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?

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