Listen again to that poem of the 14th c. Persian poet Hafiz–
Has known God
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don’ts
Not the God who never
does anything weird,
But the God who only knows
and keeps repeating them,
“Come dance with Me”
Maybe you prefer a more contemporary sage. How’s this from Snoopy?– “To live is to dance; to dance is to live.”
Gertrude Mueller Nelson tells of working on a sewing project when her 3-year old daughter Annika discovered all the brightly-colored strips of fabric in the waste basket. She eagerly gathered them up and disappeared. A little while later, Gertrude found Annika out in the backyard, attaching the strips of fabric to a stick with mounds of tape. “I’m making a banner for a procession,” she said. “I need a procession so that God will come down and dance with us.” (Nelson, To Dance with God, p. 3)
“What this little primitive reminded me,” Nelson writes, “was how innate and easy [children’s] way is with the sacred…and what a sense of wonder.” As we begin another season of Godly Play today, encouraging our children to wonder about things, about the stories from the Bible, about the world around them, we would do well to join them in their dance with God. Middle school students are finding connections between the issues and attitudes they encounter every day–issues like hunger or poverty or cliques or bullying or dating–and how they connect with their faith. We would do well to join them in their dance with God. Students in high school are being invited to consider confirming their faith, to spend this year exploring the traditions of our faith and asking their own questions, wondering about things, about the Bible, about themselves, about God, about their world, about anything and everything. We would do well to join them in their dance with God.
Now, we may not be at all sure about this “dancing” business. Maybe like Michal, Saul’s beautiful daughter who hated David for dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant in only a loincloth, maybe we think there’s something “unseemly,” maybe something irreverent, about dancing, let alone dancing with God. There is certainly plenty of precedent for that in the Christian tradition. The movie “Footloose” told a story about that. And the very title of the movie “Dirty Dancing” sums up what some people think about all dancing.
Of course, we may not want to dance because we’re too self-conscious. “I can’t dance, don’t ask me…” We’re clumsy, or we don’t know the steps. We’ll look foolish. We like things a little more under control. Maybe our body is too stiff, too sore, too uncooperative.
And maybe dancing is just too frivolous. There are chores to be done, serious matters to consider, the world going to hell in a handbasket. Who has time to dance?
Or maybe it’s too primitive, not intellectual or rational enough. The great historian of religions from Harvard, Arthur Darby Nock, wrote, “Primitive religion is not believed. It is danced.” We’re more worried about “belief,” not how to dance.
“To what will I compare this generation?” Jesus asked. “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces, and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Humanity came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
Are you alive? Jesus asks. Do you find joy in anything?
Kerra Becker English is a Presbyterian minister in Richmond, VA who took up ballroom dancing lessons when she was in seminary as a break from the head trip that seminary can sometimes be. She has made some observations about what can be learned from dancing, either on the ballroom dance floor with a human partner, or in life, with God as your Partner–capital P!
The first lesson is “Maintain your frame. Or, as a counselor might say it, ‘Know your boundaries.’ Hold on too tightly, vice-grip. Hold on too loosely, spaghetti arms.” (English, in “Congregations,” Issue 3, 2012, p. 6) If we are so uptight, so rigid, so controlling, so closed off to anything new or spontaneous in our life of faith, we might as well be one of those pillars in the middle of the dance floor instead of a dancer. On the other hand, if we have no spine, no sense of who we are, no substance or boundaries, if anything goes, we’re not much of a dancing partner. It’s hard to engage in a relationship if there’s nothing there, nothing to build on. It’s hard to maintain any connection. “A spiritual frame as I understand it [writes English] is about active engagement, connection, and readiness.” (Ibid.) That’s true for us as individuals and as a church. We need to know who we are, and from that place of knowing, be ready to engage, connect, learn, grow.
The second lesson, says English, is to move. That’s what dancing is, isn’t it? Moving? Now, I know that there are people whose bodies are unable to move but whose spirits soar. I would still call that moving. Dancing with God or “following Jesus” ..is not about standing still in a tradition,” English writes, “it’s about taking in all that spiritual energy and allowing it to move and expand and grow.” Jesus encouraged his disciples to take what he had taught them and then do it better. He expected them to grow and evolve.
We as adults would do well to follow in the footsteps of our younger companions on this journey–not just because “they are our future,” as we hear often, but because of what they can share with us right now– in Godly Play, which is what our children up through 5th grade are engaging in; in exploring issues of daily life–”attitudes and issues,” as it’s called–which our middle school students are doing; and questioning and arriving at some point of confirmation, which our high school students are invited to. What would it look like for you to engage in Godly Play? Have you ever read an article in the newspaper and then reflected upon what your faith has to bring to it? Is there anything you know for sure, what you can confirm, that is your true north, your center of gravity, from which all of your actions and meaning in life flow?
Which in a way leads into the 3rd lesson that English suggests–”Dance on your own two feet.” Learn balance. Know where your center of gravity is. “The spiritual life is upheld by learning and repeating those practices that enable the practitioners to keep their own balance. Even the very best dance partner cannot maintain balance for two! Sadly, [she writes], we live in a world that is constantly throwing us off balance.” This fall’s political campaign is an example, writ large, of the dangers of hanging out on the extremes. But we need to learn to live in that tension between the extremes, to find our balance between too much work and not enough work, too much time on our hands and no time to ourselves.
Boredom–that great complaint of our time–”comes from taking for granted what is around us,” Gertrude Nelson writes. “We are numb. We do not allow ourselves to be touched and quickened.” (Op cit.) So even though we are moving in this dance of life, we also need to take the time to notice, to appreciate, to savor. The music is made not only by the notes but also by the rests. It’s a dance between sound and silence. So as we practice our moves, we must also practice our pauses, including those times when we lean into our partner and trust that we will be held up.
“Take one step at a time,” is the 4th dancing lesson. We might call it mindfulness. Be here now. “Life is what happens when you’ve made other plans,” someone has said, and how many times has that proven itself to be true? God’s timing is not always our timing, so you might as well sit loose, and take one step at a time.
This dance is not just a self-absorbed undertaking. English says she learns to “Sympathize with those who are dancing life backwards and in heels,” which, you may recall, is what has been said about Ginger Rogers, who had to stay right with her more famous partner Fred Astaire, but all the while, dancing backwards and in heels. “Sympathize with those who are dancing life backwards and in heels,” In other words, we can learn compassion, as this dance takes us beyond our own individual orbits, where we can indeed go deep, but we must also move out to touch other lives. There are those who may have fallen down, who need time out to re-group or rest, those who don’t have adequate food or health care or shelter in which to sleep. This is a dance of bending and leaning, of supporting and being supported.
And while lots of dancing today would appear to be a mass of individuals doing their own thing, there is in fact a collective energy that connects all the dancers. And, as we know, “it takes two to tango.” Just as you practice dance steps, like the tango, or fox trot, or swing dance, or even contra dance, so we come together each week to practice our dance with God and each other. We work on getting to know our partner better, on trying out new moves, on being still together, on listening for the beat and the music.
For, as English says in her last lesson, “Dancing is fun, and life is a dance!” – a variation of Snoopy’s “to live is to dance; to dance is to live.” “Dancing is an expression of the joy of life [English writes]–the whole range of joy–from the bouncy happy Jive, to the lovers’ quarrel in Tango, to the lilting rhythm of the Waltz.” (p. 8) “It may be,” says Sam Keen, “that the sparcity of joy in contemporary life is closely related to the loss of dance as a central vehicle for the education and articulation of values and beliefs,” as it is in more “primitive” (but more wise?) cultures. (Keen, To a Dancing God, p. 52) It is a dance of joy, because ultimately, through the worst we might imagine, “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” (Julian of Norwich).
Every child Has known God – Not the God of names,–Not the God of don’ts–
Not the God who never does anything weird, But the God who only knows four words
and keeps repeating them, saying– “Come dance with Me” – Come – Dance.
Amen, and amen. Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark