Dancing Lessons

I confess! I’m a watcher of the T.V. show Bones. The main character is beyond brilliant, but quirky to say the least. To her, life can be explained in terms of scientific theorems and mathematical principles. Her social skills are – well, let’s say they’re not great. But she’s surrounded by people who love her for who she is, quirks and all. We should all have the kind of friends that Bones has!

In a recent episode, she and her partner prepared to go undercover in a ballroom dancing competition (yes, I know – a bit over the top). Bones was absolutely confident that by observing and analyzing the other dancers, she could quickly pick up the moves and become a more than competent dancer – it was just a matter of mechanics, or so she thought. The result, as you can imagine, was not pretty. There was nothing aesthetically pleasing about the result – Bones seemed to get the mechanics of the dance but never got the art of the dance. She couldn’t navigate the relationship between dance partners and always tried to force the lead. She couldn’t forget herself enough to really enter into the dance.

Dance is an image used first by the church fathers to describe the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity as well as to describe the relationship between God and creation. The descriptive word they used is perichoresis, from the Greek περί (peri, “around”) + χορεύω (khoreuō, “dance”). Our word choreography comes from the Greek χορεύω. Perichoresis, or dance, creates a framework for us to imagine the relationship within the Godhead – a dance that we are invited into.

Bones is so busy thinking about herself, so busy analyzing and diagraming, so busy trying to master the mechanics, that she can’t step into the dance, can’t move with the music. I’m afraid that when it comes to dancing I’m more like Bones than I care to admit. I (mostly) understand the mechanics – I can even see and appreciate the beauty – but I have never been able to master the art of the dance. Maybe it’s my two left feet.

I think many of us are Bones when it comes to responding to God’s invitation to us. We over analyze, insist on taking the lead, never quite relax into the dance. There’s more resistance than there is relaxation into the arms of God. We often think that relationship with God is simply a matter of mastering the mechanics – morning prayer, check; scripture reading, check; good deed, check. Prayer, Scripture reading, bearing fruit – they’re all important. But I have found that it’s as much about relaxing into the arms of God, of learning to trust and follow him even (especially) when I most want to resist.

I wonder what music I will be asked to dance to today if I submit to relaxing into the dance with God?

Fire in the Bones

When I read Jeremiah, it scares the hell out of me. Jeremiah didn’t seek the word. The word sought Jeremiah. And he was consumed by the fire of the word of God. It was a fire in his bones (20:9b) that first burned Jeremiah and then burned everyone he came in contact with. There’s an ancient midrash, a Jewish commentary, that describes the fiery nature of God’s word: ‘And how was the Torah written [asks the midrash]? With black fire upon white fire as it rested on the knee of the Holy One, blessed be He.’ The image of God as an author with his fiery work on his knee is a vivid picture of the dangerous nature of Holy Writ – too hot to handle. It burns but it’s not consumed. It’s always changing, yet never altered[1]. The texts we seek to grab hold of and study until we’ve mastered and can manage them are like wildfire, always eluding our best efforts at containment.God’s word is a fire that consumes everything it touches. We cannot take it into our hands without it changing us.

[1] Troubling Jeremiah, p.171.

There’s another article in the New York Times today here on the failure of the process that attempted to right the wrongs of the housing/mortgage debacle. In fact, there have been a number of articles in the last couple of weeks about people who have had their lives turned upside down again and again by our badly flawed banking system. Now this article indicates that the review process itself is so badly flawed that regulators have resorted to a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s another case of “too big”!

Banks were “too big” to fail. Now the problem of the “too big” banks is “too big” to solve by addressing it on a case-by-case basis and thereby dealing with real wrongs done to real people. I’m growing more and more convinced that the Catholics have it right when they advocate for “subsidiarity.” Subsidiarity is one of the key principles of Catholic social thought which contends that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In the papal encyclical Centesimus Annus Pope John Paul II put it this way:

… it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need. (Centesimus Annus 48)

How can bank regulators sitting in Washington or in New York really know whether an individual was abused by the system, or whether the individual abused the system – and what is the appropriate measure to rectify the wrong? I do not have any “big” solutions to offer to the quagmire in which we now find ourselves. But I do know that I am more and more drawn to the “local” – I shop as often as I can at small farmers markets where the goods were grown and harvested or produced by my neighbors. I love being in a neighborhood where I can name my neighbors and where I know about them – their gifts and their foibles. When my mother fell on Christmas Eve two years ago, we had three different neighbors in the house within minutes of the arrival of the EMTs. Yes, some of it may have been sheer nosiness – but there was genuine care and concern exhibited as well. And while she was in hospital and in home hospice, our refrigerator was always stocked with meals provided by those neighbors.

In responding to the lawyer’s question,”Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told a story of a “good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37). I find it interesting that those who passed by the injured man lying at the side of the road were more concerned about the social norms (as priest and levite they would both have been fearful of being made unclean by contact with the victim) of the institutions of their day than they were about the real needs of a real human being.

Dr. Kenneth Bailey writes:

The lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” is the wrong query. He is challenged to ask, “To whom must I become a neighbor?” The parable replies, “Your neighbor is anyone in need, regardless of language, religion or ethnicity.” … the ethical demands of this vision are limitless.

Nearly two hundred years ago, Alexis de Toqueville predicted that modern democratic government would degenerate into a huge, paternalistic state which would guide the individual in all of his affairs and insure that all of his needs were met. “For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances; what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?”

In the presence of the huge paternalistic state we become the priests and the levites, and don’t even see the need to ask, “To whom must I become a neighbor?”

Musing on Baptism

It’s tame,

this little font with its few inches of tepid water

Nothing dangerous to it at all, it seems

Until you’re plunged beneath the waters


Beneath these waters is the chaos before creation

the cries of the lost in the great flood,

and perhaps the tears of God

lamenting his act


Beneath these waters are roaring winds and

the astonished voices of Israel’s children,

drowned out by the cries of

horse and rider hurled into the sea.


Beneath these waters is the darkness of sin

and pleas for cover from iniquity.

Beneath these waters is death!


It’s not so tame,

this little font with its few inches of tepid water.


Beneath the waters of this font

I am washed in the blood of the Lamb

cleansed from the stains of my iniquities.


Beneath the waters of this font

I am brought to new birth

clothed in the righteousness of Christ.


I emerge from the waters of this font

to be embraced by fellow travelers

and begin a mysterious journey


Each step possible only through

the love of the Father

the sacrifice of the Son and

the strength of the Spirit


Several summers ago in the midst of a crisis of faith and doubt about my call to the church, I fled to the Northwest for a period of reflection and discernment. One Saturday morning I was invited to join a small group for a hike assured that, “If you’ve ever walked in the mountains, you can do this hike.” I grew up camping in the mountains of North Georgia and North Carolina – I was confident that I could handle a Saturday walk in the evergreen forests of British Columbia. After all, an evergreen forest is an evergreen forest, right? It’s at this point that I began to notice God using metaphor to reshape and redefine my understanding of what it means to be connected to the life of the church, to be called by God to service in the church.

That Saturday morning it was overcast. On the way north out of Vancouver clouds were sitting low on the mountains and coastal inlets – almost as though heaven had settled down upon the earth. When we arrived at the starting point for our hike, the parking lot was full of buses disgorging tourists who were older and in far worse physical shape than I. My confidence grew – and my interest plummeted. If this was going to be a stroll through orderly groomed paths with a thousand other tourists I’d rather not, thank you! But our guide led us beyond the tourists gathered at the foot of a cascading fall of water and onto a quiet open forest floor beneath towering trees. The layers of needles cushioned our footsteps and as we walked, we talked in quiet whispers – as though to speak loudly would be a violation of sacred space.

Within an hour, I was struggling for breath. The gently rising slopes were now steep enough that someone had helpfully used the trunks of trees to form steps into the hillside. Though I hadn’t counted, it felt like we must’ve climbed at least a thousand of them. Up ahead the steps were formed out of the boulders of the mountain. And so it went for the next two hours, with each step getting steeper, and my asthmatic lungs working harder and harder to take in less and less oxygen. The boulders were so high that each step drove my knee into my chin. My hips, thighs and knees were screaming from the constant repetition and stress. To add insult to injury it began to rain, the ground got slicker and I wondered if we’d ever reach the summit – if we’d even be able see anything once we got there.

Each obstacle seemed greater than the next. First the tree-formed steps, then the boulders, now a steep crevice of rock with a stream of water flowing down the middle of it. Again, someone had had the foresight to bolt a chain into the rock to give a handhold while we struggled to find purchase for our feet against the wall of rock. I had come too far to give up now. As I scrambled over the ledge onto a small flat shelf of rock I could see the final obstacle that stood between me and the summit – a long, sloping, rain slick rock that dropped precipitously on both sides. Nearby a young woman from another group was clinging in terror to her guide, fearful of going forward and equally afraid of going back down.

Some of our group had gone on ahead of the rest of us, impatient at being slowed by my progress. But one of my traveling companions, a young Chinese student, had long since relieved me of my pack, given me aid up the wall of rock and stood ready to give me a hand if I needed it. Each step I took left me uncertain about my stability on the rain slick rock and several times I found myself sliding on my belly back down the face of the rock. Two other young theology students who had grown up in the mountainous regions of China began to pick their way step by step along the rock face. As they did they would gently place my feet in the spots they had tested and found secure. Slowly, step by step, feeling more secure with their experience to guide me, we climbed to the top of Squamish Chief. Without them, I never would have made it. As we reached the top, the sun broke through the clouds and the valley floor was laid out before us – as though God was rewarding us for our effort.

When I look at those photos of Squamish Chief today, my stomach still clinches and my mouth goes dry at the insanity of having attempted that climb (first lesson – be wary when anyone tells you it’s easy). But I also remember the care and generosity of those young Chinese students. As I look back on that rainy Saturday, I remember thinking, “If I’d known in advance what this was going to be like, I would never have had the courage to begin the journey.”

Too many of us Christians in the west have been led to think of the “Jesus Way” as something more like a climate controlled ride on a comfortable tourist bus. Moderately challenging, somewhat interesting, but nothing that will work up a sweat or push us too hard – and if things get too rough, we can always scamper back on the bus where temperature controls are at our fingertips and we can watch the climbers through our binoculars.

The further I travel along the Jesus Way, the more convinced I am that it is more like that Saturday climb up Squamish Chief. The journey grows more challenging with each step, with each turn in the path. If you pay attention, you’ll notice the companions along the way – yes, some are so eager to get to the top they will gladly leave you behind. But there are also those with infinite patience, those who will point out to you the finger holds, the ledges you cannot yet see, the footholds that have proven secure for them.

When we left the summit of Squamish Chief that day, those young Chinese students literally held my hand all the way to the safety of the groomed trails at the base of the mountain. I now serve a community whose vision is “to encourage one another daily to follow in the way of Jesus.” When I think of what it means to “encourage one another daily” I think of those Chinese students who were my encouragement on the journey up (and down) Squamish Chief, who measured the pace of their own journey to make sure that I, too was able to follow along the way, to encourage me not to give up when the journey seemed to be impossible.