Monday, December 1, 2008

The Rhythm of the Dance

“It is not necessary for you to know how to dance when you dance with the one who loves you.” – Rhoda Calhoun

One, two three. Four, five six. Steps awkwardly counted. Left, right left. Right, left right. Strained movement. One, two four. His foot lands in the wrong place. She stumbles. Movement stops. Composure reestablished. Faces tense, harshly occupied with getting it right. His thoughts are all but readable: Concentrate or you will trip on her foot again. Observing from a distance, I watch their instructor demonstrate the steps. They start again, tentatively. One, counting. Two, thinking. Three, stepping. Both bodies moving with fear of mis-stepping, they shift to the left then the right before turning. Over and over they practice the steps, follow the pattern to learn how to dance. Silently watching, each movement I trace, but I am dissatisfied.

Their bodies are stiff; their movements are forced. They struggle to align their steps with the instructor’s voiced metronome, and it is painfully visible. But the most haunting factor is the eyes. They are not looking at each other. All their attention is glued to the floor. Every stumble, every trip, the placement of every step consumes their vision. They are not dancing. They are walking through the motions. Left, right left. Right, left right…

We all face metronomes, systematic voices that haunt our lives, compelling us to stare at the ground, to watch our feet, to make sure we step in exactly the right place at exactly the right moment. Missing a step reveals inferiority. Lose count and the music may pass by altogether. So we concentrate harder, look up less frequently, and spend all our energy planning how to dance.

But there is a symphony playing in the background. Somewhere, an orchestra, of grandiose proportions, is playing in a ballroom, filling it with sound. Barely audible, it wafts down through abandoned corridors to echo within the compartments of our confinement, stirring, haunting, inviting. Deeper within our hearts, beyond the metronome, lies an internal beat, pulsating a rhythm of unique dimension. Something divine and stately. It beckons for motion within the soul, dancers who will become one with the music. But continually the metronome ticks, building a rhythmic cage.

Throwing off the constraints of the world, to dance to a more heavenly beat, is the essence of faith. The orchestra of divine dimension is playing a waltz, causing our feet to itch for something more. But somewhere in the middle of the dance, the idea of heaven has become locked within the ticking of a metronome. Day after day it dictates. One, two three. The dance is constrained, morality enforced. Four, five six. Legalism tightens its hold. Left, right left. The Pharisees take the floor. Right, left right. The passion of two becoming one, in a journey of artistic intimacy, is reduced to a simplistic step pattern, a formula for what was once beautiful.

Christ did not come into the world to restore order with remedial formulaic steps. He came to invite his bride to dance. The cross was not a formality. It was an act of passion. He expects his children to live and move and die as passionately as He lives and moves and dies. Since before the dawn of time, His one desire has been to find a people who will become one with His heart. Through the ages He has waited, hand extended, heart poised, asking the question, “Will you dance?”

So the church accepts His outstretched hand, smiles into His face, and then fixes its eyes on the ground to watch and plan the steps. The music begins. With our vision so caught up with attention to the rules, the traditions, the patterns of appropriate behavior, we miss the passionate look in the eyes of our partner, the desire, the longing. His love smiles back at us barely noticed. We can only afford an occasional glance upward. We follow his lead, but only so far as He dances within the pattern. Beyond that we are lost. So we insist on having our way, of making God fit within the realm of our comfort. We aren’t really following. We are content to let Him be our dancing partner, when the opposite should be true. So he patiently holds us as we rigidly move to copy the steps we have already seen him make. The only problem is, the Master of the universe never dances the same steps twice.

Every day He invites us to the dance, but every day the dance is a little bit different. If we learn to trust, He will train us to catch His eye, to fix our gaze upon His face. The cues to move will come through the senses: the tilt of His head, the grasp of his hand, the flex of his muscles. They are felt rather than counted. Closer and closer we will move into his embrace, allowing Him to hold us more securely with each turn. As our head slowly drops onto His shoulder, we will move from looking into His eyes to feeling the pulse of His heart, all thoughts of counted steps forgotten.

The wisest man on earth was trained to forget the steps. Still breathless from the dance, King Solomon penned the words, “Man makes his plans, but the Lord directs his steps.” Solomon understood that no matter how hard the effort, the steps of life cannot be laid out accurately. God is the master of the unexpected. The best method is to close our eyes and dance.

However, it is not the easiest method. Dancing with closed eyes requires massive amounts of trust and flexibility within a society that offers none. The legislative metronomes expect every move to be planned and traced to the letter: education, career, marriage, children, retirement. Moving for sheer enjoyment of the process or the intrinsic value it offers is nearly a thing of the past. Stepping in passionate response to the love of God is borderline heretical. Society screams, the church pressures for every choice to have a reason, a practicality, a plan. Where? When? How? WHY?

When society furrows its brow in consternation and tries to analyze the plan I don’t have, I’m learning to say, “I don’t know.” And I’m learning to be okay with not knowing. When I hear the question for the umpteenth time, “What are you going to do with that?” my feet get a familiar defiant itch. “I’m going to dance,” I reply.

And I am. Slowly but surely the steps are coming, unhurried and unplanned. Faster and slower they wax and wane to the rhythm of the heart of heaven. He has me held firmly within his arms, and we are dancing. His muscles pulse with strength and security in the midst of an unknown song. When I stumble he holds me tighter. The longer we dance the more our movements become as one.

In the outset the step-pattern may be necessary, a framework for beginning. But there comes a point to move beyond the steps and feel the rhythm intrinsically. Dancing is about training two hearts to move as one. It must resound with the marks of life absent from a robotic three-step: sweat mingling, faces etched with passion, intentional shared purpose. It takes hours of practice and painful lessons of trust, layered with tedious repetition and discipline, to accomplish the unity required for the dance. Gradually the steps disappear, replaced by grace, agility, finesse. And when the lights go out in the ballroom, when we are dancing in the dark, when we can no longer see our feet or the floor or where we are stepping, the dance continues, flawlessly the same; we have learned to dance with closed eyes.

In a world where everything seeks an explanation, faith needs to encompass less stepping and more dancing. The dance becomes the explanation. When the church faces what it cannot understand she must turn to the dance. When her muscles ache from trying, she must continue to dance. When her soul lifts with wonder, she must dance, allowing it to rise in silent worship before the heavens. It is the opportunity for her to sink ever more deeply into the arms of the One who can lead her flawlessly across the expanse of time. Is it a moment of shared intimacy and love with her maker. It is her moment to express the inexpressible.

Dance provides for my heart what theology cannot, the outlet to speak when nothing else makes sense, the realm to move when the soul seeks to soar. I know faith cannot be built on passion alone. The dance cannot occur without a solid floor to stand on, but too many build the floor and leave it standing empty. The master of the dance awaits the heart of his bride, to take her where she has never been before. The church needs to ponder theologically, to search the Scriptures systematically, but at the end of the day I do not want to leave the dance floor forsaken. Heart thrown wide with anticipation, my ear is poised to listen for the echo of the feet that will join my own, rising to the rhythm of the dance.

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