Men and women in God’s relational dance

“I believe we have seriously misread the relevant passages in the New Testament, no doubt not least through a long process of assumption, tradition, and all kinds of post-biblical and sub-biblical attitudes that have crept in to Christianity. Just as I think we need radically to change our traditional pictures of the afterlife, away from the mediaeval models and back to the biblical ones, so we need radically to change our traditional pictures both of what men and women are and how they relate to one another within the church and indeed of what the Bible says on this subject.”  N.T. Wright

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There is a beautiful dance that takes place in a relationship between a man and a woman, a relationship that at its best provides a remarkable window into God’s own Trinitarian community.

Of course, many of us who grew up in church haven’t always had the best model of this.  I was influenced by a tradition that viewed women as the weaker sex, somehow inherently unable to make decisions or lead as men could.  This, I was told, was by design, God’s design.  And with a few mis-applied Bible passages, I was sold on a view of men and women that was not only counter to God’s design, but a perversion of God’s own Trinitarian way of relating.

To be sure, one can find passages in the Bible that offend our 21st century sensibilities.  Much has been written on this, of course.  The Biblical story unfolded in a patriarchal context, and it’s wrong-headed to assume the elitist position that we’ve evolved beyond their naive and primitive ways.  What’s more clear, however, is that no matter the context, Judeo-Christian ethics with regard to women, slaves, foreigners, and the like were always progressive for their time.  That will never sit well with some, but as the Story unfolds it is evident that in God’s economy, His people ought to be at the forefront of restoring right relations.

God’s energies are always focused in the direction of re-animating us as full image-bearers.  Post-Fall relating will always bear the mark of the curse.  But the energy is directed toward St. Paul’s vision of “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, for you are all one in Christ.”
It’s new creation energy, imaging God in the Trinity, dancing beautifully, self-sacrificially, loving and being loved without needing to demand, coerce, or pressure.  It’s the way God relates.  Love compels an extraordinary dance of giving and receiving, submitting and leading, decreasing and increasing, dying and rising.

Rules around male and female relating are more often born out of insecurity and fear.  Young couples who come to me for premarital counseling want to know the how-to’s.  I can teach them a few basic steps, but I can’t release what is already in them – that Garden-grown, image-bearing spirit-of-the-dance that arises only as we enter into the messy reality of relating and failing at it time and again.  This is a mystery.  And in the place of mystery, we too often compensate with legalistic rules of relating.

He can do this.  She can’t.

These rules end up becoming spirit-breakers, sabotaging the mysterious process of learning the dance and killing our souls in the process.  The rules may, for a time, keep us from straying into another relationship, or abusing trust.  But rules don’t cultivate the dance.  You can’t legislate love.

Hard as it might be for modern American perfectionists like me to hear, we learn the dance over time, not by following a step by step handbook, but by loving and failing, loving and failing.  Sara and I have been married 16 years, and we’ve become much better at this as we’ve seen the fruit of staying in it even when it feels like we’re not going to make it.  I once did a marriage conference called “The Death of Marriage” because I wanted the main takeaway to be this:  your marriage will die, not once, but over and over again.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it stands alone.  But if it dies it bears much fruit.” John 12:24

Marriages struggle and fail because we resist this death.  But even if you are not married, you will watch this unfold in any good and lasting relationship.

God puts rules around relating to help us learn the baby steps.  But to grow up, we must enter into the wilderness, where uncertainty, fear and insecurity will either send us running back to the safety of Egypt, or propel us to deeper maturity.  We will fail.  And significant parts of us will die, old parts of us that thought we had life figured out.  But out of the dust will emerge a dance.

In his image he created them.  Male and female He created them.  And this time, instead of eating from the tree of certainty, they entered the mystery of love – of desire and dependence, of striving and failing.  And this time, they got the blessing.

Community, busyness, and violence

…there is a contemporary form of violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by nonviolent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his or her work for peace. It destroys one’s own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of one’s own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful. Thomas Merton

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When you reflect on this quote by Merton, do you find yourself convicted?

I do.

Or do you find his language of “violence” too extreme?

I have never thought of chronic activity as violence, but it strikes me as true.  It does violence to the soul.

It makes a relationship an agenda item.

It creates a resentful soul who views himself a martyr – the one doing real ministry while everyone else is sitting around.

It prizes idealistic notions of vulnerability, community, mission, or Gospel…and is not often experienced.

It steals away the opportunity for joy, for gratitude, for appreciation.

It manifests in a bitter and judgmental soul.

It misses the beauty of the present.

It claims to be right.

It cannot Rest.

So you think you can dance? God’s relational choreography

Choreography suggests the partnership of movement, symmetrical but not redundant as in a folk dance with three partners in each set. The music begins and the partners holding hands begin moving in a circle. On signal, they release hands, change partners, and weave in and out swinging first one and then another. The tempo increases, the partners move more swiftly with and between and among one another, swinging and twirling, embracing and releasing, holding on and letting go. All this without confusion; every movement cleanly coordinated in precise rhythms, as each person maintains his or her own identity. To those watching, the movements are so swift it is impossible at times to distinguish one person from another; the steps are so intricate that it is difficult to anticipate the actual configuration as they appear. Eugene Peterson

In personal encounters, that which the other person is flows consciously or unconsciously into that which I am. The reverse is also true. In this mutual giving and receiving, we give to others not only something, but a piece of ourselves in communion with others; and from others we take not only something, but also a piece of them. Miroslav Volf

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So you think you can dance?

As my daughters practice for their upcoming ballet recital, it is fascinating to watch as they fumble beautifully through the steps.  A trip, or a slip, or perhaps just a forgotten move is followed inevitably by a return to grace.  At the end of the routine, Alice in Wonderland (played by my almost-9 year old daughter Emma) is met by her older and smarter sister (played by my younger 7-year old Maggie, who is loving being older and smarter in the play).  The two communicate through a series of dramatic gestures without words, gracefully exchanged before they tip-toe off the stage.  It’s beautiful to watch.  And it’s much like the way we relate.  We’re a lot like little kids fumbling through a dance, sharing moments of connection, beauty, and intimacy, but often tripping and stumbling along the way.

Core to the early Christians’ understanding of both God and themselves was the doctrine of the Trinity – one God in three persons – a mystery we’re still trying to unravel centuries later.  Early theologians like Gregory of Nazianzus and John of Damascus took the doctrine a step further, describing a dance between the members of the Trinity in the word perichoresis. From the Latin peri (around) and choresis (dance), we get a picture of God dancing around, an image that is more dynamic and active than almost any other.  God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in an eternal dance.

And this unity within multiplicity is expressed by Jesus as a desire for His community:

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:21-24)

What are the implications for you and me?

Perichoresis invites us to participate in one another’s lives in a way that is both satisfying and self-giving.  A Gospel that reduces community down to the extreme of introverted self-satisfaction, on the one hand, or extroverted self-giving, on the other, fails to imitate the Trinitarian dance.  In the dance of community, there is continual giving and receiving, pouring into and being poured into, loving and being loved.  When it happens, it is a beautiful mystery.  And when we stumble, it seems as if the dance has been interrupted and couldn’t possibly resume.

Communities that pit the therapeutic against the missional, or the contemplative against the active, miss this beautiful interplay.  In the ordinary rhythms of our lives, we ought to be both receiving and giving.  Of course, there are seasons when it feels as if we’ve given without getting anything in return, and vice-versa.  But our maturity as individuals, and as communities, is dependent on our ability to learn the rhythm, to be alert to our roles in certain stages and times of our lives, and to relax into the part we’ve been called to play in that moment.

Do you find that in seasons of self-giving, you are both exhausted but strangely energized?  Do you find that in seasons of contemplation and receiving, you are both nourished and energized to serve?  If so, you know a bit of what it means to experience this dance.  And just as Trinitarian heresy comes when these distinctions are collapsed into one extreme or another, so the health of a community is jeopardized when we choose between the poles.

In your community, how do you experience this Trinitarian dance?  Does your community tend toward the active or the contemplative?  Are you challenged to live into this mysterious dance, or implored to choose one over the other (the therapeutic, for example, over the missional?)  For your community (church, small group, family, staff team, volunteer team, etc.) to become more healthy, where will movement need to take place?

Within your community, risk having an honest discussion about the beauty of your dance. And see if you can find the ancient rhythm which has energized the life of the Trinity since before time.

So do you think you can dance?