shut up and dance

Shut up and Dance

Today’s sermon celebrates Pentecost Sunday as seen through the lens of the song Shut Up and Dance With Me by the group Walk The Moon.  Once you read or listen to the message fire up the Youtube music video, and see what your dance partner, the Holy Spirit, may be saying to you.   Enjoy!

Sermon audio:

Music video:

Sermon text:

Happy Pentecost Sunday!

Pentecost Sunday is the day we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and other earlier followers of Jesus. Today is often referred to as “the birthday of the church.” Maybe we should get some cake and balloons for Pentecost next year, and celebrate that birthday in style during coffee hour.

The text from Acts picks up where the Gospels left off – right after Jesus was raised from the dead, after he’d spent 40 days walking alongside the twelve apostles and other early followers and then ascended into heaven.

Can you imagine what it must have felt like to those earlier followers to experience all that? And then suddenly realize that Jesus was no longer with them? Think about possible questions from the crowd. Where did he go? When will he be back? What should we do now?

Maybe these were the questions the apostles were looking to answer when meeting on that first Pentecost in the upper room. If I were there I think I’d be afraid, not knowing what was coming next.

And what was coming? Scripture refers to what happened in the upper room that day in many ways. Some translations call it the Holy Ghost, others call it the Holy Spirit. Even there we begin to get the sense that what came that day was sacred and otherworldly. What came is also described in Acts 2 as “as strong wind, gale force” and that the Holy Spirit “spread through their ranks, like a wildfire” So the Holy Spirit can be understood as an element like wind or fire, changing the world as it goes.

The understanding of the Spirit as fire is also why we wear red this day. To celebrate the Spirit coming to us in fire.

Other places in scripture refer to the Holy Spirt as Helping Us Along, as an Advocate, a Comforter, and a Friend.

So the Holy Spirit is many things.   My seminary professor, Louis Malcolm summarizes it nicely, saying:

“through the Spirit we are freed. Freed from being hooked by unjust and dysfunctional patterns within and around us.” She continues, noting “As the Spirit transforms us into Christ’s image, we no longer are beholden to any other interests but God’s purposes for us and for the world.”

I rather like that summary, and would perhaps add one thing. With the Holy Spirit you are never alone.

With that in mind here’s just one more way to consider the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the Holy Spirit could be considered your divine dance partner.

Dance Partner

This notion of a divine dance partner came to me a couple of months ago. It started normally enough while driving to a chaplains meeting, listening to the radio.

This encounter with the Holy Spirit was totally unexpected, borne of some music from the secular, FM dial. Sitting there in my car a song played, Shut up and Dance, by the group Walk the Moon. Has anyone else heard this song? It’s pretty popular right now.

I’d heard the song a few times before, and remembered liking it, but something in this particular moment struck me in a new way.

In this song I now heard the Holy Spirit, and understood a major depressive episode I experienced a few years back in a new light. The song hit me hard enough that I sat there, in the car, driving on the Turnpike, and was moved to tears.

It may sound strange, but I’d like to share what I heard. And to share what these lyrics now mean to me. To take this journey into new meaning I’d like you consider a Holy Spirit that is alive and well in 2015. A Holy Spirit calling us away from worldly pursuits and towards a life filled with the love of Christ.   Calling us to new life, to move, to dance with grace.

We’ll go through the lyrics line by line.

In this story the Holy Spirit is feminine. In Hebrew the word for spirit (ruach) which is feminine. Some view the Spirit in masculine terms, or with no gender at all. But in this story, to fit with the song lyrics we’ll consider a female Holy Spirit.

The song begins (lyrics are in bold)Oh don’t you dare look back just keep your eyes on me.  When hearing this I’m reminded of when I was agonizing over whether to keep my job in corporate America. At the time I was absolutely miserable, in a downward spiral of a depressive fog, and needed release. Don’t you dare look back the Spirit beckons, just keep your eyes on me, she says. We’re going somewhere new.

This conversation with the Holy Spirit continues: I said you’re holding back, She said shut up and dance with me!  This is so typical. I want to follow Christ, I want to be led by the Spirit to new and exciting places, but my selfishness, my brokenness still takes the lead. Look, there I go, trying to tell the Holy Spirit how to do her thing. It’s like when Jacob wrestles the angel to get his blessing. I want that blessing, but I want it my way. You’re holding back, I say to the Holy Spirit, give me that blessing! She corrects me, directly, yet elegantly, Shut up and dance! Shut up and dance with me! 

The song moves from conversation to realization: This woman is my destiny, She said oh oh oh, Shut up and dance with me!  We’re being led by the Holy Spirit. Not just to dance with the divine. But to leave our pride, our selfishness, our sense of control. To leave all that, to push it aside, and to dance, letting the Holy Spirit take the lead. That’s no easy thing, we’ll need frequent reminders to drop our perceived need for control. To Shut up. And to be at peace with following, to dance with the Spirit.

The lyrics then take me to another time of personal darkness: We were victims of the night, The chemical, physical, kryptonite Helpless to the bass and faded light. Have you ever found yourself a victim of the night, tossing and turning in bed, unable to sleep? Lying awake, not able to find the peace of a full night’s rest?

While in my dark fog of depression I sure had this problem. Sleep was elusive. I felt like a victim, suffering and in mental anguish. I felt alone. But the Holy Spirit suggests otherwise. *We* were victims of the night, she says. WE. We are not alone.

The chemical and physical effects of depression are inescapable. Depression is commonly linked to low levels of serotonin, a chemical in the brain that regulates mood, memory, appetite and sleep. That’s pretty important stuff. Too little serotonin can’t help but have physical effects, like not being able to sleep and withdrawing from friends and family. At the time this was my world.

The kryptonite reference is a curious one. Kryptonite is the radioactive element that takes away all of Superman’s powers, making him weak and vulnerable. This is not unlike the effects of depression, which for a time took away anything I’d call a semblance of life.

But that all sounds very dark and horrible; and there is more to the story than that. I’m reminded again that *we* were victims of the night. Me and the Holy Spirit. Having some all nighters, hanging out together. Perhaps the chemical effects of depression that drew me away from certain things, were drawing me toward something new. Like this offer to dance.

The lyrics then find fate is in play: Oh we were born to get together, born to get together. We are all born in a fallen, broken state. Separated from God from the beginning. Trying to find our way back into the Garden of Eden, back to relationship with our Creator. But how? Jesus paid that price, covering our brokenness and faulty nature, restoring us to newness of life. What now? We dance. We dance into the world around us with our new dance partner, the Holy Spirit. Why yes, it’s beginning to make some sense to me, we* were* born to get together, each of us, finding new life as we dance with the Spirit.

Perhaps this is the right time to begin, the song suggests: She took my arm, I don’t know how it happened. We took the floor Finally, the dance has begun! It’s the Spirit that reaches out, taking your arm, leading you into the world. Do you know how it happens? I can’t say that I do. I do know this: the more I let her lead, the more adventure there is. The more fulfilling life becomes.

The lyrics then offer a reminder: She said: Oh don’t you dare look back just keep your eyes on me, I said you’re holding back, She said shut up and dance with me! My takeaway from her reminder? There will always, always, ALWAYS be that voice in your head that wants you to take the reins back. To take the lead. To ignore the Holy Spirit and do things your way. But we know, each of us, what happens when we try and play God. Nothing overly good. Shut up, the Holy Spirit says. Dance with me!

The story then ends with a look ahead: Deep in her eyes, I think i see the future. I realize this is my last chance. Dancing with the Sprit is a very intimate, personal thing. And when you do it, your future will change. You will see it differently. You will never be quite the same. And while I don’t think this is my last chance to dance with the Spirit it’s a good chance. And an opportunity I don’t plan to pass up.

But that’s just one story, one person, one dance. What about you? Where have you seen the Spirit active in your life? The next time the Spirit comes and asks you to be her partner will you answer that call? If you do, will you let her lead? Shut up and dance, the Spirit reminds us. Dance with me.

And now take a moment for quiet reflection.

shut up and dance

Get Lost

My third sermon, titled Get Lost was delivered yesterday morn. The message is based on Mark 8:31-38, one of the times Jesus tells off Peter.  Watch, listen, or read, pick your poison.  Enjoy!



I’ve never really liked Peter. I’m talking about the Peter we find in the Good Book, one of the twelve disciples. For one thing, Peter is known for having a temper. In the garden of Gethsemane, right before Jesus is arrested, Peter cuts off the right ear of someone.   Just up and cuts it off. Peter is also known for denying he knows Jesus. Not once. Not twice. *Three* times, all because he was afraid.

Then we have today’s reading from Mark 8. Jesus tells the disciples that he’ll be killed, and rise three days later. After hearing this Peter grabs Jesus in protest. Maybe Peter is in shock, not wanting to let go. Or perhaps he doesn’t exactly understand. When Jesus says he would rise three days later, what could that possibly mean? We know the story about what happens three days later, the story that culminates Easter Sunday. Peter didn’t.

Or maybe Peter doesn’t hear that last part about Jesus rising three days later. Imagine your best friend tells you of their impending death. You may not hear much of what they have to say after that either. You’d probably grab the friend and hold them close to you as well.

Then, right after Peter grabs Jesus in protest, a surprising thing happens. Jesus confronts Peter about all this grabbing, saying, Get lost! The central character in our faith tradition, tells one of his disciples, in no uncertain terms, get lost! I don’t know about you, but the thought of Jesus looking me in the eye and plainly saying get lost is terrifying. It’s like my personal brokenness was too deep, too dark, too much for Jesus deal with.

But, wait a second, maybe there’s more to the story. When Jesus confronts Peter he exclaims “Peter, get out of my way!” Jesus then says, still speaking to Peter, “Satan, get lost!”   Ahh, that changes things. Jesus isn’t telling Peter to get lost, whew! He is looking at the brokenness, the darkness within Peter and telling *that* to get lost. In Lutheran terms, we understand our human condition as being both saint and sinner. We are both, at all times. Jesus here asks the darkness in Peter to step aside so he can speak with Peter the Saint.

Jesus Redirects

And what does Jesus say to Saint Peter? Before we get to that, it may be helpful to step back a little earlier in the story. Right before revealing that he must be killed Jesus asks the disciples, “who do you say that I am?” Here Peter does something I really do like. It is Peter who responds, “you are the Christ, the Messiah!” Jesus reminds Peter of this, saying “anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead.”

Jesus then tells Peter something that is really hard to embrace in our culture. He says self-sacrifice is the way to find your true self. Put a little differently we could say this: To find the real you, lose the current you. 


One person that knew how to get lost in self-sacrifice was a woman named Agnes. Born in Albania in 1910, Agnes lost her father at the young age of eight. Fascinated by missionary stories, by 12 she became convinced she should commit to religious life. At age 18 she joined the Sisters of Loreto as a missionary, leaving behind friends and family, getting lost in a journey thousands of miles from home.

After spending a year to learn English, Agnes moved to India. While there she taught English to schoolchildren for eighteen years. Agnes then had what she describes as a call within a call. For this next call she received basic medical training and started tending to the needs of the destitute and starving. In her personal diary she wrote that “Our Lord wants me to be free, covered with the poverty of the cross.”

In the coming years Agnes received permission from the Vatican to start a new congregation in India. The mission of the congregation was to help people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society.” The congregation began small, in 1950 it had one location with 13 members. By the time she died in 1997 the organization had grown to more than 4,000 sisters. The sisters run orphanages, AIDS hospices and charity centers worldwide. These centers care for refugees, the blind, disabled, alcoholics, the poor and homeless, and victims of floods, epidemics, and famine.

The life of Agnes was defined by self-sacrifice. She knew that to find the real you, she’d have to get lost. And get lost she did, moving thousands of miles from home, taking an oath of poverty and building an organization that helps millions upon millions of the poorest of the poor. You may recognize Agnes by another name. To many she is known simply as Mother Theresa.


Admittedly, not everyone can be Mother Theresa. If I told my wife about plans to drop everything and move to India, well, that conversation probably wouldn’t turn out too well. She’d probably tell *me* to get lost, and not in a good way.

Even though we can’t all be Mother Theresa there are plenty of ways we can practice the self-sacrifice Jesus models as a way to find ourselves by getting lost.

At St. Michael you can get lost by volunteering at the Palanca Food Kitchen feeding the homeless. Or you can help make PB&J sandwiches for local school kids that don’t always have a meal to eat. Or you can donate school supplies for kids both locally and in Haiti.

Author Barbara Brown Taylor finds that getting lost can happen anywhere, in all kinds of ways. You can get lost on your way home. You can get lost looking for love. You can get lost between jobs. You can get lost looking for God. Taylor is refreshingly honest about when she has been lost: “I have set out to be married and ended up divorced” she says. “I have set out to be healthy and ended up sick. I have set out to live in New England and ended up in Georgia.   While none of these displacements was pleasant at first, I would not give a single one of them back. I have found things while I was lost that I might never have discovered if I had stayed on the path. I have decided to stop fighting the prospect of getting lost and engage it as a spiritual practice instead.”

Peter revisited

Getting lost as a spiritual practice. Maybe that is what Jesus tries to encourage in Peter when he tells Peter’s darkness to get lost. Peter tries to protect his friend Jesus from harm, a very human, very noble thing to do, but Jesus has something else in mind. A new spiritual practice that Peter didn’t quite understand at the time.

Despite Peter’s flaws God had big plans for him. Jesus thought so much of Peter that he calls him the Rock, proclaiming “upon this rock I will build my church.” And build Peter does; founding churches in Rome and Antioch while serving as the first Pope.

Ironically, this same apostle who tried to shelter Jesus from the ultimate self-sacrifice met a similar fate. Peter too preached the Word and died a martyr. While Peter didn’t understand this new spiritual practice in today’s reading, he lived out getting lost until the end.

And maybe that’s the value of Peter, a reason to think well of him. That despite his flaws, doubts and darkness he was used mightily by God. What I don’t like in Peter is exactly what I don’t like in myself; the flaws, the doubts, the darkness. Despite all this, God can use me, can use you, can use all of us when we lose ourselves in Christ.


From Rage to Grace

Here’s a lil video done as a final class project for a Media & Religion course I took earlier this month.  The video is a retelling of Smashing Pumpkin’s 1995 hit Bullet with Butterfly Wings.  In a way this is also an extension of my Reformation Rage sermon.  The sermon narrative only explored part of the song lyrics, of rages and cages. This video works through the entire song, a work that already drips of spiritual longing all by itself.  Viewers take note: the video starts dark – that’s the rage – and evolves into a brighter place. Enjoy!





Proof of Faith?

I ran across this article yesterday of a boy, now 17, that recants a story about going to heaven and back while being in a coma for two months as a 6 year-old.

Beyond the main headline, interesting enough in itself, the article mentions that the book this experience is based on has sold over a million copies and is part of the “heavenly tourism” genre.

I hadn’t heard that term before, tho a quick internet search tells the story nicely, there are a good number of books in this genre that sell millions of copies each documenting that author’s experience going to heaven and back. An article by Tim Challies, Heaven Tourism, summarizes the genre and many of the more popular books. Tim has some thoughts on heavenly tourism too, definitely worth a read.

I’ve always wondered about books like this and what value people find in them. We want to believe, sure, but are we trying to prove faith? If so, why?


Perhaps this proof mindset helps explain the endless debates between religion and science. You’ve likely heard much of this, either as history or ongoing debate. The earth? Flat, some said. Sun revolves around the earth? True, and worth imprisoning those that disagree. Age of the earth? 10,000 years tops, and worthy of a museum that seeks to prove as much. And yet each time these views fall by the wayside as understandings from science become mainstream.

Thinking on this some Hebrews 11:1 comes to mind. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. No proofs here. Just hope. Just conviction. Ideally lived out into the world around us as we seek to do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. As someone who appreciates the blessings of science and sees that as one of many gifts from our Creator, for me, that is enough.



Johnny Cash tourism destinations

Repurposed Meaning: Johnny Cash Christianity

Meaning can be a funny thing, changing over time, influenced by the storyteller and how the story is told. Take the song Hurt. Originally released by Nine Inch Nails (NIN) in 1995 the song hit the top 10 on Billboard for Modern Rock tracks. This was during undergrad for me, and part of my grunge phase, so the song and album got a good bit of play back in the day.

Fast forward to 2003, when Johnny Cash rerecorded the song and music video. Often new versions of old songs take second stage to original content, but not this time. Trent Reznor, lead singer of NIN who also wrote and produced Hurt has this to say:

“I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.”

It wasn’t just Trent Reznor that was impressed. The Cash version of Hurt went on to be named best video of the year by Grammy and CMA awards, and in 2011 went on to be named the best video *ever* by NME.

So what changed? For one thing, the artist. As much as I love NIN, the legacy of Johnny Cash is tough to top. The Cash version of Hurt also made a minor, but significant change to the original lyrics. The NIN version speaks to wearing a “crown of $#!+.”  Cash removes the four letter word – not to censor, but to enhance – instead referencing a crown of thorns. This change, of one little word, opened up all sorts of possibilities to what narrative the music video would tell.

Before diving in a bit more, maybe it’s worth a view of Hurt.

The video is a highly personal view of Johnny Cash, showing footage of his life over past decades alongside current video of the 71 year old. The dark, reflective lyrics and images show Cash looking back on his own life, his empire of dirt the lyrics say.

The crown of thorns reference, again a new lyric for this particular version, gets put to good effect near the end of the video. One scene shows Jesus carrying the cross, blood pouring from the nails hammered into his palm and from the crown of thorns that sits atop his head. As the video closes Cash finishes playing the piano and closes the cover over the black keyboard. That moment reminds me of closing a casket, some good foreshadowing for this legend; fittingly he passed away seven months after the video was filmed. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that everyone I know goes away, in the end.

More importantly, this end is not an end at all, it’s a look forward to a coming new life promised to us through the death and resurrection of Christ.  Jesus isn’t in this video to say goodbye.  Instead he’s here as a reminder of the hello that is coming.

So what can we take away from all this? Sometimes powerful messages change over time as they are retold. We see this in the evolution of Hurt from depressing NIN grunge to the reflective faith of Johnny Cash. As a future pastor, I’ll be using older source material too, ancient material, and looking to retell the stories of that source in new, fresh ways. Thank you Johnny, you’re a great example. I hope to use your storytelling excellence as a reminder of what is possible for years to come.

Johnny Cash tourism destinations