By Erik Martínez Resly
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There was a time when we divisively debated the existence of God. I can still remember the scaling critiques and desperate apologetics that filled the public square. God became the object of blunt intellectual scrutiny, an idol to some and a trophy to others.
The times have since changed, at least on the ground. Where I once heard the clanging of dispute, I now hear a faint whisper. The more hopeful among us might interpret this silence as a sign of resolution, or at least civility. If we haven’t solved our metaphysical conundrum, perhaps we’ve agreed to disagree about it. Over the last two years, I’ve tested this hypothesis in my many conversations with young adults in our nation’s capital. I suspect there may be another side to the story.
It appears as if we’ve shifted our focus from God’s existence to God’s relevance.
Put differently, we have neither resolved the ferocious debates of years past nor sought to overcome their sectarianism. Rather, we have grown weary. Instead of asking whether God exists, we now seem to be asking: Does God matter? What difference does God’s existence even make? To use an analogy, I trust there are talented musicians across the globe releasing new records every day. These tracks may well exist somewhere, perched on someone’s hard drive, but they only become real to me when I hear them. They only matter if they make me dance.
Pastoral excellence in our time has a lot to do with dancing.
Pastoral excellence as dancing
There is great wisdom in this metaphor, for dancing can happen anywhere. It may be concentrated in clubs and classes, but it is hardly confined to them. With study after study documenting the movement of younger generations beyond the pews of organized religion, pastoral leadership would do well to take its cues from this spirit of spontaneity. We need to be preparing people to hear and respond to the divine music in their everyday lives.
I am reminded of Simone Weil’s insight that “it is not the way a man talks about God, but the way he talks about the things of this world that best shows whether his soul has passed through the fire of the love of God.” How do we help people engage the world in this deeper way? I offer three suggestions drawn from my leadership of The Sanctuaries, a racially and religiously diverse arts community in Washington, DC.
1. Make space for the music.
We are surrounded by so much noise that it can be difficult to hear the music of God in our midst. As tradition suggests, the divine song often manifests itself in still, small ways. I therefore strive to avoid intensifying the clamor. We keep the practices of our community life simple and our programs few. In the words of one of our artists, “there are these movements of God all around, and I just need to slow down a little bit to notice them.” Pastoral excellence resists the conflation of busyness with productivity. Instead of shouting at people, it helps them listen.
2. Celebrate the ways people dance.
On the dance floor, style is everything. Individuality is an asset. What distinguishes an outstanding dancer from a competent one is their artistry. Yet, when it comes to the spiritual life, diversity can become threatening. I’m learning to ignore this prejudice. Some of our artists worship an intimate God, some praise a distant Creator, while others prize the sudden rush of inspiration that passes all understanding. Pastoral excellence invites people to deepen their spirituality through playful experimentation. Instead of restricting the ways people connect with the holy, it proliferates them.
3. Encourage people to dance together.
In our interconnected world, we spend a lot of time alone together. There are many crowds but few communities. To become a better dancer, we have to do more than watch someone else perform, even if that someone else is a religious leader. It requires a collaborative space where we feel confident enough to exchange tips, try out new moves, and reach out to those who are falling behind. Pastoral excellence sets aside the mantle of celebrity so that people can invest in one another’s growth. Instead of entertaining others, it empowers them.
How are you helping people dance with God in the streets?
Rev. Erik Martínez Resly is the Lead Organizer of The Sanctuaries, a racially and religiously diverse arts community in Washington, DC. He is a graduate of Brown University and Harvard Divinity School.
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