A Time to Dance

Easter, April 16, 2017
Dr. Jeffrey A. Hosmer
North Lake Presbyterian Church
Lady Lake, FL

The early hours of the first Easter were very confusing. We know how it turns out. But all four Gospels describe the bewildered and distressed who found the tomb empty.

In Mark, for example, the three women went to anoint Jesus’ body for proper burial. They had dutifully waited, until after the Sabbath as the law required. Then at sunrise they went carrying the precious spices they would use. On the way they worried about moving the stone far enough to get into the tomb. But as they approached they saw the large stone was already rolled to the side, leaving the tomb wide open. And from the entrance of the tomb they saw a figure dressed in a white robe, seated inside to the right, who spoke these words: “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him” Mark 16:6 (NRSV).

The women thought they were still in grief mode, alarmed, afraid, aghast that his body had been taken. According to John, Mary began weeping right there in the burial garden. What is going on here? What does this mean?

The poetry of Ecclesiastes says there is:

A time to weep and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn and a time to dance.            Ecclesiastes 3:4 (NRSV)

What kind of a time is this?

Let’s pray:
Risen Lord Jesus, thank you that this day of resurrection changes everything. Now, please come close and breathe your message of life and hope into all of our souls. Amen.

One of the distinctive, charming characteristics of the Villages is live music every evening at the town squares. From 5 PM until 9 PM is a time to dance, or to listen to the music and watch those who are dancing. Line dancing, jitterbug, swing, and salsa … you can see it all. I’ve even spotted persons with a cane or walker up and moving with the music. Or someone in a wheelchair rocking back and forth with a rhythm that moves them. It is a designated time and place to dance.

untitled-1077-2Sometimes the dance call and occasion is very clear. Nearly three years ago at our daughter’s wedding, I had the privilege and joy of the traditional father and bride dance. Rachel could glide and spin and take attention away from my clumsiness. Actually, once we started, I lost awareness of everyone else; I was absorbed in a sacred moment with my only daughter.

Someone (Wayne Dyer) once said, “When you dance, your purpose is not to get to a certain place on the floor. It’s to enjoy each step along the way.” That’s so true isn’t it? The purpose of the dance is to relish every step and the relationship with your dance partner. That evening was clearly, happily, a time to dance. In fact, throughuntitled-1097-2
much of the evening Rachel could hardly contain herself; she was dancing, and skipping, and leaping for joy.
The words for dance in scripture are closely linked with rejoicing. That shouldn’t surprise us because true joy is more than an interior mood. Joy is the profound emotion that permeates soul and body. Joy is infectious, reaching every corpuscle, and limb, and cell. Joy spreads and spills out in the movement of the body.

In Jeremiah 31, the prophet spoke to a dejected people in exile. They were disconsolate. Jeremiah was announcing a coming new day of restoration. Here’s verse 13:

Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.   Jeremiah 31:13 (NRSV)

Rejoice in the dance! Be merry! It shall be a day and occasion for joy.

Jesus also knew there was a time to dance. He often spoke of a banquet or feast – where dancing would be customary. When Jesus told about the return of the prodigal son, and the father’s joyous reaction, he described a festival celebration that included dancing. [Only the elder brother—the Presbyterian brother—did not want to get in on the joy!] When Jesus was at the wedding in Cana – and turning water into wine – it’s a good bet he was also on the dance floor!

In the bible, dance is the body language of joy and praise. Listen to this from Psalm 150:

Praise him with trumpet sound; 
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!   Psalm 150:3-4 (NRSV)

Perhaps the best biblical example of praise in motion was David dancing as they brought the Ark of the Lord into the city of Jerusalem. You can read the account in 2 Samuel, chapter 6. It was a great celebration, with a fanfare of trumpets and cheering. David, the Shepherd-King and musician, was totally into the moment as he danced before the Lord with all his might. His whirling, breathless gyrations led the way for the Ark up the road and into the city.

Renowned American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham considered dance the language of the soul. “Great dancers,” she said, “are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.” The passion of David was undeniable. He was immersed in a frolicsome moment of sheer delight before the Lord. David was playfully unself-conscious, dancing and forgetting anyone else was watching.

But, ah yes, his wife Michal was watching along with the crowd.  And she thought his dance was contemptible. Here’s verse 16: “As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart” (2 Samuel 6:16 NRSV). Wow, that’s harsh! Michal had grown up in the court; she knew what was proper for a king and what was not. Later she scorned David, pointing out it was foolish, frivolous, even vulgar for royalty to behave so.

Some years back a church member gave me a poem written in 1981 by Presbyterian pastor David Steele. It fits today. Let me share an excerpt of “David Danced – Michal Watched.”

David’s heart soared as he danced to the Lord
In a manner more free than refined.
And his poor little wife got the shock of her life,
So she gave him a piece of her mind:

“I don’t care one smidgen about your religion
As long as it’s solemn and chaste …
But the way you’re behaving with arms wildly waving
Is shocking and lacking in taste.

If you must raise your spirit in praise,
Be sure that it’s soothing and calm.
The Lord, I am sure, would much rather prefer
Something more like your 23rd Psalm.”

Then God’s anointed became disappointed,
He knew he had nary a chance
Of ever persuading this prim, regal maiden
That the Lord is a lover of dance.

Churches these days talk a lot about praise
And the joy that accompanies good news.
But don’t tap your feet or get out of your seat,
For Michal still lurks in the pews.

Yes, Michal lurks. And the church through the years has tended to resist or even scorn dance. In early centuries dance was condemned because of its association with pagan revelries. Others connected it with drunkenness and lewd spectacle, an amusement too worldly for the serious followers of Jesus.

But I think that misses the whole experience of our faith in the One who was dead but is risen. Our faith in Jesus contains a joy that bubbles into laughter and dance! There is a time to weep, and a time to mourn, but not on Easter!!

Eventually that’s what Mary, and Peter, and John and all the rest figured out. They could say with the psalmist:

You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth            [a symbol of distress and grief]
and clothed me with joy.                                   Psalm 30:11 (NRSV)

The empty tomb doesn’t just mean that we have a death-defying Lord. We see many who are daring, risky, even foolhardy, flirting with danger and death. That was not Jesus. He was not just death-defying. Nor was he death-denying. He understood death, wept in grief, experienced our mortality. He knew that every single one of us would have to come to grips with our own death.

truckTake a look at this photo on the screen. Don’t you just love the irony?  A truck, stuck under a bridge with the message emblazoned on the side: “On the road to success, there are no shortcuts.” Oops! That driver had some ‘splainin’ to do!

On the road to resurrection, there is no shortcut. The road to resurrection goes by way of death. Jesus knew that; he suffered death with us and for us. He is not death-defying. He is not death-denying. He is the death-defeating Lord who could not be found in the empty tomb … the One who was dead but has been raised. We have a death-defeating Lord.  And that makes all the difference. He turns our mourning into dancing!

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche quipped: “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” Some may not hear the music of Easter or may not understand our joy and impulse to dance. But we hear it, and we know that dancing is not about night life; it’s about eternal life.

An English poet and songwriter fifty years ago published a hymn using a tune from the American Shakers. He used their folk tune “simple gifts” to pay tribute to their faith known for its motion. Here are three stanzas of Sidney Carter’s hymn depicting Jesus as Lord of the Dance. I imagine you’ve heard this before. (In the traditional service today we’ll sing this to finish the service.)

I danced in the morning when the world was begun,
And I dance in the moon and the stars and the sun,
And I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth;
At Bethlehem I had My birth.

Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said He.

I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black;
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back.
They buried My body and they thought I’d gone;
But I am the dance and I still go on.

They cut Me down and I leap up high;
I am the life that will never, never die;
I’ll live in you if you’ll live in Me;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He.

Dance, then, wherever you may be;
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said He.

Easter is a time to dance!

All right, Jeff, let me see if I’ve got this straight so far: There’s King David dancing before the Lord with all his might as he brought the Ark up to Jerusalem. And Jesus is the Lord of the Dance. And Easter, you say, is a time when God turns our mourning into dancing. So, what do you want me to do? You don’t really expect a dance to break out here in the middle of worship, do you?  I mean … after all, this is a Presbyterian Church.

Well, if you’re thinking that, you’re probably right.  We seem to prefer our worship understated. We tend to worship with our hearts and minds, hopefully with our voices, but seldom with our bodies. We’re active all week and then Sunday at church … we get a case of rigor mortis. Shouldn’t our posture, our gestures, our body language reflect the joy at the core of our faith. Ah, but we’ll leave that to someone else, that joy in motion stuff. Like Chris Endsley’s hands and feet dancing on the organ keys and pedals! Or like the Choir swaying subtly—ever so slightly—with an anthem, probably a spiritual! Like the Praise Band pulsing with energy, and trying to get us to clap. Here and there persons putting up arms and hands in an expression of praise. But on the whole our worship is not very physical!

I suppose I resist the connection of dance and worship as much as anyone. I’m certain there are excellent dancers here. I’m equally certain that I’m not one of them. Look, I am reasonably coordinated and have a fair sense of rhythm. But I am an unskilled, insecure dancer. I remember taking a few ballroom dancing lessons in junior high. That was back when my shoe size was greater than my age. I laugh now when I think back on that poor instructor … trying to teach our awkward, unruly bunch how to foxtrot. I imagine that teacher asking me to please not tell anyone where I took dancing lessons!

Maybe you watch Dancing with the Stars, and you’ve seen how grueling, exacting and competitive it can be. Some instructors and partners are better than others. And then there’s the real Lord of the Dance. Talk about dancing with a Star! Jesus is a very different kind of master dancer and instructor. “I’ll lead you all in the dance,” said He. And he leads with patience and grace. He loves to practice with us all, regardless of our ability. He wants us to learn the new steps not just for a 9th grade dance, or a high school prom, or a wedding, or on the square, or a reality tv show. Jesus is teaching us the dance steps we will use for eternity.

One of my favorite dance memories was thirteen years ago– holding the arm of my grandmother on her 100th birthday. By the time I was born she was already many times a grandmother. But her 20’s overlapped with the Roaring 20’s. In old photos I can see her spry and saucy. And to any who would listen she would testify about her salvation and how she was rescued from a path headed away from God. Because she landed in a very conservative Christian tradition, she had to put behind her many things: no card games, no theater, no dancing, and of course no alcohol or tobacco.

From her late 20’s until her death at age 102, she complied with the faith rules as she knew them. Her 100th birthday party was held appropriately at the church where she had belonged for decades. In the fellowship hall with her pastors, family, and friends surrounding her with love, she celebrated in a way that delighted us all. With a couple of us on either side to assist if she needed help, she rose and steadied herself. Then with a twinkle in her eye she flashed back to the Roaring 20’s, doing her own wonderful rendition of the Charleston. It was time to dance … even in the church!

Now she dances in the Kingdom of Heaven – where she needs no one to steady her, but is forever with the Lord of the Dance. In his presence, even those of us who think we cannot dance will be graceful—praise and joy in motion. There will be no lack of rhythm, no self-consciousness, no awkwardness, no looking down at your feet. The scripture promises that in those days the lame will leap like a deer.  There are no creaky and grumpy knees, no amputations, no arthritis, no dizziness or imbalance, no heart conditions. No crying or tears anymore. Just the pure jubilation of dancing with the Lord and with everyone else who hears the music of resurrection!

Friends, Jesus turns our mourning into dancing. It’s time to dance!

Awareness of a Whereness – Part 2

Hosmer farewell sign

“I hear you bought 552 Compton,” Sally exclaimed as she approached me in the Fellowship Commons of our church. Her eyes and smile sparkled with excitement she could not contain. She continued, “You know I used to live right next to that house.”

“Of course, Sally, I remember visiting you and your husband when you still lived on Compton.”

“Well, I was delighted to learn you are buying that house. Do you know you’ll be living on holy ground?

With that, she had my full attention. She proceeded to tell me that the site of our home, before it was developed, was low enough for a small pond that neighborhood kids would skate on in a winter freeze. When the developer wanted to put a house on the property he needed a large amount of fill. So he obtained truckload after truckload of dirt from the nearest building site that involved major excavation. Sally told me that the pond and low ground was gradually filled in and then built up so that the landscape actually slopes away from the house in every direction. Where did the dump trucks come from with all that dirt? From 703 Compton Road, from the excavation that was being done for the new sanctuary of Northminster Presbyterian Church!

Sally and I agreed that it was marvelous that the Pastor of Northminster would be living on dirt taken from the ground below Northminster’s sanctuary. “It’s like you’ll be living on holy ground,” she repeated with a laugh. If our family needed any confirmation of the decision to purchase that home, we could seize upon this remarkable connection of 703 and 552 Compton Road. However, we eventually learned that holy ground did not prevent the need for a whole new sewer line to be installed from house to street! The backhoe pulled up Northminster dirt from 10 ½ feet deep, dirt that had not seen sunlight since 1965. The ground did not feel very holy during that project!

Holy or not, we’ve had a love affair with our home and church and neighborhood. We’ve been rooted in this community and the relationships in the northern hills of Cincinnati. I acknowledged in Part 1 of this “Awareness of a Whereness” the feelings of leaving behind the familiar, comfortable, wonderful elements of this location. Then I shared Richard Rohr’s provocative quote that, “Someone has to make clear to us that homes are not meant to be lived in—but only to be moved out from.” He challenges us to stretch beyond the familiar and settled places of our lives.

A survey published by the Barna Group earlier this month documents how most Americans expect to stay where they are or have no plans to move. Fifty-nine percent of respondents indicated they expect to stay put. Perhaps our famous American mobility and nomadic patterns are trending the other way, to local roots and building long-term community. If so, that could be very encouraging and wholesome for our souls. Not surprisingly, older adults are the least likely to move. The older we get, the more settled we become. Perhaps that’s why Richard Rohr is challenging his readers in the second half of life to venture beyond the familiar. And for exaggerated effect, he declares that homes are not for being lived in, but for moving out from! We know that both are true, but he prods us to let go of the assumptions, pursuits, and habits of our established lives to find out what God wants us to become later in life.

Seventy-five years ago T. S. Eliot voiced a similar thought in his poem “East Coker.”

Old men ought to be explorers

Here and there does not matter

We must be still and still moving

Into another intensity

For another union, a deeper communion.

I see myself now in these lines. My awareness of a whereness is filled with gratitude and wonder at the profound attachments of the past two decades. But now my home is a place to move from. And the holy ground is not in the dirt or address or whereness of any community, but in the presence of God, the everywhereness of the Lord who transcends place, who goes before us and meets us in the New. He Moving Day 001is the one who summons me to explore, to be still and still moving, to venture toward another intense union and deep communion. Farewell, Holy Ground … another Holy Ground beckons.

Awareness of a Whereness – Part 1

IMG_1907Most of the farewells have already taken place, the good-byes voiced, hugs exchanged, and relationships recalibrated for a future distance of 850 miles. The pastor leaves and the congregation steers forward with new leadership and resolve. It is a healthy, albeit difficult, separation. At least it’s difficult for me, especially in this time-between-times.

The responsibilities at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati formally concluded a month ago, and I’m a week away from starting at North Lake Presbyterian Church in Lady Lake, FL. During July, while doing research and writing for a doctorate, I’ve also been scrambling to prepare for the sale of one home and the purchase of another, not to mention all the logistics of moving out-of-state. This relocation accentuates the current gap of belonging, the peculiar sense of being NOT at home anywhere. My former office is a good example. All the books and files are packed and stacked and ready for the moving van. All photos and artifacts of ministry are missing from the walls and shelves. My nameplate is removed from the door. When I stop there to pick up something I need in this interim phase, I am starkly reminded that “this is not my place anymore!”

A similar feeling occurs in our house, now strangely barren. Framed art and family portraits are not hanging, but leaning against the wall for final packing. Shelves and cupboards and tabletops are empty. Boxes are piled high at the perimeter of almost every room. This is not my place anymore. I am readying for departure. When I mow the lawn or replace a lightbulb I feel more like the caretaker of someone else’s property. It will be theirs soon enough. I do want them to enjoy it as much as we have, to delight in this space, this location, this neighborhood. Yes, I have loved it, but I cannot call it mine anymore.

Perhaps the imminent departure stirs my keen sense of place, my awareness of a whereness. Our English language even provides a clever word, “ubiety” (rhymes with piety), to indicate the property of having a definite location at any given time, the condition of being in a particular place. The word derives from the Latin “ubi”, meaning “where.” These days I feel my whereness much like you feel the breeze. This is my location, or at least it has been for twenty-two years.

I am relinquishing a network of relationships in this community. Beyond treasured church relationships, I leave behind bank tellers and a manager who greet me by name. My haircut has become like a monthly reunion. The dentist and hygienist know what teeth give me problems. The optometrist loves to tell me about his young children and always asks about our family. And my primary care physician has accompanied me through swine flu and pneumonia, not to mention dengue fever. All of these are less than a mile from the church, just around the corner from where I live. I have been happily nestled in this Winton/Compton world, situated in a metropolitan area with a small town feel.

I know multiple ways to get to the same destination in Cincinnati, in case one of the major arteries is blocked. My wife and I can name at least four favorite Thai restaurants in the city. We have walked in most of the city and county parks. We are familiar with the best overlooks of the city and the Ohio River. We have acclimated to the Cincinnati perspective of the ferocious Bengals-Steelers rivalry, which is not easy for Pittsburgh natives! But this has been our home, where we have been based for more than two decades.

Those who grow grapes and produce wine speak of the terroir, the unique soil and climate conditions that yield a distinctive flavor. Terroir is the whereness of grapes on a vine in a particular vineyard in a certain region. It is the growing environment. Cincinnati has been our terroir. This is where our children have grown up and reflect a certain vintage of the neighborhood. This is where I have grown up as a pastoral leader; at this point more than 60% of my ministry experience has been grounded in the northern hills of Cincinnati. This has been our context for living and moving and having our being.

And now we are leaving. Leaving many beautiful people. Leaving a home with memories in every direction. Leaving ground we have tended. Leaving the sweetgum tree that turns deep crimson in late autumn. Leaving the massive cottonwood that snows on our backyard in early June. Leaving the mole that defies capture in the flower beds. Leaving the lawn where I have walked miles blissfully behind the mower. And in the leaving I am acutely aware of my whereness!

In the introduction to his book FALLING UPWARD, Jesuit priest and author Richard Rohr states:

The familiar and the habitual are so falsely reassuring, and most of us make our homes there permanently. The new is always by definition unfamiliar and untested, so God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a push—usually a big one—or we will not go. Someone has to make clear to us that homes are not meant to be lived in—but only to be moved out from.

Rohr’s intriguing quote seems an appropriate place to stop Part 1 of this reflection, so that I can post part 2 next week while we are literally in the midst of moving out from our home. I’ll meet you again in the whereness of next week.

The Tricks of Caring

My dear friend Ted is a magician. Oh, he has many roles and talents: devoted husband and father and grandfather, distinguished neuropsychologist, elder and leader in his church, avid golfer, to name just a few. But he’Ted Barretts recognized by many around Northminster Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati as the man who’s willing to do a few tricks while he’s telling a story or speaking words of encouragement. He shows up at various congregational events in playful apparel to share an announcement, to speak a prophetic word of challenge or hope, or to punctuate the end of a meeting with a magic trick or two. The particular ministry team in which he’s been most invested, and which he has led several years, awaits his new magic trick each meeting. Their work is not completed until they have been tantalized by one of his mysterious feats.

Ted is not a professional. Those who know him professionally probably address him as Dr. Barrett. But he took up the hobby of magic a few years ago to connect better with his young grandchildren. How wonderful to see the charmed look of children as they study his twinkle-in-the-eye antics and puzzling dexterity. Of course, it is not only children who are enchanted by this practice. Ted’s magic draws out our adult curiosity and delight. And he uses his magic as a way of communicating a message, blessing others, and enhancing relationships. He’s mature in faith and secure in his identity with no need to show off or be the center of attention. But he hones his skills and cultivates new tricks so that he has new avenues to connect with people he cares about very much.

When I went to visit Ted to inform him that I was accepting a call to serve a congregation in Florida, we had a heart-warming exchange of memories and shared ministry over more than twenty years. We laughed about various moments with our children, who grew up together, and highlighted some of the things we have learned with and from each other. Ted posed excellent questions about my decision and next stage of ministry. He endorsed the move and the reasons that underlie it, even though it means big changes for many relationships, including ours. Then in his gentle, compassionate manner, he said, “In the last couple of years I’ve missed some of the playfulness and buoyancy in your preaching, as if you are carrying a much heavier load. I hope your new calling and the fresh experience of being a grandfather awakens that delight in you again!” It was a grace-filled invitation to discuss some of the soul work that’s going on and to compare notes on our handling of this stage in our lives. He cared for me with wisdom, intentionality, and more than a few tricks up his sleeve. I left his home knowing that when we are doing quality “one-another” work, there’s always something magical happening!


“I never stop to talk to others when I’m out walking for exercise,” he remarked after we’d already been talking for more than fifteen minutes. We had converged on a water fountain at the base of a large water tower dominating Hilltop Road in our neighborhood. My wife Bobbi and I often make that our destination for an evening walk. We had just finished taking turns for a long drink before heading back to our home. A smiling stranger arrived for the same purpose, and his congenial, inquisitive nature got the better of him.

So we stood and talked. Cordial greetings became an engaging exchange about family, house purchases, community history, and a sense of awe or gratitude at how things work out in life. He was seasoned with a few more years, but active physically and mentally. I noticed how much I was enjoying his company even if it extended our planned time for the walk. Bobbi seemed to feel the same, and said so afterwards. Several times we started to pull away and head off in our different directions, and then some new point of contact or overlapping interest was discovered. Finally, after a half hour of delightful conversation, we happened to figure out that he was the uncle of a neighbor who had recently moved from across the street. It added another whole layer to our enthusiasm for the moment we shared at a water fountain.

By that point he knew my profession as a Presbyterian pastor. We also knew he was rooted in the Jewish faith. He reached his hand out to my elbow and held it as he said, “In Yiddish we have a word, bashert, that means ‘it was meant to be.’ I think our time here, our random intersection at the water fountain, is bashert. I am so glad I walked this way tonight and I met you both.” He knew of our impending move to FL and that we would not have any more chance encounters at the water tower. But the cheerful, hearty half-hour was enough. It was bashert. We bid farewell fondly, as if conferring a blessing upon each other.

Just a few minutes later, on our return walk, his niece (our former neighbor whom we had not seen for several months!) drove by and stopped to greet us. We were thrilled to report that we had just enjoyed meeting her uncle. How wonderful to sense the meant-to-be encounters and opportunities that God sets before us. Yet I wonder how many of them I have missed because I was in a hurry, or because I don’t stop to talk when I’m walking for exercise, or because I just don’t notice someone smiling or grimacing with pain. Let’s stay alert to the opportunities to bless one another in the daily walk of life!