Sunday, September 21, 2008

A TIME FOR HEALING














I.
We shouldn’t be surprised to find a reference to war in the Hebrew Bible as a matter-of-fact matter, especially in the book of Ecclesiastes, and the killing referred to in these sets of poetic opposites is killing in the context of war. One rabbinical source says that when one goes to war, she or he goes with the singular purpose of killing enemies and as many as possible, but after it’s over the warring peoples should be nice to each other and get along famously. Easy enough, right?
Again, I remind you that the writer of book of Ecclesiastes has no real axes to grind; he has no comment on what is right or wrong, good or bad in his list. Rather, he is simply listing recurring components of life as he has observed it. He would be lying, wouldn’t he, if he pretended that war was absent from ongoing human experience?
One history source lists 739 wars--not skirmishes, but actual war engagements--documented as having begun and ended in human history. There probably have been many more as some large gaps exist regarding what we know about certain eras in ancient history. For example, scholars are very much undecided about whether or not the Trojan War was ever fought at all or if it was one major war in the mid-1200’s BCE as Homer suggests in his Iliad and his Odyssey or if what has been recorded as a singular war really was a compilation of the details of several smaller wars all rolled into one for purposes of preservation.
This same source lists twenty-four wars ongoing in the world today; twenty-four of the 739 are active. I simply don’t have the knowledge of either history or current events to verify this claim, but it seems reasonably accurate to me. I want to list these for you so that you may pray for peace in more focussed ways:

Kashmir Conflict, ongoing since 1947

Colombian Armed Conflict, ongoing since 1964

Islamic Insurgency in Southern Philippines, ongoing since late 1960s

Independence War in Cabinda, Angola, ongoing since 1975

Free Papua Movement in Western New Guinea, ongoing since 1984

Lord’s Resistance Army Rebellion in Uganda, ongoing since 1986

Myanmar Civil War, ongoing since 1988

Casamance Conflict in Senegal, ongoing since 1988

Somalian Civil War, ongoing since 1988

Ethnic Conflict in Nagaland, India, ongoing since 1993

Nepal Civil War, ongoing since 1996

Ituri Conflict (Democratic Republic of Congo), ongoing since 1999

Second Chechen War (Russia), ongoing since 1999

Intifada in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, ongoing since 2000

Conflict in Laos involving the Hmong, ongoing since 2000

Civil War in Côte d'Ivoire, ongoing since 2001

South Thailand Insurgency, ongoing since 2001

Afghanistan Occupation, ongoing since 2001

Insurgent Rebellion, Iraq, ongoing since 2003

Conflict between Pakistan and Baloch Warlords in Balochistan, Pakistan, ongoing since 2003

Darfur Conflict, ongoing since 2003

Waziristan War, ongoing since 2004

Western Sahara Independence Intifada, ongoing since 2005

Niger Delta Conflicts, ongoing since 2005

Another source lists more wars than these as active at this moment. I’m not going to do a comparison here, but from the second source I want to list the seven most critical ongoing wars in terms of loss of life. The first wasn’t on the list of twenty-four I just gave you for some reason.

The Sri Lankan Civil War, ongoing since 1983 with 70,000 lives lost

The Second Congo War also called the Kivu Conflict, ongoing since 1998, with 5,400,000 lives lost

The Second Chechen War, ongoing since 1999, with 100,000 lives lost

The War in Afghanistan, ongoing since 2001, with 20,000 lives lost

The War in Darfur, ongoing since 2003, with 400,000 lives lost

The War in Iraq, ongoing since 2003, with 1,125,000 lives lost

The War in Somalia, ongoing since 2006, with 8,225 lives lost

I’m sure as smart and compassionate people you are aware that lists of numbers dead in a war in no way reflect the number of serious injuries including a significant number of persons injured who will never be well again.
My friend, Marcus Foster, who has visited here with us a couple of times, is a military nurse, and he keeps reminding me of this fact. “The numbers of dead military personnel they list,” he says, “is only part of the picture of the true devastation of the war. The number of women and men who are wounded and especially those who can never get well again needs to be announced too.”
It’s confusing, isn’t it, to be people who try to live by the teachings attributed to Jesus and what we know of how he lived and also to keep bumping into the advocacy for violence elsewhere in the Judeo-Christian scriptures, especially in the Hebrew Bible? One of several titles for the ideal leader of God’s people, borrowed from Hebrew scripture and applied to Jesus, was “Prince of Peace.” This, Jesus truly was, and it cost him widespread support and popularity.
There wasn’t a single ancient Hebrew expectation for a Messiah; there were several. To do what many people expected the Messiah to do when she or he came, that person would had to have been decidedly militaristic and willing to kill those who showed themselves to be enemies of God’s people. Jesus was unwilling, entirely unwilling, to do this; he could probably have preserved his life had he been.
One of the messianic hopes from ancient Israel was dramatically contrasted with a military messiah. In their book, The Last Week, Dr. Marcus Borg and Dr. John Dominic Crossan look at Jesus’ last six days on earth. There are many fresh insights along with the results of some new discoveries about the events leading up to Jesus’ execution ordered and carried out by Rome. We talked about some of this at our midweek gathering this past Wednesday, and it will surely come up again on Palm Sunday. For our purposes today, however, there’s a segment I want to share with all of you.
Borg and Crossan say that two processions, not one, entered Jerusalem on a spring Sunday in the year 30. The Jewish sabbath had ended the previous day at sundown so travel and the effort to travel could not violate any of the Jewish standards for no-work sabbaths.
Procession One: The Peasant Procession. From the east, Jesus rode a donkey colt down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers, some of whom were waving leafy branches, and he rode into the great city already filled with Jews who had come from all over to celebrate the most sacred of their annual festivals, Passover.
Procession Two: The Imperial Procession. From the west came Pontius Pilate; Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria; heading the imperial cavalry along with a host of foot soldiers. A rather full display of military power potential.
Jesus intended to create a dissonance right at that moment. According to the Hebrew prophet, Zechariah, there would come a time when a ruler would enter Jerusalem (Zion) “humble and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9). If Jesus were going to be a ruler, which by the way he never was, he was going to be the kind Zechariah had envisioned; his kingdom would be a kingdom of humility. The ancient prophet Zechariah had said more that influenced Jesus: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations” (9:10). The no-war ruler or even the no-war messiah if you like.
The Prince of Peace was the perfect title for Jesus concerning his politics and his stance on violence. Zechariah was one of several of the ancient prophets who influenced how Jesus saw himself and his ministry. If he were the leader, he would put a stop to war all over and “command peace” to ALL the nations.
Are you ready for a no-war Jesus?


II.
We need time to heal after small injuries--physically and emotionally. If that is true, then how much more do we need healing after serious emotional and physical wounds?
What often happens when there isn’t time allowed for healing or when there isn’t the proper tending and attention to a wound is that there is no healing or at least no complete healing. It is much easier to deal with external physical injuries as far as promoting healing is concerned than with internal injuries; the reason is obvious. Certainly, it is also much easier to keep watch over the healing progress of an external wound than it is a wound to one’s emotional self that even we ourselves can often not see.
The passage that gives us our foundation for today insists that in life there are times when humans kill, and with that being a given there must be times when there is healing. Among the many Native American tribes, the peace-loving Pimas of Arizona required their defensive warriors to undergo a period of isolation/recovery for self-healing after the insanity of having had to kill other human beings. “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under the skies...a time to kill and a time to heal...a time for war and a time for peace.”
There is no possibility for healing while the war wages on. Remember that the biblical writer deals in opposites. The warriors cannot be healed from all the ravages of war to which they are subjected if healing is supposed to be a reprieve in a MASH tent only to be sent back into the battle frays.
Back in April, there was an article in the New York Times about the scars to families and relationships the war in Iraq is causing. The story focused on a Major Levi Dunton who, since he returned from that fighting, had ongoing problems being involved with his family--his wife and two sons, ages three and five. The difficulties were numerous, but the most disturbing pattern to him was how “little things made him angry”; and the most complicated part of trying to get well and get things back to normal was how numb he constantly felt.
In Iraq, Major Dunton was an Apache pilot and commander of 150 soldiers. He realized that others, in his view, had things much worse to deal with in Iraq, but staying aware of that only added to his guilt. In what was supposed to be post-Iraq for him and a time to heal, he and most others he knew upon returning had trouble relating to others in a non-war setting. There was marked emotional distance even from signifiant others, those whom he loved profoundly, but he felt he was no longer in possession of the ability to feel it or express it.
His wife told a reporter that before the war her husband “used to tell jokes and funny stories.” He doesn’t do that any more. She said that she knew the moment she saw him after his return to the States he was different. She thought it would all pass, but in his case it hasn’t.
There’s a website, a very telling website, called iraqwarveterans.com. Just glancing at the links for further information says more than most of us want to face living in our protected, comfortable environments “safe and secure from all alarms.” The first standout link is to a course of study, “PTSD101” (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 101). The blurb intended to draw potential readers/users further in advises that this information is intended for those professionals who help military personnel overcome the long-term effects of combat stress.
Scrolling down, the next link in view is a personal perspective piece written by the director of communication for the Iraq War Veterans Organization. The title of the piece is “Iraq Never Leaves Us.”
If you keep scrolling, you see next a link for chaplain services, and immediately after that one a link in red that really stands out because of the color even before you read it, “Veterans Affairs Suicide Hotline, 800.273.TALK.” That rips my heart out--to think that someone survives combat but can’t survive the emotional wounds of having been in combat. There are people who live physically through the battle, but end up calling it quits to this world because their emotional wounds may be dressed and gauzed, but the puss of infection finally tells them that they can never be well again, that healing will never come.
There can be no healing from the killing of war until the killing stops completely, until the war is no more. This biblical writer doesn’t envision that there will ever be a time in human history when war has been erased from the list of possibilities; he was certain, as a matter of fact, that, based on his observation of patterns, war definitely would recur.
I’d say that most people in the world today agree with the ancient writer. Anybody who is naive enough to believe that war will end conclusively is dismissed as absolutely ill-informed and out of touch. Certainly not everyone who believes that war will continue to punctuate human experience accepts the reality of war as a good thing; rather, she or he is a realist like the writer of Ecclesiastes.
There are only three ways war can be erased from the menu of human choices. One, people decide that there will be no more war, and they end it. This option can only work if all players agree to it; it can’t work if only some of the potential players agree to it.
Pause. Sigh. Well, we’ve had much time and tons of opportunities to make this happen, and it’s never yet happened, which doesn’t make the future for this option promising.
Two, in the modern technological world we find ways to fight enemies using machines only without having people directly involved to get killed. There are efforts alive to accomplish this.
Three, we destroy ourselves and our world, and then there will be no more war because there are no more people to make war. This third option seems to be the one viable solution presently available. The problem with this is that if humans annihilate themselves healing is a moot point. There’s no need for it. Healing only matters if there are ways and reasons to live on in this world.
I’m going to put myself in that category of naive types who believe that peace can prevail in this world and, thus, that wars can cease giving way to a time for healing. This would make me the kind of person you wouldn’t want to be stuck sitting next to at a dinner party, much less in a waiting room where I was the only person to talk to. This would make me the kind of person you wouldn’t want to have to introduce your friends to, and this would certainly make me the kind of person whose views you wouldn’t want to have to defend to your friends on the other side of the issue. Even so, I tell you outright that I believe there can be peace in the world, that war is not a necessity, and that the way to end a war is to stop fighting.
There is a time to heal. The healing, it turns out, needs to happen to all humanity and not just to those who have been active warriors; healing also needs to come to the earth itself, often tattered and torn by same instruments that destroy human life.
Until that great day, though, the only healing we can hope for is between wars. We can only do that, though, on a country by country or region by region basis since there has never been a time when some part of the human family wasn’t at war. World healing is too much to hope for then, isn’t it? Even Jesus himself is said to have confirmed the fact that there will always be wars and rumors of wars. I’d be happy for a while with rumors of wars; rumors are often based on inaccurate information after all so maybe after a sufficient number of false rumors we will have found that we can survive just fine, even flourish, without war.


III.
In 1981, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution declaring an International Day of Peace. In 2001, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a new resolution declaring September 21 of each year to be the International Day of Peace. The latter resolution declares that the International Day of Peace “shall henceforth be observed as a day of global ceasefire and nonviolence, an invitation to all nations and people to honor a cessation of hostilities for the duration of the Day.” In addition, the resolution invites “all Member States, organizations of the United Nations system, and non-governmental organizations and individuals to commemorate, appropriately, the International Day of Peace, including education and public awareness, and to cooperate with the United Nations in the establishment of the global ceasefire.”
Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has said that peace is “one of humanity’s most precious needs.” He has directed that all United Nations departments and agencies expand their observances of the International Day of Peace, extending a special invitation to civil society and highlighting the Minute of Silence at noon.
What’s today? September 21. I had not made any connection between that date and my sermon subject for the day. I didn’t even remember the International Day of Peace until I began to prepare the sermon. Some would say, “God works in mysterious ways,” and others would say, “David is forgetful.” It matters not what you think of how these two realities converged; they did.
At the very least, I ask you to join Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and all peace-lovers on the face of this endangered planet at noon today for a one-minute prayer for peace, in whatever way you pray. If you want to pray, but you don’t think you know what to say, simply say, “I long for peace on Earth and am willing to be a part of making it a reality.” Don’t worry about the mechanics of prayer or how God hears. Please do offer this prayer and believe, first, even if just for that sixty seconds, that world peace can be a reality and, second, that prayers can change things--not by getting God to do what we want, but by aligning us to what is clearly the way of God. No one wants world peace more than God.
In the poetry of Ecclesiastes, peace and healing are intricately connected. They are not one and the same, but there can be no healing in the midst battle; peace is needed for healing to occur.
It is heartening to me that some of those persons of faith closer to the earliest days of the establishment of monotheism believed that the one God who had created the skies and the earth would lure the people who inhabited the planet to peace. This wasn’t supposed to come at the end of time, seconds before life as we know it in this world was coming to an end anyway. What would it matter then? It would be kind of pointless. And what good is it to us if peace only prevails in the next realm, where people dwell beyond their earthly labors?
Some of biblical writers saw peace in this world while human history was in progress, and today I am focussed on three visions of such peace by First Isaiah. Listen for the images of peace in what he wrote to his people as they struggled in terribly treacherous times.
The fulfillments of these beautiful hopes are in no way connected to the coming of Jesus into the world at his birth or at the end of time as some conservative Christians believe. The burden for making peace a reality, if it ever can be or will be, rests on people determined to make this world what it was intended to be all along. The identity of those who seem to be key individuals in these passages you’re about to hear are actually all the people of God spoken of poetically as one individual. Also remember as you hear these words that the geographical references also are merely poetic ways of referring to the whole earth, the places where the people of God dwell--namely, all over the place.

Isaiah 2:1-5:
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that God may teach us God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. God shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!


Isaiah 9:2-7:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a baby of hope given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and she is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Parent, Prince of Peace. This adult child’s authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and the Davidic kingdom. As an adult, this child will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.


Isaiah 11:1-9:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of the roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the awe of the Lord. Her delight shall be in the awe of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness she shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth....Righteousness shall be the belt around her waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.


Someday, hopefully not long from now, someone will be able to rewrite the poetry of Ecclesiastes, and war will along with the killing of war will be passe, things only discussed in the past-tense for the purposes of teaching history. There will be no words for “killing” and “war” in the present tense, and the juxtapositions in Ecclesiastes 3 will fail.
The world will be different. There will still be a time to be born and a time to die, but there will no longer be killing or war or the need for healing from them; in that regard there will only be peace. “For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under the skies...a time to be born and a time to die, but never, ever in battle as God’s peace prevails all over the face of the earth.”
Amen.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

PLANTING AND PLUCKING UP

















I.
Life is an ongoing display of juxtapositions, isn’t it? There are so many opposites in our lives--pulling us in this direction and then that one. Most of us have a few accomplishments of which we’re very proud and a few moments we hope aren’t written up in the New York Times or Inside Silverside. Many of us have had our moments of extraordinary joy as well as seasons of extreme sadness. We have felt spiritually on target here and there and confused as well as frustrated with things spiritual at other times. Surely almost all of us in intimate relationships have had moments when we’ve been certain that this other person is our soulmate for life and other moments when we have awakened early in the morning and looked across the pillow to drool and wondered if it will last after all. I’m thinking there comes a point at which couples stop wondering if they made the wrong decision way back when, and if they split after that the reason has nothing to do with second-guessing the long-agos.
Last week I told you that Hebrew scripture scholar, Dr. Wayne Brown, calls the passage from Ecclesiastes chapter 3 on which we are focussing this fall in our Gatherings “poetry of polarity.” The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes piles one juxtaposition upon another. “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose...a time to plant and a time to pluck up,” for example.
We usually think of planting in the spring or early summer and harvesting in the fall of the year, but there are a number of flowers, shrubs, trees, and vegetables--I AM TOLD--that flourish when planted in the fall so we are not completely mismatched seasonally speaking. Even this, then, is a time to plant.
Today, I want us to look at the notion of “plucking up” on two levels. One, the writer may very well have been referring to harvesting by those words so we will certainly think through some of the possibilities for harvesting. Two, I’m not satisfied that harvesting was ALL he meant by “plucking up”; it seems to me that this may also refer to the process of planting, only to find that what has started to grow is problematic in some sort of way and must be plucked up out of the ground and done away with.
We can look at the writer’s lesson for us from both a literal and a figurative point of view. In the writer’s world and still in our world today, unless someone plants, no one eats. If no one plants, there will be no harvest. There are all sorts of potential interferences to a good harvest--flood, draught, a hurricane’s high winds, poor soil health--but the simple truth is, without planting there will be no harvest.
About 10,000-12,000 years ago, humans began to domesticate plants and animals for food. This is regarded as the first great agricultural revolution on Plant Earth; prior to this, practically all people were primarily hunters and gatherers who kept on the move in search of food. Little changed in this regard until the seventeenth century when there was a second great agricultural revolution that increased efficiency of food production as well as food distribution. By this point, some “early scientific” principles were being applied to the practices of food production.
The proportion of the population involved in agriculture ranges across the globe today from about 2% in the United States to about 80% in some parts of Asia and Africa. Agriculture uses about a third of the land on the planet and occupies the lives of about two and a half billion people. Of that, two and a half billion, millions are subsistence farmers--producing only enough food primarily to nourish themselves and their families. Farms that produce food for profit are called commercial farms in contrast with these subsistence farms.
In 2007, the most recent statistics I was able to find, 35% of the world’s population worked in agricultural processes--that’s over a third of all people in the world working to produce food. If that sounds like a lot to you, it really isn’t historically speaking. Though the world’s population continues to burgeon bringing into the world increasingly large numbers of people who need to be fed, fewer and fewer people are involved in producing the food. In 1996, for example, 42% of the world’s population was involved in producing food for the world.
Since the end of World War II, agricultural output has nearly doubled in many parts of the world. Advanced agricultural methods have made it possible to grow more food on fewer acres of land, which permits much land to be returned to forest and other environmentally-strengthening uses. There are “penalties” to pay, though, for using many of the high-yield food growth methods, including their heavy reliance on pesticides and fertilizers. Runoff of fertilizers from agricultural lands has affected the water quality of some lakes, rivers, and bays. Research continues in the U.S. and around the world to develop sustainable methods of agriculture for the well-being and the betterment of humankind in the long haul.
Don’t be alarmed just yet about the amount of food being produced; we are producing a surplus of food every year and have been for some time. I mean this in a world context. There’s plenty of food being produced; politics and ignorance--so often synonymous in our day--keep the food surpluses from being distributed to the hungry people. Somewhere around 78% of countries reporting child malnourishment are exporting food.
By early 2000, one-third of the world's 800 million hungry people were living in India, where the number of the hungry and malnourished had been (and still is) steadily rising. At the same time, India for years has been faced with an unmanageable food glut. From a food grain surplus of 10 million tons in 1999, the stocks have multiplied to 42 million tons. Instead of distributing the surplus among those who desperately need it, the government either wants to find an export market or release it on the open market. While they wait, the food rots, and people keep dying of hunger. Outsiders, along with the people starving there, definitely have a very difficult time trying to understand the dynamics of the situation.
According to Food First, an organization that devotes itself entirely to concerns with feeding the world, there is enough food on hand to feed everyone in this world: 4.5 pounds of food per person, per day, around the world. Feeding the hungry at the moment, then, isn’t about producing enough food; it’s all about distribution.
The three major planted crops in the world today--producing about 60% of the world’s calorie intake on a given day--are rice, corn or maize, and wheat. The other major planted crops include soybeans, cassava, sorghum, and legumes.
One of the most interesting ideas I’ve heard about in this regard, in recent years, is vertical farming as compared to horizontal farming--the way it is mostly done now in the big wide open fields. Many futuristic geographers and sociologists see in the future that agriculturalists will be raising key crops in high rises, even in the middle of our huge urban areas. If people are going to eat, there has to be a place to plant for those who have to do the planting.
There’s a word about spiritual and moral planting in scripture that has a threatening ring to it. The passage is from the Apostle Paul, and his intended recipients were the Christians in Galatia:

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith (Gal 6:7-10 NRSV).



II.
James Patch tells us something about the connection between harvest and key Jewish celebrations that I didn’t realize until I began preparing for this sermon.

The three principal feasts of the Jews corresponded to the three harvest seasons: (1) the feast of the Passover in April at the time of the barley harvest; (2) the feast of Pentecost (7 weeks later) at the wheat harvest; and (3) the feast of Tabernacles at the end of the year (October) during the fruit harvest....Between the reaping of the barley in April and the wheat in June, most of the other cereals are reaped. The grapes begin to ripen in August, but the gathering in for making wine...and the storing of the dried figs and raisins is at the end of September.


So, Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles--pivotal festivals for Jews to this day--all began and continued for ages as connected in some way to one of the key harvests; barley then wheat then grapes and figs and other fruits; in the largely agrarian ancient Hebrew way of life. Annually, these harvests were celebrated, and part of what was celebrated was that the people had ample food for another season or another year.
Harvest festivals weren’t exclusive to the ancient Hebrews; many Native American tribes and numerous other cultures had them too. One of the most well-known of the Native American harvest festivals, one that is still celebrated by many tribes today, was the Green Corn Festival.
Certainly there were variations on how it was commemorated from tribe to tribe, but at the heart of each one was thanksgiving to the God or the gods for giving them a good harvest. I’m not exactly sure what happened if the harvest was crummy; I don’t know if they had the celebration anyway to pump up the deities for better delivery next year or if they simply rather politely ignored it for a year.
The Green Corn Festival was held in late summer or early fall when the corn had ripened on the stalk and was ready to be eaten or prepared to be dried for later use. Corn was one of the three key staples that kept Natives alive; it along with beans and squash were collectively known as “the three sisters.” The three were sometimes mixed together in a single dish called succotash, but corn was the most important and the most vital.
The upbeat annual events were punctuated with dancing, feasting, fasting, and individual and communal expressions of direct thanksgiving to the deity or the deities for the gift of a good harvest. The processes of planting, tending, and growth had worked well in that year, and part of what they were celebrating was that they had sustenance, a means of survival, through the coming winter months when many of them could raise no new food.
In the Cherokee tradition, the Green Corn Festival honored the Corn Mother goddess, Selu. During what was called a running dance, all members of the tribe in single file would snake around the sacred fire. The clan mothers would often take home coals from the sacred communal fires to start their home fires for the coming cool and cold of fall and winter. And, in some variations on the celebration, some groups would use this festival as the beginning of a new year; as such, they would burn furniture and build new pieces as a symbol of leaving the past behind and moving into the future. In this spirit, minor legal violations and debts would often be forgiven to help every member of the tribe move into the new season with nothing but thanksgiving to carry with her or him.
Back to the ancient Hebrew harvests. These harvests were so important that eventually laws were passed regarding harvest-related behavior.
Here’s one. Gleaning was forbidden. Gleaning meant to harvest every last vegetable or piece of fruit a plant or tree or vine had produced along with any pieces that had fallen off. This is one teaching on this subject, and it comes from the book of Leviticus:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God (Lev 19:9-10 NRSV).


These are words attributed to God, and God’s motivation for giving this standard is so that people who need to eat and are having a hard time getting food through the typical means can find something to eat. It’s a very dignified way of finding food too, isn’t it? No one says a thing--not the owner of land on which the plants are left unharvested around the edges and not the people who are hungry and need to eat. If someone is short on coins and needs to feed her or his family, she or he can come to the field and pick up what was unharvested-on-purpose. No one asks questions. No one scolds. No one gives any advice on how not to be in this situation again in the future.
This is the way Emmanuel Dining Room operates. Groups like ours take their day each month to have a healthy and tasty noon meal prepared, and whoever comes is welcomed. There’s no questionnaire. There’s no condemning or criticism. There’s no invasion of privacy. If the person feels the need to be there for a free hot meal at noon, then everyone who works there assumes that the person does indeed need the meal.
One of the great stories of a blind date in the Bible, from the book of Ruth, is set up around Ruth’s stepmother, Naomi, pushing her widowed stepdaughter to go the fields of Boaz to do some gleaning so that she will be noticed by Boaz. It all works just as Naomi believed it would work, and Ruth and Boaz connect. It’s a little risque at first, but it calms down to respectable before long; and a match is made, not in heaven, but in the fields.
Undoubtedly growing out of the Cain and Abel story where each of the two sons of Eve and Adam were supposed to bring God the gifts from their firsts comes the story of ultimate sibling rivalry. Cain was a rancher so he was supposed to make gifts of sacrifice to God from the first-born of his prized animals. Abel was a farmer so his gifts were supposed to be from the first-fruits of his crops. Abel did what he was supposed to do, and Cain didn’t so God was more pleased with Abel’s offering than with Cain’s. Cain’s jealousy toward his brother is unbounded, and when he hears that God is more pleased with Abel’s offerings he plots to kill his brother. He follows through with his plans too. It’s an unspeakably sad tale.
Much later, the Hebrews are preparing to enter the land they claim God gave them, and there are some rules about proper offering to God:

The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest. He shall raise the sheaf before the Lord, that you may find acceptance; on the day after the sabbath the priest shall raise it. On the day when you raise the sheaf, you shall offer a lamb a year old, without blemish, as a burnt offering to the Lord. And the grain offering with it shall be two-tenths of an ephah of choice flour mixed with oil, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord; and the drink offering with it shall be of wine, one-fourth of a hin. You shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears until that very day, until you have brought the offering of your God: it is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your settlements (Lev 239-14 NRSV).


The God of ancient Israel applauds those abled-bodied people who plant and work toward the good harvest, and in the book of Proverbs, the ant is praised.

Go to the ant, you lazybones;
consider its ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief
or officer or ruler,
it prepares its food in summer,
and gathers its sustenance in harvest (Prov 6:6-8 NRSV).


It was an all-hands-on-deck world in ancient Israel; in a family, everyone needed to work. This responsibility began when children were small and followed them into adulthood:

A wise child makes a glad father, but a foolish child is a mother’s grief. Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death. The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but thwarts the craving of the wicked. A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. A child who gathers in summer is prudent, but a child who sleeps in harvest brings shame (Prov 10:1-5 NRSV).



III.
So, harvesting is one thing--a vitally important process. Indeed, there’s a time to plant and a time to harvest, and as long as all the processes work together the way they’re supposed to--ample water, sunlight, soil health, and so on--a reasonable harvest usually eventuates.
Sometimes, something goes wrong in the planting process--often unknown to the farmer or the sower. Sometimes, something goes wrong during the growth process. In any case, once the growth begins the one who planted knows that something is wrong. There is no need to wait for the harvest to see if something will work out; the damage is undoable, and whatever is growing needs to be plucked up on the spot--no regrets, no false hopes. To everything there is a season; a time to plant and a time to pluck up.
Not all seed sown is good seed. Waiting for the harvest when we see ahead of time that bad crops are growing is unproductive or even dangerous. When I realize that what is growing in my garden is coming from bad seeds that I didn’t intend to plant or that I planted without thinking clearly, I can’t wait for it to mature. I must pluck it up at once!
I may wish it hadn’t happened like this, and I may regret the energy I put into plowing and fertilizing and irrigating; but the wrong kind of plant is staring me in the face, and the only real option I have is to pluck it up and get rid of it. I may not be able to plant again right away and so end up with wasted space and less potential for harvest than I’d planned. This can be tough because sometimes in real gardens and sometimes in the garden of life, we need every ounce of energy we can possibly manage; any loss is a great loss. Nonetheless, there are times when plucking up is the only viable alternative.
I happened to stumble into a film the other day, “10 Questions for the Dalai Lama.” I’m quite taken with the film, and I’m hoping to use it as the basis for our discussion on a couple of upcoming Wednesday evenings. In any case, for our purposes today, I wanted to share with you the response of the Dalai Lama to the filmmaker’s, Rick Ray’s, question, “Must a society lose its traditions in order to move into the future?”
The Dalai Lama’s response was that some traditions should be preserved, and some should be let go. Some are very, very useful he said and should be kept in modern times. Others are out of date and should be done away with. In the context of what I’m discussing today, I’d say, “Plucked up.”
As to what to hang onto, what is not out of date, and what still contributes positively to their well-being as a people, he lists first the general closeness of family members to each other. He then says that they need to learn better what many people in India know well, and that is how to relate to other forms of life, namely animals.
In terms of what should be plucked up, His Holiness said that his people, the Tibetan people, should surely let go of the notion that there are castes or classes among them. They should also change their views that widows can never remarry, which clearly forces some of the women into extreme poverty and the loss of any quality of life whatsoever.
Religious tradition has a way of wanting to snowball, of wanting to cling to everything it has ever picked up in its journey down the hill of history. This is why laws among the ancient Hebrews could begin with ten good commandments and be expanded in a relatively short period of time to several hundred religio-legal expectations. This is also why Christian fundamentalism rarely has a “short list” of expectations or obligations for adherents. But I want to tell you that just because something was picked up in the big snowball of Christian theology way back when, believing it all today does not make one a Christian or a follower of Jesus or not. If not, pluck it up!
Jesus himself emphasized this very reality when he intentionally juxtaposed his views of fulfilling the ancient laws with what had been the norm for who knew how long. And he said, in words that scorched the very souls of the protectors of the ancient Jewish religion--Pharisees and Sadducees and scribes--”You have heard it said of old,” which is exactly where they wanted him to stop because anything other than that was irrelevant as far as they were concerned. But he went on, and said words that cost him the support of the traditionalists, “But I say to you.”
Pluck up that old notion about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and the next time you plant, plant this: “Do not resist an evildoer so if someone like a Roman soldier backhands you, offer him your other cheek also.”
Pluck up that old idea about the fear of being sued because you’re running short on money, and the next time you plant, plant this: “If someone sues you for your outer garment, and the judge finds in favor of the plaintiff, go ahead and strip naked in the courtroom and give that person your inner garment also.”
Pluck up that old idea about hating your enemies and loving your neighbors, and the next time you plant, plant this: “Love your enemies, and pray for the very ones whom you know to be persecuting you.”
Part of being a progressive Christian is a willingness to let yourself and others with whom you travel the spiritual journey let go of whatever from the past clouds rather than enhances their views of God--regardless of how sacrosanct that particular tenet or practice may have been for those who most influenced you. Let me tell you about one of the perennials in my garden that I thought most of my life HAD to be there: the notion that Jesus died for my sins and, furthermore, had to die for my sins in order for God to forgive a fundamentally flawed being and accept me as a suitable citizen in the realm of God in this world and the next. This is connected to what theologians call the doctrine of the atonement.
A few years ago, I began pruning this plant in my garden, and suddenly one day I had to pluck it up and burn it. And I’m so glad I did. My garden is so much lovelier now. I can’t find anything healthful or loving or compelling in that doctrine.
In order for that doctrine to work, several affirmations have to be factual to which I cannot subscribe. One is that God didn’t or couldn’t love human beings until Jesus died, until Jesus’ blood was shed. The Bible is absolutely clear on the fact that God’s love is a PREEXISTING CONDITION. The last time I had to fill out a health questionnaire, under preexisting conditions I listed LOVED BY GOD; maybe that’s why I didn’t get accepted in that Tai Chi class. God is love, which means that God’s love for all humanity was real and operative before and after Jesus’ death, a tragedy by the way that God neither willed nor wanted.
Another reason I plucked up the doctrine of the atonement even though I’d originally planted and nourished it: I don’t believe that human beings ever were or are essentially or fatally or fundamentally flawed by sin in need of a bath in Jesus’ blood as a means of giving God no other choice than to love us. “Sin” in the New Testament never means tainted by immoralities and God-rejection; it means missing the mark. It’s a simple archery term. We can use the word of ourselves in the New Testament sense without buying into this horrid self degradation into which the church turned “sin.” I can say, honestly, that I sometimes miss the mark morally, intellectually, spiritually; that is not a confession of faith in my own permanent substandard-ness.
Finally, God did not will or want Jesus to die for any reason. There was and there remains no justification for Jesus’ death as an insurrectionist against the mighty Roman Empire.
So that atonement plant is gone from my garden. Hallelujah!
I am happier with my garden. The fruits and vegetables it produces are much healthier, and I’m much closer to God than I ever was or could have been as long as I left that plant there even pruned back.
To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose...a time to plant and a time to harvest...and a time to pluck up. Amen.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

MOURNING AND DANCING









"Joy: Yellow Dancers," Artist: Joyce Andrews









I.
“What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:3). That’s a really good question, and you yourself probably ask it or a variation of it now and then.
The question as I posed it to you is originally from the early verses of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible, and it’s a vital part of the background to our investigation of a hauntingly powerful poem that will be the basis for our Gatherings for most of the next three months. More about that poem in a few minutes, but now back to some essential background considerations.
“What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” The answer at which the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes arrives, after much soul searching and active observation, is that those people who can be happy with monotony have it made in this world. If you like endless repetition and recurring cycle after recurring cycle, then this world is to you PARADISE! It’s how God intended things to be, according to the writer. Those who need some variety and excitement in their lives, well, this life, he concludes, is going to be a very boring ride for you!
Hearing him explain his perspective will nearly put you to sleep—or, at least, make you yawn!

All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:8-9 NRSV).


Not to be vague, the writer gets right to the heart of the matter: “Is there a thing of which it is said, `See, this is new’? It has already been in the ages before us” (Ecc 1:10 NRSV).
Alrighty then! There is a sense in which the rest of the book of Ecclesiastes is a mere extension so that the writer can prove his point. This would include the unforgettable poem that appears in chapter 3 of the book from the ancient Hebrews. Hebrew scripture scholar, Dr. Wayne Brown, has called what you’re about to hear “the poetry of polarity.” Every piece of this poem is a part of a juxtaposition.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. What gain have the workers from their toil? (Ecc 3:1-9 NRSV)


My read on this is not that God wills for any of these events or experiences in particular to take place, but rather that they happen. Right or wrong, good or bad, they happen. Bringing morality into the subject as I have just done is something our writer did not do. He’s specifically looking at life without saying whether this piece or that piece is either good or bad; all he wants to say is that these aspects of life keep repeating themselves ad infinitum. Other than indicating that God knows how it is, the writer has nothing more to say in that regard.
I can’t leave it there, though. I have to bring a qualifier to bear on interpreting the poem if we are going to use in any way as instructive for modern seekers of meaningful spirituality.
Many of these things listed in the poem, in fact, God would NOT want to happen—hatred and war, for examples. But in human experiences they do, over and over and over again. That much I accept.
I also need to add, before we roll up our sleeves and get into some more involved interpretive investigation that just because things are the way they are and have been for a long time or forever doesn’t mean that we should passively accept that they will always be. We can be sure, for example, that hatred is less prevalent today than it was yesterday; and human beings can work to ensure that the frequency of war diminishes.
OK. Now, I think you need to know a little something more about our writer. This is what we read in the very first verse of the book: “The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Ecc 1:1 NRSV). The word “teacher” has frequently been translated also as “preacher” and can be rendered “speaker.”
Many readers and interpreters of this book, including many of the ancient rabbis who knew tons more about their own literature than I do, have believed that King Solomon was the writer of Ecclesiastes. Even though Solomon was neither teacher nor preacher, he was the only son of David who ruled as a king in Jerusalem. I, however, do not read the verse in that manner. I think “king in Jerusalem” refers to King David, not to the writer.
The preacher or the teacher is, of course, a son of the great King in the sense that he is one of his descendants, collectively speaking. Or, since David, beyond his involvement with the love of his life, Jonathan, had quite the stash of wives and concubines and probably a few more indiscrete hookups other than the one with Bathsheba, the writer could rather easily have been in the Davidic line more directly in terms of genealogy.
This Preacher or Teacher or Speaker specifically set out to find meaning in life, and after years and years of seeking and speculating, he winds up with a couple of less than enthusiastic conclusions beyond what we’ve already noted as his emphasis on how boring and mundane it all is. The first is that the fact of death reverses anything meaningful one might find in life. In his mind, death was senseless, and this undoubtedly had everything to do with the writer’s most famous statement of all: “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity!” It turns out, though, that a much better translation of that claim in English is something like: “Senselessness among utter senselessness! Everything is senseless!”, or, “Futility of futilities! All is futile!”
You know, some people with that kind of take on life end their lives. If life really is that pointless, they reason, there is no justification for going on. The Preacher or Teacher or Speaker of Ecclesiastes didn’t reason in that direction. He simply advised his hearers and readers to face the facts that life is futile since they were going to die no matter how good or productive they were and that while they were waiting to die they were apt to be bored out of their minds. So what you do is, if you have the chance for a little happiness, go for it; you surely don’t pass it up! And you, of course, live by God’s standards along the way, he urged.
You are well acquainted with the descendants of this guy aren’t you? They’re the people who may set out to enjoy life or have a good time, but any enjoyment is persistently squashed by pessimism. “Well, yeah, life is a gift, but death will steal it from me someday so I can’t get too excited.” “I can’t get too close to anybody since someday we will be separated.” “What’s the point in trying to make a lasting contribution? I can’t be around to enjoy the benefits!”
Yes, indeedy! Those types send me running! But even the Preacher in Ecclesiastes wasn’t so down or so frustrated that he wanted to end life. We can learn a lot from him about how life works--if we can stand to ponder the possibilities without any sugar coating whatsoever!


II.
So, earthly life has a beginning point and an ending point. There is a time to be born and a time to die. This isn’t some big news flash and shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. I don’t think it’s morose or macabre to own this reality and to ponder it from to time. One of my church members in Baltimore was Dr. Gordon Walker, a professor of nephrology at the Johns Hopkins Medical School. Gordon was one of the pioneers of dialysis. Gordon saw his private patients at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore, and at his funeral, which I conducted, the president of that hospital spoke and made the announcement that the wing of the complex where kidney patients were treated and dialysis performed had been named in honor of my great friend, W. Gordon Walker.
One Wednesday evening at our midweek gathering, Gordon was the speaker, and he began by writing on the board in the room: “Mortality...100%.” That walk through what one of the psalmists called the “valley of the shadow of death” is not an optional journey, a trip we will take someday if it suits us. No, it’s a required part of being human. What we hope for is a rich and full and productive life before our bodies determine that we can no longer survive physically in this realm.
The announcement of death or even the nearness of death will typically result in grief. I say this despite the insistence of a very thought-provoking song from the musical, “Wicked.” The Wicked Witch of the West appears to be dead; it’s the same “melting scene” you saw with Margaret Hamilton melting away in the film, “The Wizard of Oz.” The musical sorta, kinda picks up there, and the people affected by the horrors they attributed to the Wicked Witch of the West are THRILLED that she is gone. They burst into that combination of anger and elation, which can only come from mob mentality, and they sing: “No one mourns the wicked....[N]o one lays a lily on their grave!” Is that a fact?

And goodness knows
The Wickeds’ lives are lonely
Goodness knows
The Wicked die alone
It just shows when you’re Wicked
You’re left only on your own.
Yes, goodness knows
The Wickeds’ lives are lonely
Goodness knows
The Wicked cry alone
Nothing grows for the Wicked
They reap only what they’ve sown.
Are people born wicked
Or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?
.....

No one mourns the Wicked!
.....

And goodness knows
We know what goodness is
Goodness knows
The Wicked die alone.


I doubt that many people pass out of this world, regardless of how disruptive or noncontributory they’ve been, without someone mourning something about the loss. The exception would be those extraordinarily sad situations where one dies having outlived all relatives and friends or where one chooses to live the last chapter in her or his life in intentional isolation from those with whom she or he has once shared love.
That aside, most passings out of this world cause mourning. One of the most moving scenes in the Hallmark Hall of Fame film version of Homer’s “Odyssey” is his mother’s, Anticleia’s, overpowering grief when she becomes convinced that her son, Odysseus, has been gone from home too long still to be alive; in other words, if he were alive after all those years word would somehow have gotten back to her. In a chilling act of profound mourning, Anticleia clothes herself in a burial shroud and walks into the sea specifically to end her life in this realm so that she might find her son in Hades, the abode of the dead. For a dose of double sadness, we find that Odysseus isn’t dead after all, and he will make a tragic temporary visit to the abode of the dead to find his mother living in that shadowy world in a state that cannot be reversed.
Most of the time when there is a death, we think of the grief or mourning in terms of what those feel who remain in this world minus a friend or a loved one. I would be the LAST person you know to minimize anyone’s grief; I only want to call your attention to the fact that very often the person who is dying, if she or he has any warning at all, also mourns. She or he is dealing not only with the physical losses that diseases thrust upon her or him, but also that person too is bereaved, is mourning the loss of life and the loss of the immediate connections with loved ones in this world and the loss of living in a world where we have some sense of what to expect as opposed to a realm, regardless of all the hype, about which no firsthand accounts exit.
We don’t let dying people mourn in our culture. It’s to messy. It’s too sad. I can tell you based on years of pastoral ministry to persons who are diagnosed with terminal illnesses and pass from that shock to the final stages of earthly life that one of the reasons many of them don’t want to tell anybody else about the diagnosis is that instantly they begin to be treated differently by their loved ones and friends. On the one hand we pretend that the sick friend isn’t really sick because it’s hard for us to accept, which is a very legitimate response; on the other hand, we almost instantly pronounce the friend dead in our minds so that we can protect ourselves from being bothered by the unpleasant, unpredictable, and sometimes ugly dimensions of dying.
We are much more inclined in our culture to find energy for relating to the person we know isn’t going anywhere soon than we are to the person who has been told that she or he will be passing out of this world sooner than we think we will. I’m telling you, if you want to see angels, don’t look up into the clouds and watch for winged, fluttering harp players. Look to oncology nurses and doctors and caregivers. There are other groups of angels in the world, but those who care compassionately for the dying are certainly among them.
I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard people react to the news of someone’s terminal diagnosis by saying how sorry she or he is for the dying person’s significant other or child or circle of friends. Concern for those people in such a time is absolutely in order, but not to the exclusion of the person who is dying! Hey! Dying is no picnic! The dying person mourns all that she or he is losing too! She or he typically doesn’t want to be pitied, but neither does the person who has heard doctors say, “There is no cure. There is nothing more we can do,” want to be robbed of the full span of human emotions.
If we love sufficiently, if we love adequately, mourning will be a part of our life experience. It is utterly inevitable.
Despite the reality of loss and the reality of death, though, let us not make mourning the last word like one of Anton Chekov’s characters who always wore black. When asked why, she said, “I am in mourning for my life.” Geez! Even the Pessimistic Preacher who penned Ecclesiastes in his poetry of polarity remembered that in life there is a time to mourn, but also there is a time to dance!


III.
I hope you never lose your sense of wonder
You get your fill to eat
But always keep that hunger
May you never take one single breath for granted
God forbid love ever leave you empty handed
I hope you still feel small
When you stand by the ocean
Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens
Promise me you'll give faith a fighting chance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance (Lee Ann Womack).


At the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads, where I went to church several times a week from the time I was 5 years old until I was 18 and a half, dancing was frowned upon. Sometimes it was out and out castigated from the pulpit. My parents prohibited my sister and me from dancing; our little brother came along about a decade after my sis, and he had no rules or restrictions whatsoever, as far as I ever knew. You younger children in the birth order should give thanks for your older siblings on whom your parents practiced! He could dance if he wanted to; but Kim and I before him, we weren’t supposed to. I didn’t say, we didn’t. I said we weren’t supposed to. But if I ever did sneak to a sock hop, and I’m not admitting to it, I didn’t get to dance enough ever to have been accused of dancing. I wasn’t the worst one on the dance floor by any stretch of the imagination; I mean, had I ever actually been to a school dance I wouldn’t have been the worst dancer on the floor. My goodness, it was Halls Crossroads, not New York City. But I was quite confident that if God had something against dancers, there wouldn’t have been enough evidence to convict me--even if I had ever gone to a dance in the gymnasium of Halls High School at 8:00 on a Friday evening.
I remember one discussion I had with my Dad on the subject. He said, “God does not want people who aren’t married to each other dancing.”
Naturally, I told him that with all due respect to both him and God, my sister, Kim and I, were the ONLY ones in the school who didn’t go to the dances; that every other student in the whole school attended and participated, including the kids we went to church with. That might have been a tiny exaggeration on my part. Their parents let them dance, why couldn’t mine? What others did, of course, had no impact whatsoever on how my Dad thought about things. I finally threw out a trump card name: Karen Hubbs. She was a neighbor, a beautiful young lady, active at church and involved in everything at school. “Well, Karen Hubbs goes to all the dances.”
That threw Dad for just a bit--not long but for a beat or two. “Well,” he came back, “if Karen Hubbs jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge?”
I thought about it a minute and then said, “Well, actually, yes. If Karen Hubbs jumped off a bridge, I’d be delighted to hit the water with her! any time” I got grounded.
Bottom line is this, and I don’t know what preacher had gotten to Dad who normally was powerfully logical, there is absolutely no indication in the Judeo-Christian scriptures that people should avoid dancing. He didn’t use God or religion to bolster his opinions unless it was justified in his understanding, and God knows Dad didn’t mind in the least telling me that I couldn’t do this or that for the reason to end all reasons: “Because I said so.” A wise person would never dare to try to add to the “discussion” once those words were spoken.
From a Baptist home I went to a Baptist college where dance was also forbidden. Even folk dances in physical education classes had to be called “folk games” so as not to get the fundamentalists on and off campus all riled up.
Dancing is all over the place in the Bible. There are between 25 and 30 references depending on who does the counting, and in only two places is dancing frowned upon. In both of those instances, dancing itself is not condemned or questioned, but rather those particular dances.
The first place known to me where dancing is criticized in the Bible is when none other than Israel’s greatest king, King David, gets tipsy on worship wine because he is so excited that the Ark of the Covenant is finally being brought to what he regards as its proper resting place he wants to celebrate to the fullest. Under the influence, we could say, he begins to dance in front of all these dancing people who are watching the holy vessel being taken to where their king wants it. There’s nothing wrong with his or their dancing. The problem was that he was wearing a mini-toga that day, an ephod, that came down just a few inches below the wearer’s hips, but no royal fruit of the looms, and the people of Israel got to see more of their king than they bargained for! David’s wife, Michal, and he evidently had only one wife at the time, reamed him out for his poor judgment.
The only other place I know about where a dance is used inappropriately is when Salome dances in an intentionally erotic way to cause her stepfather, Herod Antipas, to be drawn to her enough to want to grant her favors. It worked, and the favor for which she asked on behalf of her mother, Herodias, was that he have John the Baptist’s head chopped off and displayed for her on a platter. The lustful king to please the temptress ordered it done, and it was. Again, the dancing itself wasn’t wrong, but rather the seductive style of dancing and the purpose for which it was used.
When the Preacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us that in life there is time for both mourning and dancing, the dancing he has in mind is dancing motivated by happiness. It’s the opposite of mourning; it’s the jumping-for-joy kind of dancing.
The book of Judges in chapter 21 has some savvy advice for some young men seeking wives when their standards did not permit the taking of women in battle and in an area where statutes precluded wives being given to them. The men are told to keep an eye for the dancing young women if they want the best options for wives and to take them! Their dancing prompted their “selection,” not their defeat in battle.
From Psalm 149:

Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, God’s praise in the assembly of the faithful. Let Israel be glad in its Maker; let the children of Zion rejoice in their Soveriegn. Let them praise God’s name with dancing, making melody to God with tambourine and lyre (Psa 149:1-3 NRSV, adapted for inclusive language).


And from Psalm 150:

Praise the Lord! Praise God in God’s sanctuary; praise God in God’s mighty firmament! Praise God for God’s mighty deeds; praise God according to God’s surpassing greatness! Praise God with trumpet sound; praise God with lute and harp! Praise God with tambourine and dance; praise God with strings and pipe! Praise God with clanging cymbals; praise God with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! (Psa 150 NRSV, adapted for inclusive language).


Sometimes, when we have hurt so much and so long, we begin to live as if what hurts us defines us, but it doesn’t. Sometimes, when we lose someone dear to us and go into mourning, we may convince ourselves that to allow ourselves ever to be happy again is disrespectful to the one we’ve lost, but it isn’t. Sometimes, the powerful sadness of the world around us convinces us that joy has no place in such a world, but it does.
Dancing doesn’t make the grief go away any more than joy solves all the problems of tragedy in our world, but dancing, even if your dances can’t be called dances by anyone but you, show you and the world that sadness and mourning--real and legitimate and powerful emotions not to be ignored--cannot, must not, will not be all there is to you. “I hope you dance.”
Amen.