When I was a child, I sat in the front row of the church. I danced while the guitar played three-chord songs, kicking my feet in front of me, hopping from side to side, skinny arms outstretched. I learned to worship at the community centre, surrounded by misfit disciples who were on a first-name basis with resurrection. I sang the old songs about the blood of Jesus making me white as snow.

The church ladies would bring swaths of airy fabric, about two metres long apiece. I held onto one end and swung my flag. This was no banner for a war; this was a a homemade flag for a kid in a homemade church to wave. Sometimes, sure, I spun that flag around, hoping for people to notice me, to think that I was spiritual and holy, to think that I was beautiful and devoted. It was prideful at times, self-centred, but then there were those moments that broke through my own childish yearning to be noticed, to please the grown-ups, the moments when I felt the Spirit rush through my body and out through the fabric, like we were one, and I would spin like a star in the heavens, and I swear to you now that I felt the smile of God on me like wind, like water, like chains were falling off before they were even forged. I learned to pray with my body, relentless and free.

Then slowly, it seemed as if no one really danced in church anymore. Dancing with flags became something we made fun of, like duelling tambourines and long services and “falling out” in the Spirit and daring to pray for healing. We made fun of it to domesticate it, perhaps, or to heal ourselves from the abuse of it, but something in my thumbs still pricked, the Spirit isn’t afraid of being ridiculous, after all.

I wandered through other church traditions, traditional, contemporary, liturgical, meditative, mystic, seeker-sensitive, emerging, ancient-future, denominational, mega-church, old church, new church, basement church, no church for a while there: you name it, I found my way there and I found the people of God in each place, I did.

But my roots belong where I was first planted, I’ve reconciled myself to that now. I used to think I could travel far from where I began, but instead, I travelled only to find myself home again, like Richard Rohr says, as if I am only now seeing it for the first time.

We are so beautiful.

We sit in folding chairs in a school gym, one of the great cathedrals of my life. The pine benches line the walls, electrical tape holds the wires for the mics down, the stage can be broken down and set back up again every Sunday morning and Saturday night. This is my familiar place to encounter God.

On Sundays, decades later, I still stand with my hands raised up, my spine straight, my ribs wide open, letting the music run right through my veins, grounding me to the place where I am right now. I haven’t been able to dance since I was a child, not really, maybe I never will again, it doesn’t feel quite natural anymore. Instead I cry and I sing too loud and I let my hips sway. I tip my face to the ceiling because I want to be seen, I stomp my feet because I am here, and if I had a hankie, oh, I’d wave it and shout. I clap at the wrong place because I want to emphasize what I’m singing to myself: “you’ve never failed” clap clap clap “and you won’t start now” and I shout YASSSSSS! I’m that woman.

I love the sacraments, I love Scripture, and I know that my faith, my understanding of God, is cerebral and it’s strong; in my spirit and it’s awake; in my heart and it’s love, but here in my body it’s all earthy and sensual, it’s the catch in my throat when I sing the words I’ve sung a hundred times, in the creak of my knees when I hit the floor, unable to stand any longer, in the tremor of my hands when I tremble, in the strength of my voice singing out ahead of my own life. I could logic it all away, I know I could, but these moments are too much of a gift for me to look at straight on. It’s a party, it’s a dance, it’s a celebration, it’s communal, it’s holy and an undoing, and the breath of God is among us and we move as one, declaring.

I thought I grew out of the flags and the happy-clappy Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs, that I was too wise and smart for such sentimental things but in my maturity now I want to shout out hallelujah and fling myself to the ground prostrate, in gratitude for dirt and little boys, for babies and the lines around my eyes, for Johnny Cash and pine trees at dusk, for the taste of cold water and the vineyard, for the piano and the ones from among us who stand to lead us out into the day singing.

Somehow the flags have reappeared in my life along with the old songs, the same ones that I sing in the darkness over my children. A woman in our church brings flags on Sundays for the kids to use, may it be counted unto her as righteousness.

In the corner of the gym, there are a dozen little girls, a couple of boys, a couple of women, each holding a swath of fabric and they are twirling, spinning, snapping their flags in the face of fear and dignity. I belong here just as much as I belong in the north and in the west, in the place where I began and where I will end, in the books and logic, and in the tears and rejoicing.

Now I stand on Sundays and I watch my own tinies dance, twirling and swirling and singing. I don’t know how to raise them in the faith in any other way than this: God is good, God is Love, God is for you, never against you, and when you want to dance, darling, wave your flag and spin, let the wind of the Spirit move through you.

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  • Yes, yes, yes. I, too, left all that “feeling-centric” worship for cerebral Christianity, figuring I was so much holier and better and more enlightened. But birth and babies and the years continue to bring me right back home — perhaps a bit wise and more chastened, but just as free and bodily. That everywhere there are the people of God; that everywhere the Spirit will move in crazy and unlikely places. And I will not apologize for my tears in worship or raising my hands in a Presbyterian church. “God is good, God is love, God is for you.” Thank you Sarah for your openhearted words.

  • Dannyelle @ www.lifeisaparty.c

    You make me yearn for my tribe. I loved Jesus Feminist and weep my way through the last chapter. It made me remember who I am. I had to laugh out loud when I saw you were a vineyard girl. Let’s just say I’ve waved a few flags in my time. No vineyard in my town right now, and I’m starting to realize that they really are my peeps. Thanks for sharing, let the flags wave, heck let’s even let the lions roar. 😉

  • Karrilee Aggett

    So love this…. so lived this… (and have the flags in my living room to prov– well, to wave in worship with you!

  • renee @ FIMBY

    always knew you were a sister in more than just our faith, but also our ways of worship 🙂 I am that lady also – the hand raising, hips swaying, tears streaming, face upturned one. In this regard, who I was at 10 is who I am at 40.

  • Oh, girl. The way you write.

  • Pingback: Happy-clappy – Sarah Bessey | dancing for an audience of One –()

  • Luann Yarrow Doman

    Thought about this post all through church this morning. You and I arrived at a similar destination via different routes, but here we stand. Together, waving our arms all clappy happy.

  • I love this post, Sarah. I think we get to a point where we don’t have to prove anything to anyone, anymore, and then we know our home. That will look different for everyone, but I recognize your home because it’s a lot like mine. I love to worship this way too. Thank you.

  • Lynn Heidebrecht

    You ARE free. Bless you in the knowing of it and sharing of it.

  • Maya Resnikoff

    This sounds a lot like what one of my teachers, Rabbi Neil Gillman, calls “second naivete”- something you choose after learning more, gong through some cynicism, and then choosing to believe and experience anyway.

  • sgibsonneve .

    I’ve never waved flags at church (I think it would have killed the old Presbyterian church ladies where I grew up) but as someone who has left the church of my childhood, I KNOW that feeling of home! I loved reading this and it made me excited to go to church this morning and appreciate our little place for what it is. Yet again, thank you!

  • Sara Rooney

    “But my roots belong where I was first planted, I’ve reconciled myself to now…. I travelled only to find myself home again, like Richard Rohr says, as if I am only now seeing it for the first time.”
    I love this. And it’s so true for me as well (even though I landed back in the Catholic Church). Am thinking I may need to write about this myself!

  • Mike Spencer

    I think we’ve got to be a little careful we are not too feminist because mere males can feel the same way too, and it is great to be happy and clappy. Actually there are differences but do they really separate us, I don’t think so. There are no cliques except the bearing of children which you’ve got a lead on. Take that lead with joy.
    The words were very beautiful.

  • Louise

    Just cried my way through this – exactly where I am right now.

  • Thank you for this. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one. How can I stand still, how can I stay silent when the God of the Universe gave his Beloved Son for my redemption?

  • Lesley-Anne Evans

    Not there yet…still wandering. Thank you for showing me there may be a destination up ahead <3 Beautifully written, felt, experienced, known.