Shall We Dance – Rev. Henry Brinton
Fairfax Presbyterian Church
Shall We Dance
July 12, 2009
2 Samuel 6:1, 5, 15-19; Mark 6:14-29
“Dancing with the Stars.”
It’s been a wildly popular TV show, number one in its time slot.
“So You Think You Can Dance?”
Another hit show, with a collection of young dancers competing in a rapid-fire series of traditional and contemporary dance styles. One of our church members, Ann Koch, has a niece who competed in it. Combine these shows with the movies “Dance With Me,” “Take the Lead,” and “Step Up,” and you’ve got a genuine dance sensation, sweeping the nation.
What’s surprising — even shocking, given our couch-potato tendencies — is that Americans are not simply watching these shows. No, we are actually hitting the dance floor ourselves. Tango, swing, and ballroom dancing have been on the rise for over a decade, predating the TV dance craze. Studios are seeing a 30 or 40 percent increase in students over the past ten years.
So we are not only watching dance, we are doing it. Or trying to, anyway. And with the rising popularity of reality TV dance shows, this white-hot trend shows no sign of cooling off.
King David would have been an excellent contestant on “Dancing with the Stars,” since he was a big celebrity in his day. In Second Samuel, David and his people bring the ark of God to Jerusalem, and as they make their way to the city David and all the house of Israel are “dancing before the LORD with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals” (v. 5).
It is an incredibly joyful worship experience, full of music and shouting and enthusiastic movement. “How they cut loose together,” writes Presbyterian author Frederick Buechner: David and God, “whirling around before the ark in such a passion that they caught fire from each other and blazed up in a single flame” of magnificence. Not even the scolding that David got from his wife Michal afterwards could dim the glory of it.
David does quite a dance before the ark. It is nothing if not “enthusiastic,” a word that comes from the Greek en theos, meaning “in God.” And David’s wife Michal absolutely hates it.
It feels awkward to her, as dancing often does. Embarrassing. Inappropriate.
According to Second Samuel, she despises him in her heart (v. 16).
We can sympathize with Michal, can’t we? She wasn’t an evil woman, but she had a hard time with David’s enthusiasm. Today, when Christians from Ghana bring their offerings forward in worship, they move in a dance of celebration and liberation and joy in the Lord. But many American Christians struggle with this — one woman at my previous church made the comment, after witnessing a Ghanaian offering, “If they want to worship that way, fine with me. But don’t bring it into my sanctuary. They were running up and down the aisle, hollering, ‘I’m happy, I’m happy’ … Well, as I say, if they want to do that, that’s their business. But why do I have to sit and listen to it?”
Many people don’t want dance in worship. It feels awkward, embarrassing, inappropriate.
As the woman said, “Don’t bring it into my sanctuary.”
So, shall we dance? Many of us would rather not. And I can tell you that you wouldn’t want to watch me dance, in worship or anyplace else. About all I can do is follow the example of Paul Taylor, the innovative American dancer and choreographer. He once contributed a modern dance solo in which he simply stood motionless on stage for four minutes — he just stood still, not moving a muscle. Yeah, I can do that.
Now it’s hard to know what to say about such a dance, but one reviewer for a dance magazine responded in an appropriate way: His review consisted of just four inches of white space. He wrote nothing about nothing.
The dancing we do in church tends to be quite similar to Paul Taylor’s solo. What we do is nothing — we just stand still, hardly moving a muscle. Our worship of God involves our minds, our hearts, and our tongues, but rarely our whole bodies.
David’s wife Michal would certainly approve.
There’s a serious problem with this, and it has nothing to do with whether we actually allow dance in worship or not. The dancing question is a distraction — the real issue is much deeper. Our main problem today is a lack of enthusiasm — we have become so concerned with feeling awkward, embarrassed, and inappropriate as Christians that we have choked much of the enthusiasm out of our service to God.
And here’s the real tragedy: If we are not enthusiastic, we are not en theos, in God.
So how do we get back into God? An excellent start is to learn the steps to good dancing, and apply them to Christian discipleship. These include: Teamwork, breathing, study, and a willingness to have fun.
Step one: Teamwork. Dancer Janet Neumann makes the point that “square dancing can really only work when there is teamwork,” and the very same is true for our service to God. Notice that King David did not perform a solo in front of the ark, but “David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord” (v. 5). That’s teamwork, and it’s essential to real success — whether you are dancing in a group, singing in a choir, delivering bags of groceries to hungry neighbors, or participating in a small group Bible study.
When you are working as a team, there is very little chance of awkwardness or embarrassment. In Second Samuel, the only one who despises David is Michal — and notice that she is all alone, looking out her window, outside the circle of dancers.
Step two: Breathing. Ballet dancers will tell you that breathing is an essential part of dance, and that you will never make it through a performance unless you learn how to breathe. Hold your breath and you’ll tire out quickly, because your muscles will not get the oxygen they need.
As Christians, we need the breath of God to fill us if we are going to do the work that God wants us to do. Remember that Adam was lifeless until the Lord “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7), and the people of Israel were dead bones until, according to Ezekiel, “the breath came into them, and they lived” (Ezekiel 37:10).
In the same way, we cannot serve God well unless we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, and breathe deeply in prayer. It is only when we ask for the Lord to fill us that we will be inspired — a word which means “to breathe into,” or “fill with spirit.” David was breathing deeply as he “danced before the LORD with all his might” (v. 14), and God gave him the energy to bring the ark all the way from Baalejudah to Jerusalem.
Step three: Study. There are good dances and bad ones — everyone knows that. But to discover the difference, we have to study. The Gospel of Mark tells the story of how a certain dance was used not to praise God, but to put John the Baptist to death. King Herod is throwing himself a birthday party, and he is so pleased by the dance of his daughter that he says to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it” (6:22). After consulting with her mother, the little girl rushes back to Herod and requests, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter” (v. 25).
Herod is deeply grieved by this request, yet he does not want to refuse the girl. He loses his head while watching the beautiful dance, and now — to keep a promise — John the Baptist is going to have to lose his. So Herod sends a soldier of the guard, and in short order John is killed and his head is placed on a platter for the girl and her mother (vv. 26-28).
So the question “Shall we dance?” cannot be answered with an easy yes or no. Study of scripture reveals that dance is good if it is truly enthusiastic, truly “in God.” Our Lord certainly wants us to feel passion, as David did, and to be willing to “lose it” in joyful praise and thanksgiving. But watch out: Dance can be dangerous if it becomes a human-centered form of entertainment, cut off from God — one that causes us to “lose our heads.” Herod was so captivated by the beauty and passion of his daughter’s dance that he lost his connection to God, and he ended up participating in the killing of an innocent man.
King David was God-centered, and his dance was heavenly. King Herod was human-centered, and his daughter’s dance created hell on earth. The critical choice is to keep God at the center of whatever we say, think, do, and feel.
Step four: Have fun. You cannot dance well unless you are willing to cut loose and have some fun, and the same is true in lives of Christian discipleship. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,” says Jesus to his disciples. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:9, 11).
As people who are secure in the love of Christ, we can step out in faith and have some fun — Jesus wants our joy to be complete. We don’t have to worry about being superhuman and saving the world, because we serve a Savior who has already saved the world.
So cut loose. Share the love. Feel the joy. By combining teamwork, good breathing, careful study, and a willingness to have fun, we’ll be able to serve the Lord with the enthusiasm of King David before the ark. I want you now to commit yourself to a new form of fruitful living, by taking a piece of colored paper from the end of the pew, and writing down one way that you will live out our church’s vision and mission in the week to come. Our FPC vision and mission is printed in your bulletin, and we’ll take a few minutes now to write down our intentions. During the final hymn, you can place them in the basket on the communion table.
I was amazed with the response we got last week — over 60 commitments to fruitful living, some of which have been placed on the vine above me, and others which are printed on our bulletin cover.
Let’s do the same today, as we start a new week. As we live out our vision and mission enthusiastically, we’ll be en theos, “in God.” And no one will despise us. Amen.
“The resurgence of dance because of the reality dance shows,” Dance.com, July 23, 2008, http://dance.com.
Buechner, Frederick. Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (New York: HarperCollins, 1979), 26-27.
Brinton, Henry G. Balancing Acts: Obligation, Liberation, and Contemporary Christian Conflicts (Lima, Ohio: CSS, 2006), 63.
Neumann, Janet. “Tips on becoming a better dancer,” Square Dancing in Australia, August 7, 2007, http://www.squaredanceaustralia.com.