I don’t remember dancing happening in my family when I was growing up. My mother had a dancing spirit but her disability from having polio as a 7-year old kept her from physical expression of that. My father had a different sort of handicap. I’ve been thinking about that as I’ve sorted through some of his sermons lately. They’ve been stored away since he died almost exactly 17 years ago and lockdown has given me a chance to read some of them. I can tell when they were written by how cramped Dad’s handwriting is. As he got older, his handwriting changed. It became more 'open'.
My father's parents, both born in the last two decades of the 19th century, set a lot of store by good manners and ‘proper’ behaviour. Sometimes they tied him to a chair at mealtimes to help him to learn to sit up straight. Their religious beliefs encouraged them and him to hold conscientious concerns for ‘getting it right’ – especially with God! My own sense, and his too, as he grew older, was that, sometimes, my Dad's spirit had been cramped with his body.
It's this background that makes me treasure the picture that I keep on the bookshelf next to my desk. It’s a picture of him sometime in the last decade of his life. It was taken at our house one Christmas night. He’s wearing the green corduroy trousers in which he felt so comfortable instead of the suits he had felt duty-bound to wear when he was preaching. And his trousers are held up with scarlet braces. His arms are up and relaxed. He’s laughing down at the camera...and he’s dancing!
My paternal grandparents may have erred on the side of discipline and correctness rather than free expression in their child-rearing practices. But they taught my father and his two younger sisters a lot of values I'm happy to have inherited. Ironically, given the description I've just given, one of them was a belief in equality and freedom. Especially when he was driving down what looked like a private road to see if he could make a short cut, my Dad would look saucily at my anxious mother who was expecting a gamekeeper with a gun on the road any minute! ‘It’s a free country!’, he would say, or, ‘A cat can look at a king!’
As a young man, my dad's belief in Christian freedom was clearly theoretical! But as he got older he believed more in the importance of human freedom. He spoke and preached about the freedom to choose and to make mistakes and the God who loves us and has given us that freedom. And the older he got, the more he believed in it. His dancing at Christmas was an expression of that.
He would, I know, have rejoiced as I did yesterday when my daughter-in-law sent me a clip of my 21-month old granddaughter dancing in lockdown. She is holding her teddy bear. Her 40-year old father is doing his own routine clutching a toy panda. I hope all my grandchildren will grow up to know ‘The Lord of the Dance’ who is not limited by microbes or lockdown, by human fears or anxieties about ‘doing things perfectly’ or being ‘acceptable’. I believe the Lord of the Dance will, as Sidney Carter’s hymn says, ‘Lead us all wherever we may be’ – and that includes in or out of lockdown!