The other night, one of my daughters was teaching the other to dance.
More than an adorable moment, it was also a reminder of what my children sometimes do. They do many things, but among them sometimes they teach me to dance. They’ll ask me to turn up the music – lately the request is for VBS songs (Parents, can I get an “Amen”?), but more often it’s Kidz Bop, or the latest Disney soundtrack, or something from Katy Perry (though honestly sometimes that request is from their mother). With music blaring, they’ll help me to move more freely and find different rhythms, to shed inhibition, to loosen my limbs, to experience more easily the joy in my life.
Like a few years ago, when I trudged up the stairs of our front porch one evening, my tie loosened halfway down my chest, at the end of a week that had held three funerals in the life of our church. And I opened the door to find my daughter was dancing in a sunbeam. “Dance with me, Daddy,” she said. And it reminded me that to dance is to be alive. Even amidst reminders of death, to dance is to cast your vote for the promise of life – the kind of life the Bible calls “abundant.”
In 2 Samuel 6 we find David dancing. “King David,” as he is known by this point in the story, is responding to the abundance in his life and the life of Israel, filled with gratitude to God for uniting the people, strengthening their cause, establishing their home, fulfilling promises along the way. David hasn’t always been dancing over the course of his long and often violent rise. But now threats seem distant. He’s established as king. His home is set in Jerusalem. And in our passage he seeks to bring the Ark of the Covenant right into the center of it all.
If the theme song of Indiana Jonesis playing in your head, then you have at least a popular idea of the biblical tradition of the Ark of the Covenant and all of its overwhelming power, and Stephen Spielberg might have even been thinking of this passage when filming that last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, because in the verses skipped by our lectionary someone gets too close and too flippant, and the ark displays its terrifying force by striking them dead. But the Ark was not first a violent object, but a symbol of the presence of God.
The Ark of the Covenant is first described in the book of Exodus. It was filled with objects that signified God’s covenant with God’s people: the two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, some manna from the wilderness, the rod of Moses’ brother Aaron. The Israelites would carry the Ark with them through the desert. Whenever the Ark was with them, the people felt like they were invincible. Until they weren’t. In 1 Samuel, Israel’s ever-imposing enemies, the Philistines, come with the chariots and superior military might and they seize the Ark. This, you might remember, is when the people come to Samuel and demand a king. “Make us like other nations,” they say, “Give us a king to go out before us and fight.” In other words, “We want something different than this Ark. Something more.”
The Ark of the Covenant – the symbol of the promises of God – had once been out in front of them, signaling their faith and ultimate identity. But then, they wanted the same as everyone else. The Ark became for them a useless relic of the past, a shrine to a bygone era. Even when the Philistines give it back, it’s of little priority to the people, kept out of sight in the home of a little known figure, Abinadab. Before our passage today, the Ark was effectively being kept in the basement of Israel’s consciousness. It was a symbol of forgotten piety, and with it a forgotten faith in the promises of God.
But David remembers. David wants the symbol brought out into the open and right to the center. David remembers the covenant that has been there all along – seen in the giving of the Law, and the provision of bread in the wilderness, and the making of a way through the waters – and he wants this new moment in Israel’s life to be built on those old moments and enduring promises. There’s some debate if it’s a pious or a political move by David. Maybe it’s both. But whatever the motive, the ark is brought to Jerusalem, and that’s when David begins to dance.
Verse 5 describes it: “David, and all the house of Israel with him, danced before the Lord with all their might.” They turn up the music, with songs and harps and cymbals and every instrument within reach. Free and uninhibited, they dance “with all their might,” scripture says. Because the covenant of God moves them all, even a king normally so composed, to dancing.
This is what God’s covenant love makes possible for all of us. God’s enduring promises, God’s life abundant, God’s covenant itself help us to order our lives differently, find new rhythms, hear the music of the soul that we can so easily forget or leave somewhere. So often we leave it somewhere long in the past or deep down in someone else’s basement storage, but not in our own homes and not in the center of our own lives.
Annie Dillard, the wonderful writer, has shared some rabbinical wisdom she once heard. She says the “old rabbis” used to say that to dance is to take the broken pieces of your life – your sadness, your shame, your own particular complicated story – and to “bring them into the joy.” To bring your life out into the light of day, out of the dusty storage and the shadowed corners of memory. (1)
Perhaps that’s why children are so often poised to teach so many of us these motions. This week in our Worship in the Artscamp, our children will be dancing, as they did a couple weeks ago in VBS, so freely moving when – be honest – some of our youth and adult volunteers had to be coaxed or bribed or threatened into the rhythm and motion. For some reason, we often leave the dancing to the children. Maybe it’s because there’s an openness, a shamelessness, a freedom needed to dance. You might call it a protected state of naiveté; but you might call it faith, too.
My friend Mark says it’s in all of us. Mark Lamb is a dancer and choreographer living in New York, and he and I became friends as he became a Resident Artist at our former church there, Metro. With pews removed from the sanctuary, and a beautiful wooden floor in that open space, one of the uses of the building during the week to this day is for rehearsal and performance for dancers, actors and singers alike. It became a redemptive space for Mark, who grew up around plenty of churches – many Baptist churches – in his native Kentucky, in the 70s and 80s. But as a young gay man, he wasn’t welcome in most of them. When he was born, his basketball coach father was told, “Well, Roy, you got yourself a ballplayer” and while this was true of some of Mark’s brothers, he and his father would both come to proudly say that in Mark, Roy got himself a dancer.
Mark is a passionate and inspired artist, who uses his art less for his own acclaim and more as a tool to inspire confidence and social change. His conviction that dance is in all of us has led him to lead workshops across the United States, including many in his home, often with people not always regarded as dancers, including older adults, and children with disabilities, and people who use wheelchairs for their mobility. Together they tell their stories through dance and movement.
He’ll tell you of when it all changed for him: he was babysitting his infant nephew, and he turned on some music as he went to pick the boy up from his nap, and he looked down in the crib and saw his baby nephew moving, as if out of instinct or from somewhere deep in who he was created to be. And Mark says tearfully with such passion that it changed the course of his life as he realized, “It’s in all of us.” (2)
It’s in all of us. Until it’s not. My friend Scott once told me about a friend’s grandfather who passed away not long ago. He was a Russian immigrant, who came to the United States just before the start of World War II and was promptly drafted by his new country. He missed the first two years of his son’s life, so much that for several years his son knew him as “Uncle Dad.” And the family remembers how the war changed him. He took to drinking, was sometimes violent, but most often was just distant from those who loved him. But years later, not long before he died, he was telling his grandson about those years before war, and the carefree days of his youth. He was telling him of home, and a time of promise seemingly past, and the older man’s eyes welled up and he began to shake his head slowly and pensively and said, “We used to dance; we used to dance.” (3)
We all did. It could have been said of David, too – that he used to dance – because after he and the people dance so freely in verse 5, there occurs the unspeakable, inexplicable death of Uzzah, who reaches for the Ark. Then there’s the resistance of Michal, described in v. 16. Amidst such factors and forces it could have been said of David that he merely used to dance, it was something now past, but the text is clear that he dances one again, and not with hesitation or inhibition, but again “with all his might.”
Maybe we used to dance, but to dance on the other side of death, and loss; to move freely and uninhibited in a world that tightens us daily; to find different rhythms than the ones we’ve rehearsed so many times over; to take even the shattered parts of our lives and bring them back into the joy, into the open, into a place of testing out faith again – that is an act of boldness and courage so rare, it is hardly seen. That’s why dance in itself can be an act of resistance, so often tied to movements for change and agents of justice.
Like during the deepest, most devastating days of the Apartheid in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was in prison, and some of the only voices left speaking truth to power were those of church leaders, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But he had become a target for silencing and intimidation. On one occasion, the government had canceled a rally, and so Bishop Tutu decided to hold a church service instead. Everyone gathered at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, and as they did troops massed by the hundreds outside to intimidate and threaten. Finally some of the troops came inside where they lined the walls, writing down and taping everything Archbishop Tutu said. But he stood up boldly to preach. And that’s when he must have sensed the presence of God, and the boldness of the one who was always out before him, and he stood and proclaimed that the Apartheid would not endure, as the troops jotted down every word, and in one extraordinary moment he pointed his finger at those enforcers standing along the walls of his sanctuary and said, “You are powerful. You are very powerful, but I serve a God who cannot be mocked.” Then he flashed his wonderful smile and said, “So, since you’ve already lost – since you’ve already lost – I invite you today to come and join the winning side.”
And at that the congregation erupted. It was as if the Ark of the Covenant itself was right in their midst, right in the center of the room. And you know what they did: they began dancing. Dancing in the church, then pouring outside and dancing in the streets. Jim Wallis, who was there observing this remarkable moment, said it was astounding. The government troops just moved back because in Wallis’ words, “No one had any idea what to do with dancing worshippers.” (4)
I suppose this world doesn’t have the first clue what to do with people who dance. Who move freely in the name of love. Who live their lives uninhibited amidst the promises of God. Who give up deciding who’s in and who’s out and who consistently call others to join. Whose dancing spills out into the streets in abundance for all as they remember the God of manna and bread enough, and something like David in verse 19 distribute food among the masses, “the whole multitude.”
This world has no idea what to do when we dance so shamelessly. They so rarely see it in us. But if that’s true, it’s not because we’ve forgotten how to dance. It’s in all of us, after all. We haven’t forgotten to dance so much as we’ve forgotten the covenant of our God that makes our movement possible. We’ve left it somewhere distant or past, or we’ve misunderstood it, or we’ve prioritized some other power and let it go out in front of us into this world.
And I guess few things frighten me more than to realize this will probably occur to the children who dance in the sunbeams of my living room, or the kids who dance in the sanctuary of this church. They will become those who used to dance. When dancing happens wherever life does. It happens wherever faith happens. It happens wherever we remember the promises of God and live our lives by those motions. So it happens in living rooms among brothers and sisters and parents and kids. It happens in hospital waiting rooms, I’ve seen it there. It happens in nurseries with a gentle sway. It happens in churches, then out in the streets, at rallies or marches. It happens at parties and weddings. On dance floors, or sanctuary floors, or kitchen floors and dance floors. It happens even in the court of a king. Dancing happens where life happens – the life we don’t always bring out into the joy; the life that’s so often kept hidden or even entombed; which is also the life that is still always there. Abundant life. Covenantal life. The very life of God.
The ancient Greeks had a word for this life of God – a God-in-three they described as “pericoresis,” literally meaning “dancing about.” So it’s in all of us, instilled by our creator who moved above the waters of this world, and then created us with no less motion in a covenant love that we can so often forget.
Some years ago I read an essay in which a woman described how she stopped dancing. It was actually a memorial for her father, as she talked about how they used to dance. They’d turn up the music, especially at big family gatherings, and her father would come up to her, tap her on the shoulder and say, “I believe this is our dance.” But at some point she stopped dancing. She remembers how once her father had caught her in a mood, or in her own embarrassment as she aged. “I believe this is our dance,” he had said, but his she rolled her eyes, dodged the invitation, and she wrote that one of the painful parts of her life was the realization that her father didn’t really ask her to dance after that. Their relationship was difficult through her teenage years – she seeking her own independence, rolling her eyes when she’d come home to find him (“I was just waiting on you.”). She went away to college, so glad to get out of the house, away from her parents. For a while, they didn’t talk much. But eventually she began to miss her parents. And she described how she decided to go to the next family gathering. And some uncle turned up the music. She drew a deep breath, walked over to her father, and then she tapped him and said, “I believe this is our dance.” Her father turned and said, “Ahh. I’ve been waiting on you.” (5)
Covenant love. It’s there for you whether you’ve remembered it or not, waiting for an ancient nation, a newly crowned and complicated monarch, but no less for each of you. So let it catch you, and when it does may you dance with all your might.
- From Annie Dillard in For the Time Being, 144-145
- For more, see Mark’s wonderful award-winning monologue at The Moth Grand Slam, “The Dad Story” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dz3LKfO9uUE)
- With thanks to dear friend Scott Dickison for sharing this story from his friend, Brandon.
- Story from Jim Wallis in God’s Politics
- “A Dance with Dad” by Jean Jeffrey Getzen originally published by the Milwaukee Journal