Mourning to Dance
For about five years back in the mid two thousands I strummed my guitar as part of the praise band at my last church. We certainly were not as good at the Dawn Band as none of us were professional musician. We were what I called “Basement Bangers”: just a bunch of guys who liked to play and sing, all except for Jeff who was a very gifted classical guitarist who could make your heart sing when he picked the string. Never the less we could hold our own in the praise music area.
Jeff’s wife was the unofficial manager of our little group. She and I used to joke that when I retired we were going to write a book titled:”Why can’t Presbyterians sing and clap at the same time?” You need to know of course that both she and I grew up in a Presbyterian tradition that was much different from what it is today. The thought of clapping during music or dancing in joy was a sin right up there with snoring in church.
In our upbringing, whatever experiences of joy and elation one might have during a worship service were to be enjoyed rather cerebrally. This was a time before the birth of Christian music, as we know it today. What was considered appropriate as church music then was composed by the classic composers like Beethoven or Bach. My clergy-collar-wearing father and my musically-trained-in-Paris-church organist mother would have come unglued if I had raised myself from the pew and started to clap during a song, let alone shout out an AMEN. Those activities were up there in the “no-no’s” of worship and were alleged to be reserved for our Baptist friends. And that is not to mention Mrs. Wallace, the youth and children’s choir director, who used to walk behind the pews of the choir loft in the balcony and bop the kids on their heads with her knuckle if they were misbehaving. I am sure that it was back in those days that the Presbyterians get the nickname “The Frozen Chosen”
So it is good in many ways that we come to the conclusion of our series on the Psalms with the 30th Psalm and end with the wonderful words, “You have turned my mourning into dancing, you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me in joy.”
As in many of the Psalms, we have no idea exactly what it is that may have afflicted David if he is in fact the author of the book of Psalms. The Revised Standard Version of the Bible titles this Psalm: “Thanksgiving for recovery from grave illness”, though there are far more references to spiritual health and well-being than to physical health.
When the worship brainstorming team gathered a number of weeks ago to examine this Psalm and begin to plan some themes that would be part of our worship service, I directed them in an exercise that my Old Testament professor had used as an introduction to the study of the book of Psalms. It is a fascinating exercise and can only be done of you are listening to the Psalm.
I gave each of the participants a blank piece of paper and a pencil and then asked them to draw a line horizontally across the middle of the page. Then they were asked to place their pencil at the beginning of that line and imagine that what was above that line were good feelings, happiness, and thankfulness. And below the line were sadness, despair, and grief. Then they were to close their eyes and pretend that their paper was a kind of Ouija board and that they were to move their pencil up and down the page across the line if necessary to reflect the emotional journey of a particular Psalm. For the majority of them, the artwork that they produced was a kind of curly queue image that started about midpoint on the page and squiggled up the page, made downward loops every now and then, but ultimately following the image of a sky-rocketing stock market graph. And that is the particular nature of this Psalm. Whatever the sorrow or disappointment that the writer experienced, their faith in God is like a projectile that constantly lifts them up despite the momentary downward swings of life.
Does the Psalm say that we will no longer experience the downward moments of life? No, it really doesn’t. It uses the term that we use even today to describe those times when our emotions go down. That word is of course the “Pit”: the place way down there that we do not like to go. I suppose that if I had a quarter for every time that I felt down in the Pits I would be driving an expensive sports car by now.
A friend of mine by the name of Kevin was a gifted singer back in high school. He was the baritone of the quartet that sang the close barbershop harmony in our school’s production of The Music Man, not the easiest music to sing. Well, our school had a tradition in the spring that took place a few weeks before graduation. The music and performing arts department would present what was called The Senior Concert. It was really quite a big deal in a high school with a graduating class of over 1,200.
Well Kevin auditioned along with all of the other music students and waited with great anticipation for the selection list to be posted on the Music Department door. The day it was posted he couldn’t wait for class to be over so he could make his way to the Music Department door to discover his name. When he got there, he was in shock – his name was not there, but the names of the other three members of that Music Man quartet were. He was absolutely devastated. He used to call that experience “falling into the big pit.”
Kevin and I kept in contact over the years. Now he will tell you that it took a couple of weeks but he finally crawled out of his pit and changed the direction of his life. He has just retired as a partner in a law practice in Chicago.
We all fall into the pits like that every now and then. Certainly some of them are of our own doing, but most of them are not. Most of them are beyond our control but they do something to upset the equilibrium of life. They shut us down in some way, causing us at times to withdraw into ourselves, feeling exactly like the Psalmists of old.
But the faith of the Hebrews was not to be a faith that shut people out, rather it was to be a time when new things could be discovered about God at the moment they felt that God had abandoned them. It was in their God that they discovered that, while sorrow and mourning can be painful and disheartening, it does not last forever.
There is a legend rooted in the court of a powerful eastern Persian ruler who called his sages (wise men) to him, including the Sufi poet Attar of Nishapur, and asked them for one quote that would be accurate at all times and in all situations. The wise men consulted with one another, threw themselves into deep contemplation, and finally came up with the answer …
“this too, shall pass”. The ruler was so impressed by the quote that he had it inscribed in a ring.
Now I don’t suppose that there are any of us who would want the good times to pass, but we all know that they do. Perhaps that is why we all long for the good old days, all the while knowing that we can never really go back there. Perhaps that is why President Trump is having so much difficulty with his agenda. Who knows? But the reality is that God is continually bringing us new things, and that should make us glad.
Many years ago, a boy was born in Russia who thought of himself to be so ugly, he was certain there would be no happiness in his life. He bemoaned the fact that he had a wide nose, thick lips, small gray eyes, and big hands and feet. He was so distraught with his ugliness, he asked God to work a miracle and turn him into a handsome man. He vowed that if God would do this, he would give God all of his possessions.
The boy was Count Tolstoy, one of the world’s foremost authors of the 20th century, perhaps best known for his epic War and Peace. In one of his books, Tolstoy admits that through the years he discovered that the beauty of physical appearance he had once sought was not the only beauty in life. Indeed it was not the best beauty. Instead Tolstoy came to regard the beauty of a strong character as having greater good in God’s sight. (God’s Little Devotional Book for Men. Honor Books, Tulsa, OK). There is an insight worth dancing about.
There is something about dancing that David found as a great metaphor for faith. When one dances they have to let go of something and surrender themselves to something else depending on the dance. The Shakers found dancing to be a form of Divine revelation. It was through the near uncontrolled movement of the body that divine messages were brought forth and they could let go of the cares of the world. The classical ballet dancer needs to shade the same thing to concentrate on the movements and have the muscles of the body follow the demands of the mind. The ballroom dancer has to submit to the rhythm of the music and then his/her partner needs to surrender some control and follow the lead. However when I look at some of the dancing going on, I’m not sure what they are doing. But I am convinced they are letting go of something. That’s how God turns our mourning into joy.
Back in the late 1970’s Alan Coran, the chief editor of Punch magazine, an English humor publication, was down in the pits. He thought that the time was coming when he would have to manage the closing of this publication which was the founder of political cartoons as we know them today, since 1841. Coran was greatly depressed about the possibility that lay before him, so he decided that he needed to get away – really away – before he made that decision so that he would have the proper time to think and evaluate this decision.
As an avid outdoorsman he decided that he would get as far away as possible and decided to go camping in the Andes Mountains in Ecuador. Because of the difficulties of the mountains he had to hire a guide to take him up the mountains to the place where he wanted to camp.
After a strenuous day of hiking they pitched their tent on the side of the mountain and retired for the night.
After what felt like a short sleep, Alan Cora was awakened by the horrific shaking of the tent and wind that sounded like the approach of a train. He stuck his head out of the tent and gazed up at his guide, who was standing there sipping a cup of coffee.
“What is the world is going on?” he cried out. “It seems as if our campsite is about to be blown away!”
“No, not at all” exclaimed the guide with a gentle smile on his face, and his right hand pointing to the sun just barely cracking through the clouds. “It’s just morning in the Andes.”
When Coran returned home he could not bring himself to close the magazine, and kept publishing it for a little more than 30 years.
Coran had not witnessed a great dance, but it had witnessed one never the less. His guide had found great joy at the promise of tomorrow and that was enough to enjoy. Maybe the shakers were right. The psalmist certainly was for The Lord has turned my mourning into dancing; He has taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise Him and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.” Amen