Every year around this time I present a very scaled-down version of my sermon for the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. This year’s sermon is a tribute to the late Rev. Tom Hartman. This is the most important thing Tommy ever taught me. It is a message for all people struggling to pray.
I firmly believe that praying is actually pretty easy and you can begin to pray well today if you learn the single secret to prayer that I learned by dancing to an Aretha Franklin song with the Rev. Tom Hartman.
Tommy and I were together at a book opening for our first book, “Where Does God Live?” Someone had hired a DJ for the party after the book signing and I definitely did not like that idea. I think I wanted disco dancers. Anyway, I was sitting alone and sulking at a table after the book signing while Tommy happily worked the room. He came over and said, “Marc, get up! Let’s dance.” I said, ”Tommy, I don’t want to dance, and by the way, you’re not my type.” So Tommy just grabbed me and pulled me onto the dance floor and he started to dance, which is a very loose and very generous description of what Tommy was doing. I stood there, doing nothing. Then he looked at me and said, “If you can’t dance, then at least pretend to dance.” To keep him from bothering me further, I started to shuffle my feet. Then I started to move my body just a little but without any real conviction. Then, the DJ played Aretha Franklin’s song “Respect” and somewhere between R-E-S and P-E-C-T I was suddenly busting a move and waving my arms and smiling and yelling and . . . I was dancing. I was no longer pretend dancing. I was really dancing.
Afterward, I understood what Tommy had gotten me to do even though he never thought that much about it. But on that day I realized that pretend dancing is the greatest secret not only of how to pray, but of how to do anything hard and important in our lives. Anything we want to learn to do, not just praying but anything, begins by first pretending to do it. You must pretend to golf before you can actually golf. You must pretend to be good at your job before you are actually good at your job. You must pretend to love before you can actually love, and you must pretend to pray before you can actually pray.
The great Hasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810), understood pretend dancing:
“Sometimes when people are joyous and dancing, they grab a man from outside their dancing circle, one who is sad and melancholy, and force him to join with them in their dance. Thus it is with joy: When a person is happy, his own sadness and suffering stand off on the side. But it is a higher achievement to struggle and pursue that sadness, bringing it too into the joy, until it is transformed. You grab hold of suffering and force it to join with you in the rejoicing!”
In addition to this Jewish teaching, other teachers and other wisdom and faith traditions have understood and taught the secret of pretend dancing. C.S. Lewis, the British philosopher, novelist, poet, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian, broadcaster, lecturer, Christian apologist, author of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and prophet of pretend dancing, wrote, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone you will presently come to love him.”
Buddhism is a religion based upon pretend dancing. For Buddhism, all existence is pretend existence. The Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh offered up the single best definition of pretend dancing I have ever encountered. He taught, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”
This poem, “Praying” is by my favorite contemporary poet, Mary Oliver, and it is from her book of poems entitled, “Thirst”:
“It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”
So learning to pray is actually not as hard as it seemed at first. You just have to pretend dance with God. After you do that you might find that suddenly, without knowing it, your joy has become the source of your smile.