Gretel Ehrlich describes the Sun Dance of the Plains tribes:
Sun Dance is the holiest religious ceremony of the Plains tribes, having spread from the Cheyenne to the Sioux, Blackfoot, Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Arapaho, Bannock, and Shoshone sometime after the year 1750. It’s not “sun worship” but an inculcation of regenerative power that restores health, vitality, and harmony to the land and all tribes…The ceremonies begin before dawn and often last until two or three in the morning. They must stay in the Lodge for the duration…and it’s considered a great disgrace to drop out of the dance before it is over...Alongside the dancers, who stood in a circle facing east, a group of older men filed in. These were the “grandfathers” (ceremonially related, not by blood) who would help the younger dancers through their four-day ordeal.
- The Solace of Open Spaces
The Sun Dance is the most holy of religious ceremonies in their tradition and one that represents health and vitality for the land and the people - in other words, LIFE. Ehrlich continues to describe this dance, not as a dance of steps “but a dance of containment, a dance in place.”
For most of us, the idea of dancing brings with it the picture of movement from one place to another. But Ehrlich reminds us of at least one holy dance that must be contained, in place. If it is danced well, the people and the land are blessed with health. And this includes the dancer. It’s not something entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently and deliberately (sounds like the prelude to a marriage ceremony) and they must “stay in the Lodge for the duration.” To leave prematurely is a fall from grace.
I began this post with an illustration from our days in Stephens, Arkansas. The first time I read Ehrlich’s Sun Dance story, I put an asterisk at the bottom of the page and wrote “Stephens” beside it. We spent five beautiful years in that small town and learned about dancing in place. We learned it from the natives there, those who had been born, raised, and would die in that old, oil boom town - people Ehrlich describes as the “grandfathers.”
Barry Lopez wrote that to understand a specific American geography, you need time and a “kind of local expertise.” This understanding “can be sought out and borrowed. It resides with men and women more or less sworn to a place, who abide there, who have a feel for the soil and history, for the turn of leaves and night sounds. Often they are glad to take the outlander in tow.”
These grandfathers and grandmothers took my girlfriend and me, the outlanders, the younger dancers, in tow and showed us much about the holy dance of God’s love. However, it would not have happened had we not stayed just a bit. There would come a day to leave, but not before it was time.
Many of the dance steps we learned dealt with marriage. Couples married for fifty and sixty years showed us that a long and vibrant marriage does not come from anything associated with some secret, as in the “secret to a healthy marriage,” but from honesty, openness, and care.
One couple even celebrated seventy-two years of marriage while we were there. I can still remember visiting them in their home, he in his overalls with a cheek full of Beech-Nut and she in her frayed housecoat, right beside him. You get to celebrate seventy-two years of marriage by not bailing on your spouse after eight. By staying put. Was it all fun and games? Absolutely not. They would describe their “dance in place” as a serious and painful undertaking. As God loved us through them, we learned that staying in a marriage doesn’t necessarily always lead to happiness, but it definitely leads to a certain holiness. Did some of these couples have “unresolved issues” in their marriages? Heaven's yes. Did they have sex at least three times a week? Gimme a break. Did they relish every moment of their childrens’ lives as they passed by? No way. But these saints persevered for the duration; they developed “stick-to-it-ness.”
But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard - things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal communities, not needing to force our way in life...
Galatians 5.22-23 (italics mine)
I’ll mention one dance step we observed from the grandfathers, something called “sitting ‘til bedtime.” This was a practice among several sworn to that place, where every evening following supper, an individual or a couple would go to a neighbor’s home and sit and visit until bedtime. They weren’t addicted to the barrage of nightly sitcoms on TV, or surfing the web for hours at a time. They would get together and talk, remember, sing, laugh, drink coffee, nibble on pie, and bask in the setting of an uncommon sun: real friendship. And to have that and continue to honor it, you have to sit for a bit, maybe just until bedtime, but that’s longer that most of our attention spans.
You know what? I remember my friends there as being some of most happy, loyal and contented people I’ve ever met. Don’t get me wrong – they had their problems and there is a dark underbelly to small towns where everybody knows your name. But I never sensed them “needing to force their way in life.” I know, I know - it sounds like Garrison Keillor type-talk. The truth is, it is. Keillor evokes in us a longing for home, family, love, friendship, health; things that are real. And Keillor’s books don’t take place among the vagabond winds do they? No, they occur in a place, a specific locale, a town known as Lake Wobegon.
What might it look like if a generation of young Americans decided to become a people sworn to a place? That certainly not all, but many, or some, or maybe just a few, would commit their lives to a particular geographical region, which implies committing to the particular people of that region and the specific patterns of life in that place; to learning how to dance in place. It would also mean that a generation of grandfathers and grandmothers would have to be willing to help the younger dancers through their ordeal.
If My people, called by My Name, will turn from their vagabond ways, then I will restore health and vitality, healing, to their land. If that were to happen, we might learn to recognize the voice on the other end of the line without having to rely on caller I.D. We might even recognize God’s voice when He called. But for many of us, even God has to leave a message; we’re not in, in our place. We've left the dance early. And it’s a disgrace.