My first official dance lesson was a rite of passage as well as part of 1970’s grade school tradition. It was exciting as well as scary – the female of the species seemed to have lost their “cooties” and taken on a strange alluring, magnetic attraction. Our teachers acting as chaperons kept a close eye on the proximity of our hormone laden bodies that seemed to have the instability of nitroglycerin. The awkwardness of physical contact eased after repeated attempts to get in step with the instructions of the teacher & the rhythm of the music, eventually, 2 pairs of adolescent feet found an uneasy synchronized pattern. Missteps and falling out of step were often but given the simplicity of the Foxtrot getting back in step was easy along with an awkward smile. After time, the fox trot became routine, the watchfulness of the chaperons relaxed, and as music changed keeping in step gave way to circulating in proximate orbits of movement.
Keeping in step was easy for the fox trot but it has rarely been so for me in regards to anything else. Bandwagons have had little appeal. I tended to be the one who in the midst of a wave of group think raised his hand and asked “but what about…?” which is usually as popular as a skunk at a picnic. Having tried to be an institutional, denominational pastor for over 20 years still hasn’t changed me that much. Movements, revolutions and reformations run out of steam, money or hype. As it seems to have turned out most of us were not history makers or nations changers. Having tried to pastor for over 20 years still hasn’t changed me that much. I still let ecclesiastical bandwagons pass me by – these days they look all too familiar – recycled with a fresh coat of paint that doesn’t look like it will hold out under the bright sunlight or a heavy rain. I’ve seen this part of the parade before and it usually leads to the same end – distracting detours, deceptive dead ends and doctrinal disasters.
As far as I can tell, Jesus was never concerned about dancing to the tune of his generation. When it comes to faith, it’s easy to get side tracked. Peyton Jones, in his book “Church Zero” calls the mistaken priorities of the church as a dance with 5 easy steps:
1) Get more people
2) More people = more money
3) More money = more toys
4) More toys = More ways to get more people
5) Get more people (rinse & repeat)
That’s like replacing an entirely different dance with different steps – you end up a tangle of feet or dancing alone. However, there are a few things I recall from my early dancing days that correspond with which tune church dances to today and the missteps that are possible:
1) It’s not about the building – Dance lessons were not in a mirror lined studio with polished wood floors but in the school lunch room, with the tables pushed to the side and the aroma of that day’s lunch of tater tots and mystery meat lingering in the air. So much for ambience and atmosphere! But it didn’t matter. We didn’t need a lot of techno-wizardry or designer dazzle. That wasn’t what we were there for.
2) It’s not about the music – I remember some of the bands such as “Bread, “The Guess Who” and “America” and even some of the song titles that were spun on the 45 rpm record player. We listened to the same tunes on the radio at home. That’s not what we were there for.
3) It’s not about getting more feet in the door or on the floor – We weren’t keeping count. We were on the look out for that special someone to dance with and more bodies just got in the way.
What were we there for? For the encounter – to be with the other -even if for a few moments – even a choreographed one – with the person of our desire. Most young men in their early teens wouldn’t be caught dead expressing an interest in dance for dance sake. But this was different. We were willing to be stretched out of our usual comfort zone, to even look like clumsy fools simply for an encounter with that special other.
A dance has basic steps that form the pattern for movement. Faith does as well. Faith is more than knowing certain facts or performing certain actions. First and foremost faith is an encounter with the Triune God. Being a disciple of Jesus means first and foremost not following principles but a person. Preachers of another age used the term “experiential” or “experimental” because faith involves an interaction with each member of the Trinity. Patristic theology uses the Greek term “periochoresis” (to dance around) to describe the interrelations and interactions of the persons of the Trinity. Peter Leithart points out that the word’s verbal form, besides providing the root for the English word “choreographed” was also used as a metaphor of how the members of the Godhead dance around and with one another, what St. Maximus called the “eternal movement of love.”
Through the sacrifice of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit, the Father has made it possible for us to join in their relationship in a way that is beyond metaphor – to join in the divine fellowship. In John 17:21-13, Jesus prayed for his disciples that “all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.” This is a unity in which the uniqueness of persons is not absorbed or erased but allows them to interact with one another in genuine communion or “koinonia” and with one another. A holy, circling dance is a fitting image.
I know for some that dance is not going to be a popular or appealing picture especially if you hold to the old-time adage “the praying knee can’t belong to a dancing leg” (of course thankfully, Miriam & King David did not know that!). Other metaphors of the spiritual life that focus on warfare or conflict or battle are far more appealing especially to the male of the species especially when fueled by images of “Brave Heart,” Gladiator” or those who think the church’s confession of faith should sound like “THIS IS SPARTA!”
God’s not asking us to stretch our awkward frames into pink tutus but we are commanded to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5: 16) which speaks of following the lead of the 3rd member of the Trinity. If I as a pastor or leader or believer am trying to dance to the tune of my or another generation or the demands of institutional priorities or the expectations of the current cultural despisers of the faith then I am not following the right steps. I will be moving to a foreign tune that will be out of step with the Holy Spirit.
The Triune God has made it possible for us to join in his eternal movement of love. It also means we join with other believers as part of the divine choreography as we encounter the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That’s worth staying in step with.
One of the pleasures of getting older is reading what I enjoy rather than what is supposed to the fad of the month in Christendom. I have only turned a few pages of “A Puritan Theology-Doctrine for Life” by Joel Beeke & Mark Jones and have found it an impressive treasury of Reformed thought that demonstrates the depth of spirituality & practice of the Puritan era which is perhaps the high point of Reformed theology. Here you will find no branded bullet points or tweet sized pragmatism but depth, wisdom and serious consideration of the greatness of God and his saving power. I have used it already to help in preparation & quoted it in a sermon. It will also introduce you to the less well known of the Puritans as well as their consideration of hot topic that are still items for controversy today such as hell – who would have known that Christopher Love (1618-1651) took on Rob Bell centuries before “Love Wins” ? I highly recommend it for anyone who is tired of the recycled pablum that passes for Christian thought today.