"There is a life that you live with God, and there is the life you live when you are dancing in His arms," writes Angela Thomas in her new book, WHEN WALLFLOWERS DANCE. "Dancing is living in the fullness of your purpose for this life on earth. Dancing is loving every single person that God brings to you with the love He has so abundantly given. Dancing means that you have eyes that can see what matters for eternity. Dancing is a passionate life. Adventure. And living without fear."
Dancing is spiritual maturity. Thomas is calling women to this, away from being what she calls "un-women." Un-women are those who retreat from life by numbing themselves to its hardships. "I became the un-woman in my effort to avoid the relationship landmines all around me," Thomas writes. "Then there was some weird decision that I didn't deserve anything more than a numb, timid existence. And then sometimes it seemed like the more spiritual thing to do was to emotionally fade to gray. Be quiet. Remain unseen and unknown. Forget about becoming anything. Neutral. Unrecognizable. More and more it seems like so many women are surviving decades of their lives by turning their hearts inside out, trying not to feel. Becoming the un-woman." Chief among the problems of numbing yourself to life's pain is that you end up numbing yourself to life's joys as well --- and to God.
The antidote to un-womanliness is learning to dance --- essentially pursuing an "intentional" life. Thomas wants women to take time for their own needs --- body and soul. And her advice covers both; she counsels women to restore order to their physical environment even as they're working to restore spiritual order in their hearts and minds. Find a spiritual mentor and clean out your closets. Deal with deep-seated bitterness in your life and make time for exercise.
Thomas gives women permission to put aside most of their self-imposed expectations --- homemade meals and handwritten thank-you notes among them --- while learning to dance. "I love ironed clothes and beautiful dinners and having my hair styled. But I cannot do it all every day and care for my soul. I am deciding that my soul and the souls of my children matter more. My being peaceful when I'm with them matters more than anything else," she writes. "Sometimes it's more peaceful to drive through for chicken-Caesar wraps than to kill myself for homemade. I desire that part of my life, but I am also in a ridiculously busy season of mothering. Right now it just feels good to have my heart back, I don't want to run ahead of myself and sacrifice any of the growth I've fought so hard to get to."
This kind of cocooning, or focus on the self, is certainly appropriate and healthy at times. But in our self-help-saturated society, sustained efforts at "becoming" are vulnerable to the influence of secular ideas about personal development as contrasted with Biblical principles of finding one's identity in Christ and sacrificial love. The ideas in WHEN WALLFLOWERS DANCE are supported by Scripture, but sometimes they feel more like a Dr. Phil approach to spirituality. This is about you --- you living a full life, you being satisfied, you learning to dance. I wonder if this is the best way to frame a conversation about spiritual maturity.
Perhaps sometimes it is.
Certainly there are "un-women" out there who need permission to get to know themselves again (or for the first time). God did not save us in order that we might become drones --- everyone smiling and nodding on cue, everyone hemming and hawing and deferring. Opinions and unique perspectives are good things to bring to bear on our lives and the lives of those around us. And Thomas's vision does eventually move beyond the self. "Dancing" women can be redemptive influences in their homes, churches, and communities.
And yet, in this age of iPods and Tivo and three Sunday morning services featuring different worship styles and a million other ways to customize our lives based on personal preferences, it seems to me that the bigger spiritual danger for modern women (and men too) is the idolization of the self ---- the elevation of our own desires and preferences so that we are less and less able to function well and lovingly outside our own meticulously constructed spheres.
Thomas gives the example of one friend who, in her pursuit of spiritual maturity, rid her house of any object that "might be a reflection of the old, un-woman life she had been living --- music, DVDs, collections she'd purchased to fill her emptiness." At the same time she decided to decorate her home with things that remind her of the light of Christ --- "stars and cute lamps and beautiful crosses." Thomas writes, "I love that in restoring order she began to surround herself with physical reminders of the One who is leading her out." There's certainly nothing intrinsically wrong about intentional interior design, but is it possible that this woman was just trading one vision of herself for another vision of herself via her debit card?
It's troubling to me that the language of self-help and consumerism linger in so many of our conversations about spiritual formation. And yet, perhaps it's inevitable on some level as we grapple with how spiritual realities should become physical realities in our lives. Maybe Thomas is on to something when she talks about having a clean conscience and a clean car. What's certain is that she's written a book that will provide the permission many women need to take some dancing lessons. And to the extent that it points women towards an engagement with the fullness of life, WHEN WALLFLOWERS DANCE is a good deejay. Turn up the music.
Reviewed by Lisa Ann Cockrel on November 13, 2011