1998 was a pivotal year for Western culture and human history.
The Belfast Agreement was signed between the British and Irish government, and many of the major Northern Irish political parties, leading the way towards peace in this fractured region. Microsoft launched Windows 98, and a couple of Stanford PhD students founded a company called Google. Bear Grylls became the youngest British climber to scale Everest - but perhaps trumping them all, Cambridge Intermediate School began preparations for its annual Form Two Formal Social.
As a gangly geeky twelve year old, the idea of ballroom dancing struck fear deep into my pubescent heart. Yet there was no avoiding it. For eight weeks, we would file into the school hall three times a week to learn how to waltz and trot our way around the wooden floors. My feet would drag, my palms would be sweaty, my eyes would avoid anything resembling contact. We'd trip on my feet, I'd apologise profusely in a squeaky voice - but gradually, along with my classmates, I grew from "Hopeless" to "Mildly Incompetent" at dancing.
During this time, I would occasionally get in sync with my partner. Despite my nerves and overwhelming awkwardness, for those brief moments we would move as one. I would guide - as bravely my twelve year old self would attempt - my partner around the floor. We would glide, our feet clasped to the beat, tempo and timing resonating in unity. Inevitably, this moment would end with my lengthy limbs moving in an unwieldy fashion - but for these brief glimpses, I would see the potential of what could be.
Confessing About Sheeran
I have long since abandoned my dancing career, but was recently reminded of this feeling when I stumbled upon Ed Sheeran's video for Thinking Out Loud. Confession: I'm not an Ed Sheeran fan. I didn't even know who he was when I first saw this clip, but something about the choice of his music video grabbed my attention. For those who have not seen it, Sheeran's song is accompanied by a simple yet powerful video of a dance routine between the artist and a trained dancer.
Set in a high-scale yet empty ballroom, the two twirl in tandem, telling a narrative of one with their combined movements. Although I have it on good authority that technically, he's not that good of a dancer, the movements of the couple tell a narrative of romantic love that transcends the individual.
The Early Church Fathers Got Down
One of the Early Church Fathers, Gregory of Nazianzus, also appeared to be a fan of a good dance. When explaining the nature of God, Gregory described the triune God as the divine dancer, with each member of the Godhead dancing around the other. Neither demands the others' participation, but circle around in a dance of love, joy and delight - maintaining their own identity while being united in relationship.
Similarly, in 1939 the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a short book called Life Together. As he was leading a church and teaching in an underground, illegal seminary - which the Nazi party were attempting to shutdown - Bonhoeffer was challenged anew by the necessity of honest, vulnerable relationships in any healthy community. Just as the Christian God is said to be a God of relationship at His very being - so too are humans called to participate in the dance of love - with each other, and with God.
Bonhoeffer wrote, "We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, and for all eternity." Although this statement is mysterious and playful, it does strongly claim the importance Bonhoeffer stressed on deep, intimate relationship between Christians, as part of their witness to a broken world.
Personal Yet Social
In the lexicon of church jargon, one of the most familiar phrases is "personal relationship with God". This is used by pastors to inquire to their flock's spiritual wellbeing, for preachers calling people to faithfulness and for evangelists urging people to know this God. It's a useful and true phrase - it starts with an action by an individual. Just as the dance requires each person to choose their partner and assume starting position - so too does faith need an personal act.
To stop there, however, is only half the picture - or just the beginning of the dance. Faith may begin with the personal, but it is lived out in the communal. It is fully alive in the divine dance of loving God and loving others. Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than right back in the beginning.
Nudity is rife in the Genesis creation story. Well, maybe not rife, but at the very least - it's obvious! Always requiring a strategically placed leaf or branch in any children's Bible, this ancient text tells us that the first humans "were naked and had no shame". Far from just an aside to keep teenage boys interested in the story, these six words hint at the life we were created to live. A life of reality, sharing, openness of our very selves and a fearless embrace of both ourselves and others.
Yet one of the first results of the Fall was the great coverup. Not only literally, but figuratively too - these first humans go from being united dancers to separate blamers. Each blames the other, each makes excuses. Each is ashamed of themselves, and hides behind that shame in their own cocoon of isolation. Sin not only separates us from God, sin separates us from each other.
The True Human
In a word of hiding and shame, the life of Jesus becomes all the more outstanding. Here is one who lives with authenticity and vulnerability - sharing his hopes and dreams for the future with the crowds, and sharing his troubles and fears with his friends in Gethsemane. As he was crucified, he was stripped of his clothes and beaten - becoming the near-naked one - yet he does not cover up. He hangs on the cross, without shame of his own yet bearing the shame of all, and in his faithful action and obedience, he ushers in new life for all - a life free from guilt and shame.
Humans crave naked relationship - a desire to be fully known as they are. Mother Theresa commented on this human need, saying "The biggest disease today is not leprosy or cancer or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody." We want more than surface relationships and shallow conversation, but instead yearn for people who can plumb the depths of our soul with us, journey through our addictions with us, share mundaneness together, and live reality together.
Church For Nudists
The church should be the place with the most naked people. Warts and all - a place of vulnerability, caring, confession and love. Across generations, across the usual divides - church should be the place where the divine dance of God is worshipped and practiced, in counter-cultural loving relationship. It doesn't start with the pastor or a program. It starts with one, willing to be brave and courageous, to dare to step into God's amazing grace and begin to share deeply with another.
Painful? Yes. Awkward? No more so than my dancing. Take the lead, take the first step - and dance deeper into God's love as you move closer with one another.
Jeremy is a student and Innovation Consultant (www.creativate.co.nz) who is always up for a dance battle, and is still fairly awkward.
Jeremy Suisted's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/jeremy-suisted.html