Embodying worship

The first evening my family and I were back in town after a planned adoption fell through, my husband sat down at the piano and began to play “The Lily of the Valley.” My daughter and I sang along, “… in sorrow he’s my comfort, in trouble he’s my stay, he tells me every care on him to roll.  He’s the Lily of the Valley, the bright and Morning Star, he’s the fairest of ten thousand to my soul…”  And then Hannah rose up from the sofa and began to spin and leap in a ballet-inspired improvisational dance.  She stopped and reached out to me – “Come on, Mama – dance with me!”  And I did.

Though it may have looked to an outside observer like an act of defiance in the face of a great grief, we  were not doing anything particularly unusual for us.  We were finding comfort in our nightly ritual – something we had missed doing those nights we were away from our piano – we were engaging in our favorite form of family worship.  My husband playing at least three songs from one of our hymn books (“The Lily of the Valley” is a wonderful upbeat number – 2062 in The Faith We Sing, for my United Methodist friends – and my not yet 5 year old has all the words memorized), me singing, and my daughter singing or dancing or both.  And very often, she entices me to dance along with her.

After a summer of checking out from the blogosphere, I am starting to catch up on what I missed.  And one of the many interesting posts that I found on Glocal Christianity is a brief observation on dance – its importance in the Hebrew scriptures, and its near total absence from worship today – at least from the worship that white Christians engage in.

I remember how excited my daughter was that I got to sing in the choir at church, and how she wished that she could go too.  “You sing together?”  “Yes, we do!”  “And dance together?”  “Well… mostly just Mommy dances.”  And by “dance” I meant “sway to the music, but mostly keep my feet in place, or maybe march softly in place, but certainly not spin off in any direction.”  I am unusually demonstrative in worship for a white United Methodist, which (if you’ve been to one of our services) does not amount to much.

In 2 Samuel, the story is told of how David dances in celebration before the Ark of the Covenant as it is brought into Jerusalem.  His wife, a princess, looks out on him dancing among the people, totally abandoning himself to his love of the Lord, ” … and she despised him in her heart.”

Now, I know that I am likely doing a bit of eisegesis here (reading a meaning into the story that I put there myself), but this sounds like a class issue to me.  Certainly in the history of American Christianity, Methodists were once upon a time people who could be counted on to call out during worship, or to stand up or clap or move spontaneously, but sometime around the late 1800s, Methodists began to identify themselves as aspiring middle class type people, and such outward expressions of faith became unseemly.  Letting oneself be overcome by – anything – is peasant-ish.  People of a certain class are expected to control themselves, and if they cannot, can themselves expect to be mocked, even despised.

It seems that, for white Americans anyway, moving with abandon is something that is only permissible under the influence of alcohol or other drugs – or in the bedroom – or within the tight constraints of an athletic competition.  Or on a stage, far removed from other rigidly still observers.  And I wonder how much of that is fear of our bodies and their wildness, together with the reactionary urge to assert that we have complete control over our bodies.

As I sit here writing this, I am (I hope) recovering from an outbreak of the shingles, and I am all too aware that my body is out of control in more than one respect.

It is a frightening prospect to move through this world with wild abandon.  Certainly we do not wish to abandon ourselves to just anything.  But abandoning my body to the love of God, swaying and whirling and kicking and reaching as I sing songs of praise and trust and desire, that has become the most easy and comforting feeling that I know.  I am glad that my daughter knows that feeling, too, and I hope that she continues to feel it as she grows out of the untamed world that she inhabits as a preschooler.

I cannot believe how blessed my family is to have the opportunity to abandon our bodies almost every evening in praise to our Maker.  I pray for each of you who reads this that you too might know – or come to know – how you can best love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul — and all your body.  Amen.

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