I had never seen her before. Her parents knew us from contacts we had with them five years before.
We had helped them and from a distant city they visited us to further our friendship. Her brother, now eight was known to us as a baby. She was about three years old and brimming over with certainty of her beauty.
We adults had much to catch up with. Our small friend felt she needed to contribute to joyful reunion. And that is how come she danced.
Her stage was the space between our seats and the couch where her parents sat. There were no words and no music – just dancing, extravagant, vigorous dancing. I could not look away from her. We adults talked on and on. After a while she retreated into the dining room. Then without warning she burst into our space again and the dance continued until the end of the visit. Unrestrained, energetic, in complete abandon she danced. Her brother looked on smiling appreciatively. I was mesmerized and believe it or not, emotional, although I tried not to show it. My take on her performance was that it was her gift to us. From the conversation in the car coming to our house, she knew we had helped her parents. It may seem fanciful, but I believe this was her way of saying ‘thank you’.
I can’t dance. We used to have an annual ball at our church. These gala occasions filled me with dread. I was required to attend but I would have given anything to find a real or imagined excuse, not to attend. My embarrassment peaked as I shuffled around the hall embarrassing myself with women I know and love. Talking to them has always been fine, but my stiff movements requiring a knowledge of my left to right foot was my idea of hell.
My inhibitions with respect to dancing have been with me for a long time. When I was 14 my high school staged a school dance. Attendance was compulsory. I had two close friends and they both said they could not dance. The idea of being near any of the girls in our class panicked all three of us. We devised a plan. We all wore hobnail work boots to the dance. When our teachers told us to take a partner none of the girls would accept our feeble advances. Our evil plan worked.
Each morning as I walk down the stairs, I pass a family photo gallery. There is a photo of a beaming baby ’me’. I think I was about one year old. My older siblings tell me that as a baby I was always smiling. I am sure that as a toddler I could have, would have, joined that little girl in her free dance. I would not have cared who was watching. I would have presumed that everyone liked my performance. After all my toddler perception was, everyone loved me.
But that didn’t last. An atmosphere of accusation and distrust in a divided family changed me. By my early school years my perpetual smile was gone. I remember feeling odd person out in my primary school. Fitting in with my peers did not come easily. Spontaneous behavior was repressed. I felt awkward and different. No dancing for me.
My story is not unique. Sadly, for most children it is normal. In the early years of life, children can dance, and paint, and act. It does not dawn on a small child that he/she can’t do these things. By later childhood and teenage self-doubts and the need for peer approval (or the fear of peer disapproval) has stiffened their bodies. Hands which used to make bold and beautiful paintings are restrained. As they grow older the creative impulses of early childhood are questioned. As teenage approaches many of them will say “I can’t draw”, “I can’t dance”, “I am not creative”, “I am ugly”.
People who are familiar with my reflections will probably guess what I am coming to. Jesus said to understand what he was about, to enter into the reality he was offering, his listeners must become like little children. He said that again and again. Nor was he talking about theoretical children, perfect little angels. He was talking about actual children, real babies and real pre-teens. Babies were in his arms and children were standing near him when he made these amazing assertions. “You must be born again” he said.
My holidays in my teenage years and early twenties were almost entirely taken up with going Christian conferences and conventions. (I would do anything to get away from the awful hostel in which I lived). At these conferences I met a number of ‘born-again’ individuals. They were easy to spot. Most of them were formally dressed and wore little red badges with the words “Jesus Saves” written on them in white. Their conversation always came around to ‘Spiritual laws” – either 4 or 12, and reciting Bible verses. I learnt to avoid them.
However, I came to believe that Jesus words about being born again, had nothing to do with wearing little red badges. He was saying there is another reality which can only be seen with the eyes of a child. As I write this I think of Van Gogh, Mother Teresa and Gandhi.
Now as many professors in a seminary or Bible college assume, these ‘become like a child’ words of Jesus are not be taken seriously. The most they mean is that we should have classes for children (Sunday School and the like) in which we tell them stories of Jesus and teach them to be good like us. Good like who?
Confucius, Buddha and Muhammad all talked about children. But their teachings are about how to raise them, how to discipline them. No religious teacher or prophet that I know of ever said, we must become like children. This is unique to Jesus.
What did Jesus mean? I believe it means we given the opportunity to look at life with fresh eyes – as if waking from a dream, as if viewing everything for the first time. Jesus said the essential illumination we need is love. The only lens we need to look through is love. In our world there is much pain in the past, and we are aware that we are in part responsible for this chaos. However, for the born again person our failures and mistakes no longer define us. Love shapes us anew, forgives our failings, walks with us, goes before us, shares our sufferings and will accompany us all the way. And this love has a name and that is Jesus.
I have been born again but I still struggle with some of my old inhibitions and prejudices. Being born again should mean I can paint again. I can dance again and I can see everyone through the eyes of love. I should assume I am beautiful, loveable and in consequence give my love to whoever will accept it. It is said that “rust never sleeps”. That is the same with sin and self-doubt. Too often I find myself slipping back into my old ways of judging others and self-loathing. Thankfully the love of God is unbelievably patient and when I confess my failings, forgiveness comes and I am restored as a child again. Hooray!
Everyday news commentators and world leaders are telling us that when this virus, COVID-19
is finished the world will be different. How different? Better or worse? How will we rebuild? What will we rebuild? Obviously, we will need scientists and academics. But we will also need the mind and the heart of a child. Simplicity, spontaneity, seeing diverse people as family, having a willingness to share ourselves, having a readiness to enter into play, and yes, to dance together. We will need all the scientists and academics but we will also need the born again – those who through the Spirit of Jesus look at life through the eyes of a child.
In the meantime, empowered by my born-again mind, I am giving up on saying I can’t dance. I am ready to learn. But to tell the truth it will probably have to be free-style.
April 1, 2020 – Hey, this reflection is not an ‘April Fools’ stunt.