Dancing into Hope

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

Spring 2022

I just booked tickets to a concert for my family and me. The last time I went, it was with my then-six-month-old daughter in June 2019, the week after her baptism into the community of faith.

Something about this particular concert, the Indigo Girls at the Zoo, which so frequently overlaps with our UMC annual conference session, makes it part of the liturgical year for a certain collection of Pacific Northwest United Methodists. This year at least attending both doesn’t mean rushing from one to the other. Not that it would, since who knows what conference will be like, what the world will be like, in June.

Last time I went to this concert, it was the day her babbling first resolved into something like “Da-da” and now she’s at the age where she’ll correct me if I get the words wrong in a picture book she’s had read to her only once or twice before.

Our community of faith has been very cautious in our approach to COVID-19 with lots of prerecorded services and periods of masked, no-singing hybrid worship. We’ve been back on Zoom now for a while. One magical, perfect outdoor Christmas Eve carols service before the Omicron variant hit was the first time it felt like we were really singing together like we used to, even though we were freezing and acapella.

More than I ever could have anticipated, the early music education of this little one is disconnected from the experience of congregational singing. She hears single voices, the pianist singing to his own playing, leading us on video. She hears professionally produced music. And she hears me and her other family, mostly one-on-one, except in those rare low-case-count in-person gatherings where we sing someone “Happy Birthday.”

What will it be like, I wonder, to reenter the community of music? How will she hear the first transcendent movement from unison to harmony, when that confident alto or baritone resonates through the space? How will she hear the beloved older singer whose words are always a half beat behind the rest? Will she be surprised when most of us stand up to sing?

Will she learn to love these hymnals the way her mother does? Will she learn follow along, to read music and lyrics carried on the rise and fall of the community’s voice, tracing her fingers along the ups and downs of the notes, deciphering words as they ring in her ears?

Will she loudly proclaim, someday when we attend church with her Anglican grandparents, “Wait, this isn’t the right tune!” or barrel through with the words from the United Methodist Hymnal while they sing the British version? Will she notice which pages I flip past in the red hymnal or the places where I change the words or go silent when the congregation continues the verse, those places where the tradition doesn’t speak to the truth of the faith we are teaching her?

My own faith has been so deeply shaped by these experiences that I cannot imagine church without them, except that somehow it’s been nearly two years without them. I hold on to those moments that sustain, though. And something in that sustenance, something in this time, has led to drawing the circle wider. My child is perhaps equally exposed to Disney, the United Methodist Hymnal, and the popular music that settles her parents’ hearts. Her lullabies are the vespers hymns like my mother sang to me, the lullaby from Frozen 2, and “Roll On, Columbia.”

Without the grounding and centering musical influence of weekly corporate worship, the sacred and the secular are intertwining in our family culture. My role as a parent includes teaching this child the music and the stories of her community, to know and to love those who surround and support her. And for this kid, growing up near Seattle in a family of Methodists, therapists, pastors, and software engineers, that community extends far beyond the church.

Her community will be present at that concert in June. Maybe by then we’ll have been singing in worship again or at least in person outdoors. We’ll sit with Grandma or with my Buddhist friend from high school who was my first peer who loved the Indigo Girls, too. We’ll tromp through the field to visit with UMC pastors’ kids, friends from camp and Chrysalis, clergy, and nonprofit executives and make small talk with complete strangers bound together just by this music. She’ll be surrounded by hundreds of adults dancing to music like she dances to music.

This joyful chaos, will, of course, also be colored by our grief.

For those who have died since the concert in 2019. For the lost time, the lost relationships. Echoes of those weeks of lockdown when I put on the band’s livestream to distract the toddler and cried at the loss of the communal experience. Back when that grief was so fresh it could catch me in any moment of the day.

Grief can be so isolating, especially when combined with forces like a pandemic, depression, or exclusion from communities of faith. And when we are at our best and most resourceful, we find meaning in community, and we take part in ritual and tradition that connects us through time to generations before us and to people thousands of miles away.

“Do you dream of a beloved community? / So, sing songs of freedom… / Look at the kids unsure of the future, / Leading the marches, Waking the culture / Up from the opiate of slumber. / Don’t you wanna be in that number?” (Indigo Girls, “Long Ride”)

Fall 2022

Y’all. She dances. We’ve been singing in worship, masked with the windows open, for months. And this child cannot be stopped. The moment she hears the swell of the piano, those first few notes of voices rising together in song, she drops her toys in the nursery and runs back to the sanctuary. She takes the place she has chosen for herself in the chancel, next to the altar, which happens to be on-camera for those joining us on Zoom. And she dances, twirling her dress, and lately, attempting to incorporate jumps that she picked up watching Newsies.

We went to the concert in June. She’s now fully inoculated against COVID-19, along with most of the other babies and toddlers in the church. Somehow, we are breathing a bit easier.

And this child, who learned to dance to church music on the livestream, in the safety of her living room, has carried that confidence with her into the space of corporate worship.

These years have changed us in ways we can see and in ways we won’t recognize for ages. In my community, this tiny liturgical dancer may be an indication of one of those changes,

She never knew that she was supposed to sit still in church, to stand in place in the pew during hymns. Her body caught the music and danced with it, moving to the rhythm and the rise and fall of the notes. She will probably learn, eventually, how she is “supposed to” behave in worship, like it or not. Maybe she will simply learn that it’s harder to read the words and notes while spinning.

But I hope she never stops dancing, and I hope her dancing is a revolution.

Mary Stanton-Nurse

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