Saturday, April 12, 2008

April 12, 2008 - The Dance Goes On

This morning, I conduct a funeral for someone I’ve never met.

It’s not that unusual an occurrence, in parish ministry. From time to time, one of the local funeral directors calls me, and asks if I’m free to conduct a service in the funeral home. Usually, it’s a case of the deceased having no current church membership. Often, there’s some tenuous history of church involvement – sometimes Presbyterian, other times something else.

The funeral directors know I generally say yes to such requests. I consider it an important part of the church’s ministry to the larger community.

Kay, whose funeral this is, had some connection with a Lutheran church in a nearby town, but the pastor had another commitment today. Rather than postponing the service, the family decided to let the funeral director find a minister. That’s how I got the call.

Yesterday, when I went over to the funeral home to meet with Kay’s daughter, I learned that Kay loved ballroom dancing. I also saw a snippet of video, of her dancing with her husband. This wasn’t your garden-variety, wedding-reception stuff. I’m talking “Dancing with the Stars,” Fred-and-Ginger elegance – ball gowns, tuxedos, the works. The woman I saw in those brief moments on the screen fairly soared across the dance floor, moving with joy and grace. She looked like she was having the time of her life.

Kay’s daughter told me of a woman who’d known a lot of disappointment in her life, with a couple of failed marriages in her past. She’d finally found happiness with her third husband – ironically, just about the time she was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. Eight years of treatments later, it was all over. She was only in her 60s when she died – still young, by today’s standards. It hardly seems fair.

In planning the service, I decided to depart from the old-standby scripture readings. There’s nothing wrong with them, but for today I felt we needed something different. So, I went on a hunt for Bible passages dealing with dance. I found more than I’d expected.

Lamentations 5:14-15 tells of how hard it is to dance when you’ve had a devastating loss – in this case, the fall of your country to foreign invaders:

“The old men have left the city gate,
the young men their music.
The joy of our hearts has ceased;
our dancing has been turned to mourning.”

The poetry of Lamentations is traditionally attributed to Jeremiah – and, if that’s true, it’s remarkable how much his tune has changed in his better-known book, the prophetic book that bears his name, as he speaks for the Lord:

“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines,
and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers....

Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,
and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him,
and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”
For the Lord has ransomed Jacob,
and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
and they shall never languish again.
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”

(Jeremiah 31:3b-4, 10-13)

“Our dancing has been turned to mourning,” says Lamentations. Now, the Lord says through Jeremiah, “I will turn their mourning into joy.” Clearly, this passage is all about God providing, one day, changed circumstances – circumstances propitious for the dance.

Psalm 30:5 provides a similar assurance that “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” The psalmist then goes on to declare:

“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!”
You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever."

(Psalm 30:9-12)

What sort of dance is this? Not a rock dance, and not ballroom dancing, either, but probably something more like the circle dances of many near eastern and Mediterranean folk-dance traditions. They’re the sort of dances in which everyone participates, everyone finds a place. Eventually, the circle moves as one, becoming like a single dancer.

I tell the people, then, a story from the Hasidic Jewish tradition, about a famous rabbi who had been asked to come to a particular village to share his teachings. The village was looking forward to his arrival with great anticipation. Each person considered carefully what question to ask the holy man.

When the rabbi finally arrived, they ushered him into a large room, but he didn’t do what they expected. He walked silently around the room, softly humming a Hasidic tune. Before long, everyone found themselves humming along with the music and swaying to the rhythm. Before long, the whole community had formed up into circles, dancing ecstatically. They felt the presence of God in their midst as never before.

The dancing went on late into the night. Finally, the rabbi put up his hand and brought the swirling motion to a stop. Slowly he walked around the room, looking into each person’s eyes and saying, “I trust that I have answered all your questions.”

Sometimes there just aren’t the words. Sometimes the powers of logic are insufficient to the task. Sometimes the only thing to do is to put one foot in front of the other, in the time-honored patterns of the worship dance.

One of staples of the Christian folk-music tradition is Sydney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance” (no, not the Michael Flatley Irish step-dancing extravaganza, but a lilting hymn that depicts Jesus’ life and ministry in terms of a dance). The refrain goes like this:

“Dance, then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.”

The song goes on to tell how Jesus danced through his teachings and healings, even right up to the cross. When he died, it seemed to his followers like the dance died with him. But then comes this verse:

“They cut me down and I leapt up high.
I am the life that'll never, never die.
I’ll live in you, if you live in me.
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.”

Sydney Carter himself died 4 years ago. The fame that accrued to “Lord of the Dance,” disproportionate to anything else he’d written, made him kind of a “one-hit wonder” – and he knew it. So, it’s perhaps not surprising that he chose to have these words carved into his tombstone, recalling his famous song:

“Coming and going by the dance, I see
That what I am not is a part of me.
Dancing is all that I can ever trust,
The dance is all I am, the rest is dust.
I will believe my bones and live by what
Will go on dancing when my bones are not.”

I tell the grief-stricken people in the funeral home that what we are about here, today, is reminding one another that the dance of life goes on - in this life as well as the next. Cancer cannot stop it. It surely can’t. In Christ, the dance goes on.

Robin, our church’s associate pastor, shared with me these words from an early Christian tomb inscription. I don’t have a source for it, but it sounds like the sort of thing those early Christians believed with all their hearts:

“No sorrowful tears, no beating of the breast
For a safe repose has taken me. I dance
Ring dances with the blessed saints
In the beautiful fields of the righteous.”

Yes, indeed. In places and in ways we can only imagine, the dance goes on.


Wendy S. Harpham, MD said...

Dear Pastor,
With Passover soon upon us,one of the stories of Miriam is timely as well as germane to your message.

We learn that the Jews were in a rush to escape Egypt after the Pharoah ordered the killing of the Hebrews' first borns. The Jews were in such a rush they didn't have time for their bread to rise, commemorated today by the eating of unleavened bread (matzoh).

We also learn that after the Hebrews crossed the miraculous Red Sea and claimed victory over the Egyptian army, Miriam took out her tambourine and made music to which the now-free Hebrews danced.

Picture Miriam n what surely was high stress if not hysteria of escaping Egypt. Miriam not only had faith in victory, she had the presence of mind to pack her tambourine. Given that they could only take what they could pack quickly and carry while fleeing, Miriam put high priority of packing her instruments of celebration.

Sometimes in life, hardships and uncertainty cause you to feel consumed by the current difficulties and the potential future problems. The lesson for me as a Healthy Survivor is to be like Miriam: I should take a moment to pack my instruments of celebration before moving forward through challenge. These instruments nourish hope of better times and enable us to elevate good times with the music of celebration.

With hope, Wendy S. Harpham, MD

Carlos ("Carl") said...

Indeed. Miriam is one of those great archetypal figures from the scriptures.

I've often wondered what sort of role she actually had, in the life of the people of Israel. The scriptures have been through so many revisions and editings, and we know that in some of them the role of women was minimized. Miriam was probably a great leader. But unfortunately, the description of her dance is about all we have.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing those passages. they have meant a lot to me as I have dealt with grief and these words are uplifting.