We do a lot of thinking about our bodies in this culture. We think about beauty. We read articles about keeping our bodies healthy. We exercise (or not). We eat healthy (sometimes). But when did you last use your body to praise God? When was the last time you celebrated God with dance?
I was raised Presbyterian. On Sunday mornings in the 1970s and 80s, our kind of Presbyterians didn’t dance in church. Neither do the Presbyterians I worship with now. So I was out of my element when I visited a Messianic Jewish congregation recently.
Messianic Jews believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior of the world. They believe He is the sacrifice sent by God, raised on the third day, and that all who follow Him will have eternal life. Messianic Jews maintain their Jewish culture and worship Jesus in a Jewish context. They have the joy of people who know that Jesus is the promised Messiah who has saved them from the penalty of sin. Sounds exactly like the Christian theology that I believe. But the worship is a bit different.
When I visited on a Friday night, a woman began the service, covering her head with a veil, lighting candles, and singing a prayer. Music played and Powerpoint slides displayed the words, first in Hebrew, then in English. We all sang. Ten women — some young and limber, some old and not so limber — gathered in a circle and praised God with Israeli folk dancing.
One of them had an eight-month-old baby boy strapped to her chest in an infant carrier. She glided around, lifting her hands, singing to her God, carrying her baby along so that he worshiped God, too. Bodies, young and old, praising God. Is this what praise looked like in ancient Israel?
At the front of the room was a small free-standing closet with a veil drawn across it. Inside was the congregation’s copy of the Scriptures written in Hebrew. The scroll was draped in royal blue fabric with gold trim. The rabbi took out the scroll and carried it around the room as joyful Jewish worship music played. As the Scriptures approached, many people followed the tradition of kissing a hand and touching the scroll. We were welcome to stand by our chairs and sing, but about twenty people followed the rabbi. Tears filled my eyes as I watched two middle-aged women walk with an elderly woman between them. Each of the younger women gently grasped the elbow of the older woman, supporting her as she slowly danced and followed behind the rabbi. She was frail and wrinkled, but that didn’t stop her from literally following the word of God.
I envied her. I wished I could dance in worship without feeling awkward. Maybe you’re like me. I don’t have much experience with dancing in worship. Shoot, I don’t even raise my hands. It’s not discouraged in my tradition — we just don’t do it.
I have a concordance that lists every instance of a word in the Bible. The word dance is listed twenty-seven times. Of course, some churches frown on dancing because it can be lewd and inappropriate. But it doesn’t have to be. It can be a simple and beautiful expression of praise.
You can dance in your living room listening to a download of worship tunes. If you have children, dance with them. I read once that you should never talk to your kids about their bodies unless it’s about how the body works. That’s definitely better then talking about what our bodies look like. But have you ever spoken to your kids about using their bodies to worship God?
Maybe Psalm 149:3 should be your next memory verse. “Let Israel praise God’s name with dancing; Let them sing praises to him with timbrel and lyre.” If you don’t happen to have a timbrel or lyre lying around, use what you have. Just clap and jump if you don’t have musical instruments.
As the elderly woman at the Messianic worship service showed me, it’s never too late. Get the grandparents involved. Even if a body is aging and creaking, anyone can clap along to a worship beat.
Say with the psalmist, “O God, You turned my wailing into dancing.” Dance in your private prayer closet if you’re embarrassed. I promise, God won’t laugh. Unless God is laughing with joy, just watching you.
Wendy Herrmann Smith lives in Greenville SC with her husband and two kids – a son she got after seventeen hours of labor and a C-section and a daughter adopted from China after a fourteen-hour flight and a lot of paperwork. She writes adult Bible study material for her denomination and blogs at www.beautybattlefield.blogspot.com. Read Wendy’s posts here.