The first time I saw Dirty Dancing I was 12 years old.  The details are fuzzy – how did we get a copy of a PG-13 movie? – but I remember arranging a sleepover with a friend that began by babysitting a neighbour’s child.  We popped the tape into the VCR after the child went to sleep and stayed poised ready to jump and turn off the TV if they woke up or their parents came home early. We wanted to watch the movie, but we didn’t want anyone to know we were watching it.  As I Mennonite knew I needed to hide the film and I also I knew the title was a bit over the top, all dancing is dirty. Obviously.

My favourite viewing of Dirty Dancing happened in 2017. It was a special screening for the 30th anniversary of the film’s release. The theater was packed with fans. We laughed and shouted all the classic lines at the top of our lungs:

“I carried a watermelon?”

“No one puts Baby in a corner!”

My most recent viewing of Dirty Dancing was a few days ago.  Even though going to the movies is one of my all-time favourite things to do, I haven’t been since early March.  Movie theaters have only recently re-opened here with reduced capacity, extra cleaning, and the mind boggling request that we please remove our own garbage after the film. (Because even though I know people rarely do, I think this is something we should all have been doing all along.)

I bought my ticket online a few days in advance but I didn’t actually decide I was going to go until a few minutes before I got in my car. The ticket was only $3 and I gave myself a lot of room to change my mind at the last minute. A final check that confirmed they hadn’t sold very many tickets sealed the deal.

I could tell you a bunch of high minded reasons why I wanted to go, and they’d all be true.  I wanted to practice being in a public space before I returned to work. I wanted to know how I’d feel being in a room with strangers.

But I also just wanted to see a movie in a theater. To feel normal.

I saw a movie; it didn’t feel normal.

This was not a normal night at the movies because normal is gone, and I don’t think it’s ever coming back.  I’m sure we will find ways to enjoy movies and live theater  and worship together in person again but we’re moving towards a new normal, we’re not going back to our old normal.

Although this was not the theater’s fault, I found the entire process stressful, navigating new procedures, trying to social distance, being frustrated with every single other person in the theater who all seemed to have forgotten how to be out in public. All eight of them!  (Why are you taking a phone call on speaker phone? Why are you ignoring the arrows? Why are you breathing SO loud?)

When Baby arrives at Kellerman’s she’s on her home turf and the confidence shows. She knows this world, its rules and how to navigate that space. But when she enters the world of the Kellerman’s staff her discomfort is palpable. She has no idea what to expect or how to behave.

I resonate strongly with her sense of awkward uncertainty.  I don’t like situations I can’t control, situations where I don’t know the rules or what to expect.  That’s what this stage of the pandemic feels like to me. It’s more stressful than when we locked down.  Lock down had clear reasons and rules, this stage in the journey does not and it’s hard to know what to do.

I went to the movies. Did I have the time of my life? No.  I most certainly did not. But I was grinning from ear to ear underneath my mask when Baby finally nailed that lift so it wasn’t all bad.

Will I be back to the theater anytime soon?  I’m not sure. I can’t stay in my house forever but I also don’t think a movie, any movie, is worth putting myself or others at risk of catching COVID-19.

We need to find new ways to be together. We need to adjust to this new reality and we going to need to be gentle with each other in the process. A gentleness that includes reminding people when they are standing too close and graciously accepting correction when we’re the one at fault.

I haven’t worshipped with my congregation in person since early March. We haven’t set any timelines as of yet but I know we will worship in person again. In the meantime, the thought of it makes me anxious.  I don’t want to put anyone at risk. I don’t want to be that pastor on the news having to explain how we were ground zero for a new outbreak.  I don’t want to do any more funerals than I absolutely need to.

I also know that what we’re returning to isn’t what we’re hoping for.

Towards the end of the film, the owner of Kellerman’s gives a speech lamenting that things are changing and he doesn’t see a future for the resort. It’s not what the kid’s want anymore! I understand that feeling, and I do feel strong waves of grief when I think back on what it used to be like to worship in person with my beloved community.

But I also listened to Kellerman’s speech and thought, “The old ways only served rich white men like you. The system you are lamenting was racist, classist and sexist. Burn it down. Burn it all down.”

Burn Kellerman’s to the ground and build something better. As the church, let’s keep what has always been beautiful and true and let the other things fall away – let’s create worship that is not rooted in colonialism and white cis heteronormative patriarchy.  Let’s lament the past not only because we miss it, but because it contained so many lamentable things.

Anecdotally I’ve heard that when people return to in person worship for the first time they have all the feelings. They are scared, they are anxious, they are excited, they are thrilled to be together again, and then they often feel a lingering sadness that lasts for days.

A few people I know have articulated that – even though they knew that a return to in person worship was not simply turning back the clock to pre-COVID times, some part of them still hoped that it would be.  As long as they weren’t meeting, that hope remained, but the concrete experience of the new ways we gather in person squashed it entirely.  It is not the same.

I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom however. If we allow them to be, times of change can be great times of learning and growth.  My thoughts about the nature of online worship have changed dramatically over these last few months and I’m currently trying to put those thoughts into words which I will share will all of you as soon as they’re ready.

But here are just a few things I have noticed:

 

  • It’s a false binary to say in person worship is good and online worship is bad. We tend to know the pros and cons of in person worship from experience. We are only now learning the pros and cons of online worship.

 

  • Online worship has allowed people to be included who have typically been excluded. People with chronic illnesses that make it difficult to leave their homes, people in remote areas who can’t easily travel to church, folks whose legitimate fears of being poorly treated at church have caused them to choose to remain at home.  All of these people can now safely participate in services because they can participate from their home or their hospital bed and anything that is harmful to their person can end with the click of a button. They have the control now, and that’s a good thing.

 

  • Not everything about the way we used to worship was good. This is a great opportunity for us to rethink why we do what we do.

 

  • God has always wanted us to connect with them all day, every day. By placing too much focus on Sunday worship services we let some of our muscles develop and others grow flabby. We can use this time to exercise those other muscles in the hopes that we’ll emerge from this pandemic with a healthier, more well-rounded relationship with our Creator.

 

I went to a movie this week to dip my toe into the waters of public gatherings and then unexpectedly I find myself leading one of those gatherings tomorrow – a funeral. How will I feel about that experience? I have no idea.

But I’m going to mask up, carry a watermelon and try a new dance. I am going to step on someone’s toes, I won’t nail the lift.  It’s going to be hard and awkward and uncomfortable at first.

I hope we’ll learn these new dances together.  I hope you’ll teach me new things and forgive me when I stumble because even with all my Mennonite DNA, I believe that dancing is worth it.

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