Luke fills his Gospel with images of persistence: Widows appealing to judges for justice, a woman sweeping her house to find a coin, a baker kneading masses of dough, a shepherd searching for a sheep, and, here in our lesson, a friend knocking on a neighbor’s door in the middle of the night. Over the last three years, we have had to learn persistence. We have looked within ourselves and asked what does it take to keep going in a world that, as Bob Dylan put it, “Seems sick and it’s hungry, it’s tired and it’s torn/It looks like it’s a-dying and it’s hardly been born.”1 As a resident of that kind of world, my dear reader, I ask: what does persistence look like for you?
After years of Covid and other uncertainty, how do we keep going? I often use the word “slog”; a word that evokes trudging through a swamp, lifting one foot and putting it down in front of the other, not knowing the length of the journey or whether the next step will get us stuck in a hole. Often, when I think of persistence, I think of manual labor: digging trenches, scraping a house to paint it, all of those tasks that cause us to sweat and leave blisters when we’re done. I am sure that God has called us to that kind of persistence during these times, but I sometimes wonder: what if there’s another persistence, a persistence rooted in something other than monotony?
In reading through the text for this week in the recently published First Nations Version, I was delighted by the imagery that the translator called upon. In Luke 11:9-10, he translated: “So, keep dancing your prayers, and the way will open before you. Search for the ancient pathways, and you will find them. Keep sending up your prayers, and they will be heard. Answers will come to the ones who ask, good things will be found by the ones who search for them, and the way will open before the ones who keep dancing their prayers” (Italics original). What an image, dancing our prayers; not scraping paint or digging ditches, but dancing!
Now let’s be clear: dancing can be hard work. I have too many friends who dance professionally and I took too many dance classes as an undergraduate to think otherwise. I shake my head at the way in which dancing so often carries a flavor of frivolity with it in the American context. There is, of course, a long history behind this characterization, a history that reaches back to pietism and revivalism. My father’s side of the family has roots in the early-20th century Norwegian Inner Mission movement; he remembers that his grandfather, a Lutheran pastor, looked down upon “Drikk og dans og snus og brus” [Drinking, dancing, chewing tobacco, and excess]. With that heritage in mind, the First Nations Version, rooted in the traditions of the indigenous people of North America, comes as a breath of fresh air: Persistence in prayer, but persistence as dance. This image of dance, though rooted in Native culture and practice, resonates in the traditions of the Old Testament; it brings to mind David dancing “before the LORD with all his might” (2 Sam 6:14) or the Psalmist’s proclamation that God will “turn our mourning into dancing” (Psa 30:11).
Perhaps, my dear reader, you have never danced for hours on end (and if you have not, I can only hope and pray that you have the opportunity to do so soon). To be sure, just like scraping paint, dancing for hours makes you sweat and builds callouses. But one of the things that sets dancing apart is the way that the music and the people that you dance with can sweep you into a flow that keeps you going far longer than you thought possible. Instead of repetition, there is variation of movement and beat, and, most importantly, the energy that you draw from the people around you. When you dance in a crowd, you dance in concert with and reaction to so many other bodies.
Imagine now if we learned the persistence to keep “dancing our prayers” until the way opens for us. Instead of just repetition, we might learn variation and flow in our prayers. Instead of sweating in solitude, we might learn to see ourselves dancing in the great cloud of witnesses, lifting up our prayers together with all believing Christians. As Martin Luther put it in his work, “A Simple Way to Pray”: “Never think that you are kneeling or standing [or might I add, dancing!] alone, rather think that the whole of Christendom, all devout Christians, are standing there beside you and you are standing among them in a common, united petition which God cannot disdain.”2 That thought of being swept up into the rhythms of the great cloud of witnesses leads to one last beauty of the imagery of dancing our prayers. Perhaps in learning to dance our prayers, we may learn to lose ourselves in the midst of that prayer. That could mean many things, but I have in mind the way that dancing can bless our sense of time, so that we look up and realize that hours have gone by. What a joyous persistence that could be; instead of counting the minutes until our persistence ends, we might instead realize that our persistence itself constitutes the rhythms of the Christian life. And so, dear working preacher, let me leave you with the words of the First Nations Version once more: “So, keep dancing your prayers, and the way will open before you…the way will open before the ones who keep dancing their prayers!”
In the name of Jesus,
Kristofer Phan Coffman