This sermon was presented at the UU Church of Ventura, on January 15th, 2011.
As a child growing up in Hawaii, I danced the hula.
This was not an abnormal thing, growing up in Hawaii. In fact, my first encounter with the hula was in a class at school, where in third grade we were all expected to dance the hula. Boys and girls together, we made our own skirts out of palm fronds, and we studied the different hand gestures… not just how to do them, but what each of them meant. I learned to waive my hands to be the ocean, or to hold my hands like this to mean a house, or to show the mountain like this.
See, I’m still pretty good at it, right? I even have a Hawaiian name…
Then, as a class we would all line up, wearing our leis and our palm fronds, and we would dance a story. Our parents all came to watch, and much to my chagrin during my teenage years, to take pictures. In all the pictures of me dancing the hula though, there are two things that stand out. First, it is easy to find me, as the only blond haired blue eyed boy… and second, I have a look of complete and total seriousness over my face. I tried to show the photos of me dancing the hula on our screens this morning, but they are just too old and grainy to put up on this large a screen. I will have some of them on my personal website if someone wants to see them.
Thinking back, I remember thinking that if I was going to dance the hula, I was going to be the best darn hula dancer that there ever was!
Now, fast forward with me some 25 years… to when I was no longer a very serious young hula dancer, but was now a very serious seminary student. I had begun attending a Zen Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, and had begun studying with the Zen Teacher at that temple. I knew that there was much about Zen that connected with my own developing theology and spiritual practice, and I was there to continue that development. I was focused on becoming the very best UU Minister I could possibly be.
That’s what seminary is for, or so I’d been told.
Now, Joshin’s partner, both in life and in their ministry together, was a wonderful woman named June. June was not only a Zen Priest, but she was also a hula master. Several nights a week at the Zen Temple June taught hula to her students. On one particular night, I had arrived early for the evening meditation session, and June was working with a beginning group of students of the hula. She asked me if I’d encountered the hula when I lived in Hawaii, and I told her that as a child, I had danced the hula.
That was when the fateful thing happened… June invited me to join with the class…
Luckily I had been sitting down at the time, because I think my heart stopped for a minute. Me? Dance the Hula? But but but but… I can’t! I’m a very serious seminary student who is here to very seriously study Zen as a part of my very serious process of becoming a UU minister… I can’t dance the hula!
Besides, I’m a guy, right? It was okay for me to dance the hula when I was a kid, but now I’m a guy… and guy’s don’t dance the hula, do they?
All of this and more went through my head… And even at the time I knew it was all complete balderdash. Hula is an ancient embodied spiritual tradition, with roots that go back as far, if not farther than Zen… and certainly farther than Unitarian Universalism. It is the physical expression of the history of a people that I had grown up with, at least until I was ten. No matter what the Kodak photo opportunity might show, hula is practiced by both men and women. There would be nothing more honorable than for me to renew my study of the hula.
And yet, my butt was so firmly rooted in that chair it would have taken explosives to get me out of it. The whole idea of dancing the hula, even in a private class, scared the bejeesus out of me.
Our theme for the month of January will be letting go, and if there is a subset to the theme it will be letting go of the things that are getting in our way. I’ve spent quite a bit of time reflecting on what it was that got in my way that night at the Empty Sound Zen Temple, what kept me from again dancing the hula. Why the idea of stepping up and dancing was so frightening to me.
Dance is an amazing thing. I actually have done quite a bit of different kinds of dancing in my life. For several years in college I made a bit of a study of medieval court dancing, if you can believe it. As part of a re-enactment society, I danced processionals and courting dances at least a couple of weekends a month… those medieval dances are where modern country music line dancing came from. When I was single, I tried the swing dancing circuit for awhile, but I tell you that is harder than it looks. And so is Salsa dancing, which was a requirement to be an American Soldier serving in Latin America in the 90’s.
And yet, nothing could have gotten my rear end out of that seat, when the opportunity came as an adult for me to dance the hula again.
At the beginning of this service, we watched the video that a young man named Matt Harding and his fiancée created. Matt had the courage to share his wonderful, personal little dance with the world. The video we showed was not the first one he had made. The original video is very shaky and grainy, and it does not have any of the thousands of other people joining him in dancing.
No, it is just Matt Harding, standing in front of some of the most amazing scenes on our planet, sharing his little dance with the world.
I’ve watched that video over and over… as well as the later, more refined videos like the one we watched today. Those videos always make me smile. If I’m having a bad day, watching Matt Harding dance is one sure way to make my day brighter. I especially like the scene in India where he changes his dance, in order to match the movements with the Bollywood dancers he is with…
But I’m fascinated by those videos not just because they make me smile, but because I know in my heart that I would not have had the courage to do what Matt Harding did. I would not have had the courage to create my own little dance, my own little physical expression of my soul, and then filmed me doing that dance in locations across the world and put it on the internet for all to see.
If I have a little dance of my own… and I’m not admitting that I do… I’m not even certain I would let my wife see it… much less the rest of the world.