There was a time when many churches frowned upon dancing. That’s because they considered it too sensual. This was especially true of mixed dancing, which might lead to promiscuity. That’s why we didn’t have dances at my college. We had “stand up concerts.” Although they looked a lot like dances, we could pretend they weren’t. After I graduated, things loosened up, but there was this concern that people might think these Christian college students were up to no good!
Now, as for me and dancing, you probably won’t catch me out on the dance floor very often. It’s not a theological thing. But, as Cheryl will attest, I can’t dance! My feet and my arms and my body will not move with the music in an appropriate fashion.
Although Psalm 30 speaks of God taking us from mourning to dancing, the Psalmist isn’t referring to a Valentine’s Dance. Instead, the Psalmist is calling for us to celebrate a movement from sadness to joy.
Ours is an embodied faith, as the Psalms so often declares. And the first great commandment as stated in Deuteronomy calls for us to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength (Deut. 6:4). Scripture invites us to worship God in dance, and by kneeling, bowing, and lifting our hands before the LORD. Yes, ours is an embodied faith.
And as God moves us from mourning to dancing, from sadness to joy, this movement involves our entire being. So, let us celebrate the God who reaches into our lives, pulls us up, even from the grave, so that we might live. Yes, as the Psalmist declares:
You changed my mourning into dancing.
You took off my funeral clothes and dressed me up in joy. (Ps. 30:11 CEB).
The contrast this verse lays out is stark. God reaches out to us when we find ourselves overwhelmed by darkness. God reaches out to us when it seems as if we’re in the depths of despair. I know that some of you have known deep grief and even despair. There are people, perhaps not here, but maybe people you know, who are so deeply embedded in despair that they can’t even imagine ever experiencing joy again.
And yet, it is in the midst of this darkness that God is at work changing our mourning into dancing and exchanging our funeral clothes for ones that reflect joy.
The Psalm begins with a word of thanksgiving:
I exalt you, O LORD, because you pulled me up!
Then we hear a word about God’s active presence in our times of darkness:
Lord, you brought me up from the grave,
brought me back to life from among those going down to the pit.
The focus is on God’s involvement in restoring us to life when we find a cloud of death hovering over us. The word we hear is that we can’t manufacture this joy on our own. It will take God’s active presence to change our situation.
This is an important word for us to hear, but I also know that we have to stop and recognize that moving from sadness to joy isn’t as easy as saying – Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Just saying you love Jesus doesn’t mean everything is going to be okay. Prayer is essential, but just praying harder may not always make things better. God heals, but healing may come in forms that are different from we might want or expect.
This past Friday I attended the Glazer Institute on Judaism
at Temple Beth El.
It was the 70th anniversary of a lectureship that began in 1942 when Central Woodward and Temple Beth El were still neighbors down on Woodward Avenue. Our presenters were Rabbi Daniel Syme and Heather Irish, who addressed the issue of mental health, especially as it relates to bullying, depression, and suicide.
Heather Irish reminded us that depression and other mental health issues often have a physical/chemical basis that requires therapy and possibly medication. Now, we don’t like to talk about such things. There’s a stigma attached to mental health issues. We sometimes view therapy and medication as a sign of weakness. And so, unfortunately, we’re not even able to talk about such things in the church. It’s simply not safe to do so. Heather said to those of us at the gathering who were clergy – and most of us were clergy – it’s not that prayer isn’t a good thing. It’s not that God isn’t involved in healing. But, remember that therapy and medication might be the way in which God chooses to lift us out of the grave and restore us to health. She didn’t exactly use these words, but using the words of the Psalmist, that’s what I heard her say. And she is correct.
Amos Yong has written a wonderful book entitled The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God.
In this book he talks about healing, and as a Pentecostal he believes that God heals. You can read about people being healed in the Bible, but is it possible that what needs to be healed aren’t the bodies of those we consider disabled, but our attitudes toward them. Too often our society stigmatizes people based on their perceived ability to contribute to society. He talks about our tendency as the church to see people with disabilities as needing our ministrations, without being willing to receive the gifts of ministry that people with disabilities bring to our community. As I read the book, I was reminded that I too am complicit in this reality. I have been guilty of such perceptions, and that I too am one who requires healing.
So how do we move from mourning to dancing?
The answer, according to the Psalmist, is that God will pull us up and God won’t let the enemy rejoice over us. We can give thanks to God because God is faithful.
There is, however, a danger to be avoided. We can, so the Psalmist suggests, grow so comfortable with life that we begin to think we’ll never stumble. When the good times roll, we begin to think they’ll never end. When that happens we tend to rely on our own strength and forget to entrust our lives to God. After all, who needs God when things are good?
But what happens when you begin to stumble? What happens when you begin to feel that God is hiding from you? Do you feel, as the Psalmist suggests, not just dismay, as the NRSV renders verse 7, but you’re terrified?
But, of course, when we find ourselves in such a situation, then we begin to cry out to the LORD and beg for mercy. Maybe we will join the Psalmist in reminding God that God has nothing to gain from our spilled blood or from our taking up residence in Sheol. And so we cry out: Rescue me, LORD. Restore me to your presence.
As we cry out to God, we begin to feel the healing hands of God lift us up. And as God lifts us up we begin to dance with joy.
There is a hymn, which we’ve yet to learn, and maybe we’ll never learn, that expresses this point well:
I cannot dance, O Love, unless you lead me on.
I cannot leap in gladness unless you lift me up. (Chalice Hymnal, 290).
The one who loves and leads is God, and we can’t dance or can leap unless God is the one who leads us and lifts us up.
This Psalm is often used during the season of Easter. Its emphasis on restoring people to life, is reflective of the Resurrection message that proclaims Christ risen from the grave and confirms in us the hope of our own resurrection. We hear in this message a word of hope for our lives.
So, are you ready to dance? Are you ready to exchange your funeral clothes for ones that are appropriate for a party? But if you’re ready to dance, are you also ready to invite others to experience God’s healing presence, which breaks down barriers and enables them to experience the joy of the LORD forever?!