Alice Walker said it first: “Hard times require furious dancing.” (1)
I first heard the quote from a dear friend of mine named Melinda. Melinda was the hospice chaplain on the pastoral care staff at the hospital where I worked in Atlanta. She’s also an immigrant from South Africa, a white woman a little taller than myself with spiked hair and stylish glasses. Melinda is older than I am, but she’s cooler than I’ll ever be. A perceptive person can detect in Melinda a sense of peace and calm, but also a strength and feistiness that comes from struggle and perseverance. It is fair to say that Melinda taught me how to be a chaplain — and if I ever found myself in need of hospice care, I would want her to be my chaplain.
She brought this Alice Walker quote to us one day when things at the hospital were particularly busy and difficult. Melinda knows what all of us knew: that the next crisis is probably just around the corner. We could not dream of a peaceful work environment because we worked in a hospital. Given hard times, we could only endure, and, when we can, find rest and yes — occasionally even dance. Because hard times require furious dancing.
There’s been quite a bit of talk lately about how 2016 has been a difficult, tragedy-laden year. Even this week, the crisis in Aleppo, that’s been brewing for years, is bubbling over and the results are unspeakably horrible. All over the world, we’ve seen more terrorist attacks. The election was one of the most divisive in recent memory and if you’ve seen the news you know that it’s not getting better. Everyone seems ready to turn the page on 2016 and begin a new year.
But what I’ve been thinking about lately is that if we expect the clock striking midnight in two weeks to really turn the page, to close the door on tragedy and crisis, we’re kidding ourselves. New beginnings are nice, but they don’t save us, just as no election result can save us. The next crisis is around the corner, as it always is, no matter who’s in charge or what year it is.
This is why Alice Walker’s and Melinda’s message rings as true as ever: “Hard times require furious dancing.”
Because of our Advent study on Wednesday nights, I’ve been thinking more than usual about my days as a hospital chaplain. Once, when reviewing a patient’s chart where a freak brain bleed had debilitated the patient out of the blue one day, another of my chaplain colleagues remarked, “Man! It’s scary to be alive!”
Truer words have scarcely been spoken. Because whether we know it or not, we are all one breath away from crisis and hard times: medically, financially, relationally. The next crisis is always looming. It’s scary to be alive. Melinda, as a hospice chaplain, knows this better than most. She knew that the next heartbreaking case was just around the corner. There is no guarantee of good times and everlasting peace, at least outside of permanent divine intervention. The next crisis may be just around the corner — in fact, it probably is.
“Hard times require furious dancing.”
Perhaps that’s why, when she was pregnant with Jesus, Mary sang.
In place of the psalm today was “The Canticle of the Turning,” which is a faithful rendering of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, in Luke 1. Mary sings, I think, not because she thinks that everything is going to be nice and peaceful now that the Messiah is coming. She knows it won’t be. Mary knows better than most that hard times are ahead. By the time she sings these words, she’s already had to contend with explaining to her fiancé exactly how and why she was pregnant — and though we’re so familiar with the story that we may miss it, “I’m pregnant with the Messiah” was probably not an easy sell to Joseph as an explanation. A pastor friend of mine has a favorite Advent meme: one of Mary holding a positive pregnancy test and covering her mouth in shock.
Mary knew that hard times were coming. She knew that the next crisis was probably just around the corner — and it was. Soon after Jesus’ birth, the Holy Family would become refugees in Egypt, fleeing Herod’s bloodthirsty reign as he killed every child two years old and younger in an attempt to protect his own power from the newborn Messiah in a humanitarian crisis that recalls what’s happening in Aleppo right now, where even children are killed for political ends.
This may seem an odd sermon to preach, since Christmas is usually such a happy time. And for sure, Jesus’ birth was a time of great joy with angels singing — but what Mary knew is that the next crisis was just around the corner. As, here on Earth, it always is.
It’s scary to be alive. So the idea that “hard times require furious dancing,” or that Mary would sing as a response to all of this, might strike us as odd at first.
Right after more than fifty people were murdered in a gay nightclub in Orlando this year — yet another of 2016’s horrors — there were many responses. There was sympathy. There was mourning. There was fear. But the following weekend, something else started to happen.
People started to go out dancing — dancing because they were still alive, dancing for themselves, dancing for each other, dancing for freedom. The Twitter hashtag #IWillDance appeared. People danced not out of disrespect for the dead, but out of respect for them — because they were determined that no act of terror could make us retreat in fear. It was declared boldly: even now, even in our heartbreak, we will comfort each other and we will be free.
We will dance.
“Hard times require furious dancing.”
For me, music is one of the lights of my life. I love using the music streaming platform called Spotify, and I like to joke that I fancy myself a Spotify DJ. Every year, I make playlists for Advent and Lent with music that is as new as I can find. This year, the song on my Advent playlist that has most spoken to me is a collaboration between the musical artists called Salt Cathedral and Matisyahu. Matisyahu is, as it would happen, a Jewish hip hop and reggae artist who has already been inspiring me for years. The song they produced together this year is called “Unraveling,” and it is, in essence, a dialogue between the singer from Salt Cathedral and the hip hop lines of Matisyahu wherein Matishayu declares that he is “unraveling every day” while the lines from Salt Cathedral are lines of support and love: she sings, “If you’re tired, not much more you can do, know I’m right here — I’m right here with you” as he raps over her: “When my right is my left and my left can’t connect and my eye come correct and the grass is wet and the debt is paid what can I say — I’m unraveling every day!” (2) [Listen to it here]
I’ve come to love this song more and more as Advent has worn on for two reasons. First, I love it because it is so theologically good — that while we each unravel every day, we simultaneously “embrace the love and live for each other,” as the song says. Second, I love it because even while it describes struggle and support, it is so deliciously danceable.
“Hard times require furious dancing.”
Finally, the content of Mary’s song points us towards something even better than the love and support that we can promise each other here — she promises us that someday, the impossible will happen. Someday, this child she bears will make all things right. The world is about to turn. She sings that God has “brought the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). As we sit in the seemingly eternal Advent of our world, this seems like a far distant pipe dream. Here on Earth, we see the opposite happen. The rich and powerful are as rich and powerful as ever while the poor suffer. But the underlying reality is that Christ has come and we have to hope even in the darkness that maybe, just maybe, as we declare every Sunday — Christ will come again.
Until then, we wait in darkness, in Advent, together. We gather at this table every single Sunday and hope against hope that someday even our next tragedy will be made right. As we talked about last Sunday, faith isn’t logical — it’s actually pretty crazy. I have sometimes declared that I’m a little jealous of those who don’t have to believe in anything. Because faith is hard. Faith is crazy. But without it, I wouldn’t be able to cope with the pain that I have seen: Matisyahu in the song I mentioned earlier captures it perfectly: “These feelings can’t stop bleeding, and these eyes they won’t stop seeing.” Because my eyes can’t stop seeing pain, my heart can’t stop believing that someday we will all be free — from pain, from tragedy — that a day will come when the next crisis won’t be just around the corner, and peace will reign forever.
It was the Fourth Sunday of Advent last year when I first officially met you all as a whole congregation. Like today, I preached on the Magnificat and I challenged you, like Mary, to sing loud in hope. We’ve been singing loud together for a year. We will continue to do so, together, here for each other: as Matisyahu says, “When my right is my left and my left can’t connect” — when you unravel, I will be right here with you. And when I unravel, you will catch me, too, because God has given all of us to each other for such a time as this. And we will continue to sing loud, like Mary, not because we think that it’s all smooth sailing from here on out. We turn the music up and we sing loud because it won’t be, and music helps us to feel free — and to remember that God is with us, that God has come to us and to declare in hope, every single Sunday, that Christ will come again. So turn the music up this Advent.
Hard times, after all, require furious dancing. Amen.
1. Alice Walker, Hard Times Require Furious Dancing (book), New World Library, 2013.
2. “Unraveling,” Salt Cathedral ft. Matisyahu, November 2016.