There is a lovely moment in the movie Mr Morgan’s Last Love which struck a chord with me when I watched it a few months ago. To briefly set the scene, a young teacher called Pauline befriends an elderly chap called Mr Morgan, whose wife had recently passed away. The two warm to each other and a sweet friendship is formed.
Fairly early on in the story, Mr Morgan attends a dance class led by Pauline. She invites Mr Morgan to join in, but he is hesitant. Pauline instead asks if he would like to watch. Before long, with Pauline looking on with an affectionate and inviting smile, Mr Morgan begins swaying either side, eager to join but clearly not confident to do so.
A fellow student spots this and approaches him. With a gentle pull, Mr Morgan gingerly steps forward onto the dance floor.
I love to dance, but I am a hesitant dancer. At a wedding or party, I need the dance floor to be at least three-quarters full for me to make an entrance – and then only if I can spot on there three or four that I know fairly well.
But when at home on my own, it is a whole different story. I go wild.
Jesus had something to say about dancing. He is speaking to a crowd of people and, having just made reference to the ministry of his cousin, John the Baptist, he goes on to highlight the way many of his Jewish observers were not quite getting what both he and John are all about. He does so by making the following comparison:
To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the market-places and calling out to others: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn” (Matthew 11:16-17).
Those hearing these words would have understood what Jesus was referring to here, since it was oftentimes custom for children to imitate the fashions of adults by playing a flute to celebrate a “marriage” or singing a dirge in mourning of a “funeral”. It was all child’s play. But not all children responded – the playing made no impression on them.
Similarly, both the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus were making no impression on many of their hearers. As Jesus went onto say in the proceeding verses, they mistook John as having a demon, whilst he himself was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. As far as they were concerned, they would not trust a guy who was a friend of tax collectors and “sinners”.
Too clued-up with religious duty and self-righteousness, they could not see where the messages of John and Jesus really fitted in.
John took on a lifestyle of simplicity and austerity that reflected the sorrow of sin and the need for repentance. Whilst mourning was the appropriate reaction to this message – just as it was to the singing of a dirge – it was not the end of the story. In the life of Jesus – with his affection for friendship, many with those shunned by the religious establishment, over a good meal and a responsible portion of good wine – comes the message of freedom.
And with this message, the flute plays the sweet song of grace.
God, in the man Jesus Christ, releasing the shackles of guilt and condemnation.
Mourning turned into dancing.
The delight of dancing is the freedom it expresses. For a song or two or seventeen, worry or inhibition or demand does not compel. Instead the song or sound or silence compels. In those moments, we dance to a multitude of different rhythms which give rise to movement, thought and emotion that is free from all that so often shackles us.I really like the comparison Jesus makes here. It is as if he is saying that the message he brings – the message he is – is so joyous and free that it cannot but compel an act so reflective of the message itself.
There are times when I feel totally free with God and all that God has done for me and made me to be. No inhibitions and nothing to shackle me. It is like I am on my own at home. But at other times it is more like I am at the wedding and I am a hesitant bystander. I really want to dance but something is stopping me from placing my feet on the dance floor and letting the music take me to another world.
I am shackled and still in mourning.
Am I good enough? What about when I did that or said that or thought that? What will people think? Can I be trusted? Have I heard God right? Will I look like a fool? Will I mess-up? Does God really love me?
Too often I needlessly settle for a place against the wall that sits alongside the dance floor. In doing so, I miss out on the unrivalled joy, adventure and freedom of the dance floor. All my ears can hear is the singing of a dirge and all I can think to do is stay in the moment of mourning. Mourn over wrong sayings and doings and thinkings. Mourn over my knack of getting things so wrong. Mourn over my futile pursuit of perfection. Mourn over my fragile heart.
This has its place, for sure. Mourning is necessary because we need to realise we cannot do this alone. We are a broken humanity that needs rescuing. That was the message of John the Baptist. But we need not dwell in that place too long. In tuning our ears from the dirge to the flute – from our imperfection to Christ’s perfection – the sound of grace becomes sweeter still.
All the more reason to dance.
In Mr Morgan’s Last Love, the moment when Pauline invited Mr Morgan onto the dance floor spoke to me instantly. I could hear the flute once again. Mr Morgan was me and Pauline was Jesus. I was the hesitant bystander, whilst Jesus was on the dance floor beckoning me to join him and the class. It was the most compelling of invitations because it was bathed in a love that knew me, rescued me and believed in me.
As I soak in the warmth of this invitation I hear once again the echo of the cross. It is finished! Condemnation and works and fear no longer hold sway. Dead to sin. It is the sweet song of grace that now holds sway and I need never take my feet off the dance floor. Jesus took my place – the burden of my sin – and taken care of it all. Now I stand alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Dance floors weary me after a while. But when the song is grace like this, how can I ever take leave?
When Jesus beckons us onto the dance floor, it is to a song that disarms fear and inhibition and shame and guilt and condemnation and duty and self-righteousness and failure and all else that too often and so heavily wearies us. It is to a song that ushers in an expression of the freedom and new life we have in Jesus and the adventure that he has laid out for us. We will, at times, look like a fool and different from the rest. But then isn’t that what the best dance floors look like?
The greatest and sweetest of songs is being sung over us. Tune your ear to it and lock eyes into the eyes of its orchestrator, who in selfless love gave his life for us so that we could dance more freely than we could ever imagine. Think of the song that compels you to dance. Think of the joy it ushers in. Multiply it a hundredfold. You then have an echo of heaven’s anthem. Soak in its invitation and dance to the rhythm of heaven.