"Grace-full in the Dance"

June 20, 1999 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Ephesians 5:21-33

(revised from a June 17, 1990 sermon at LGVCOB, itself a revision of an August 21, 1988 sermon at Greencastle, PA COB)

Family life is like a dance. It starts out with two dancers, and the steps involved are relatively easy at first. Of course, over time things can get a bit more complicated - especially as more dancers enter the dance. As time goes on, it’s never completely clear whether the two who began the dance teach their children how the dance goes, or whether these new dancers teach their parents how to do a whole new dance. Probably a bit of both.

Now, perhaps comparing family life to a dance is a problem for some folks. I remember a youth spaghetti supper at the church I served nearly 20 years ago. Good old Fred, one of the youth, got a little carried away when making up posters to advertize around the community. As youth pastor, I received a visit from an older deacon couple after they read in the local grocery store that, as part of the entertainment for the evening, there was to be "dancing." They calmed down when I explained that we weren’t having loud rock music and bouncing bodies in our church fellowship hall, though I think Fred would’ve enjoyed that.

As for me, I’ve always been a dancer with two left feet, the type who hugged the wall at high school dances. When I link the words "family" and "dance," I’m doing so in a figurative sense. The way persons function together in a family is like a dance - more a dance than an assembly line. Working together as a family is not a matter of hammering that part in here or welding that piece into place there. Some folks try to do it that way. But me - I’d much rather think of family as an art: a dance, if you will.

Sometimes the dance goes smoothly, and we glide across the floor with ease. Sometimes it gets rough, and we step all over each other’s toes. When two people say "I do," they begin learning the how-to’s of their particular dance, where to put their feet and in what order, and what to do with their hands. They bring into their marriage different sets of diagrams, from their parents’ marriage. Sometimes those step-by-step, learned-by-example instructions are very different. Eventually, it is hoped, a couple manages to get "their" dance together down. It actually looks more like a dance than an obstacle course.

And then what happens? The song changes. Some get into trouble because they can’t seem to adjust their dance to the new beat. Others find it easier to adapt. There are many changes that come in the course of a family’s dance. Some are predictable. We are witnessing, for instance, the change that little Alice is bringing to Dave & Judy’s dance. A first child is a big transition. Everything alters. Furthermore, every stage along the way of her development will bring a change in the song. Some changes, as I said, are predictable. Others are not.

A dance that doesn’t adjust to these changes, predictable or not, doesn’t work. In some cases, the music continues but it becomes more like some kind of slam dancing, where we aren’t at all in step with one another, perhaps even doing each other harm. The family dance requires of us the ability to change, to adapt, to be flexible. Problem is - we don’t like change. However, it’s a part of life. We can’t avoid it. Of course, some folks take pride in the fact that they haven’t changed. Such persons are fools. "I’m still the same man you married 20 years ago." Baloney. Change is a part of life, a part of marriage, a part of family. The dance must adapt in order to continue.

The good news is that, as the Psalmist sang (46:1-3), "though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult," though everything changes, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." Because God is our solid rock, we need not be afraid of change, as long as we - ourselves, our marriages, our families - are grounded in Him. Those who fear change the most, fear God the least.

"Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ," the apostle Paul wrote (Eph. 5:21). Out of awe, out of great respect, out of fear, out of reverence for Christ, be subject to one another. Ground this dance in God, and in so doing become flexible, adaptable, changeable with one another. Be subject, be able to sense and move with the needs of your partner in the dance. If need be, place their needs above your own. That’s what the Bible says.

Of course, Paul’s words here can be read in different ways. Some see him calling marriage and family a production line, presenting an order of responsibility. At the top, according to this view, is the management, with God as the C.E.O. On down the line comes the husband and father, a sort of supervisor or foreman. Below him is the wife who, as a mother, raises the kids. Those who read this passage in this way call this God’s order for the family.

That’s not how I see it, however. After all, family life is more an art than an industry. We need to remember that Jesus Christ has changed our understanding of leadership. In him we have a leader who took upon himself the form of a servant. Instead of designing a flow chart for achieving salvation that the workers below could follow, he became our salvation. He did the work himself. He placed his own needs aside and died upon the cross in our place. Our leader, our Lord, is the one who washes our feet. That’s a different kind of management - from the bottom up, not the top down.

When Paul wrote those words about the husband being the head of the home, he had Jesus in mind as a model. "Love your wife," he said to husbands and fathers, "as Christ loved the church." How did Jesus love the church? He died for it. To die for another is not just to be there to stop the bullet aimed their way, as a protector. It’s also to place their needs ahead of our own, to die to our selfishness - to love another as we love ourselves. Self-sacrifice may involve placing things we want to do on a back burner, and give not just our time, but also "ourselves" to those we love.

Us men have a hard time doing that. We struggle to make time for family, and even when we make time, we struggle to fully "be there" with them. I know I do. A common complaint from wives is that their husbands are not fully invested in the dance. They may be there in body, but... "It takes two to tango," the saying goes, which is another way of saying that you can’t dance when only one partner is dancing. The marriage and family dance requires active participants. Wall-flowers are not allowed.

To love someone as Christ loves them is to really, fully give yourself to them, to be there with heart, soul and mind, so that they know they aren’t dancing alone. Us men have a hard time doing that. That’s probably why Paul directed 11 out of 13 verses toward us men in that passage from Ephesians.

I’m still discovering what it means when it says that the husband is the head of the wife. Those can be fighting words in this day and age. I don’t believe it means that the Dad is management and the Mom is labor. It’s more like a dance, I think, where both are laboring, dancing together - adapting their joint steps to meet new situations, predictable or not. Now maybe, headship is like the words an old order Brethren preacher said to some friends of ours just before their marriage many years ago. "Roger," he said, "remember that you are the head of this household. Lead it wisely." "Irene," he then said, "remember that you are the neck. Turn the head where it needs to face."

In a dance, one partner leads out - but that doesn’t make them boss. It’s more a matter of initiative. I know I struggle when it comes to taking initiative in our family. I have a feeling many of us fathers do. The good news is that it’s not all on our shoulders. After all, we’re following Jesus’ lead. He’s already done the hardest work. Furthermore, in the marriage dance, husband and wife are submitting to one another. The dance is the responsibility of both of us. And as children join in the dance, well, they take up some of that responsibility themselves, little by little - until such a time as they start another dance.

Yes, we are responsible to one another. We’re also responsible to the Lord of the dance. Our life in Christ is like a dance, also, modelled after the One who danced but a short time upon this earth as a man, who danced upon a cross, and who then danced out of an empty tomb. It’s important that we place the family dance within the framework of this larger Christian dance.

Why? Because, when it comes right down to it, we aren’t very good dancers. There is no such thing as the perfect husband or wife, the perfect father or mother. There is no such thing as the perfect "marriage made in heaven," or the perfect family. Ozzie and Harriet were never perfect, and they’d probably be the first to agree. When it comes to this dance, we’re all somewhat awkward. Isn’t that what the Bible says? All have sinned and fallen short.

It’s only by God’s grace that we can dance at all. With this grace, awkward and gangly though we may be, we become "grace-full" in the dance. In the long run the changes that life brings serve to improve this dance we dance together, even beyond that day when death does us part. The dance goes on. That’s something we should never forget... Shall we dance?

1999, 1990, 1988 Peter L. Haynes

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