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Dancing With the Paradoxes of Life

As a young child, I remember my grandfather saying to me, "Shall we join in the dance!" So I started showing him the latest line dances, the bunny hop (which I learned in gym glass) and the twist. Riverdance was not in yet. He made it clear that was not exactly what he had in mind. I came to realize that my grandfather was talking about a very different kind of dance. Through the years I have come to learn what my grandfather meant when he said, "Shall we join in the dance."

In today's (lectionary) text, as David brings the Ark of God to Jerusalem he dances before God. David has become king of Judah and King of Israel. He is the one to bring the north and the south together as a united people. David has reason to celebrate, but the people of the old tradition are not easily persuaded by these new and innovative ways. So David creatively and daringly chooses the people's most precious ancient symbol, the Ark of God, as a vehicle to make legitimate his new reign. David knows and understands that the Ark is the very symbol of the presence of God, the power of God, and the sovereignty of God with God's people. It contained the stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments. At one time, the Ark had been captured, and though it later was returned, the Ark of God remained dormant for some twenty years until David brings it to the new capital city, Jerusalem.

Filled by the very presence of God, David cannot help but dance. He knows God is with him. David and his people are overjoyed by the presence of God that they bring out their musical instruments as they sing and dance with all their might.

As the ark of God comes into the city, David wearing only a linen cloth around his waist, dances without restraint. Michal, who is the daughter of Saul and also David's first wife, looks out of the window. She sees the king leaping and dancing without much on, certainly not wearing the appropriate attire and she despises him in her heart.

Now I do not know about you but I find myself wishing somehow that the writers had not included the verses about Michal in this text. However, as I reflected, as a woman in faith, the voice of Michal represents, perhaps, the polarities that coexist in our life. For in reality there is both joy and sorrow, laughter and tears, fear and courage, honesty and deceit. As we attempt to dance with the paradoxes of life, let me share with you three points or three movements in the dance.

The first movement: from holding on to letting go, initially as we are learning the basic steps, it makes a lot of sense to hold on and to hold on tightly. How do we know when to let go? For let go we must at times if we are to grow.

Michal, we are told in I Samuel, loved David. When Michal's father, King Saul, grows jealous of David, Michal saves his life. Somehow, even as David's wife, Michal holds on to the past. The demanding, relentless voice of the old house of Saul leads Michal, unfortunately, into dragging her father's royal legacy into the present situation and it becomes her problem. Michal, in the midst of the celebration, keeps at a distance and is unwilling to participate. The critical eye of the onlooker from the window reminds us all too well of the traditions of the "old guard."

In contrast to Michal's holding on, David's letting go leads to new possibilities. However, letting go involves changing one's way of seeing things--looking at life from a different angle--a different perspective, and taking a new path. If we are unable to change, even our love, as Michal's, grows bitter and resentful, despising other people who get in the way of our carefully laid plans--even when those tightly held plans begin to destroy us and those we love most. Change is difficult. Our willingness to change could be compared to a man who loved strawberries. You enjoy strawberries do you not? Well, this man loved strawberries, and every year, without exception, the man would go to the state festival to his old familiar strawberry booth. All you can eat strawberries for 99 cents, strawberry shortcake, strawberry sundae, strawberry ice cream. This year without the extra rain, the man grew very concerned about whether that old familiar strawberry booth would still be there. Anxious and stressed, the man arose early, headed to the state festival. To his great relief he spotted that old familiar "all you can eat" strawberry booth where it had been last year and the years before. As the man approached his old familiar strawberry booth, he noted a small asterisk on the word strawberries. This year, prunes will be substituted for strawberries!

Change is difficult. If we are able to see things in a new light, changing our ways and learning from what did not work out, without holding a grudge, a number of possibilities begin to take root in ways we never perceived possible.

The second movement: From following our own steps, to being led by God's steps.

Just as there is a delicate balance in the timing of holding on and letting go--so it is true in our following our own steps instead of being led by God's steps. People discover in dancing that when both partners want to lead, they find themselves bumping into or tripping over each other.

We thrive on following our own steps, do we not? Individualism, consumerism and competition define who we are, do they not? The thought of shared power, or better yet yielding to another, is somewhat of a foreign concept. David at the high point of his career constantly struggled with God. Whenever David sought God's guidance, he continued to successfully lead the people. When he looked to himself, no matter how well intentional, David faltered.

In the interaction between David and Michal, it is Michal, who believing she is in a position of strength, is dismissed, revealing her powerlessness. David, who is thought to be despised by her, in honoring God is in turn blessed by God and the people.

How strange that when we open up to God, in our weakness and vulnerability, real blessing comes. The lowly shepherd is exalted and the royal princess is humbled--reminding us of Jesus' words that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves before God will be exalted.

The second movement, as the first, is complex and filled with paradox. So often in life what on the surface looks good or perfect is in reality broken and imperfect. What may seem to be a devastating loss, a bruising of one's ego, a humbling reality check becomes yet another gift to a possibility that may never have come had we gotten what we asked for, had we held on to what we are used to and the way we do things. We cannot change what God intends. We can only choose to unite in God's plan with humility and love, assured that what God has in store for us is far greater than what we have in store for ourselves.

I know by the time one becomes an Associate Executive and moreover is given the honor to be a guest preacher, one is supposed to have acquired sophisticated, highly intelligent stories to tell. I hope you will forgive me if I share with you a simple childhood story to illustrate my point.

You see--I always wanted to play the part of Mary in the church Christmas play. Every year I would watch the older girls, hoping one day to be given the part. Well, that year came. "Yea," I told myself, "I would finally be Mary." I went home and practiced in front of the mirror. "My soul magnifies the Lord." When it came time to be given our parts, the Sunday School teachers let another girl be Mary. Devastated at the time, I remember returning home, and my parents were rather concerned that I was so quiet. When I could stand it no longer I blurted out, can you believe I'm going to be a shepherd! What use did God have for another shepherd. Lovingly and graciously, my parents tried to console me explaining that the Sunday School teachers had a difficult task and that perhaps they have been looking for someone a little more calm. I was not convinced. I mean if you had just been told you were to give birth to God's child, would you be calm? I remained sad and grumpy until the day of the play. Dressed in burlap with a towel around my head, I heard a couple come in the church. "Look, it's a girl shepherd." At that point I cannot explain what happened--call it God's presence--but it dawned on me for the first time that many girls could play the part of Mary, but how many girls do you know could say they were chosen to be an Asian American girl shepherd!

God works in mysterious ways through the community of faith and God's plans, as they unfold, are not always easy for us to grasp, to understand or to accept. In fact, it can be quite painful. When we have been touched by God's Spirit, when we are being led by God and God's steps, the paradox is that it becomes life-giving. Charles Dickens wrote, "Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts."

Moving from following our own steps to being led by God's steps, we discover real growth, insight and a deeper awareness of what we did not see and could not hear before. We experience the blessing of a gracious, almighty and merciful God who is willing to give each of us, women, men and children, a reason to dance.

The third movement: from observing the dance to joining in the dance.

As we move from holding on to letting go and from following our own steps to being led by God's steps, this third movement touches the very cove of our being. For it requires that we're completely dependent on God. We may be able to convince ourselves and maybe even fool others into believing that we have let go and that we are being led by God. Even if we could muster up enough courage to dance, we find we cannot always, on our own, overcome:

the fear of taking the first step
the vulnerability of waiting to be asked to dance
the awkwardness of discovering our two left feet
the humility of knowing that in the hope of being swept off our feet, we end up stumbling on each other's toes.

In contrast, our society conveys a rather different message. If I win, you lose. If you hurt me, I will hurt you. What do we gain from such comparisons, but more hurt and more pain to show us how vulnerable we are as human beings. So many of us, myself included, when situations or circumstances in life do not work out as we had expected, are tempted to distance ourselves, withdraw from other people and from one another. In doing so, we further isolate ourselves, forgetting that we are intricately interconnected. Because of this, when it comes time to celebrate, when it comes our time to dance, we are filled more with anxiety than with joy, and we may find ourselves dancing all alone. Our wounds, though some of us hide them better than others, are so deeply embedded that we cannot, nor dare not, join in the dance. It is much safer to simply observe. As hard as we try, we cannot seem to let go of the baggage we have inherited from the past. In our every day lives there are situations we can change and still others that we can never resolve, but can only hope to be transformed. Perhaps we have a little of David and a little of Michal in all of us. David, given the opportunity, chooses to dance. Michal chooses to observe, though silently longing for someone in the community of faith to hear her voice, take her seriously and invite her in.

Though David dances and Michal remains at a distance, it is God and God alone who keeps the dance going, and that is the grace of it. If we know there is grace, that someone greater than ourselves is leading the dance, we can dare to join in the dance. We can dare knowing God, whose outstretched hand, gently brings us into the dance. We can dare to join in the dance with a God who does not make us self conscious, as if others are looking, but kindly reminds us for whom we are dancing. We can dare to join in the dance even when we are not quite sure where the next step will lead us. We can join in the dance assured that God will hod us up and sustain us, even when our feeble knees will not. We are never, however, forced to join in the dance. This loving and ever-present God gives us the choice. Amidst everything we have gone through and everything yet to come, God dares to ask you and me - "Shall we join in the dance?" Amen.