Scripture: II SAMUEL 6:1-5, 12B-19
“My early experiences with dance,” says a man named Ronald Kotzsch, “were less than satisfactory. When I was 9 years old my mother sent me to Dolly Ellen’s Dance Studio. There I sacrificed six sunny Thursday afternoons trying to learn the fox-trot and the waltz. On the seventh Thursday, a rainy one, I played hooky, bought a box of M&Ms, and went to the library. Anticipating my mother’s inevitable ‘What did you learn at Dolly Ellen’s?’ I checked an encyclopedia article on dance for ‘types of . . .’ When the maternal query came, I answered innocently, ‘Today we did erotic and orgiastic dancing. It was more fun than usual.’ My mother dates her old age from that moment, as do I” (Utne Reader, January/February 1993, p. 130).
Now I need to tell you that I unfortunately share some of Mr. Kotzsch’s reluctance to dance. Much to Mary’s disappointment, I just never got the knack of it. I’m not entirely sure why. If I had to guess, I suppose it might be because my own father was quite a dancer. When he was a teenager, he tap-danced with his sister for two years on Broadway in a musical revue that also included Buddy Ebsen, Shirley Booth, and Van Johnson, and he later taught dance to work his way through college and seminary. So it would not be entirely surprising if I ran in exactly the opposite direction, since I was never going to dance as well as he did.
In any case, I light today on a few rather unfamiliar verses in the book of II Samuel not because I have a particular fondness for, or predisposition toward, dance. I am, though, strangely intrigued by what the first king of Israel does in those verses with what’s called the Ark of the Covenant—the very item Indiana Jones searches for, incidentally, in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The ark is an exquisitely adorned wooden box, maybe about the size of a small desk, that holds the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. It is revered. And while it has been hidden away for a number of years, in this part of the story, David wants to restore the glory and the centrality of this ark. So he takes it from where it has been stored and leads a procession carrying it to Jerusalem where it will be enshrined as a central symbol of Israelite faith.
And what does David do as this procession travels with this sacred ark? The story says he dances “with all his might.” And it tells us this not just once but twice (II Samuel 6:5, 14): as they move along in their pilgrimage, David dances “with all his might.”
And I can’t help wondering why David does this. This is a king, after all. What would possess him to dance with unrestrained glee? What would make him drop his sense of royal decorum, engage in flailing elbows and high kicks and spins and twirls and dips? It would be difficult—no, I would say impossible—to imagine a U.S. president doing something similar and dancing with all his or her might as the Constitution is paraded through Washington, D.C. Right? So what gets into King David?
The key, I suppose, is found in the phrase that accompanies David’s dancing. This isn’t dancing at the local club to a DJ. This isn’t dancing at the concert arena when Taylor Swift or The Weeknd or Drake comes to town. This isn’t dancing to the swing band that plays on Saturday nights at the neighborhood pub. This is dancing “before the Lord.” Or maybe it’s all those kinds of dance, but done with God at the center. The point is: God is the focus.
Now I don’t know if this is your experience, but my experience is that seldom do we do anything remotely approaching what David does in this dance of his. Seldom, if ever, do we go with unrestrained exuberance to the source of our very lives, to the giver of every gift, to the ground of grace. Most of the time, in church life, quite to the contrary, we are consumed, instead, with matters of building repair or committee make-up, or hand-wringing about the music, or whether we honored a national holiday well enough, or whether the staff is meeting performance goals. And I hasten to add that these are all dimensions of church life to which we do indeed need to pay attention.
It’s just that, while we’re taking care of all those details, have we, at the same time, missed something? Have we become preoccupied with secondary matters and lost track of what’s truly life-giving? Have we, in truth, neglected to dance before God? David reminds us, I suspect, that it’s never too late to go to the dance floor with God.
And of course, the ways we dance with God are legion, but let’s focus, this morning, on a few of the ways we might dance with God. Ragan Sutterfield is an Episcopal priest and a bird-watcher who takes part in official bird counts. He says that we today have 3 billion fewer birds in this country than we did in 1970, a decline of almost 30 percent. And hardly surprisingly, the human-caused climate crisis is a major culprit. He’s acutely aware of the need for us human beings to stem the tide, to take the sort of action that will allow the creation to flourish.
But, he says, even before action, what’s asked of us is inaction. What’s asked of us, in other words, is that we stop and pay attention to the richness of this extraordinary planet on which we live. He suggests a kind of withdrawal, a ceasing of our frenetic buying and selling and doing—so that we can take in the grandeur of this wild and gorgeous universe. “To study, to look and pay attention, to climb mountains and enjoy flowers—these are among the key activities of our needed withdrawal. When we engage them, we will begin to pay attention, at least, to what we are losing. And when we do act, it will not be from the heights of abstract power but from the ground of humble grace.” Fundamentally, what Sutterfield urges is that we take in the magnificence of what God has done, and is doing, in our very midst. We need, he says, to “recover the ancient practices of silence and stillness, sabbath and solitude”
Or, to put it another way, what’s asked of us is that we dance with the God who has graced us with unfathomable riches, that it’s that dance that will lead us to right our errant ways. Awed silence is likely to be a necessary first step in leading us to dance with God and each other in the restoring of the earth.
In all sorts of venues, as Sutterfield suggests, dancing before God entails stopping. And listening. And waiting. This is so, as well, if you’re enmeshed in parent/child friction, or workplace frustration, or marital tension. To withdraw and contemplate entails attending every moment to the truth that we are immersed in grace and held in love. To dance before God entails recognizing the glittering presence of God in even the most ordinary, prosaic moments. Ilia Delio, the Franciscan scientist and theologian, writes that everything is deeply connected and “charged with the grandeur of God” (“God’s Grandeur,” Gerard Manley Hopkins). “I want everyone to see,” she says, “that we are loved into being at this moment just as we are by a God of unconditional love . . .. We are created for love, and that’s what keeps pulling us onward.”
For Delio, the heart of faith is to see how deeply intertwined everything is, and to see the stunning beauty of it all. She “believes that God speaks God’s love in all of creation, even in small and fearsome creatures like jellyfish or snakes. ‘In their natural habitat, they have beauty and goodness,’ she says. ‘I call them “little words of God.”’” For Delio, the heart of faith is recognizing beauty and connection (ncronline.org, “The Evolution of Ilia Delio”). For her, nothing could be richer than to see God in everything. To really gaze at God, says Susan Pitchford, “is to penetrate with the heart what is ordinarily missed by the eye” (The Sacred Gaze, p. 105). That sort of gaze, that focused immersion in holy grace, is something of what it is to dance before God.
Of course, this dance with God is not just a private dance for two. It’s more like a line dance or a square dance, with constantly changing partners and an engagement with everyone in the figurative room. Strikingly, once the biblical ark is set in its proper place, the story tells us that David blesses the people, and that he then “distribute[s] food among all the people, . . . to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins” (6:19). Meaning, of course, that any dance with God is also a dance of generosity with God’s people.
Maybe we could say we suffer, to some extent, from an inadequate sense of who our appropriate dance partners might be. A woman I know decided a few years ago to do some reading about white privilege. It was pretty clear she embarked on this reading mostly to disprove the whole notion of white privilege. “I grew up with Black people in my school,” she said somewhat defensively. “One of my best friends was Black. I don’t have a racist bone in my body, and I’m tired of everything always being about race, race, race.”
And then she began hearing about how Black drivers are stopped far more often by police. And how loans are harder to come by and medical care is not typically as thorough. And how almost nobody Black lived in her neighborhood, and that there were reasons other than personal choice that evidently structured that arrangement in. As Robin DiAngelo says in her book White Fragility, it’s not really that we who are white should feel personally guilty all the time. It’s that the culture has subtly and not-so-subtly taught us and shaped us to be racist. And as this acquaintance of mine opened herself and studied and really listened to Black people, this woman began to realize that she was the beneficiary of a system that gave her the perks, and routinely denied those same perks to people of color. In order for this heinous system to be undone, she saw that she had to dance in a new way before God. And that dance needed to include some of the countless people who had been relegated to the margins of this society. Her eyes and heart were opened, and she came to see that her dance with God needed to open up to a wider circle.
The deep truth of the matter is that we all need to dance before God. Of course we have to pay bills and clean house and make dinner and shuttle kids and play golf or bridge or video games. These are inevitable, even necessary, parts of life. But they’re not sufficient for a full and complete existence. In order to know fullness of life, we have to dance before God: to express our unadulterated delight at the sheer magic and mystery of being alive; to sing of our joy in a marriage that fills us full; to bring our concerns and our struggles to the Holy One who accompanies us on this complex and challenging journey of life; to share our fear or our agony or our despair with the One who knows it all and understands it all and who holds our hand and listens and dances with us on this strange and wonderful journey of life. Dance we must, in our own particular and unique ways—with God and with each other. Because when we dance, with our sisters and brothers, and before God with all our might, life is made rich and full.
Athol Fugard’s extraordinary play, ‘Master Harold’ . . . and the Boys, set in South Africa in the days of apartheid, is the story of the relationship between a privileged young white man coming of age, Master Harold, or Hally, and his two Black servants, Sam and Willie. Willie is a competitive ballroom dancer who has just qualified for the finals of a major competition, and for both Willie and Sam the dancing is a huge part of life. Hally, the white scion of privilege, can’t understand how the dancing could be so important to them, and he questions them intently about it.
At one point, Hally asks the two Black men what happens when the competing couples bump into each other on the dance floor. Sam and Willie just look at each other, aghast, and then burst into peals of laughter. Hally cannot figure out what’s so funny. So Sam says, “There’s no collisions out there, Hally. Nobody trips or stumbles or bumps into anybody else. That’s what that moment is all about. To be one of those finalists on that dance floor is like . . . like being in a dream about a world in which accidents don’t happen.”
“Jesus, Sam!” says Hally. “That’s beautiful!”
“Of course it is,” says Sam. “That’s what I’ve been trying to say to you all afternoon. And it’s beautiful because that is what we want life to be like. But instead, like you said, Hally, we’re bumping into each other all the time. Look at the three of us this afternoon: I’ve bumped into Willie, the two of us have bumped into you, you’ve bumped into your mother, she bumping into your Dad. . . . None of us knows the steps and there’s no music playing. And it doesn’t stop with us. The whole world is doing it all the time. Open a newspaper and what do you read? America has bumped into Russia, England is bumping into India, rich [person] bumps into poor [person]. Those are big collisions, Hally. They make for a lot of bruises. People get hurt in all that bumping, and we’re sick and tired of it now. It’s been going on for too long. Are we never going to get it right? . . . Learn to dance life like champions instead of always being just a bunch of beginners at it? . . . [At that competition,] for as long as the music lasts, we are going to see six couples get it right, the way we want life to be.”
“But is that the best we can do, Sam,” says Hally, “watch six finalists dreaming about the way it should be?”
“I don’t know,” Sam answers. “But it starts with that. Without the dream we won’t know what we’re going for” (pp. 45-46).
To dance before God with all our might is to dream. It’s to pay attention. It’s to imagine and at the same time live into a world in which laughter and joy bubble up, in which tears are shared, in which unjust systems are broken down, in which forgiveness and reconciliation are at the core, in which a new world is dreamed into being. Shall we dance?