Richard Twiss, author of Rescuing Theology from the Cowboys and One Church, Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You, is an international educator and bridge builder, especially among Native American and indigenous peoples. At this fall’s Wild Goose Festival, Kate Rae Davis joined Twiss outside his teepee to discuss the development of his prayer life, dance prayer on behalf of community, how prayer works in dialogue with God, and praying to Jesus as the Prince of Peace.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Would you speak about your personal prayer life and how that has changed over the years as your theology and hope has changed?
Richard Twiss (RT): Like many Christians, early on I learned that prayer is a very sacred, solemn talk to God, with hands folded and eyes closed and head bowed. Because God is so holy and I was so puny, I needed to be as reverent as possible. It was very formalized: it was only done at certain times and in a certain kind of way. Now I pray all the time. But my prayers are not only talking to God. They are questions, they are dialogue, they are the burning of sage and incense. When I’m dancing in the pow-wow, every step is a prayer: I dance my prayers for the people. Sometimes I imagine my prayers, I fantasize my prayers; they’re not always audible. Sometimes my prayers are expressed in artistic ways.
If God is omnipresence, omnipotence, and mystery, if God already knows what I’m thinking before I say it—the secret stuff as well as the public stuff—then prayer is a kind of quiet acknowledgement that God is everywhere all the time. Even when I’m doing stuff I shouldn’t be doing that doesn’t mean God’s not there. And so prayer becomes awareness. It is woven into the social fabric and the private areas of my life.
TOJ: You mentioned dancing prayer, a foreign idea for me. Can you say some more about dancing prayer and how you think embodiment and prayer link together?
RT: I don’t believe in a kind of binary dualism in which the spiritual is separate from the physical. Instead, I believe in a holistic way of thinking about one’s being—that I am all that I am, all the time. When we’re in the pow-wow circle, there are people sitting there who are physically unable to dance because of their age or some kind of sickness or disability, and they come not just to passively observe, as you would at a music concert or dance contest, but to enjoy the beauty of the people who are out there dancing for them. They would love to be out there dancing. When I’m dancing, sometimes more consciously than other times, I’m thinking about all the people who are sitting there and can’t be here dancing. I’m not dancing to entertain them or to perform for them; I’m dancing to encourage them. I’m praying for them. My dances are my prayers, asking Creator to bless them, encourage them, heal them, help them, and a variety of other things. We say that every step is a prayer for the people.
I’m there as a part of the community praying for the community. But I’m also there because they bless me, they affirm me, they encourage me to dance hard. They cheer for the dancers, not in a competitive way, but in a way that they’re really fervent and passionate about being there for the people.
TOJ: There seems to be such an interconnected web of relationships happening: between you and the observers of the dance, between you and God, between you and the other dancers, between the people watching the dance and God. It’s so much more alive than how I normally think of prayer—a person in a room, folded hands.
RT: I learned to pray that way, too. Prayer was a very private thing. Some people don’t like to pray audibly in groups, and other people become semi-professional at public prayer. They pray-preach. In blessing the food, they say: “O, dear God, thank you that your word is true and . . . ” it goes on and on and then fifteen minutes later they say, “And thank you for these peas and carrots. Amen.” Some insecure people find an outlet in public prayer to say things they might not otherwise say, and their prayers are exhortations, sometimes even exhortations that are aimed at people. And so, according to one way of thinking, our prayers are just for the people. I may have personal needs, yet it is through the process of going out and praying for people that I pray for my own healing.
TOJ: What content belongs in prayer? Questions, gratitude, lament?
RT: I think life shapes one’s prayers. Prayers are always contextual. If my grandma is dying and I’m in her hospital room, that shapes my prayer. If I’m at my grandson’s first birthday, that shapes my prayer. If we’re celebrating our thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, that shapes my prayer. If my neighbor has been unemployed for six months and he doesn’t know how to make the mortgage payment, that shapes my prayer. So prayer is always in the moment because it’s personal. It’s not formulaic or prescriptive; it’s dialogue.
TOJ: The word dialogue makes me think that prayer is not just you speaking but God speaking as well. And that brings up the question everyone seems to have around prayer: how does it work? Does God answer us, and if so, how do you hear God’s response?
RT: As a human being I have an imagination and emotions and a physical body. I have a spirit, a soul, and an ability to imagine images that I can communicate with noises called words. Somebody else hears my particular words and then translates those words into those same images. Communication is very much an imaginative process. When I say “rhinoceros,” you imagine a rhinoceros, but with the noises I just said—rhi-noc-er-os—someone who speaks only Spanish can’t imagine my meaning. Words create meaning.
I imagine God talking to me. Sometimes I imagine what I’d like God to say to me. Sometimes I think I hear God speaking to me. Other times I hope God speaks to me. But sometimes God speaks to me through the wind in these trees, through the coming of an eagle, through something rising from the soil in the garden I’ve been working. God speaks to me randomly. God surprises me. If I’m sitting in the sweat lodge and it’s dark and it’s hot and we’re praying for healing, sometimes God reassures me on something I’m praying about. We think of dialogue in terms of “I talk, your turn, my turn, your turn,” but I think the way God reveals Godself is not limited to that kind of two-person sort of dialogue or to a dialogic exchange. I think God speaks however God wants to speak. And we hear it in a variety of ways.
TOJ: You said that sometimes you think God speaks to you. How do you know when God is really speaking and when it’s just your hope that God is speaking? What’s the discernment there?
RT: I hear people say all the time that “God spoke to my heart” or that the “Lord showed me this.” I’ve talked with people who say, “I was praying today and I really felt that God said to me that I should go apply at IBM. I really felt this assurance that God would give me a job there. I applied at IBM, and I didn’t get the job.” They feel that God tricked them—God said go here, and then, no, God said to do something different. Does God mess with us? Does he tell us this one week and something different the next week or is that person imagining, hoping?
I just say, “I was praying today and I flipped a quarter and it came up heads, so I think I’m going to go do this.” I think the process of hearing from God is a kind of mysterious exchange of meanings. I know that sounds nebulous, but there are people who have said, with great confidence, “God spoke to me, and I’m going to go do this,” and it actually happens. It doesn’t hardly ever happen like that to me. My wife and I, we always say “Our best guess right now is that this is what God wants us to do, so we’re going to go for it, and if it doesn’t work out, it wasn’t a bad guess; it was a good guess.” We even say, “We’ll keep guessing until we get it.” Some people think that’s a lack of faith, but in my forty years, it all seems to work out. God is good, and God still speaks, and I listen, and I pray, and at the end of the day, I go to sleep with the greatest sense of assurance that I spent a good day walking with God.
TOJ: As a spiritual leader—
RT [laughs]: As a deeply spiritual leader. Make sure that gets in there.
TOJ: As a deeply spiritual leader, is there something you wish that Christians in America practiced differently, something you would urge people in the Christian community to do more or less of?
RT: I would hope that the followers of Jesus in America would begin to embrace and imagine Jesus as the Prince of Peace, not the King of War. So much of American Christianity is wrapped up in militaristic metaphors. And while language about the “army of God” and “defeating enemies” and the “weapons of warfare” is rooted in Scripture, I don’t think that’s necessarily what Paul was after all the time, these militaristic notions of God as commander in chief and Christians as soldiers who are to fight against the enemy and blow the crap out of them and win the war. So when it comes to national security, foreign policy, unbridled consumerism, and capitalism, I believe we should pray for blessing, for a just health-care system, for a strong economy. I would hope that people would start praying more for a spirit of Jesus as the Prince of Peace to be the image that we hold up as the character and the being of God. I pray for my neighbors’ blessing; I pray for the terrorists, that they would have a change of heart; I pray for foreign leaders and kings and princes, for their well-being and for them to experience the longings and desires of their heart. But oftentimes, we Americans pray for God’s protection against the terrorists and the bad guys. This sort of inclination toward violence when it comes to policy and other kinds of things seems contrary to the notion of Jesus as the Prince of Peace. For me, I struggle against white people, capitalism, colonization, theological oppression—these are my areas of struggle—and there are people who personify the points of view that I believe misrepresent Christ and actually oppress others, yet I need to learn to pray for these people, even my antagonists who spitefully criticize me. In the spirit of Jesus, I must love and pray for my critics. I hope that we would embrace more of that kind of prayer for the world that we live in.