Last Sunday, I ended the sermon with reference to a video I saw during worship at the General Assembly in Pittsburgh, shown at East Liberty Presbyterian Church to a congregation of 700 Presbyterians. It was the latest release by Matt Harding on his site: “Where the hell is Matt?” His Dance 2012 consists of Matt dancing a funny dance with people – he’s not really a great dancer – in small groups and in enormous crowds, with people all around the world, children, adults, all shapes and sizes and religions and races in a celebration of the human spirit caught up in the dance. There’s one poignant scene in which he’s dancing with people in wheelchairs. He’s dancing in Rwanda, Germany; Damascus, Syria (the dancers have their faces blurred to keep them anonymous); Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Gaza, Thailand, North Korea, South Africa, Cairo, Athens, Rome, and even Patterson Park, Baltimore. Some are dangerous places, impoverished places, places of untold pain and suffering, but also places of joy and happiness. I’m not exactly sure why it speaks to so many people – I was a wreck watching it. I’m not sure what’s at the root of the emotions it releases, but it’s profound and uplifting and joyous and it celebrates the thread that binds the human spirit together. The video is set to music, a song, “Trip the Light,” co-authored by Matt. By trip he means to turn on the light. Here are the lyrics:
If all the days that come to pass
Are behind these walls
I’ll be left at the end of things
In a world kept small
Travel far from what I know
I’ll be swept away
I need to know
I can be lost and not afraid
We’re gonna trip the light
We’re gonna break the night
And we’ll see with new eyes
When we trip the light
Remember we’re lost together
Remember we’re the same
We hold the burning rhythm in our hearts
We hold the flame
I’ll find my way home
On the Western wind
To a place that was once my world
Back from where I’ve been
And in the morning light I’ll remember
As the sun will rise
We are all the glowing embers
Of a distant fire
We’re gonna trip the light
We’re gonna break the night
And we’ll see with new eyes
When we trip the light.
I can’t shake free from the images and music of this video. I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps it gives a glimpse of what the human spirit really hungers for; it allows us to soar with hope for the new thing God is doing in our midst. For the dance continues and nothing can stop it.
And then just when I thought I was beyond it, here comes the lectionary for this week from 2 Samuel, of David dancing with “all his might” before the ark of God.
2 Samuel depicts the ascendency of David to the throne of Israel and Judah. Saul is dead. Abner, Saul’s general, is dead. A lot of people are dead – all within the first five chapters. David is not completely innocent here. But he’s the one left standing. The Lord’s anointed. He moves the capital to Jerusalem. Jerusalem, already a religious center for Israel, now becomes a political and military center. He brings with him the ark of the covenant, the dwelling place of Yahweh, the holy presence of God, which was entrusted to the Northern tribes. And so in a great liturgical procession of 30,000, “David and all the people with him set out and went…to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned in the cherubim.”
David is leading the way and he’s dancing. David and all the house of Israel “were dancing before the LORD with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.” Eventually they make their way into the City of David, into Jerusalem, and David is still dancing, “all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.”
As David makes his way through the city, Michal, Saul’s daughter, David’s wife, looks on and despises him? Why? Maybe she’s resentful toward him for pulling her away from her first husband, Paltiel – this David who demanded that she become his wife. Maybe she’s resentful that she’s one of David’s wives and not the only one (and be sure to note the Bible’s early configuration of marriage here). We’re not sure. Her anger and even hate for him are strong and justified; they become the lens through which she looks out at him and his holy display. Maybe she thinks he’s a poseur, a fake, she knows his heart, he’s got the 30,000 fooled. Michal probably knows better than most that David isn’t perfect – and we must not project those expectations upon him. But it’s kind of sad to see Michal’s resentment toward him getting in the way of the celebration, hindering her ability to worship to God, obstructing her from joining in the dance.
I think if we’re honest, even if we have two left feet, we want to join in the dance. But there are things that hinder us from dancing, that prevent us from hearing the music. Maybe you know what it’s like to be on the edge of a dance floor looking on with desire and maybe jealousy and fear because you know that you want to dance, you know you want to be out there, but you don’t know how (or think you don’t), or you don’t want to embarrass yourself (or your friends), and so you run from the risk and the fun and look on. We all want to dance. It’s buried deep in our souls, in our psyches. Dance is as old as humanity; it’s archetypal. Dance might actually be older than language; it’s preverbal and even subverbal. It’s part of our collective memories. When we hear the beating of the drum, something stirs in us. It’s primal. Certain rhythms and beats can cause even the most frozen of the chosen Presbyterian tribe to move. We might not think it’s possible; but it is. With God all things are possible. At the church I served in Mendham, NJ, we had a dance one evening. I remember seeing about fifty Presbyterians lose enough to dance, not only the Electric Slide, but also the Macarena! That was a sight to behold! It couldn’t get that image out of my head for a while.
It was the great dance teacher and choreographer Martha Graham (1894-1991), who said, “Dance is the hidden language of the soul.” When we dance, something deep is revealed, something deep is released, something deep is set free, something deep that can only be discovered, maybe, in the dance.
Twice we find David and all of Israel “dancing with all their might.” I’m struck by the strong, profound connection between worship and dance here, between devotion and dance, between praise and dance. With all his might David gives himself over in praise and celebration, with all his heart, soul, mind, strength, and body he offers himself to God in praise. There’s such happiness, such joy and delight, such selflessness and unself-consciousness here that he’s free to give himself over to the dance, he’s free to let himself go. What a marvelous expression or definition of worship.
The Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine (1904-1983) once said, “I don’t want people who want to dance, I want people who have to dance.” From what we can glean from this text, no one told David to dance. He had to dance; it flowed from him. That’s what worship does – it’s what God wants from our worship.
I’m struck by this connection between religious experience and emotion. The religious expression, the depth of love and devotion causes movement. That’s what an emotion does. An emotion is energy in motion – e-motion – and that’s what religious experience can and should do within us – move us, cause us to move.
Early Judaism knew this. Dance has always been part of the Jewish tradition. In the Christian experience, not so much. In the gospels, Jesus says, 'We piped to you but you did not dance' (Matthew 11:17). In Jesus' parable of the prodigal son there was dancing and rejoicing on the son's return to his home (Luke 15:25). Even as late at 200 A.D., circle dances were still part of the Christian liturgy. But all that changed when the dance was equated with moral decadence and dance was removed from the liturgy. John Calvin (1509-1564) and his colleagues and the congregations of the Reformed church did not dance. There are exceptions in Christian history, of course, think of the Shakers in the 19th century America.
In Islam, the mystical Sufis today dance in a whirling dervish of praise around one still point. In the gnostic text, the Acts of John, we find Jesus saying, “Give heed unto my dancing… Divine Grace is dancing: Fain would I pipe for you. Dance ye all!”
It’s not surprising that Jesus came to be known as the Lord of the Dance. Sydney Carter (1915-2004), composer of our closing hymn, “I Danced in the Morning” (1963), set to the Shaker tune Simple Gifts, said in connection with this hymn, "I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. …I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus. Whether Jesus ever leaped in Galilee to the rhythm of a pipe or drum I do not know. We are told that David danced (and as an act of worship too), so it is not impossible. The fact that many Christians have regarded dancing as a bit ungodly (in a church, at any rate) does not mean that Jesus did. The Shakers didn't.”
I wonder whether with the absence of dance that we haven’t lost something essential in our worship.
We know all the power of dance. Sometimes we have to go beyond the Church to discover it or reclaim it. Whether it’s a scene from Hairspray or Flashdance or Saturday Night Fever or West Side Story, “Dancing with the Stars,” or watching Fred and Ginger – you have your favorites – you know the beauty and emotion of the movement when we dance, even when we watch people dance. My parents were wonderful dancers. I can remember watching them at wedding receptions and parties, effortlessly moving across the dance floor in one fluid, beautiful movement. We want to participate in it. We want to get caught up in it. Dance is a marvelous metaphor or image for the Christian life, a faith that is dancing.
Listen to this personal statement or confession of what dance means, what it does, why it matter. As you listen, try to connect it to your own faith, hear it as a metaphor for a dancing faith:
Consciousness expresses itself through creation. This world we live in is the dance of the creator. Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on. On many an occasion when I am dancing, I have felt touched by something sacred. In those moments, I felt my spirit soar and become one with everything that exists.
I become the stars and the moon. I become the lover and the beloved. I become the victor and the vanquished. I become the master and the slave. I become the singer and the song. I become the knower and the known. I keep on dancing then, it is the eternal dance of creation. The creator and creation merge into one wholeness of joy. I keep on dancing...and dancing...and dancing. Until there is only...the dance.
These are the words of Michael Jackson (1958-2009).
I can easily imagine David saying something very similar, can’t you? “…touched by something sacred…I felt my spirit soar…creator and creation merge into one wholeness of joy…there is only…the dance.” And so we keep on dancing…and dancing…and dancing. For there is only the dance.
“Trip the Light,” by Alicia Hempke and Matt Harding; Music by Gary Schyman.
 See Martha Graham’s autobiography, Blood Memory: An Autobiography (Doubleday, 1991).
 The Acts of John is a gnostic text that dates from the 2nd century AD. In its account of the Last Supper, there is reference to the Round Dance or Circle Dance of the Cross, initiated by Jesus who says, "Before I am delivered to them, let us sing a hymn to the Father and so go to meet what lies before us.” Directed to form a circle around him, holding hands and dancing, the apostles cry "Amen" to the hymn of Jesus. Gustav Holst (1875-1934) set the text to music, using his own translation from the Greek, in The Hymn of Jesus (1916). I’m using Holst’s translation here.