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Wendell Berry is often thought of as a poet who frames the hunger for deep community in an accelerated age. His agrarian calling in both his poetry and novels is more than compelling – it is prophetic. At Christmas time I love going back to one of his poems from his 1978 collection of Sabbath poems:

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning’s light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.

Instead of “I’m the king of the world if I win, and a failure if I lose,” and the crushing pressure that entails, the spiritually rewired athlete’s internal logic is this: I’m a child of God; that’s my primary identity.  God loves me regardless of what happens in this competition.  God has given me these talents, these amazing gifts, and it’s my responsibility to use them as best I can, to perform and succeed to the utmost of my ability.  But it’s not for personal glory, or to feed my towering ego.  Rather, every burst of speed and power is a testament to a higher power whose love transcends any kind of earhtyly success.  The competitive results are not part of that higher reality.  But the effort is.  The leap toward perfection of effort, a kinetic hymn, is a connection to God.  It’s sacred, the way prayer is sacred.  And at the same time it is exquisitely concrete.  It has mass, speed, position, trajectory, in the now of a throw or a catch or a weight that needs to be lifted.  It’s where physics meets the soul.”  – J.C Hertz, Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of Crossfit and the Primal Future of Fitness (New York, NY: Crown, 2014) 248

This month marks my two year journey with Crossfit. It has been quite a ride to say the least. I have always been a pretty active person though never someone who would be seen as having ‘athlete’ as an identifier. No, I bought into the world of ‘working out’ in my adult life which is to say I viewed exercise akin to exorcism: something you do to prevent bad things from happening like death or weight gain. While I was a cross country runner and swimmer in high school, I just never saw myself as athletic. Being a bookworm seemed to be a different and distinct role to play in “The Breakfast Club” and for the most part I was fine with that. So I dabbled with various gym memberships in my late 20’s and ran miles on treadmills, went to occasional classes, read “Born to Run” and thought the key was going barefoot and took up more recreational running including running a couple of half marathons. But I was never an athlete, I was ‘working out’ and ‘exercising’. Into my 40’s in addition to the typical ‘life is busy’ mantra I started having knee problems resulting in a torn meniscus which sidelined me from running for a while.

At this point let me say out loud that I ‘get’ all the push back from folks who both hate the ‘Crossfitters won’t shut up about Crossfit’ meme as well as the argument that it is simply one form of fitness among many. Akin to different favorite hymns at Christmas time there are many, many wonderful ways that adults are finding new levels of fitness: adult crew teams, running groups, yoga and ultra trail running have their adherents and I am not part of those groups but also celebrate them from afar. But something clicked with my journey into a Crossfit box that somehow just made sense in ways I am still trying to put together. Like the line from the block quote I started with from JC Hertz’s wonderful book, there is something in me that was search for a ‘kinetic hymn’ – a way to sing praise with all that I am, to abandon myself and still strive for reaching for yet another horizon. About 6 months into my time with the community of Stoneway Crossfit I realized that part of what was missing was that I was eternally frustrated with ‘exercise’ and ‘working out’ for the simple fact that it wasn’t what we were put on the earth to with our bodies. No, as in all things of excellence it can’t merely be a sidelined aspect of my life. If it is to be transformative then that mean it effects everything. I was not to be ‘working out’ for a fear of death nor ‘exercising’ some demons of fat from my body. No, what I woke to was that I was an athlete who needed to train. I eat food for the sake of performance not sitting around worrying about what calorie count it has. I look at excellence and mental toughness in a new way in all aspects of my life but in a wholistic way. It is hard to get your mouth around the word ‘athlete’ without seemed incredibly pretentious especially as a rather out-of-shape male approaching 50 like a bullet from a gun. But when I made the mental shift and realized that I was an athlete who was training, setting goals, reaching for more as the singing of a ‘kinetic hymn’ then I forgot about the grind of lifting weights, running, rowing, etc. Everyday has become a liturgy of sorts, a lectionary of movements that are about liberation, freedom, and sanctification of the body, mind and soul.

As I sit back now after my two years I am thankful for this kinetic hymn I am still learning to sing and for the choir of other athletes at Stoneway CF as well as other Crossfit boxes around the world I have stepped into and been welcomed, challenged, and confirmed as an athlete who is training and transforming all the time.

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These are difficult times. Yes, all times have their difficulties but there is something particularly barren about this point in time. Perhaps we have over-tilled the soils of culture, churning and digging for some novel experience or quick fix to deep despair to the point that the soil has finally begun to give out. The fruit born in our culture doesn’t seem to captivate the prophetic imagination as it did. We have assessment of what is wrong. But what is the way forward? The dry, harsh winds continue to rip the topsoil of the past away exposing the violence, anger and ultimately fear that no longer be contained. How much longer before people simply lay down in the dirt and cease trying? There has to be another way.

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I have had a slow start with Advent this year. Perhaps it is the cycle of my life at present with my work load increasing in administrative demands, my daughters becoming teenagers and asking different questions that rightly demand deeper and most engaged conversations about faith, and the world weariness of seeing violence, anger, torment in our city streets as racial reconciliation and economic justice ring like bells from God’s cathedral calling people back to the heart of worship and away from the idols of our age.

This week I felt myself waking up to all the voices screaming for justice and realized that to be the Church will demand so much more than commentary.

We are in a season of action pure and simple.

And this is perhaps what awakened me to the advent reality in a new way: new birth is not about commentary apart from embodied action. The cry of the Christ child demands to be heard, to be nourished, to be held, to be kept warm, to be loved with abandon.

This newborn child is not to be merely stared at as a beatific vision akin to a revisionist Italian canvas capturing a fictive moment of stillness and tranquility.

No, the cry of the Christ child is a demand to be heard, to be cared for, to be fed, to be held, to be loved.

The incarnate God is not merely born to us but is awake and crying… Emmanuel is alive and kicking. We need to respond and not merely stare.

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There is that moment at the beginning of the academic year when the professor comes into the classroom, sets down his or her stack of papers and books, moves to the podium and begins class.   It is a very mundane moment in many ways.  Students chatter away, texting friends, drinking expensive espresso drinks in shimmering travel mugs with café logos you don’t get the reference to and you move your papers around, look at the technology that surrounds you more and more each year and take a deep breath as you launch into your ‘welcome’ speech.

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Yet as a faculty member those few seconds between setting down my briefcase and books and when I turn to face my new class and begin to speak is a sacred moment like no other.  Something happens in those brief moments that I wish I could explain to my students but I don’t think they would understand. Perhaps I sell them short in this.  I don’t know.   It is a strange rush of anxiety (“Is this class really going to come together?”) a thrill of introducing new students to material you hold so dear (“Can’t wait to read that passage to them”) and the look of strangers meeting in blank gaze who will become people who you will care about in ways that as a teacher who sees hundreds of students a year is always surprising.

This strange ability to not only care but deeply love these students is always a shock to me.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but it is.

This infinite capacity of the human heart to allow people you meet through the medium of an ancient text in the context of this artificial arena of the mind called a university classroom to touch you, hurt you, stir you to wonder, to break your heart and to awaken memories of when you also first heard a philosophical argument, a Chilean poem, a Shakespearean sonnet, a rising note borne on the bow of a cellist breathing life into Bach across the centuries or the darken light of a Dutch master whose subject is an aged women inclining her head over the Scriptures with such gentle purpose that angels seem to brush wingtips across the oils on the canvas in your midst is awe-inspiring to be sure.

And in those moments that appear and disappear oh-so-fleetingly over the weeks of a term will flame up unannounced like a roman candle in a subterranean cave – so sudden and crisp as to blind you before giving way to sight.  Yet they happen again and again – sometimes only a flickering flame on a wet match of a poorly thought out question, or sometimes akin to a signal flare of desperation as the student is grasping for anything to support not only their understanding of the subject in the churning sea  of material they are glupping down, but some buoyancy for their very soul.

In such moments something more than learning happens or mastery of material.  In such moments whether they are but a whisper or akin to Walt Whitman’s ‘barbaric yap from the rooftops of the world’ show us to be human at long last.  These moments allow us to step away from the world that swirls around us, the technology that blinds and deafen us to ourselves and the humanity of others, the self-consciousness and obsession with our own needs and problems and even separated from the so-called security of that which we put our trust in more than God which is the artifice of our public self.  Like the striking of high C to blast apart a wine glass from across the room, these moments explode with the tinkling of glass upon the floor as we open ourselves up to one another in the space of a question, a point of clarification, a nob of the head in agreement, a glance at the art on the screen with unveiled eyes and the sigh of resignation that what had been held as true in small or large ways is now forever changed.

When I stand at the podium on Monday, setting down my books and rustling papers to mask that breath I draw in deeply before I speak, this is what is rushing through my head.  That something more sacred than learning will happen in spite of my best efforts as a professor and the material I put before us.  No, what will happen is the parting of a sea that separates human from human and human from the God of the universe.

What happens is holy.

What happens is redemptive.

What happens is more than I could have ever planned and if I am not careful midst all the papers and exams and small group exercises I could miss it.

In that breath there is always the option to just say “no… I can’t do this again.  The price is too high.”  The option to walk away, to drive away, to fly away is always there for student and professor alike.

But on Monday I plan to draw my breath, look into the eyes of my students, and welcome them to this moment together.  It will be probably fairly anticlimactic for some – course assignments will be discussed, the texts we will read, who the authors are, when the midterm and final will be.  But these furrows into the soil that will seem mundane are the channel markers of Grace in ways none of us can expect.  I know this because this isn’t new to me.  I have seen Grace show up again and again which is why I know how vulnerable and painful this journey will be for some.

But I will draw that breath again as I have many times before.

And I will say the word that I am finding is a much deeper well than I could have imagined.

I will say…

“Welcome”

Lent is a season of justice – it is a season of deep reconciliation, of bare bones truth-telling, a redirecting of hungers and longings that have gone astray, but it is essentially a season of justice.  As I will tell students as we enter Ash Wednesday that they are called to remember along with Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:19 that they too will “return to the ground from which they are taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Yet going back to the beginning of things – our dustiness – also means that we can allow new things to take root, to grow into full bloom, and perhaps bear fruit in ways we never would have expected.  As an exercise of justice, I challenge students to remember that Lent is a call to justice in three vectors:

- justice within ourselves,

- justice in relation to our neighbor,

- and justice with God.

Much of the focus in contemporary Lenten practice revolves around the first turn of justice as a move within ourselves and challenging the priority of the hungers/distractions that have taken us away from our true nature.  This is the call to fasting – be it from food, coffee, alcohol, Facebook, television, what-have-you – that people will take on board as a way to refocus on who we truly are before God and others without these things.  It is a good practice and an important spiritual discipline to be sure.  However, without the call of justice to and with our neighbor (found in renewed acts of generosity, service and hospitality) and in relation to God (found in renewed commitments to deep reading of Scripture, prayer, community worship and fellowship) then merely fasting from caffeine or American Idol doesn’t really amount to much.

One area that I have challenged myself with during Lent has been to scroll through my CCM back catalog and see where God might show up in ways I just don’t expect.  For those who know some of my journey, I have had a strange relationship with CCM – the genre known as Contemporary Christian Music – and have come to the point of closing off my imagination to the possibility that God even speaks (let alone stutters) in anything found in the racks of Christian bookstores.  I make a point of ‘heresy hunting’ in CCM lyrics as I sit in worship services and struggling constantly with the poor theology found in much of what passes as ‘praise music’.  But this year I was confronted by the reality that perhaps my heart, akin to the Grinch, was three sizes too small and when I hear the Whos down in Whoville singing to Chris Tomlin, Stuart Townsend, Matt Redman, TobyMac, David Crowder or whomever, I need to explore what is behind this joy rather than steal all the Hillsong CDs from under the trees in the dead of night.

So I have gone back to my CCM tunes in the dusty recesses of my iPod (filed under ‘Gospel and Religious’ or ‘Religious’ or ‘Inspirational’ genres) and started to listen a bit each day as a form of penance, of desert wandering, and a form of reconciliation.  True, some of the music I am finding is fairly cringe worthy in both form and content – the 80’s electronic strings that soar in the third verse is an example – and yet there is still something going on that I have to admit is striving after God in ways I have dismissed.  Perhaps is it a sign of my age, but I actually am finding that some of the old Jesus Music stuff from the mid 1970s (Larry Norman, Keith Green, Randy Stonehill) and the Gospel numbers from the early 1980s (Mighty Clouds of Joy, Mavis Staples, Shirley Caesar, Fairfield Four, Blind Boys of Alabama) hold up and frankly musically bury a lot of what is being sold today.

One gem that I had completely forgot about was Larry Norman’s “The Great American Novel” from his 1972 album Only Visiting This Planet. On the song, Norman plays the role of the 60s flower child wandering through 20th century history and watching as history turns a blind eye to justice in favor of the complacent and the powerful:

And when I was ten you murdered law with courtroom politics,
And you learned to make a lie sound just like truth;
But I know you better now and I don’t fall for all your tricks,
And you’ve lost the one advantage of my youth.

You kill a black man at midnight just for talking to your daughter,
Then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water;
And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on,
At every meal you say a prayer; you don’t believe but still you keep on.

And your money says in God we trust,
But it’s against the law to pray in school;
You say we beat the Russians to the moon,
And I say you starved your children to do it.

The song pulls no punches and has a ferocious, all-consuming commitment to seeking real justice and reconciliation in the realm of lived politics – things that effect real people in real life.

As I scroll through CCM recorded in the 80s and 90s let alone the first decade of the 2000s, I will admit being struck with how… dare I say it… bland… the music seems to be.

Where is the strong, clear, pointed concern for the poor and marginalized?

Where is the longing for justice and the seeing of Christ in the face of the downcast?

Lent is indeed a season of justice.  It is a season of reconciliation.  It is a season of going back to beginnings and finding what might have been overlooked and needs to be attended to. Sometimes, it means finding in CCM… of all places… a calling to justice and seeing the world anew.

Either you only follow tweets for TMZ.com or ESPN Sportscenter or live under a rock away from the din and clang of the blogosphere if you haven’t heard the rumblings about Rob Bell’s upcoming book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011) which will hit bookstores on March 29th.  For those following the flurry of activity, the basic issue that arose this weekend started when Justin Taylor posted a blog posting entitled Rob Bell: Universalist?  and later John Piper, the grandfather of neo-Calvinism, Synod of Dort extreme sport TULIP revivalism mentor for Mark Driscoll, and author of Desiring God, offered a rather snarky and damning (pun intended) tweet that simply read “Farewell Rob Bell” in relation to claims that Bell’s new book espoused a universalist view of salvation and Bell has finally been shown to be in league with the devil.   There have been claims from neo-Calvinists for a while that Bell and his NOOMA videos were merely drawing people away from orthodox Christian faith.  Swords began to rattle and the blogosphere exploded.  As reported in Christianity Today’s blog this weekend, Rob Bell was in the top 10 trending topics on Twitter Saturday… that is the top 10 trending of ALL Tweets globally. As of Saturday evening, about 12,000 people had recommended Taylor’s blog post on Facebook, which posts the article on readers’ personal pages. The article had about 680 comments as of this morning.  Taylor, who is a VP for Crossway Books which publishes some of Piper’s work, has since revised his article, softening the blows he delivered originally including aligning the fate and character of Bell with II Corinthians 11: 14-15 –  “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” [to be expected, this is from the ESV which is the authorized version of neo-Calvinist Piper fanboys (yes… boys) everywhere since, as we have been told, other translations such as the ill-fated TNIV are too “gender-inclusive” and leading to the feminization of the Bible].  As many have pointed out, Bell’s book has yet to be released and these comments are coming from people who have either only seen the book jacket copy or a promotional video that Harper Collins has begun to circulate in promotion of the book.  In short, the blogosphere is offering a premonition of things to come akin to the movie “Minority Report” where people are charged and convicted of crimes they haven’t committed but *might* in the future – taking them out now will save collateral damage.

Some passing thoughts on this bit of cyber rumbling:

1. At its most base level, these type of fist fights in Christianity only serve to remind the world that Christians are seriously wounded, angry people with too much time on their hands to muse about this stuff, are more interested in winning fights on grounds of certainty rather than faith (the fate of souls can be known with certainty?!) and seeming lack of critical faculties in regard to self-reflection so as to see how much damage this type of snarking does in the name of Christ.

2. As Scot McKnight recently noted in a recent Christianity Today blog, this type of activity serves the book publishers best – in this case Crossway and Harper Collins are the winner –  as the church burns itself to the ground and should be a warning to leaders who choose flippancy rather than true compassion and reconciliation as their response in the very public age of social networking:

I’ve not seen anything like it. And, yes, the quickness of social media have made this such a big issue … today … and in a week it will all be gone. Justin Taylor once generated almost 100 comments by quoting a blurb of mine that was on the back of IVP’s book by Tom Wright on Justification.

Justin may be right about what Rob believes, but if he is wrong then he owes Rob Bell a huge apology. I want to wait to see what Rob Bell says, read it for myself, and see what I think of it. Rob is tapping into what I think is the biggest issue facing evangelicalism today, and this fury shows that it just might be that big of an issue.

The publicity approach of HarperOne worked perfectly. They got huge publicity for a book. They intended to provoke — and they did it well. I think it is wiser to wait to see the real thing than to rely on publicity’s provocations. Justin bit, and so did many of his readers.

Frankly, John Piper’s flippant dismissal of Rob Bell is unworthy of someone of Piper’s stature. The way to disagree with someone of Rob Bell’s influence is not a tweet of dismissal but a private letter or a phone call. Flippancy should have no part in judging a Christian leader’s theology, character or status.

3. I will ‘out myself’ as someone who respects what Rob has done, how he thinks, and frankly his deep and abiding concern for the well-being of all people who Christ died for – and I do mean *all* people as testified to in Romans 5:18.  True, I don’t find all his theology to be my cup of tea, but that is what makes him real to me… Rob actually has the humility to say he doesn’t have all the answers and doesn’t try to offer a one-stop shopping for everything.  Quite refreshing actually.  I will certainly read the book and look forward to seeing what Rob actually says… not what people who haven’t even read the book think.

4. On whether universalism is something worth a theological fist fight about, I suppose it matters as far as our dialogues move us toward humility before a God who is as mysterious and unknowing as He is revealed and apprehendable.  As a theologian I work with students who struggle with the final end of things all the time.  As a pastor who has performed many funerals for children, adult suicides, and family members who are atheists and well as asked the ultimate fate of those who don’t profess a faith in Christ nor have prayed the sinner’s prayer per our traditional understanding and therefore I get asked the questions of heaven and hell quite a bit.

Where we put the cross matters…

My short hand answer begins with where we have put the cross in our midst. For many the cross is iconically viewed every Sunday in church sanctuaries as something bolted to the wall at the end of the sanctuary, high above the ground and therefore beyond our grasp:

In this view there is only one way to approach the cross – it is a 2D thing in our 3D world that is unmovable, without blemish, and only reached through our reason since we cannot touch it or experience in any way that is existential.  There is a front door and no back door to this cross and there just one way to get there.

But what if we consider the cross as something that is truly in the center of our lives and not merely bolted to the wall? What if the cross that Christ died on and made the way forward for overturning the pattern of Adam as we hear in Romans 8 actually offers a new way, a new path, a new centerpoint for our lives that is truly 3D and in our midst:

Golgotha was a real place in the three-dimensional world with a cross planted in the midst of everything and in the presence of and for all people (Romans 5:18) that could be approached from all directions for this was a death offered for all the world (John 3:16) and not merely those who find the one aisle or doorway our small tribes might conjure as essential in phrase or practice.  This is a cross that is in the middle of everything we are about and everything God wishes for us.  What a shame to bolt that gift to a wall like a prized trophy head captured and preserved safely above all the muck and mire of real life.

Now, am I advocating for an essential universalism whereby everyone is saved and taken to paradise whether they like it or not?

No.

I stand on the belief that my ability to choose is something God counts as so precious as to give me a choice to love or not and thereby I can opt out of relationship with God, deny the offer of paradise, and build my own Hell whether on earth or in the afterlife akin to Satan’s famous aphorism from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: “For it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”  I say this with all the Reformed theology in my bones as one who affirms God’s sovereignty in all things, understands depravity as the result of being deprived of God’s grace in a broken world and twisting that which is good into a disordered and not ordered form of love.  To put it even more bluntly, if Heaven is akin to a junior high lock-in night where you can’t leave and I am locked in, then love doesn’t matter does it?  But if I am choosing to be embraced by the love of God as God is choosing to embrace me through the grace and mercy of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, then the last thing I am looking for is the proverbial door.  To put it bluntly, eternal security and damnation are code in neo-Calvinist rhetoric for simply not trusting in God’s ability to continually choose us and would rather have a once and for all “yes” that is final and ends the conversation so the relationship is always submissive to certainty in our own doctrine rather than God’s sustaining providence. Put that in your Piper and smoke it…

Is there Hell? Scripture and the tradition of the Church says that this is as real as the world in which we live.  In fact, Christ is fairly pointed in declaring that perhaps Hell is already here and we have a chance to do something about it for folks who are living in this very real and not imagined Hell everyday… and not merely blogging about it.  In this regard I believe in Hell because I can see, taste and touch its stench all around me in the lives of the marginalized and down-trodden, the broken hearts and afflicted, the ironic and the nihilistic.  To that end my thoughts on whether Hell is real have more to do with the hope and prayer that by the time we catch up to the action of Revelation 20 that God has already put into play that Hell will be as empty as freakin’ possible and that Satan and all the demons will be left alone and tormented by the reality of a cross that stands in their midst as well… a cross that is not impotently framed on a wall like an IKEA wall hanging but holds the door open for all time so that all who seek entrance to this place of separation have to try and get by it first.

As Scot McKnight wisely stated, this whole cyber spat will probably just blow over by the time we go to work on Monday and that is a shame in some regards since what we believe does matter… and it certainly matters more than making arguments about a book nobody has even read yet.

So… what are your thoughts on all this? Does it matter? Why or why not?

Artist Dan Meth recently posted a map of the ‘fantasy world’ that pulls together over 30 different fictional/fantasy worlds into one glorious landscape – Narnia, Middlearth, Earthsea, Wonderland, Never Never Land, Oz, Whoville, Florian, the Land of the Lost, you name it.  What I love about the map is how by glancing at it I am drawn back into the narratives, characters, plotlines and epic grandeur of these places that are so very remote from the so-called ‘world’ in which we live day-to-day yet so real in deep and abiding ways.

One of the things that fiction does is allow us to see the imagination as a necessary part of what it means to be human.  More than mere escapism, fantasy literature draws readers into a world that pushes us to wonder ‘what if’ rather than ‘what is’ and it is shift into the possible (albeit improbable) that allows to live into a life that pushes against and even challenges the all-too-readily accepted way of things.

As I have argued in many ways throughout my writing over the past decade and most recently in Freedom of the Self, one of the most important moves in the Christian narrative is when Jesus framed the way for the community to remember him was to be ‘poetic.’   In Luke 22: 19, Jesus caps off the directive to celebrate the Eucharist with the now famous injunction to ‘do this in remembrance of me.’   The directive of Jesus for this remembrance is a creative act as seen in verse 19 where the ‘do this’ (poieite) of remembrance recalls poiesis, the root of ‘poetics’ or what we term ‘poetry.’  To ‘be creative/make poetry’ in remembrance of Jesus is a threatening move for many people.  Much of Christianity is hemmed in by a commitment NOT to be imaginative – that somehow the drive and focus of the Christian story is to never change, to hold fast to well-worn narratives, to guard the past and not seek any voices or advice that could suggest that perhaps there is a new day dawning and new voices to add to the choir.  As congregations dwindle in numbers, as younger generations leave communities of faith in droves, I wonder if some of this is that Christianity lacks the imagination to see these young people as unique, unrepeatable miracles of God – voices that will certainly challenge, renew and yes, reimagine what it means to live into a world that seems to have gone mad.

When we journey to Middlearth, Narnia, Earthsea and many of these other so-called fantasy lands we celebrate the impossible made possible and feel a leap of purpose and conviction that was once the animating factor in faith for the early church.

To this end I continue to feel that we need more fantasy in our theological diet today.  People need to read the fantastical and strange in order to release our hearts and souls from the predictable and staid so that the faith and hope ‘for that which is not seen’ can be believed and faith can once again rise like the roar of a lion and the song of a mere Hobbit.

What fantasy books do you think create a space for faith to arise?

What have been those grand narratives for you?

One of the tasks that many people struggle with in their search for meaning is locating people and places where they can feel at home.  This notion of ‘home’ is deep within us – that place where we experience peace, we are embraced by those around us, and the language and movements around us feel in resonance with who we are made to be or, better yet, called to be.

My daughter was recently doing a report on bats and the way some members of the animal kingdom have an ability called ‘biosonar’ or ‘echolocation’.  Similar to sonar used in submarines, echolocation is a biological event that creates context and discerns meaning:

Echolocation, also called biosonar, is the biological sonar used by several animals, most notably microchiropteran bats and odontocetes (toothed whales and dolphins), but has also been demonstrated in simpler form in other groups such as shrews, one genus of megachiropteran bats (Rousettus) and two cave dwelling bird groups, the so called cave swiftlets in the genus Aerodramus (formerly Collocalia) and the unrelated Oilbird Steatornis caripensis

One way to think of echolocation is the ability to send out a distinct signal that when it hits an object with bounce back in waves that will form the shape and contour of the surface that the sound came in contact with.  In bats it looks like this:


This seems relatively basic – sound goes out, sound returns.   The bat balances the dissonance of the echo in a stereophonic means between its right and left ear resulting a mental picture of that which cannot be seen with the eye, but is still apprehendable to the mind.

I think there is a ‘theological biosonar’ of sorts as well. As people try to make connections with others, find faith communities within which to call ‘home’, and to get a sense of place in both theological and sociological meaning, we all send out signals hoping that the image that echoes back is one of home.

Contemporary Shibbóleths – deep calling out to deep

We all use certain phrases, terms, actions or ‘shibbóleths’ (שִׁבֹּלֶת) to ‘feel people out’ as it were and determine our location in reference to self and others.  Do we belong? Is this a place called ‘home’? The notion of a shibbóleth is like this notion of echolocation.  The term is taken from Judges 12 in the Hebrew Bible:

Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שיבולת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סיבולת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell on this occasion.

The term “Shibboleth” (שיבולת) and “Sibboleth” (סיבולת) are so similar yet the difference would mean life and death.  Sure, we can wrap ourselves up in frustration at the ‘little things’ that people hold so tightly to, yet when it comes down to whether this is a place to be trusted or a place to fear… the little things matter quite a bit.

Petty though they may be, I have started thinking about my sense of echolocation – what are the shibbóleths that I listen for in order to get a sense of whether I am ‘home’ or not? What are the sometimes odd, quirky things that I hold to that have become a tuning fork for whether the place I am at is a place to call ‘home’?

Some of the things I have come up with (like most of life – it is a mix of the serious and mundane) are as follows:

- Equal access of both men and women to all forms of ministry

- high value of social justice and holistic responsibility

- salvation as living a ‘faith of Jesus’ rather than merely ‘faith in Jesus’

- both Tillich *and* Barth have things to contribute to the theological conversation

- more serious novels contain theological depth and conviction than most theological texts

- churches that don’t let kids put artwork on their walls need to turn the keys over to the next generation

- tattoos and comic books matter

- even numbered Star Trek films are superior to odd numbered ones and the original three Star Wars films are a dish best served on VHS tape

- if more contemporary Christian music (CCM) had the vision and artistic integrity of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, and Nick Cave I might listen

- watching It’s a Wonderful LifeThe Paper Chase and Moulin Rouge once a year is not repetitive

- writing in books is part of reading a book well

- three television shows in the past decade worth deep discussion are The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, and Fringe

- having a coffee shop that you go to regularly and not shared with others because you want a ‘fortress of solitude’ from the places you dwell is not a bad thing

- Monty Python never gets old

- Partick Thistle rather than Rangers vs. Celtic

- adulthood is overrated… childhood is not

- shopping malls are soul-sucking prisons of doom

- Porter and Stout are the only options for grown ups

- any dog less than 30 lbs should be called a ‘cat’

- two greatest living theological writers in America at present are Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King

- April may be the cruelest month… but August is the greatest one

- Any advent liturgy that doesn’t dwell deeply on the genealogies of Matthew and Luke is akin to starting with season 2 of Battlestar Galactica… simply wrong.

- The one thing I agree with Michael Jackson on is that ‘children are our future’

- While ‘Highlander’ was a fairly lame movie, the ideas of blending Scottish and Japanese cultures with the question of humanity facing immortality is epic

- French press trumps drip; matcha green tea trumps earl grey

- “Yes” to Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything and Almost Famous

- Being a reformed pastor and theologian doesn’t mean embracing a Synod of Dort legalism and reminding people that Wesley and Calvin have much more in common than not.

OK… that’s a start…

what would *you* add?

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Spread the word to those you know who are working in parachurch ministries – pass this on!

Also, if you are interested in learning more of these programs, come to the Discernment Weekend February 25th and 26th at SPU – experience Taize Worship at St James, meet faculty, here from church and ministry partners in the program:

More information is here: http://www.spu.edu/depts/theology/events/discernmentweekend.asp