely learning to confront some of my insecurities.

    Julie, I know exactly what you mean about the “for this I was made” feeling. Sometimes it feels like dance is what best expresses my soul to God, despite the critique my rational brain makes on that statement. I took just a few classes last year and am hoping to start up again this summer. It’s encouraging to hear you took the plunge after 20 years!

  5. Wendy

    Lanier, this is beautiful, moving, and timely for me. I am following The Lord in His “re-purposing” of dance in my life…to serve Him and the Body. You are an inspiration and encouragement. Thank you for humbly sharing and spurring us on.

  6. Bailey

    One of my best friends is a long-time member of Ballet Magnificat! How cool to hear you write about them. It’s an amazing ministry. 🙂

  7. Angela

    Oh my! This post awakens such a longing in me!

    I did ballet for 13 years, until I graduated high school. During that time, I was also at a home church that had a small group of faithful women who would frequently dance off to the side during worship services. As a little girl who loved to dance, I thought those women were so special! And I would copy them. The dancing was always so reverent and beautiful, and I loved it. What made it so precious is that the women were worshiping – truly worshiping – and in copying them, I was able to truly worship through the dancing, too. It was still a bit intimidating, but we were off to the side, and with so many other people dancing, it was not half so awkward as it could have been (most of the time – I wasn’t completely free of that awkward self-awareness). But because I grew up with this model respected and practiced, I was able to adopt it much more easily, I think, than if it had been sprung on me later in life. I look back on the ease of those early days with such wonder and appreciation.

    Fast forward to high school – I was reaching high levels of classical training, and I was still dancing at church. Ballet and movement had become so integral to my self-expression over the years that worshiping God as I moved was even more natural than singing – in fact, I remember feeling intensely trapped if I did not have enough room to move my feet! I would go to the church building in the middle of the week, with my handheld stereo and worship CDs, just to dance. But the reason it mattered is that when I danced, I was with Him. It reminds me of how Eric Liddell said he could feel God’s pleasure when he ran. To me, dancing was like smiling up at heaven and feeling His radiant joy as He smiled back. Every motion felt like poetry and every expression the very essence of my heart and mind as I worshiped Him. The intensity did not come from technical beauty or execution – I know at times I was way sloppier than my perfectionist tendencies would ever condone in class! But it was such a genuine interaction with the Love of my soul, and all I can say is that it awakened intense life in my deepest being, and opened a gateway to the purest freedom, joy, and happiness I have ever felt.

    But I quit dancing in college, and I quit pursuing the art of worshiping through dance. I had no large spaces available for me to dance in, not in the school chapel or in any other place. And slowly, my abilities faded, but even more, dancing faded as the most natural means of expression. That’s not a bad thing, but I let myself grow timid – and that IS bad. I listened to the voice that said, “It’s too inconvenient. You don’t look like you used to.” “You can no longer execute the moves.” “All you do is repeat the same motions.” “You fall over now if you forget to concentrate.” “Dancing is just not for you anymore.” “Everyone can see, and you look awkward.” I devalued my own art, my own worship of Him, and in doing so, I lost it. Maybe I had begun to worship my pride more than I was willing to worship my God. But I’ve never forgotten what it means to commune with God with such precious abandon.

    I’ve begun to remember these things, recently, and to pray that God would reawaken that desire to worship Him this way, and that He would help me get over the fear. Because dancing with God is one of the most precious things I have ever spent time doing.

    Thank you for being honest about your heart, and your own battle. May we all pursue Him with renewed freedom and grace, be it in dance or in our other arts.

    And maybe now, I can get a little more high tech than a stereo and CDs. : )

    Blessings to you, dear Lanier.

  8. Chris Whitler

    I used to live in a YWAM community called the “academy of the performing arts” in Cambridge, Ontario. There were many dancers on campus and this is what our community worship sometimes looked like. When I first arrived, this was quite intimidating to me. I’m a big guy and not a ‘dancer’ and I found I could just not express myself this way. But some of the best times were when the different arts departments led in the community in different ways of worship…our resident painter would would lead one week with images around the room to meditate on, the theater group did a whole praise time using all children’s toy instruments. I learned a lot about what corporate worship could be.

    One session, one of the dancers had the whole community stand in a circle and listen to Twila Paris’ song “How beautiful is the Body of Christ”. At some point in the song, she stepped into the center of the circle and just pointed at all of us. It was so simple and such a holy moment, I’ll never forget it.

    Every now and then, the kids in my congregation will break out in spontaneous dance in the back of our meeting room. I’m usually leading the time so I am one of the only ones who can see it happening. I think I can pretty much say safely that I will never overcome my hesitance to dance in worship anytime soon. When I see the kids, though, I’m a little jealous of their abandon and how much they just don’t care what people think.

  9. Bethany

    Lanier, I was so thankful to read your post yesterday. Realizing that there are more dancing rabbits among the group is exciting. But it was the topic at hand that I connected with as I was just talking with my dance students, a foundation dance class at the Christian college, about letting themselves go through dance. Working on modern dance at the time, I would get replies of “I just do not want to look stupid” or “I am not very good at improv or letting go”—those insecurities and fears of failing.

    Among the class discussion, I shared with them part of my story of what brought me to dance. Being a later-in-life dancer, starting senior year of high school, my technique is not always at the top level. I know this and realize my limitations. However, there became a day that dance switch over from being for everyone else to a conversation and worship time with the Audience of One. How refreshing and freeing my expressions came; so much of what I had been wanting and waiting to say just poured out in honor, praise, and worship. Through dancing to and for the Lord, I found I could say more than my own words that I struggle with ever could.

    As I work with students now and still choreograph for various events, I am encouraged and cheer the dancers on that take steps to move away from their “masks” and find the heart of creative worship. Thank you for sharing!

  10. Miranda

    “I know that Jesus is tender towards that nineteen-year-old me with all her answers and insecurities. He doesn’t despise my weakness the way I do.”

    Lanier,

    I am so glad you posted this. I’m sitting in my Theology class right now (not listening to my professor…well, sort of…he’s talking about angels…) and I’m learning Theology from your post. Here’s what makes me so grateful for it:

    I am 20. A junior in college. A follower of Jesus who is broken, insecure, and unbelieving. This all after Jesus gave me a picture a few months ago that rocked my world. See, both of my parents passed away when I was really little. So, I’ve got all this stuff in my heart that I’ve never dealt with…and Jesus started me down a path to healing last semester. Back in February, I was on a retreat with my school. Long story short, Jesus showed/gave me something that my little girl heart had longed for as long as I can remember. First off, I was in a prison cell. Jesus came into the cell and sat down next to me. As the group began to worship, Jesus stood up and took my hand and lead me out of the cell, through the prison, and eventually out of the prison door. Immediately upon leaving the prison, Jesus and I were in His palace…in the ballroom, to be exact. It was beautiful. Like Beauty & the Beast on steroids. He had clothed me in all white and placed a small wreath of daises on my head (cause He knows their my favorite). Then, we began to dance. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve wanted to dance on top of my daddy’s feet. Of course, I could never do that. And I thought it was a dumb desire anyways. So, every time I ached for it, I shoved the pain and desire away. Welp, that day Jesus redeemed it. Jesus let me dance on top of His feet. And I cried like a baby. I pressed into Him with my ear against His chest, He rested His chin on my head and whispered as we danced: Miranda, you never have to go back into that prison again.

    Crazy, right? And, since then, I have struggled so hard to live in that reality. The dance that we dance with Him has become more of a concept rather than concrete truth. Your post reminded me that the dance can be (and was always meant to be) reality. Yet so often, we let our thoughts and insecurities get in the way. Yet, Jesus waits, smiling, on the dance floor. He stretches out His hand and waits for us to come.

    Yes, it is all Creative Worship. From the Creator Himself.

    Thanks so much, Lanier! Sending love your way.

  11. Loren Warnemuende

    Oy, that hits home. Not in the realm of dancing–that’s never been my art (unless you count sessions in the living room with my sister as a kid, or with my own children now 🙂 ). But I live so much of life restrained. Some of it is personality and I’ve accepted who I am, but sometimes it’s just that fear of losing control. I mean, who knows what might happen or what God might do? In those times, I need to see my self-consciousness and pride for what it is. Thank you for this perspective on it.

  12. Jacqui

    This reminds me of one of my first worship experiences in a Pentecostal church. I was so struck by the freedom everyone felt to worship openly and in different ways, far differently than my heavily traditional, liturgically scripted upbringing. I was fascinated by it, and my heart so desperately wanted to join in and feel the kind of connection to God those around me had to have been feeling to worship they way they did. But I just couldn’t.

    Out of frustration, I eventually found my way to the floor and rested my head on a chair to pray, but even that wasn’t working for me. I couldn’t stay focused long enough. And then I started to fall asleep…in the middle of all the dancing and singing and busyness of people worshiping with all their strength…and I wondered what was wrong with me. Clearly they had something I didn’t, and I felt so dejected, but I couldn’t fight back the sleepiness.

    But as I walked out of the building a while later, I had this overwhelming sense that it had been one of the purest, most meaningful worship experiences I’d had, and God was most certainly present in it and had taught me an important lesson. This chronic doer of deeds had learned the deeply worshipful value of *resting* at the feet of her King.

  13. Suzanne Tietjen

    I, too, was a dancer (we talked about it at Hutchmoot last fall). So surprised when I ended up dancing in Walt Wangerin’s Cry of the Whole Congregation for several seasons when I was in my forties.

    Wish I’d been able to dance like that when I was a young dancer with stars in my eyes. Jesus is forever surprising me.

    This is beautiful. Thank you, Lanier.

  14. Carl A.

    This broke my heart when I first read it. I have a five-year old daughter who is still in the “unabashed joyous dancing” phase. I have never danced so much as I have since she was born. Growing up in church where expressions of worship were staid, hands were not raised, dances were not danced, I only experienced the rare glimpse of exuberance during our community worship times. What was interesting was that the one place I felt such freedom was at a Christian rock concert. It really was a rare event when I was not being conscious of myself. Too often I have felt to quickening of my pulse, the beating in my chest that I needed to move with the Spirit, and yet I quivered to think of it. My seat stuck to my chair. My prayers were not given. My hands were not raised. I pray that this message will remain with me this day and for the days to come. Thank you.

  15. Amber Joy Leffel

    Miranda, and Lanier,

    It was in a worship service during the song “Dance With Me” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=joFXiiqVmic) that the Lord showed me a picture of Him dancing with me to the song. He then showed me the young man who had long been pursuing me cutting in to the dance, to dance with me through to the end of the song, and even after. And the Lord stood closeby and gazed upon us with such joy. This is one of the most concrete confirmations which led me to agree to court him, and now we are engaged to be married. There is Love that dances.

    Also, at the beginning of the year 2011 a friend’s mother was praying for me and received the word “dance” for me from the Lord. She told me about it early one morning. Much later that night, my sister-friend showed me this song: “May I Have This Dance” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1ut9MnL-Ms) without even knowing that Mrs. Morley had spoken the word “dance” over me from her prayer-time. I nearly wept that night. Maybe I did.

    I think it’s important to note that December 2011 was when I received that picture from the Lord of my fiance cutting in on the dance with the Lord. Perhaps Mrs. Morley’s word from God was just for that December. Just for us.

    Praise the Lord for dance. There is Love that dances.

  16. Miranda

    Amber,

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I am glad to hear that He has given you a picture like that too. I’m not gonna lie…after it first happened, I freaked out a little bit. I was like, WHOA. Is this normal?! Haha, I don’t know if it’s normal…but I do know it’s okay. 🙂

    You are right. There is Love that dances…His Name is Jesus. Who would’ve ever come up with that? Only God Himself.

  17. Josie Ray

    Lanier…at the risk of sounding contrary, I’m SO glad you stood firm to your principles when peer pressure was strong to lead you in a different direction. The holiest worship is about self-forgetfulness, not self-expression. Perhaps at heart you intuitively knew this, though you couldn’t articulate it when powerfully immersed in an environment that promoted the opposite.

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