When the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his chariot drivers went into the sea, the Lord brought back the waters of the sea upon them; but the Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground.
Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’ (Genesis 1:19-21)
As we emerge from an eighth week of separation due to the pandemic, many people are growing restless and less certain than ever. When the Wisconsin Supreme Court rescinded the “stay-at-home” order, it caused many people to ask, “What should we do now?” Do we continue to stay in isolation? Do we return to the routines of daily work and social engagement? Can we go back to church? What are we to do?
First, I continue to offer the same advice I have offered all along. As Christian disciples and witnesses from our United Methodist tradition, we are guided by our General Rules: Do No Harm, Do All the Good You Can, Attend to the Ordinances of God (e.g., pray, worship, meditate, fast, share your faith, serve others). These are grounded in the Great Commandment: Love the Lord your God with all you heart, mind, soul, and strength; love your neighbor as yourself. So long as we care as much about our neighbor’s health and well-being as our own, I believe we will make good choices and we will continue to practice physical distancing and care-giving engagement.
But we are also seeing a great strain on people’s attitudes, behaviors, and mental health. What should we do about that? I believe there is strong Biblical support for two more spiritual practices during this endurance test of pandemic: sing and dance.
You may be thinking, “Bishop, that is crazy! We need to do something serious!” I simply reflect that when the Hebrew children were led safely across the Red Sea, they escaped slavery and oppression, but they faced a vast desert wilderness, full of danger, peril, and threat. Many began to reconsider whether running away was such a good idea. People got nervous. People got anxious. So, Miriam, sister of Moses and prophet of the Lord, took up a tambourine and led the women is dancing and singing. I want to encourage us to turn to music as we endure the ongoing health crisis. Music indeed “hath charms to soothe a savage breast,” (William Congreve), but it also has great power to improve our moods, strengthen our resolve, and reenergize our weary spirits.
Many people use music to power through intense workouts because music can set a beat, a tone, and a rhythm that the body naturally responds to. Studies show that people listening to music during workouts can sustain their activity much longer than people that do not. And dancing is a wonderful form of exercise that everyone can do; it engages the entire body in rhythm and movement. Alternative studies show that people who say they cannot engage regularly in exercise find they can dance for extended periods of time, to a very similar benefit.
Scientists have shown that music, singing, and dancing increase dopamine (increasing pleasure, energy, focus, and awareness) and decrease stress hormones. It helps us sweat out toxins, and can generally calm, soothe, and heal frayed nerves and unhealthy emotions. I would not tell anyone what music to listen to, but I want to encourage everyone to adopt the practice of spending some time each day with whatever kind of “soul” music you listen to. My definition of soul music is music that makes your heart glad, that engages you body, mind, and spirit, inspiring you to sing along and even get up and dance. What kind of music you like is not important. My encouragement is that you find some time each day to shut down all the screens and tune into the music you like best.
Author Neel Burton says, “Music is the school and the hospital of the emotions,” (Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking) and many of our battered psyches need some urgent care. Music is a gift to us, a blessed art that can inspire, comfort, and heal. Beyond the physical and psychological benefits, I want to remind everyone of the spiritual benefits. Throughout our Hebrew scriptures, especially in the Psalms, the invitation to sing out, to make a joyful noise, to dance in adoration and praise is prominent. At most times throughout the history of God’s people, there were mighty challenges to survival. People did not know what tomorrow might bring. The news they heard was often frightening and threatening. The population of “have-nots” grew almost daily, with poverty, hunger, disease, and military oppression normal. And through it all, no one could take away the music. No one could stop the singing. No one could control the dancing. So, as we wait for the world to stabilize, listen to music, sing, dance, and you will find a new mind, a new heart, and a new spirit, filled with hope, peace, and joy!
Grace and Peace,
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung has served as resident bishop of the Wisconsin Annual Conference since September of 2012. Prior to leading the Wisconsin Conference UMC, Bishop Jung served eight years as bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference (Chicago area).