“For I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”
These words from Isaiah prophesy a beautiful future, a renewal and rebirth – triumph over death and destruction. Easter.
Weeks ago, on Ash Wednesday we remembered that we are dust, beginning the journey of Lent with a collective acknowledgement of our mortality. During Lent, we follow Jesus into the wilderness, emerging only to follow his journey to the cross during Holy week, to hell and back again. But once we’ve arrived at Easter, how do we make sense of what it is for death to have lost its sting? For a dead body to rise from the ashes, alive?
The Lenten season of preparation for Easter often focuses on denial, discipline of the body, submission. There’s a sense that our bodies are something to be feared and tamed. That bodies are dangerous.
But instead, in light of the resurrection, we ought to considered all the ways our fragile bodies, made of dust, are sources of joy. That God delights in us so much that God would join us, become embodied with us, and in so doing conquer death.
This year, my Lent “discipline,” if you can even call it that, was rather simple. I wanted to practice being embodied. That is, just to pay more attention to the joy of being made of flesh and bone, the gift of this life made from ashes, from dust. For me, this meant I did a lot of slow, gentle yoga. I took long walks.
I snuggled newborn babies. I gave and received hugs, especially the kind of uninhibited hugs the kids seem to love, that come out of nowhere, when someone leaps into your arms or grabs onto your leg and won’t let go. And I danced. I danced so much I had to take a few days off because my knee swelled up like a grapefruit. I quite literally danced until I couldn’t dance any more.
Our bodies are dust, I thought, as I sat with an ice pack on my knee, but they are also a delight.
Still, there’s a lot of dust swirling around us. What are we to make of it?
“No more shall there be an infant that lives but a few days,” Isaiah says, “or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.”
I read these words, and they don’t sound like the world I know, a world where people die too young, where we struggle with illness, where pregnancy and giving birth are not always as simple and beautiful as we hoped they would be. A world where some bodies are valued and others are not, where some bodies are erased by laws created out of fear and pushed through by leaders who missed the memo, it seems, that we are each and every one of us a source of God’s joy, a delight to the risen Lord.
After HB2, the anti-LGBTQ bill, passed this week, I remembered a song by Mount Moriah’s Heather McEntire that I first heard her perform at Motorco called “When You Come For Me.” Heather told the story behind the song, and I’ve never been able to hear it since without the one sentence she offered by way of explanation ringing in the back of my mind – one sentence that it seemed to me contained a whole world. This is a song, she said, about wanting to be buried on her family’s land, to be accepted by them.
She sings, “Mama, I dreamed that I had no hand to hold
and the land I cut my teeth on wouldn’t let me call it home.
So lay me down easy, in the valley or the pines,
tell me that you’ll be there waiting,
standing in the light.”
It is a song about death. About longing for home, for a safe resting place. A longing for love to triumph in the end, for love to win even in the face of death, for love to have the final word.
As I listened to the song again this week, I anticipated Christ’s triumph over death on Easter morning, and I wondered what it means to long for acceptance even in death. To believe that a good life leads to such a resting place, held by the mountains that birthed you, your body’s dust returning the land where you were raised. As we celebrate the resurrection, we continue to live in a precarious world of death and destruction. We wait for the final fulfillment of what Isaiah promises. We make our home here, and pray this land, these people, can sustain us. We plant, and hope that others will continue to harvest after we’re gone. We build, praying that others will inhabit for years to come.
When protesters of HB2 lined the street in Raleigh on Thursday chanting “I believe that we will win,” they no doubt hoped that could be in their lifetimes – but they, and we, will labor on regardless of whether we see the fruits.
People who support exclusionary laws like HB2 have clutched their pearls this week, saying, “Think of the children!” as if such laws protect, rather than hurting, children. Jesus’ resurrected body and these words from Isaiah push me to turn the question back around. Indeed, think of the children, and the possibility that they might grow up in a world that loves and accepts every fiber of their being, where they know their bodies, however they identify, are a gift. That God delights in them. What would it mean to build a world like that?
“They shall build houses and inhabit them,” Isaiah says, “they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit…for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity, for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord – and their descendants as well.”
How do we live in the light of this promise, and the knowledge of God’s triumph over death, in the present reality of the dirt and dust of daily life? How do we live the story that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again?
We continue to dig into the soil, to plant and to harvest what we can. We build. We cook, we feed each other. We hold babies. We sing and we dance. Especially the last, if you’re anything like me.
When I dance I’ve found I come home to the present moment. This fragile frame and it’s tentative movements can somehow get lost in a song and a crowd and stop caring about looking foolish because it feels so free, to move your feet on this earth, to trust the ground that holds you, to believe God made us good and delights in our particular embodied joy.
I thought about this freedom of movement, about bodies full of life, on Friday night, at the Pinhook in Durham, at the Queer Sweatcore dance party. After a week like this the Pinhook, where the bathrooms have always been inclusive, felt like an especially beloved place. Micky Bradford was there, dancing. You might have seen footage online of Micky, a black trans woman, at the HB2 protests, as she danced in front of the governor’s mansion, on a street lined with police officers, her grace a beautiful, powerful, risky resistance against those who would deny her body’s freedom, her right to exist. “It’s important to see a black trans woman be unafraid of police and policing,” she told a reporter. Anger, exhaustion, and sadness moved her body in this act of protest, rising from the ashes, announcing her presence to the man inside the gates, a testimony to life in the face of death.
On Friday, at the Pinhook, people danced in a different setting, in a club with a sign posted on the wall reminding everyone of the necessity of consent on the dance floor, of respecting other people’s bodies. You don’t put your hands on someone else without permission, without an affirmative y-e-s. This weekend that sign, something I’ve never seen in any other bar or club or anywhere, had a heightened sense of meaning to me, considering our legislature’s violent efforts to control and erase certain people’s bodies. Part of the freedom of dancing in that space on that night, it seemed to me, came from the knowledge that the gathered bodies were respected and celebrated, that no one would intrude upon that freedom of movement. You can dance without fear. You can dance with joy.
“I will rejoice in Jerusalem” Isaiah says, “And delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.”
As the disco ball spun around reflecting glittering light on people’s faces, I imagined that, for a couple of hours at least, instead of dancing in the face of destruction and injustice, we were dancing in the dust around Jesus’ empty grave, dancing a victory dance, basking in the light of God’s love, which has already won, which will win in the end.