No Dancing In Church

I remember stained glass windows and saints lit by pulsing colored lights from the inside. An inversion of the way that stained glass is typically viewed. I remember that the bass would radiate through the floor and hum in your chest and the way that I learned to track the beat by tracing circles in the air with my hands like I was watching a record spin in my head.

Catharsis is connected to religious language, deliverance, exorcism, and release. When I was dancing I was trying to escape something that was clouding my vision. I was trying to push despair out of the prison of my body by moving.

“Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.” *

The dance club occupied an old church building in downtown Denver and was one of a handful of places that I used to avoid going home to an empty apartment. I wasn’t there to meet someone, but to be alone in a crowd of other people. I felt less isolated in those crowds and more like a small part of something larger. Everyone moves to the same beat, there is unity in the experience. The thing about dancing is that it feels like the exact opposite of laying sleeplessly on the floor staring at shadows on the ceiling. If I ate a small enough meal and danced for a long enough time I would be exhausted enough to finally sleep. It was desperation math.

I remember overhearing conversations about the church club in which people would say that the place made them feel strange or dirty. They didn’t feel like dancing and church should be paired. There was a clear line drawn between holy and unholy behavior and moving your body was definitely on the unholy end of the spectrum. It was the same lesson that I learned from church growing up. However, to me, a club was the only church that I felt welcome at the time. It was a place where I could show up feeling unholy and tired and go home sweating and clean. The music was a prayer in sound that I could feel. It was a way out of the numbness of depression. In retrospect, the physical activity was probably also giving me an endorphin kick, but I hesitate to mention that in a culture that only participates in activities for results and not for the joy inherent in the doing.

I would walk out into the cool fall air with the crowds at closing feeling like I had left a little bit of pain behind, trapped in the building behind dark stained glass windows.

“I am worn out from my groaning.”

When you force language like this, when you groan it comes out as something human and distilled. The statement contains a sound that a body in pain makes. It is a language that yearns for catharsis and provides catharsis at the same time simply in the phrasing. I write because finding the right word for experience is like finding water in a desert. If you can name your experience you can capture it and give part of it to someone else. When you dance you give your body to a sound, you belong to a rhythm like a heartbeat. You give your body to a sound as an act of celebration even if, especially if, the world feels devoid of things worthy of celebrating.

“All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.”

When everything else, in reality, failed to move in a clear and understandable way I could still move my limbs at the same rate as the music. When the future is cast into doubt it becomes easier to see and experience the present. There was desperation in the movement, but there was also joy. Considering the amount of shame I was operating beneath it was a brave thing to leave home and be seen at all. I was at war with invisibility and technically, considering that I am writing this, I won that round.

In dancing the more you care about the audience, the less possible it is to pay attention to the music. In order to enjoy dancing you have to stop caring about who is watching and speculating about what they are thinking about you. Often people will say that they can’t dance, but what they mean is that they cannot dance like people they wish they could dance like. It is an art that demands the willful ignorance and awareness of an audience.

It is dangerous to pretend that you are beyond sensual motivations, that you have transcended the unpleasantness or frailties of being inside of a body that groans. It is dangerous to believe that you exist outside of the very human need to connect and to unburden yourself. It is dangerous to be skeptical of the joy that is found in unburdening yourself as if being moved by life was indicative of weakness. A corruption. While restraint can make for quieter and cleaner places it often doesn’t make for living spaces. It doesn’t make space where people feel welcome to show up as normal human beings with unanswered, and unanswerable questions. A place where nobody can get an answer wrong is a place where nobody can go.

“for the Lord has heard my weeping. The Lord has heard my cry for mercy”

It is heartbreaking, but in life you will be judged unfairly by an audience that is frightened of how they might look to you, you will be judged unfairly by an audience that will be angry that you are part of their space, and you will be judged for every insufficiency that people can dredge up or make up. It can actually be heartbreaking to be invisible too. The way that people choose to perceive you is, in large part almost entirely outside of your control. There is no button that you can push to make a person chose to be more loving. You can be merciful and called weak. You can be kind and called foolish. Every good human quality can be cast as a negative for someone who is trying hard enough to exclude someone they have chosen to dislike. In order to enjoy being alive, the focus has to shift off of needing to manage other people who will remain forever unmanageable. In some instances just putting yourself into a place can force people to manage with whatever feelings that they have. Refusing to leave a space can be an act of bravery and a gift to people within that space.

I say this because I don’t think that church will ever be easy, that ship sailed back when I was young and I watched a community collapse in front of me. I stay in the church because I cause a specific kind of trouble that actually can strengthen the people that I love. They would be less without me and I would be less without them. I stay in church to learn that I am wrong about church people sometimes. In the best of circumstances, it can be a mutual kind of learning. It can also suck, but this is a truth about every human community with more than one person in it. I don’t thrive in isolation so I am out of options.

“All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish; they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.”

I remember one morning in church awhile back during worship there was a woman who was shouting and jumping in the back. I don’t remember the exact words but she was saying something to the effect of,  “Let’s get excited! Isn’t it good to be here this morning!” We all faced awkwardly forward and I remember in my heart thinking, “I believe that she is right.” She was silenced and escorted to another room so that she wouldn’t disrupt us. I guess that we didn’t want to be disrupted. I think that sometimes we need some disrupting just so that we don’t go drifting into a boring kind of auto-pilot coma. Sometimes smooth sailing just means that you are going in circles around a drain.

I think about dancing more these days. I think about the church as a club on the corner, a place of neon and a place with people kissing in darkened corners, a place that I used to leave with sweat drying on my forehead in the cool night air. I also think about the church as a place where humans can come and unburden themselves of the show that they have been performing for a job, or a boss, or a tiresome client. A place where people can weep together and pray because no matter how hard we try, we are always working against ourselves. We try so hard to be lulled into a comfortable normal rather than being soaked in sweat and laughing loudly. We gather and dance to breathe life into the living parts of ourselves to keep moving. Hope at its best, at its most lovely, is disruptive and drives people into fits of movement, to dance is to bet on hope.

It comes as no surprise to me now that I went back to a club called the church all those years back. Of course I did. In the small town church (the place, not the club) where I grew up, the first denominational rule that I learned as a teenager was, “Nazarenes are not allowed to dance.”. So in the spirit of the Bible, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass…” If you build a rule, the reaction is not an improvement, but a more violent reaction to the rule. Nobody improves with more harsh rules, they get worse, more extreme. They take up more harsh positions and form groups about hating the rule.

In dancing in the remodeled hull of a church, I was trying to burn down the architecture that I was given. In nearly all of the sermons, what I wasn’t given with enough frequency was a way to manage my own failures. I wasn’t given a way to allow for all of the intense feelings that accompany being a human. There was a great deal of talk about not doing things or trying hard to do different things, about fearing and disciplining your body, but no message was given to those who had failed or were too much for themselves. I actually think that this is one of the greatest oversights of the church in this culture. There is a message of complicated and rowdy hope availible, but we keep telling it to settle down. We don’t want to be disrupted by something like excitement or passion or hope because what if people made mistakes? What if the Spirit we invite doesn’t work in manageable and polite spaces at all? Are we building a place for humans or a place where everyone gets really good at pretending to be a particular kind of human?

That might sound bleak, but there is a sneaky latter half to the verse I started earlier that might be of use here “…but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” 

I can’t dance to the words in a company management manual. I can’t dance to another version of super helpful life-management tips. That shit doesn’t move me (I am utterly immune to all of your good advice), it’s just drudgery with all of the hope and joy siphoned out of it. I can dance to a grace that is larger than me and, oddly enough, in the movement my desire for all of the more self-destructive things naturally dwindles. I like the way it works in reverse better, because I have seen stained glass windows lit from the inside by neon pink light. While the worst of us can come from love and passion the same is true for the most beautiful and the most holy. It might be dangerous, but what good thing isn’t?

*all of the words in quotes are from Psalm 6. During the depressing clubbing time that I discuss here I specifically remember running across the words “all night long I flood my bed with weeping…” I remember that even seeing those words made the world feel less lonely.

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