Dancing in Church

Dancing in Church

Why does a 73 year old man start dancing in the aisle of a New England Protestant church during Lent? By himself. Inviting others to join him. My reply is that I was “moved by the Spirit.”

The way I understand what happened is in the light of my scientifically informed, religious outlook that everything exists in dynamic relationships. Nothing is an isolated substance. Everything in the interrelated, evolving universe, from subatomic particles to world civilizations, is a dynamic system. So is the Spirit that moved me to dance.

One of the root meanings of “spirit” is wind–in Hebrew ru’ach, in Greek pneuma, in Latin spiritus. In ancient thought these words meant wind, breath, and soul, and were conceived as substances. How do we understand wind today in light of what we know from science? Wind is not a substance but a flow of air molecules that results from the interaction of differences in atmospheric pressure. A few minutes ago, just before I started writing this, the wind (spirit) whipped up in our yard. The people outside said, “What’s happening?” Suddenly it turned cold, and air started flowing from the Northwest instead of the Southeast. A “cold front” had just passed through, the wind generated by the differences in atmospheric density between a low and high pressure system, between warmer air moving clockwise and cooler air counter clockwise. This interaction produced a sudden blast of “spirit.”

How does this relate to my dancing in church. As I experienced internally how this event began to be, I can see that it was the result of several other events happening together. The background event was that it was the fourth Sunday in the Christian season of Lent, St. Patrick’s day, and also “spud Sunday” at South Congregational Church in Granby, CT. On spud Sunday hundreds of potatoes are baked and available with all kinds of toppings at the social hour after service–a unique Sunday dinner of plenty in contrast to the Irish Potato famine that brought many immigrants to America, including the ancestors of our senior minister Denny Moon.

The Irish theme became a part of the service with the music–a fiddler and pianist playing Irish reels and jigs.

The sermon Denny preached was the “Extravagant Gospel.” It was based on the passage from the Gospel of John about the gathering of Jesus and his followers in the home of the sisters and brother Mary, Martha, and Zachariah on the outskirts of Jerusalem, shortly before Jesus entered the city in the “Palm Sunday Procession.” Denny focused on the interaction between Mary and Jesus, in which Mary broke several cultural boundaries by washing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and drying them with her hair. The perfume was worth about a year’s wages (Judas said it would have been better to sell it and give the money to the poor). The wastefulness broke rational economic boundaries. And by drying Jesus’s feet with her hair, Mary broke the cultural boundary of that time between a man and a woman.

As Denny told this story he interrelated it with another story–that of Vedran playing his cello in the midst of the ruins of Sarajevo that resulted from the brutal civil war. 30 year-old Vedran Smaliovic had played with the Sarajevo String Quartet and the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra. He was devoted to the beauty of music. As his city lay in ruins, Vedran went out into the streets, ruined buildings, and cemeteries to bring beauty to the devastation. People asked, “Are you crazy.” He replied, “Who’s crazy, me or those who destroyed our city. Denny said that, like Mary, Vedran had broken the boundaries.

Mary’s anointing of Jesus’s feet with perfume was an extravagant act–beautiful but not practical–that appears to have been done in anticipation of Jesus’s death and burial. Vedran’s music was extravagant good news that beauty could not be destroyed by war. Both actions–both interactions with their environments–broke the established boundaries. Both were examples of an extravagant gospel.

When the sermon ended, the offering was taken. The fiddler and pianist played an upbeat Irish jig. And everyone just sat in their pews, looking straight ahead, doing nothing. I thought to myself, this isn’t right. We just heard a stirring, exciting message. Now we’re listening to exciting music. And we just sit here, typical Protestant, Puritanical, New Englanders from the “land of steady habits.”

I could hardly stand it. A part of me wanted to move, to do something joyous. Another part–the cautious, rational man raised in the midwest–was afraid of what was happening in his body, and of what people might think. A dynamic tension–like that between a high and low pressure weather system–began to develop in my body-mind. I wanted to dance to the music, but I was held in place by my steadfast, rational form of religion.

Feeling the pressure build as the lower part of my body began to move while I was still seated, I decided to let my body take over. I allowed it to rise from my seat, move out to one of the side aisles of the church, turn to face my fellow congregants, and I let myself go–dancing to the music. Back and forth, side to side in time to the music. I gestured to others to join me. Most just looked at me, startled. The three ministers up front looked at me–what was going on? Then they, Denny, Tamara, and Sandra, all rose up and started to dance. Denny came to the center aisle and danced up and down the aisle with his daughter. Up front behind the communion table, the choir began to move in place. Some people in the pews got up and started clapping to the music, a woman joined me in our side aisle dancing with her little girl. All the events of the day, the sermon, the music interacted together as the Spirit of the extravagant gospel began to take hold–until the whole place “rocked.” When it ended, and I sat down, my wife Marj leaned over and said, “So this is what the ‘emerging church’ looks like.”

After the offering, we sang our closing hymn, said our communal benediction, and sat for the postlude. Again, the fiddler and the pianist played an Irish jig, and the entire congregation rose up and swayed and clapped to the music. Inspired by the congregation, the musicians played on–and on–and on–joyously. The congregation responded in kind, continuing to clap until–finally–the music ended. And the congregation erupted into a cheer. That day the Spirit–the dynamic interaction of Lent, St. Patrick’s Day, spud Sunday, Mary washing Jesus’s feet, Vedran the cellist of Sarajevo, and Irish music–came into the body of a 73 year-old man, causing him to do something he had never done before, causing him to rise up and dance the extravagant gospel. He and those at South Congregational Church, Granby CT felt “a blast of Holy Wind” uniting all in joy and love.

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1 Comment

  1. J Burbank

     /  May 24, 2013

    This is wonderful, Karl, a sermon within a sermon. I was sitting near you that day, and I was both surprised and delighted. I’m glad you wrote it down so we won’t forget.


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