Monday, July 16, 2018

The Lord of the Dance

I first learned to dance in an etiquette class in 6th Grade.  We learned the Box Step (1-2-3-4).  We were instructed where to place our hands and where not to place our hands, as well as how close but no closer we could be to our partner.  Every year our Youth Group had a square dance.  Here I learned how to allemande left with the lady on my left and the Virginia Reel.   This is the end of my formal dance training.  I can do the YMCA (who can’t?), but not the Macarena.  Every now, if I have some music on, I cut loose in my kitchen while making dinner, but at moments like this I am grateful I live alone. 

My aunt and uncle’s Saturday schedule revolved precisely around watching The Lawrence Welk Show.  They commented constantly and critically on the dancers and their outfits.  It is hard fathom how at the same time our culture produced Elvis Presley and his gyrating hips.  I think back over movies and moments that transformed dancing in my lifetime: Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Flashdance, Dirty Dancing, Michael Jackson’s Moon Walk, and Left Shark at the Super Bowl.  Today, Dancing with the Stars is a cultural phenomena with millions of passionate followers.

After I moved into town my first introduction to Suffolk life was the 2007 Shrimpfest.  Terry and Irma Mottley were there and at one point with the music playing they broke into a shag.  I can still picture it in my mind.  They seemed so free and connected and graceful at ease with one another and in love.  It reminded me of something a seminary professor once told me.  She teaches pastoral theology and from time to time does marital counseling.  She advises couples in distress to sign up for dance lessons.  In her experience, if they are not willing to engage in this intimate and vulnerable activity there is little chance counseling sessions will save their marriage.

Dancing has been around for a long time.  Social theorists believe well before we honed our verbal skills early human beings used dancing as a method of communicating with one another.  The earliest record of dancing is found in a cave painting in India.  Dating back 9,000 years, it depicts a celebration after a successful hunt.  Dancing seems to be an important element in every religious tradition in our world.  Some Episcopal churches incorporate what is known as liturgical dancing in their services, but, as a friend of mine once opined, “When it comes to liturgical dancing, less really is more.”

In today’s first reading we find King David dancing before the Lord “with all his might”.  He and the people are celebrating the return of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem after it had been lost in battle to the Philistines.  Most likely his dancing is not akin to the highly choreographed dancing of Viennese Waltz, but a spontaneous, free-form, energetic expression of passion and joy.  It is what basketball players do when they nail a game winning shot at the buzzer and baseball players do when they hit a walk off homerun and soccer fans do when their team wins the World Cup.  Jumping up and down and screaming at the top of your lungs may not seem like much of a dance, but it does combine movement and celebration.  Outside of perhaps the Pentecostal church tradition, we people of faith in the Christian west do not dance like this in religious settings and ceremonies.  If I broke loose with leaping, shouting, and dancing in today’s service, you all would give me the same look David’s wife gave him and call the bishop. 

Years ago I attended a service at a Charismatic Episcopal Church where we were directed to stand, raise our hands to the Lord, and sing “with all our might”.  Those of us who did not raise our hands were chastised for being “stumps”, not “trees” – raised arms being the limbs.  Then and there I discovered I do not come to worship to be drawn out of myself – to be released from constrictions so I can let it all out in an emotional outpouring – but rather I seek a kind of worship that draws me inward to a place where I can hear the still, small voice of God’s Spirit speaking to my deepest concerns, sorrows, hopes, and joys.  I don’t despise the David’s in this world who let go when they worship God, but it is not me and it is not what I need from this experience.

Today’s gospel reading describes a different kind of dancing.  This one is not religious in nature, but rather erotic.  By all accounts, King Herod is a foolish and brutal ruler.  What sort of father asks his teenage daughter to dance provocatively for him and his male guests?  His taxation policy squeezes the life out of the Galilean region in order to build his palaces and support his sumptuous lifestyle.  His powers are many and broad and he wields them arbitrarily for his own benefit to the detriment of others. 

Herod’s daughter Herodias appears to have only one source of power – her sexuality.  Like most young women, she realizes she has the ability to manipulate men with her beauty and her body well before she discovers what she wants to do with her power.  As such, she is in a vulnerable position.  She has the ability to hurt others and most likely she will be hurt multiple times in her life by using this power.

I dated a young woman in college who told me her secret to getting an A in an economics class of over 100 students.  The professor knew none of us by name and surely never took the time to read our papers word for word.  Our final grades seemed arbitrary at best.  This young woman figured out how to break through.  First, she always dressed up and wore a skirt to class.  Next, she sat in the front row and paid attention.  She intended to catch the professor’s eye, but he still didn’t know her name.  One day, after class, she approached him to ask for the name of a book and author he referenced during the lecture.  Then, at the final, she wrote on the top corner of her paper a note in red ink: “Thank you for directing me to the author and name of the book.”  Because she connected her paper with her face she got an A and deserved it.  The professor was unwilling to do the actual work of reading papers and assigning grades based on merit so he opened himself to being played, although nowhere near as badly as Herod.

This week I asked a few women about their experience of using the power of their sexuality.  I learned it can be effective, but also is fraught with peril.  Our society is not much help.  Either we encourage women to flaunt their power to the fullest, or we attempt to shame and suppress it - think about the churches that ban dancing and the religious traditions requiring women to cover their bodies.  The example of the mother seems to play a key role in shaping the practices of the daughter – how to dress and how not to, how to act and how not to.  More than anything else, if a woman’s only power is her ability to use her looks and her sexuality to get what she wants from men, she is opening herself to a lifetime of pain. 

History does not record any other details of Herodias’ life, just this dance and the role it plays in a gruesome and unnecessary execution.  Sadly for her, it is an auspicious beginning to her formative years and it strains the imagination to conceive who might have guided her from viewing herself as being only a seductive object in the eyes of men to an authentic human being deeply and dearly loved by God our Creator.

When she was five, we enrolled our daughter Abbey in a dance class at her daycare.  Like all such things, there came the day for a recital, with its obligatory stopping of the world for every relative in the same time zone to attend… and videotape.  Most of the routines were cute, uncomplicated, and somewhat mechanical.  At one point the instructor told us it was time for a freeform dance where the girls move to music in anyway they desire.  At this point, in my eyes at least, the most amazing thing happened.  It was as if Abbey connected to some deep inner place allowing her soul and her body’s sinews to interact with the holy and mysterious rhythms of life.  She appeared free of conscious restriction as she flowed and drifted with the music; no longer concerned about the steps and stops of the previous dances, just her body and soul’s relationship with the music.  It was incredibly beautiful, deeply spiritual, and a moment I will cherish forever.  It is for me a witness to what all life can and should be.    

Jesus never actually said “I am the Lord of the Dance,” but I bet he wished he had.  Life definitely is a dance.  Sometimes it looks like the awkwardness of a 6th grader’s box step.  Other times, such as when we pass the peace, it feels like the joyful interaction of the Virginia Reel.  There are moments of spontaneous joy and celebration.  And there are times of rare, fleeting, and precious sacred connection and expression. 

Dance, then, wherever you may be,

for I am the Lord of the Dance said he.