Paula Cooley, Professor of Religion at Trinity University in Texas, has written an amazing piece about growing up with her mother, an accomplished dancer turned itinerant dancing teacher in public schools throughout rural north Georgia during the late 1940’s – for a dollar per student per hour, she held classes in ballet, tap dancing, baton twirling and acrobatics, with a big recital every spring in which all her students performed; an interesting thing in was at the time a very poverty-stricken region of the south.
Cooley says that her mother “believed that every child who wanted [dancing] lessons should have them and that every child, no matter how poor, should be encouraged to want them.” And so she never let lack of talent exclude a potential pupil; she believed “that knowing how to dance and actually performing gave one confidence in public, no matter how clumsy and graceless the performance.” Likewise, the parents’ inability to pay never got in the way, either: sometimes deals were worked out where, for example, recital costumes were sewn in exchange for the cost of lessons; and in some cases, lessons were just plain given away, the end result being that her own family had “a succession of extremely lean years.”
But every spring, come recital time, it was all worth it. Cooley’s mother would choreograph such incredibly elaborate productions as the “Nutcracker Suite,” performed “in the sweltering pre-summer heat of rural Georgia. “She spun fantasies of fairies and elves like no one I have ever known since,” Cooley says of her mother, “and she lured even the most cynical little boy and girl into participating in her illusions …I grew up surrounded by children, some of whom could leap through the air like gazelles and whirl like dervishes; others lumbered and flopped about like beached whales, [all of them] with big toothy grins on their faces.”
“My mother inspired confidence in gawky children and spread joy like an epidemic” for two decades, Cooley concludes. It was her life’s passion; but more than this, she says now, it revealed God’s grace at work in a time and place in which life could well be very grim, save for those joyous moments of “pirouetting, tapping, tumbling, whirling [and] twirling.” It, in fact, revealed “God repairing a world through human joy – God’s love compounding itself from the bottom up.”
It’s interesting just how much life is full of what might be called “joyous reversals.” Paula Cooley’s mother certainly didn’t stimulate the local economy with her traveling dance academy; in fact, if anything, it was a reflection of that area’s ongoing poverty –and yet ask any child who danced as a snowflake in Nutcracker, and they’ll remember a time and an experience that was rich with joy and possibility; something that in some small way maybe even shaped the rest of their lives.
Likewise, I’m thinking of people I’ve known over the years as a pastor who in the moments of their deepest sufferings – a catastrophic illness, the loss of a job or the end of a relationship – nonetheless have discovered their greatest blessings! And it’s not necessarily that there’s been an act of healing, or another job, or a reconciliation that has led to that discovery; it’s that in some, strange and wonderful fashion, the weeping that lingered through the nighttime gave way to the joy that comes in the morning! It’s what happens, friends, when God reaches into our lives and pulls us up out of the dark places of our lives where we’ve become mired; and it’s what the Psalmist was proclaiming when he sang, “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”
Biblical historians tell us that Psalm 30, one of two psalms we’ve shared this morning, was probably written as a song of dedication for a Temple – so it is set against the backdrop of the sweeping history of Israel and its changing fortunes over the course of generations; but ultimately, that’s not the point of it! Like most powerful songs, there’s a personal component to what’s being sung here that ends up a corollary to the faith of a nation – and so, ultimately what this psalm is all about is David’s faith, and his struggle to remain faithful amidst his own suffering!
Psalm 30 is essentially a prayer of thanksgiving for healing, and what we can gather from it is that David had endured great suffering from illness, and may even had been close to death – but now this was behind him, he was healed, and he was singing praises to the Lord who had “restored [him] to life from among those gone down to the Pit.” What’s interesting here is that in twelve short verses we get whole cycle of David’s faith amidst his suffering, and God’s response to that suffering – and in the process, we get some insight as to what happens to you and me when the dark side of life bears down upon all with all the force it can seem to muster.
To begin with, did you catch the 6th verse? “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’” I love that (!); in other words, God, when everything was going well, my faith never wavered, not even once! And why would it – after all, as The Message translates this verse, as far as David was concerned, he was “God’s favorite.” After all, David says, “He made me king of the mountain.” But then guess what happened? Things got bad, suffering was a real and painful thing, and what does David say about that? “You hid your face; I was dismayed,” and “I fell to pieces.”
It would be very easy for us to come down hard on David for his faithlessness amidst tribulation, except for the fact that most of us have found ourselves in just that kind of despair – when life is spiraling so out of control we find ourselves looking for God but only seeing the storm raging around us. And just like David in this psalm, it’s not so much that that we’re glaring heavenward, shaking our fists and cursing the Lord for all the suffering that’s befallen us, it’s that in this crucial moment of suffering we can’t seem to find God in the midst of it, and the very thought of that scares us to death!
Remember, of course, that David’s looking back at all of this, so this isn’t the end of the psalm, nor the end of the story: there’s prayer and supplication (“Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me.”) and interestingly, even a little bit of bargaining (“What profit is there in my death, if I go to the pit?”). And there’s this awareness on David’s part that in and through all of his suffering, somehow and some way God was at work: “You turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” It’s the same thing experienced by the exiles who sang in our other psalm this morning, “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” It’s the amazing and mysterious blessing of God bringing his healing hands into our lives, lifting us up out of impossible situations, that we might be restored to his presence and led out of the darkness into the light. And when that happens to you; when you’ve known the feeling of being totally lost and alone, and then suddenly you’ve been found and embraced and infused with this inexpressible relief and joy, well then; that’s when you’ve got to dance!
Friends, as a pastor I can tell you so many stories of just how just how this happens; joyous reversals that came about because in a graceful and mysterious way, God intervened amidst the suffering – like the church member I knew a few years back who was in the last stages of a terminal cancer; a man who was fully aware he had only a few weeks left to live, and yet spent those weeks in the joyous pursuit of just about everybody he could think of who’d been a friend and a support to him throughout his illness and even before, just so he could simply say “thank you,” and wish them all well; can you imagine what it must have been like to get one of those phone calls?
Or like the elderly woman I knew who, because of declining health, could no longer live on her own or in the care of her children, and was forced t leave the home where’d she been born and had spent her whole life in order to live at a local nursing facility – and who, frankly, was very angry and bitter about it all …that is, until the day she looked around at her new surroundings and the people she lived with, and decided (in her words, friends, not mine!) that it was all too “morose, depressing and filled with old people” (!) and that it all needed some sunshine! And that became her mission, her ministry for the better part of a decade, going door to door at that nursing home, for much of the time in a wheelchair, bringing sunshine to every one of the residents – which earned her the nickname of “Mary Sunshine!”
Or like the night I’d been called to offer prayers for a woman who lay near death, joining with her family in singing some hymns at her bedside, something that had been one of this woman’s last requests – and it ended up becoming a hymn sing that lasted into the wee hours of the morning and included nearly every familiar hymn in the Pilgrim Hymnal (and a whole lot that weren’t), plus all the Christmas carols (and this was in May!) – I left as the sun came up that morning, thinking that few people had ever had such a joyous sendoff to heaven as that, nor had a family that had admittedly had its struggles throughout the course of this woman’s illness ever been brought so close in such a time of grief!
In every instance, and in so many more I could tell you about, there was a Spirit of Love that transformed pain into joy. Now, I recognize that faith in God’s healing love is not an easy thing to hold on to, most especially right at the moment we’re buried in our own despair – but that’s another thing that I love about Psalm 30; David’s honesty about what he went through in his own suffering. No, he did not have the faith he needed; yes, when thing were at their worst, he did beg and plead and try to make deals with God – and I find comfort in that, friends, because we’ve all been there; we’ve all needed help to maintain our faith amidst the storm, to trust that God really has been there as we’ve sought to get beyond it all.
What David’s own struggles and this psalm has to teach us is the value of all those prayers, even the prayers of doubting, as well as the virtue of patience as quietly we find ourselves having to wait. Because what happens in that process – maybe in a big and profound way that’s impossible not to notice, but more likely than not in a small, even barely perceptible fashion – is that there are signs of God’s movement gently leading us, often carrying us forward. There might be a stumble or two along the way; perhaps our impatience will keep us from seeing the progress we’ve made – but one day we’ll look up and know just how much better things are than before and how much light has burst forth into our darkness!
Friends, that’s where joy comes from. It’s what St. Julian of Norwich wrote centuries ago: “If there be anywhere on earth where a lover of God is always kept safe from falling, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in the falling and rising again, we are always kept in the same precious love.”
Let us indeed sing our thanks and praise unto the God who loves us along every step of our lives; thanks be to God who turns our mourning into dancing!
Selah, and AMEN!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry