Stories from the Cleft-7: Turning Our Mourning into Dancing
Please check out where we’ve been along the journey at The Training Table Archives section of Feast of the Heart. Be sure to recall the Bible passage from Exodus 33:12-23; 34:29-35 where the story of Moses and “the cleft in the rock” can be found.
Today’s feast consists of some of the most important truths a person can chew on. As I discussed in my book, “The Weeping, the Window, the Way”, God has a redemptive plan for not simply surviving but flourishing in the era of unavoidable suffering that we presently live in—between the time of the Fall (Genesis 3) and Jesus’ Second Coming to make all things new (Revelation 21).
However, there’s a very big problem that exists in any people or era “living in a culture of comfort”: The denial, avoidance, and suppression of all things difficult, dying and, of course, death itself. In order to avoid the unavoidable, much of humanity has unwittingly, yet methodically and over multiple generations, built a mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical house of cards to sequester itself in… and to wait out the storm. This is no way to live.
On Dying, Death… and Dancing
As I glanced up at my bookshelf and remembered Henri Nouwen’s book by the similar title as our Training Table menu for today, a section from the end of the book was jarred loose in my memory:
“Facing death need not come as a maudlin exercise. Instead, it provides a way to celebrate our life as God’s beloved sons and daughters so that we live our last days, be they many or few, as days of being constantly open to what is to come. The God who made us and who calls us beloved before we were born lives with us and in us. Nothing can separate us from that love of God in Christ, even amid the reality, which much of us prefer to ignore or avoid, of death. For living with joy through both life and death requires we learn to discern the voice of divine love in every eventuality. How rarely do I walk through my daily existence with this eternal perspective. But such discoveries have a great deal to do not only with our final end, but with our daily life.” (Turn My Mourning into Dancing, page 94—emphasis added)
Please make sure you’ve read Nouwen’s words closely enough as to grasp just a few gold nuggets of his insight. For me, it contrasts the bondage of living in fear and denial of death—as we do particularly well—as opposed to the freedom, openness, and joy of living in the realism of the immortality of hope and eternal life… promised in Christ.
Dying… Before my conversion at age 31, I did many things so risky that I may have died on numerous occasions. My brushes with death did not go unnoticed by me, but, to some extent, they were at once at the same time a relief and a disappointment: I wasn’t sure if living or dying was actually any different. As if I wasn’t able to choose the best between the two… while being robbed of both.
My behavior was motivated by desperately clinging to a version of me that was a lie, a false self—and always at risk of being exposed for the emptiness and fragility that it was comprised of. I was dying inside, and did many risky things so that someone might see me… and give praise that I (the real me inside even I didn’t know) existed, was alive, and was loved… blemishes and all.
The compensatory behavior for my dying inside was to be constantly at risk… in hopes of feeling alive, relevant, or simply existent. Some might call it “acting out”. I wouldn’t disagree: The charade was indeed a version of “the theater of the absurd”—except for the fact that the protagonist was dearly close to me. Living an absurd life is easier coined, than lived out! Was my motivation and behavior anomalous? I would dare say, no, it was not in the least foreign in my own day, and sadly it is even more common today.
My life was an act. Oddly enough, my acting career while in boarding school was of the works of Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and Arthur Miller. The existential play, Waiting for Godot was the perfect role for me as I waited endlessly for a version of myself and a reality that did not exist. Like Estragon in the play, had I passed me by in the waiting, I would not have recognized me. My role was all too real. I scarcely had to memorize the lines. I was lauded for how natural I was for the “performance”! Looking back, I can smile at the irony today… Perspective is an important thing.
Death… The experience of death came in a torrent for me around the age of 15 and on. The suicide of a classmate and a Master (teacher) while at boarding school, one grandparent, then another, three other friends from my growing up, and then my mother died suddenly of a brain tumor when I was 19.
I had no idea whatsoever about “good grief” or mourning of any kind. I was adept in other ways… The back stage dressing room of my acting realm became an over-crowded space of corpses I couldn’t conceal, bury, or lay to rest in any way… but my way. My pre-Christian mechanism for dealing with difficulty or death had to fit neatly into how the rest of my life was organized: compartmentalization, crass coping, and being characteristically comical—as a cover-up akin to “the tears of a clown” (the Smokey Robinson hit of the day)
Rather than see the finality of death or the daily death of the numerous and unavoidable disappointments of life becoming the doorways to deeper and sweeter life, I simply pursued more and more outlets of distraction in the present… avoiding the past, while fearful of the future.
Dancing… The very day of my conversion provided me with the first chance to see the yawning void that remained inside my heart after the house of cards came crashing down. The circumstances were perfectly orchestrated by God. Mercifully, He didn’t leave me alone to catch my breath after being aghast at what I saw… or didn’t see… inside the nothing of my own heart.
As may obvious from my story above, as a youth, when it came to being at an actual dance, I was whipsawed between being a wallflower or a clown at a dance: I either felt too ashamed or I over-reacted to the dance. I hadn’t yet been made new… to be comfortable… with whomever I really was “in between these two extremes”.
My conversion was the beginning of the journey to seeing myself as indefatigably, inexhaustibly, and tirelessly loved. God knew I needed a handful of human beings to jump start a trust of HIS love for me. But over time, and many, many trials and trusts of God broken by me and mended by God, I began to not only see my wallflowerness and clownish behavior for what it was, I actually began to feel the thrill of being on the dance floor with my father God!
The View from the Cleft: “May I have this dance?” God’s glory passing by!
Now, as a born-again, bona fide, new creation in Christ of 26 years, I can see that it wasn’t until I came in very close proximity to my own death, on repeated occasions, as well as the death of numerous others close to me, that I truly felt free… completely free… to live… and to dance!
Since being re-born, and over many years of intense digging and repeated dying to self, God the Holy Spirit and His Saints on earth have given me the unspeakable blessing of recouping every “notable death” in my own sphere of life, as well as my perspective on death in general. I have redeemed each death… unto what a life in Christ can make of it.
Clearly, my dad’s suicidal death on Christmas night 2002 provided me a miraculous perspective of death and eternal life that would not have been remotely possible had I not been made a new creation many years before that very night. Again, God had orchestrated things just perfectly!
TODAY… (Psalm 95:7-8) I see each day as God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit extending me the amazing grace and divine delight of saying, as I wake from sleep, “May I (we) have this dance?”
As I “take the Trinity’s hand” and join in the dance each day, what it looks like is not that hard to imagine: It’s being as Christ-like as my born-againness and brokenness and repentance and staying in the dance might afford me.
As I dance into each day, I begin with “Christ and crank”—or the Bible and a cup of coffee. This is a necessity for anyone who wants, by the heavenly power God places within the heart, to be the very best dancer he or she can be!
From there, I sometimes gracefully, but most times clumsily, awkwardly, and intermittingly (saved and yet still in my sin nature) invite others into the dance of God’s redeeming grace and plan—by a hug, a word of encouragement, an invite to meet again and discuss matters in more detail, a listening ear, an outreach at a difficult and isolating time, a respectful interruption of the surface living most bring to bear on each day, a small gift, a book, a help or service of some kind, a teachable moment, a time to be taught, an insight into a deeper realm of how things work… or might work better, a hospital visit, a thank you or condolence note, a laugh out loud or the deep weeping of caring and carefree transparency, a repentance and forgiveness sought or secured… ALL AIMED AT SEEKING TO GLORIFY THE CONDUCTOR(s), God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… and bless the people God leads me in the dance with each day.
The dance goes on and on… Until I’m either dead and with God face-to-face, or Jesus returns! The dance is all that matters in life, and in death—when dancing will take on a proportion and depth of delight we can scarcely imagine.
God respectfully invites us to dance. It gives Him great joy when we do… just as we are, but willing to dance some more as we refine the steps in concert with the music He creates uniquely for each and every day.
Please, closely consider what’s on the dance card for your life… for today. Don’t make the same mistake I did, I do, and many do as well: Remain at your post as a prideful or controlling or shame-filled or fearful wallflower OR clowning around… with so great a thing as your destiny and delight in the dance!
Until we sup again, may God richly bless you with the face-to-face reality of dying, and death… so as to free you… unfettered… to dance,