15 years ago today, three planes flew into national landmarks and killed hundreds. Three months ago this week, a man walked into a nightclub and opened fire. Yesterday, I listened to a young woman tell me her story of being sold and traded for sex without her knowledge or consent, to the point where she was locked in a room for days on end without food or drink while men fed her “drug water” to a state of catatonia.
There is so much darkness in this world. You don’t have to travel to a third world country or an inner city ghetto to see it. Sex slaves are walking in and out of the stores where you shop. Drug dealers are in the car next to you in traffic. Doctors are using illegal narcotics and hiring prostitutes before your next appointment. Professional athletes and and entertainers and politicians are keeping the human trafficking industry thriving. Women are being beaten in jails and prisons by guards who are paid by your tax dollars.
But smile! The iPhone 7 is out and pumpkin spice everything is projectile vomitting all over the grocery store and football season is back!
In the midst of all of our mind-numbing consumerism which drowns out the pain of a bleeding world, there are people who still find reasons to dance. As I stood in the Orange County Jail this afternoon, I watched incarcerated women – some who have been in the same jail for over three years – dance. They had their eyes closed, hands raised, and they were dancing as they worshipped. And after they danced, they danced some more. One of the women, whom I have had the privilege to know in jail and meet her family outside of jail, asked if she could close our service today with a praise dance.
Now, I need to explain what a praise dance is. As a middle class white girl who grew up in Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, I can promise you I had never seen anyone do anything in church except for sing the notes that were on the pages in front of them. In choir robes. In unison. So the thought of an individual standing up in church and performing a half choreographed, half Spirit-lead, all emotional physical interpretation of the Gospel was more foreign to me than a Japanese math class. However, in other cultures and more charismatic churches, there is nothing odd about an individual or group worshipping God through dance.
This beautiful woman silenced a room with her praise dance. Each move was intentional and yet spontaneous at the same time. Her face was full of emotion and wonder and grief and joy and gratitude, all at the same time. By the end of her performance, I was speechless, motionless, and crying. I wasn’t sad. I was in awe – in awe of a woman who has been in jail for nearly a year, who still has the hole in her arm from where she was shot and the bullet shattered through her bone, a woman who hasn’t seen her newborn child since she gave birth and was returned to jail, a woman who has every reason to be angry and resentful and scared and bitter – of this woman and her ability to dance in the midst of darkness.
After the Pulse Nightclub shooting, hashtags and bumper stickers emerged to tell Orlando to “keep dancing”. Videos appeared online of police officers and elected officials dancing in the streets. Celebrities sang songs and raised some money. And those things aren’t bad, but it is easy for those of us who aren’t suffering to tell others that they should snap out of their suffering. What about the shooting victims who are learning to walk again, or the daughter who still grieves because her father was killed when a terrorist hijacked a plane and flew it into his office, or the young girl who is sleeping on a wet mattress in a park because her parents kicked her out and her pimp beat her again?
It amazes me when people who are suffering still celebrate life. Yesterday was World Suicide Prevention Day, and I saw so many messages of hope and encouragement from people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Today my church celebrates 14 years of existence in the wake of our lead pastor killing himself three years ago. Are we insane? In denial? Is the woman who did the praise dance just completely delusional?
Maybe. But I don’t think so. I do think it is important for us to keep dancing and living and celebrating, but not at the expense of our grief. There can be laughter through tears and joy in the midst of pain and suffering. When my dear friend, Jane, lost her son to suicide just over two years ago, she reconnected with family and friends in the hospital as they sat by her son’s bed grieving for their loss yet celebrating his existence at the same time. I watched a young woman dance in jail while a group of total strangers is out there deciding her fate.
Have you ever seen a dancer’s feet? Dancers, especially ballet dancers, create beauty at the expense of their own appendages. In a slipper, a ballet dancer’s feet may look flawless and graceful, but remove the slipper and you may lose your lunch. Callouses, blisters, corns, cuts, swelling, bleeding, and warped bones become the payment plan for a dancer’s career. How can someone who creates so much beauty live with so much pain? The same could be asked of my friend in jail.
Emotions are tricky things. They aren’t mutually exclusive, and they rarely make sense. But if we could all keep dancing while embracing each other’s pain at the same time, I think this world would be a more honest, not to mention a more flexible, place to live.