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Full Sermon Text:
The Happy Dance: A Spiritual Practice of Gratitude
Rev. Kelly Jane Caesar
First Congregational Church of East Hartford
November 18, 2018
Higher life satisfaction, empathy, happiness, lower anxiety, lower depression.
The benefits of gratitude are many – as numerous research studies have proven.
Not that you need a research study to realize the benefits of gratitude.
Cicero, an ancient Greek philosopher, argued centuries ago that
gratitude is the “parent of all other virtues”.
There are numerous self-help books and online articles espousing the life-changing benefits of gratitude.
Of course, the problem is that we don’t always feel particularly grateful.
If you have ever told a child to say thank-you after receiving a gift they didn’t like,
You know that gratitude is not a feeling you can simply command on the spot.
Feeling gratitude when life isn’t going your way is far from easy.
Our first scripture is a poem written by one a long time ago who had it all and then lost it – probably through a severe illness. An illness so severe that they felt like they had died and gone down to the pit in Sheol – the ancient Jewish term for where you went after you died. There is obviously debate about what Sheol was/is like – but in this psalm it seems to be a place where one is unable to speak or move. Let’s listen for how this psalmist deals with such a traumatic experience.
Psalm 30: read responsively (printed as call to worship)
The psalmist has suffered greatly,
but has been healed and in joy calls up the people to praise God in gratitude.
What if we are Not feeling grateful?
The psalmist points to a common threat to our call to thankful praise,
A major obstacle to the practice and feeling of gratitude: Verses 6-7:
“As for me, I said in my prosperity,
“I shall never be moved.”
By your favor, O Lord,
you had established me as a strong mountain;
you hid your face;
I was dismayed.”
The Psalmist admits that when everything was going great,
when the bank account was strong, health was had, and friendships easy –
the psalmist admits that he wasn’t going to be moved –
i.e. he believed all was always going to be well for him.
He wasn’t moving. No happy dances. Just excessive pride.
The psalmist continues to confess that he believed his prosperity was because of the Lord’s favor, such that when the Lord turned away, illness and ruin plagued him.
However, the psalmist’s poem continues and reveals a new understanding about his life:
prosperity is not a barometer of God’s favor.
God’s favor is constant, bringing joy and dancing after nights of tears and anguish.
Challenges will come and go, but God will continue to work for us.
The psalmist concludes that life is not about prosperity or security,
But about praising God.
The psalmist reminds us to praise God in times of joy.
It seems that to praise when life is going well allows us to feel gratitude when things are going poorly.
Praise of God and the practice of gratitude are related but differ in where respect and honor are given.
Praise directs thanksgiving towards God.
Gratitude is a more general practice of appreciating what one has.
You can practice gratitude without God –
you could have gratitude for everything you have earned.
However, praise points our gratitude towards God.
We acknowledge that what we have is not entirely of our own making,
that something larger than us had a role.
Praise of God builds up our faith and humility
such that gratitude is easier to come by when the going get rough.
But there is more about praising God that will aid us in our pursuit of grateful happy lives. In our second scripture, we see an example of grateful praise. This scripture takes place after the Israelites have fled slavery in Egypt, God has parted the Red Sea for the oppressed underdog (the Israelites), but when the tyrannical oppressing Egyptians came with their chariots, God washed them away – thus granting freedom and safety to the oppressed. Let’s hear how they respond.
Scripture: Exodus 15:19-21
Miriam danced for joy because God delivered the Israelites from Egypt. God overcame the oppressive tyrants. God brought order to the chaos and controlled the wild waters. Not that Miriam and the Israelites sat by doing nothing – they had to trust God enough to pack up their goods and get walking across the desert. But ultimately, God provided the great might and power necessary to overcome Egypt/tyrants/oppression/chaos. The people respond with embodied praise: singing and dancing in gratitude to God.
In both the Psalm and Exodus, the people embody their praise and thanksgiving to God.
Their praise and thanksgiving is more than words, it is expressed in their bodies with dancing.
This physical expression of praise is the key to practicing gratitude even when we don’t feel it.
Who here saw my Happy Dance video online this week?
YES! “I feel good, I got you”
On a basic level the happy dance is what your body naturally does when you hear good news-
It could be any of the examples from the call to worship.
Your happy dance may be lots of jumps and turns,
but at some point in your life jumps and turns will bring more pain than joy.
Happy dances are what your body does when it feels joy:
Jazz hands. Shoulder shuffle. Fist bump. Star. Open Hands. Skip.
They all include a smile.
At the end of my happy dance video I pointed to the cross and scripture
– not by accident, but by design.
Your happy dance is your body’s response to Divine blessing;
Your happy dance is a reminder of God in your life.
It is an act of praise – gratitude for one greater than you.
Praising God with our happy dance when life is going well
provides us with the tools to practice gratitude and praise when life is hard.
The first step is identifying your personal happy dance.
When you are feeling grateful, notice what you body wants to do.
Notice and name it as your happy dance.
Practice your happy dance when you are feeling happy
– as the psalmist reminds us, praise God throughout life.
When you practice your happy dance when things are going well,
you come to consciously know the moves
And then when things are not going well and you need to re-connect with the Divine,
You can break out the happy dance to remind your spirit that God has got you.
Sometimes our minds race away with anxiety or negative thoughts,
but when we put our bodies into “happy dance” mode,
we send a signal to our brains that it is going to be okay, the God is going to help us out.
By doing our happy dance, we trick our brains.
“She is smiling and doing the happy dance, so things must be ok”
Your happy dance is a spiritual practice of connecting to the Divine who carries us through life’s joys and struggles.
In today’s Exodus scripture the Israelites escaped slavery, but the journey to freedom was still a long road.
They danced like it was all over, but in actuality,
there would be many ups and downs for the Israelites throughout the ages and even today.
The dance of joy thus becomes not an end, but a moment to pause to acknowledge what is.
The happy dance becomes a rejuvenating moment that fuels us for the next leg of our journey.
So we can do our happy dance as a means to pause,
acknowledge God’s goodness, and rejuvenate our souls for the next step in the journey.
On a practical level, when you get home from a hard day and want to recharge – before collapsing on the couch, try a 5 minute happy dance. It doesn’t need to be loud or fast, just some movement with a smile. I have found that a simple little happy dance for five minutes to be far more rejuvenating than an hour on the couch zoned out on FB.
When you are struck in horrible traffic – especially as we approach the worst travel days of the year – try the car happy dance: turn on some good tunes, smile and bop along, tap your fingers, sing the love song on the radio to the tailgating car behind you. You probably won’t see those fellow drivers again and if so and they ask what weird thing you were doing in your car – pass on the secret of the happy dance! If your teenager has control of the radio, rock out like it’s your favorite song and watch them learn the art of praise. Let your body remind your soul that you will be free from traffic at some point.
On Black Friday when you find yourself behind nervous nelly at the checkout line, do the shopping line happy dance: twiddle your toes inside your shoes and give a little side grin. Let your body remind your soul that the fact that you can buy something is enough to do a happy dance for.
Wherever we are, may we allow the happy dance to infuse our holiday season and transform our spirits.
May we all experience the many benefits of gratitude.
May we take it a step further and practice grateful praise to God.
May we have the courage and humility to confess we need God, something larger than ourselves.
May we burst in joyful embodied praise when we discover God has saved us, helped us and loves us.
May we find and remember our embodied happy dance, so when we struggle we can do our happy dance and be reminded of God’s promises to dance with us through life – for indeed God is the Lord of the Dance, the one who has died and rose again, the one who has seen despair and mourning and turned to joyful morning. May we follow and praise the Lord of the Dance in body, mind and spirit. Amen!