Joy in the Mourning

Photo courtesy of Erin Lang

A sermon preached prior to communion at Presbyterian Church of Western Springs, IL

July 7, 2013

Psalm 30

I exalt you, Lord, because you pulled me up; you didn’t let my enemies celebrate over me.

Lord, my God, I cried out to you for help and you healed me.

Lord, you brought me up from the grave, brought me back to life from among those going down to the pit.

You who are faithful to the Lord, sing praises to him; give thanks to his holy name!

 His anger lasts for only a second, but his favor lasts a lifetime.

Weeping may stay all night, but by morning, joy!

When I was comfortable, I said, “I will never stumble.”

Because it pleased you, Lord, you made me a strong mountain.

But then you hid your presence.  I was terrified.

I cried out to you, Lord; I begged my Lord for mercy:

“What is to be gained by my spilled blood, by my going down into the pit?

Does dust thank you?

Does it proclaim your faithfulness?

Lord, listen and have mercy on me!

 Lord, be my helper!”

You changed my mourning into dancing.

You took off my funeral clothes and dressed me up in joy so that my whole being might sing praises to you and never stop.

Lord, my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

I met my two best friends at camp the summer after kindergarten, and we have remained friends to this day. Our parents were very accommodating and made sure we all got to see each other more than just at summer camp, especially during our teenage years. We lived within 90 minutes of each other, but when you’re in middle school and relying on your parents for a ride, you might as well live in a different country.

Since we lived so far away, we wrote lots of letters and made each other mixed tapes of our favorite songs, and vowed to listen to the tapes to remember each other during our time apart. We were rather dorky.

The 5th song on a favorite mixed tape was Garth Brooks’ “The Dance.” Now, I’m not sure how familiar you are with 23-year-old Garth Brooks lyrics, so I’ll remind you of the refrain. The refrain is:

Our lives are better left to chance. I would have missed the pain, but I’d of had to miss the dance.

Garth was singing about a painful adult breakup, but for middle school girls, sometimes when we said goodbye it was about as dramatic as a breakup. There were tears-ugly tears-and pouting in the backseat on the whole 90 minute car ride home.

While my memory of that song is rooted in a kind of silly childhood ritual, I remember thinking of the refrain the first time I heard Psalm 30 read aloud. As a high school student, hearing “you turned my mourning into dancing,” and “sorrow may last for a night but joy comes in the morning” sounded an awful lot like the Gospel according to Garth,

Our lives are better left to chance. I would have missed the pain, but I’d of had to miss the dance.

Certainly the more I’ve studied this text and the farther I get from teenage years, that psalm has a much deeper meaning for me personally and theologically. But I still love the imagery of dance being a means to heal pain, and pain being worth whatever it takes to get to deep joy.  Because joy of the Lord does indeed always come.

Garth is not so much on my current iPod playlist, but one of my current favorite bands is from North Carolina and their name is Delta Rae. I’m a fan of most of their music, but one song in particular would be on a mixed tape if we still made them. The song is called “The Morning Comes,” and the chorus to goes like this:

And I say oh, oh

Rain don’t change the sun

Jealous is the night when the morning comes

But it always comes

So if you ever feel like you are alone

After the night the morning comes

I’ve always found great comfort in the Psalmist’s promise that joy comes in the morning, and I love the image of the darkest night, or pain, or grief, or fear being jealous of the joy that comes in the morning. It’s powerful to think of the darkest night each of us has ever experienced being jealous of the fact that we got out of bed to face another day with light and on a quest for joy.

And whatever your darkest night was-or perhaps currently is-you know once you’ve been in the dark that the morning light has a whole new glimmer and a whole new reason to inhale and exhale. There is something about the joy of those mornings that can only come from God. The renewed energy, the restored hope, the ability to put one foot in front of the other and again bend and sway to the soundtrack of our lives can only come from the one who is indeed the Light of the World.

Two weeks ago our worship theme was Jazz and improvising, and much like that, the ability to turn mourning into dancing also takes improvising and flexibility. For God to turn our mourning into dancing, we must be willing to bend and stretch, and even risk looking foolish or falling down.

As a congregation, your soundtrack has been one of stretching and bending for the last 6-9 months. Your beloved, long-time associate pastor leaving was a form of grief and mourning. And, you dance the dance of missing him yet being happy for him at the same time. And you’re dancing the dance of being happy for Elaine as she embraces retirement while also missing her as one of the faces of PCWS staff. You and I are dancing the waltz of hello and goodbye while I’m here as an interim. And you’re learning the dance of wanting to be faithful and diligent in calling your next full-time associate pastor while also wanting that person to be here as soon as possible.

It takes great flexibility and discipline to be dancing disciples disciples willing to trust God to turn dark into light and transform anxiety into joy time and time again.

A friend and colleague named David has recently witnessed firsthand what it means for his family to be dancing disciples. I have his permission to share their story with you, and I asked to share it because I will never again hear this psalm without thinking of their family.

David is a pastor, his wife Amanda is a dancer and dance instructor, and they have two young children. This past May, on a Wednesday night, David awoke in the night and realized Amanda wasn’t breathing. He called 911 and did the best form of CPR he could without actually know it. She was rushed to the hospital, intubated, and put on full life support. They cooled her body as an additional life support measure. She was on full support in ICU Wednesday and Thursday as the medical team tried to figure out what happened to cause the heart of a young woman in excellent physical health to stop. Wednesday and Thursday were dark as all who know and love them waited and prayed for God to transform their mourning into dancing.

The ICU team decided to warm her body back up on Friday and stop the sedatives. Once this was done, they would then know if she would literally live or die because they had no idea what type of brain damage might have occurred or how badly her heart was injured.

I have been in the ICU room many times when this procedure has been done and all time stands still as everyone waits to see the outcome. And, in people who do fully recover, one of the first external signs that there isn’t brain damage is that as they wake up they are annoyed and begin to scratch or pull at the many tubes and IVs-because it’s only natural to not want all of that when you have no recollection of why it’s there.

So, the text I sent David that Friday afternoon read, “As a hospital employee, my prayer has been that your bride will soon be annoyed with all the tubes and have a feisty awakening. My favorite ICU sight is newly warmed up folks yanking on tubes. Sending so much hope and so many deep breaths.”

Late in the afternoon, only 15 minutes after the medications were stopped, Amanda did indeed have a feisty awakening and passed all of the neurological testing proving she did not have significant brain damage. Amid the celebration, of the nurses asked, “What do you last remember?” And she replied, “Dancing.”

As David tells it, “When the ICU Attending doctor was asked by his team, ‘How could this return to life be?’  His response was, ‘Well, here’s my theory.  I told my 90-year-old mom what happened to Mrs. Lower, and she called together her prayer circle to pray for Amanda.  From the looks of things out there and in here, other powers were at work, powers beyond control or measure.’ We’ll never understand how any of this happened, the bad part or the good part, but we Lowers will always understand clearly that powers beyond measure and control were operating in some remarkable way.”

David ended one of his Caring Bridge blog updates by saying:

“So many have asked what they can do for us, and the supply so far vastly outweighs our demand.  But the three things that you can do, wherever you are, are these.

First, pray for Amanda’s recovery.  Your prayers work, and her journey back is woven into the miracle you are already a part of.

Second, learn CPR.  There may be a moment in your life where nothing you have ever done is more important than this.

Third, as a dear friend did in an hour without any other way to help, take a dance class, and learn to cherish the body you have been given in a new way.”

This past Friday afternoon I was in a hospital elevator with a little girl and her dad. Since it’s a children’s hospital, the elevators have interactive flair like buttons to push to make the cars honk and the lights flicker. (It can be annoying and at bit too much for adults.) The little girl was pressing all the buttons and giggling. Then one of the car horns startled her, so she grabbed her dad’s leg in fear. He patted her head and said, “It’s okay. Elevators are fun and scary.”

She decided to forgo the buttons and started twirling and dancing instead. She tried to get her dad to dance with her, but he was obviously (and reasonably so) uncomfortable dancing in elevator. Then the little girl did what children do so well and threw his words right back at him, “It’s okay. Elevators are fun and scary. Dance!”

And so goes the flexible, bend-and-stretch life of dancing disciples. This journey we call faith is fun and scary. The joy that comes in the morning is fun, and the fear of the darkest night is real. The grief and pain can be exhausting, but the dancing that God choreographs is all the more fun in the midst of our vulnerability. We bend and stretch through the fun and the scary because we know our bodies need the movement and exercise of the Spirit.

And we bend and stretch through the fun and the scary because we know the dance God choreographs always includes an intermission for nourishment at this table.

This table of nourishment for our bodies is where dancing disciples gather from north and south and east and west to sit at the table of God.

So come to this table if you love dancing and come if dancing makes you uncomfortable.

Come whether or not you believe today that joy really will come in the morning.

Come if you’re happy and come if you’re sad.

Come if you enjoy the dance of discipleship and come if you wish you had more control.

Come, and nourish your body here, because the Lord of the Dance offers you a personal invitation.

Come to this table and give thanks to the Lord forever

One comment

  1. Kathi Worthington · · Reply

    As always, this is stunning. Thank you.

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