Archive for August, 2013
The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney passed away yesterday. I like this poem of his where he compares working with a pen to working with a shovel. The idea is, I think, the same as what I’ve discussed in other posts such a The Joy(?) of Intangible Work, here, here, and here.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
In the past couple of decades, it’s been common to hear the phrase “God-shaped hole” used to refer to our deep-seated need to be in some kind of communion with our creator, or at the very least, to “rest” in some sort of minimal knowledge or assurance of the divine. Even those who do not fear God acknowledges this hole as a natural psychological need of human-kind.
The phrase has been around for a long time, though it was more often referred to as the God-shaped void in previous centuries. Pascal called it a God-shaped vacuum and located the empty space in our “hearts”, which is more accurate than locating it in our heads. The idea goes all the way back to Augustine though and he uses the word “know” to describe what we do with God. We know him. But again, here we are subject to our contemporary vernacular where “knowing” something mostly takes place in your brain. This notion should not be so fully read back into history. When we know God, the desires of our heart change more than the articulated propositions of our mind. The first is better evidence of His presence than a wealth of the second.
As Augustine put it, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” This is not a matter of intellect; Augustine doesn’t focus on the fact that we don’t “know” God. The problem here isn’t ignorance or skepticism. At issue is a kind of in-the-bones angst and restlessness that finds its resolution in “rest” – when our precognitive desire settles, finally, on its proper end (the end for which it was made), rather than being constantly frustrated by objects of desire that don’t return our love (idols).
-James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, p.77
Incidentally, “Being constantly frustrated by objects of desire that don’t return out love” is probably the best definition of “idol worship” I’ve ever heard.
There is a pervasive modern idea that if you can dissect someone’s history and trace how they learned something or how they came to hold to a certain idea, then you have effectively “explained away” the legitimacy of their beliefs. “Oh, you only believe that because ______” is the standard form of this cynical line of reasoning that seeks to debunk.
You see this all the time. “I believe God speaks to me through the bible.” “No, you just think that because you spent several thousand hours in church as a child with people hammering that into your head. How could you think anything else?” This ignores any sort of personal experience the person may have had actually reading the bible. Perhaps they are careful thinkers that came to this conclusion through years of careful study and observation of the world around them. But those sorts of “legitimate” reasons are ignored if a particular history or list of mundane formative events can be produced.
Say you encounter a young scholar who is enthusiastic about post-modern deconstructionism. (I have some artist friends who seem to hang out in this head-space.) “But did you really take in everything and come to this conclusion?” I could ask them. “Or do you just think that because all your professors in college spent years assigning you to read Derrida and then analyze James Joyce? How much time did you spend studying the Aeneid or The Faerie Queen? Yeah. That’s what I thought.” See what I just did there? I’ve dismissed their thinking because I was able to explain HOW they got there. If it’s all about the journey, then reverse engineering the journey just proves you have the epistemology of a raft tossed on the waves.
In contemporary evangelicism, I think we see a funny guarding against this sort of criticism. This protective stance manifests itself as a preference for the spontaneous and a shunning of what can be traced. Prayer’s composed on the spot without forethought are thought to be more “authentic”, or “powerful” than prayers more slowly composed the previous day or especially than old written prayers. In the same way, a conversion to Christ that involves Jesus appearing to you in a dream or speaking to you in the depths of your suicidal despair are highly valued. Coming to faith through the slow steady teaching of your parents is sometimes even disregarded until “proven” by a more individual and personal spiritual experience at a fixed point in time. Baptism as an infant is especially suspicious. If it can be traced, then it might be a “dead” work of man. If it CAN’T be traced, then it must be the invisible work of the holy spirit. The assumption is that when God really moves, He covers his tracks.
Other Christian traditions have instead chosen to embrace this modern dissection technique and apply it enthusiastically to their own beliefs so they may hold up to this kind of scrutiny. WHY do we believe this? HOW did we come to believe this good thing? Let’s give lots of bullet points outlining it’s historical development. Jesus died on the cross as a substitution for our punishment. Why? Well because Paul, and Augustine, and Anselm, and Luther, and so forth. Why do we sing this song? Well because the text comes from Psalm 1 and then the music was written by J.S. Bach (better than anyone since), and finally because the bass line is easy to sing.
The trouble with the first reaction is that it dismisses our history, forgets our ancestors, and pretends that we are isolated individuals. I’ve listened to, quite possibly, hundreds of sermons in baptist churches where substitutionary atonement was taught, but only quotes from Paul were ever used. It’s as if Christian thinkers and leaders from 100 AD until the last decade have had their name redacted from the record. Their influence and legacy is very palpably there, but their names have been crossed out with a sharpie and the bibliography erased. Folks, that is NOT what sola scriptura is about. If we desire to be a community reconciled with our parents and grandparents then we need to acknowledge how their lives and work formed us today – going all the way back.
The trouble with the second reaction is it concedes to play the modernist’s post-enlightenment game. It provides no room for the ineffable mystery of God, and no affirmation of Him personally, mystically, meeting with us. “Oh, but we have made room for divine mystery in our tracing!” Oh, sure you have, but the problem is there will always be someone quite willing to dissect things further than you wish to break them down. There will always be someone touting the latest neuro-prefixed research to chalk up your ideas about God as mere brain waves. Someone will always be there to break humanity down to a subset of mammalia. Some in your own family may find they can’t sleep at night until they’ve broken an idea like ecclesiastical authority or predestination down to individual grains of silt. But the love of God is not well represented by sand castles.
If your car is sputtering, tearing the engine apart and cleaning the valves and pistons can be very healthy for it. A deeper understanding leads to real benefits. But taking the engine block and melting it down to see what percentage of the metal is iron, chromium, and carbon does NOT help your car run better. You’ve taken things apart too far. Never opening the hood is stupid, but you can insist on being stupid in the other direction as well.
Spelunking your memories and history to unearth your “reasons why” can be immensely valuable. But it will always have its limits. The Holy Spirit of God works now, in your heart this moment. Seeing how he blew in the past and how those before you swayed can never negate him pricking your conscience five minutes ago or whispering impossible hope to you last night. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” (Hebrews 3:7-8)
Where am I going with all of this? In a 2011 symposium headed up by James K.A. Smith, Randall Holm presented a paper titled Tongues as a Blush in the Presence of God exploring, as a scholar and third-generation Pentecostal, the nature of speaking in tongues. The piece is really interesting and draws on the work of Martin Buber and Abraham Heschel to expand the possibilities for what is going on when we pray to God in an unknown language. I am not going to look at most of the piece here, but rather just deal with one point mentioned in passing.
It was not long before my own intellectual curiosity and the realities of pastoral ministry combined to raise some questions for which my previous college education offered little help. I spoke in tongues; now what? Or in my darker moments, I spoke in tongues; so what? And in my quiet moments, I wondered what all good Pentecostals wonder at one time or another: whether tongues-speech could simply be learned behavior. Are the sounds emitted divinely imparted by God, or are they better classified as learned behavior? To be sure, if asked by the uninformed, I knew the answer to these questions, but I was a long way from being satisfied with my own response.
Is glossolalic speech a gift of divine origin…or is glossolalic speech a tonal human expression of “sighs to deep for words”? Or is the distinction artificial? … [If] the content of tongues-speech is ‘basically irrelevant’, that raises the inevitable question, could not the effect of tongues-speech be the same through mimicry or divine impartation?
And the key idea comes in the footnote:
Or to rhetorically frame the question in another way, ‘Are children two years of age aware that they are learning a language through mimicry?’ If they understood this process of language acquisition, would it make any difference in achieving their results? Would they think any less of their acquired speaking skills?
Critics of speaking in tongues in prayer to God will often undermine it using the tools I discussed earlier. It can be argued that it isn’t hard to learn to speak nonsense syllables by imitating those around you. When someone prayed with you to “receive the baptism of the holy spirit”, that’s what they did and you followed suit. It’s not unlike memorizing the Lord’s Prayer. That’s how you “learned” to speak in tongues, and you continue to adjust the practice within your church community where it is practiced openly. A older friend of mine once commented that in the 1980s someone would often work a “rondo shondo!” into their glossolalia at bible studies but apparently that phrase has fallen out of use as of late. Cessastionists roll their eyes at such commentary. If tongues is a spontaneous action of the Holy Spirit (as it is typically claimed), then any self-realization that the practice was learned by mimicry should completely rule out it’s legitimacy.
But look what has just happened here. The dissector is demanding that something be impossible to dissect for it to be valid. Suddenly he is the one calling for pure ineffable spontaneity. “If the Holy Spirit is going to have someone saying something crazy, then He had better not leave any tracks. If I can trace what’s going on then it must be fake!” Things are flipped around. They suddenly sound like godless scientists demanding miracles. Do we really want to be so quick to throw our lot in with them?
Think about Holm’s footnote example again. Would a child of two learning to speak think any less of the new words they learned each day if they were abstractly aware of how they were being taught them? For a long time, they literally do not know what they are saying. We think that if we pray Psalm 73, we know what we are saying and if we pray in tongues then we do NOT know what we are saying. But what if we don’t really know what we are saying in either case? God is our Father and we are his children. I think it’s clear from our history that we are often very LITTLE children. The apostles were with Jesus first-hand. The fire dropped in their laps. But their teaching to us is not diminished by the distance in time and space. We don’t need the message to drop in our laps fully-formed for it to “count”.
I love written prayers – both writing my own and praying through ones written by others. I also pray in tongues. Sometimes it’s the only thing I can do. In reflecting on my own formation, I think I can say with certainty that I was taught to pray in tongues a particular way. Sometimes I find myself following that pattern and sometimes I am surprised by the different directions it takes. I observed the same when I would attend charismatic prayer gatherings. Friends would often repeat similar phrases every time, but occasionally they would sound dramatically different and unique. Was that the Holy Spirit saying something there for a moment? I’d like to think so.
I think it’s time that all Christians embrace and acknowledge their history. Don’t just quote Paul and act like you came up with everything else yourself. At the same time, don’t quote the early fathers and act like nothing has happened since. Quote Augustine and Lewis, and maybe your own mother too. Don’t write a “statement of faith” for your new church plant using a blank sheet of paper. Start with the Nicene Creed at least and don’t be shy.
Along with this, I think that the sooner charismatics admit that prayer in tongues as it is typically practiced is a “learned behavior”, the better. Be honest. Sometimes your ecstatic utterances are just going through the motions. It’s OK! Sometimes the high liturgists are (as you suspect) just going through motions too. But you know what? That’s a good start. That’s a good start to every day. You’re moving. I believe God does something with people who are moving. Waiting for lighting to strike is for fools. Embrace the trace. You don’t have to be afraid when the dissectors come along. You can acknowledge how you were discipled and still embrace the mystery of God.
Here in the footnotes of James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, we find an unexpected apologetic for “Jesus is my Boyfriend” worship music.
I think a philosophical anthropology centered around affectivity, love, or desire might also be an occasion to somewhat reevaluate our criticisms of “mushy” worship choruses that seem to confuse God with our boyfriend. While we might be rightly critical of the self-centered grammar of such choruses (which, when parsed, often turn out to be more about “me” than God, and “I” more than us), I don’t think we should so quickly write off their “romantic” or even “erotic” elements (the Song of Songs comes to mind in this context). This, too, is testimony to why and how so many are deeply moved in worship by such singing. While this can slide into an emotionalism and a certain kind of domestication of God’s transcendence, their remains a kernel of “fittingness” about such worship.
That is to say, there is a sense in which the closeness God has to us, the desire we have to be close to him is sometimes more analogous to that of a lover, instead of the (admittedly more frequent) images of God as king or father. As God clearly relates to us this way sometimes (with plenty of examples in scripture) it is indeed “fitting” to write worship prayers or songs in this vein.
While opening such doors is dangerous, I’m not sure that the primary goal of worship or discipleship is safety….this thin fulcrum that tips from sexual desire to desire to God – that on the cusp of this teetering, “dangerous” fulcrum, one is closets to God. The quasi-rationalism that sneers at such erotic elements in worship and is concerned to keep worship “safe” from such threats is the same rationalism that has consistently marginalized the religious experience of women – and women mystics in particular.
I have come to really like that Jamie Smith is not quick to dismiss Christians outside his tradition. He may in the end, dismiss some of them, but he doesn’t ever fast track it. Mystic women? Legitimate until proven otherwise. Charismatics? My peeps! Reformed eggheads who write unbelievably long books? Just keep doin’ your thing. “Rationalism that sneers at ______” is what we should be suspicious of.
It seems to me that a common theme of church renewal movements is to make worship a bit more “dangerous” as Smith describes above. Luther used secular melodies to encourage congregational participation contra a “sacred” tradition that had become too walled off from the people. I have a lot of Reformed friends who get excited about making worship “dangerous” by singing every psalm verbatim – including all the violent and vengeful imagery. They are pushing against the decay by bringing the full force of God’s wrath back into view in our music. It’s there in the bible so should not be ignored. But their way of being “dangerous” is within certain well-defined limits. God may be bloody, but he definitely isn’t sexy. Except that sometimes he is. Wait.
I have to admit I am not a fan of much “Jesus is my Boyfriend” worship choruses. I remember a church service in college where I had to excuse myself from singing “My Jesus, Dreammaker”. (No, I am not making this up, and no I am not going to look up who wrote that song. I don’t care.) But other times, I have been deeply affected by this sort of worship. Some of the more “intimate” songs by Darrel Evens (who seems to have dropped off the map in the last 10 years) come to mind.
I think what makes these sorts of songs either powerful or a giant train-wreck is the context. When they are led by young and buoyant (and perhaps not entirely modest) 22-year-olds in the spotlight, the lines get too blurry with regards to their meaning regardless of how well you KNOW what the words are supposed to be about. This setting would ruin St. John of the Cross too, even though there is not a thing wrong with his beautiful writing. In the same way, when the psalms about God destroying his enemies are set to a march and sung by soldiers carrying actual guns – then it’s impossible for “vengeance is mine saith the Lord” to NOT get buried. (See some Civil War-era hymns for examples.)
I think if we are going to be truely “dangerous” in our worship, and truly scriptural, we need to find a place for this stuff – at least some of it. Being safe is too easy, and incomplete.
In John 14:27, Jesus says to his followers,
“Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
The World DOES give peace. So does Jesus. But the peace that Jesus gives is not like the peace that the world gives. What is the nature of the peace the world gives?
To the people listening to Jesus saying this, the first “peace” they would have thought of would have been the Pax Romana – the Roman peace. The empire would protect you from barbarians and also keep order with a beefy police force. The catch is, you just had to do exactly what the emperor said and keep your head down in submission. It was an enforced peace. Fascism and Marxism offer a similarly enforced peace. The room is quiet because everyone had better keep their mouths shut or else!
In a more fundamental way though, Girard explains that the world does indeed have a peace to give its people. It is the Satanic peace derived from scapegoating. How does the world keep calm and carry on? By taking out it’s frustrations on an innocent sacrificial victim. One person gets to take all the blame and die so that neighbors no longer fight with each other, at least for a season. The peace the world gives is an endless dose of blame-shifting. Lost your job? Blame the President (Bush or Obama, it doesn’t really matter). Trashy culture corrupting your daughter? Blame Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. Such easy targets! Unrest and war? Blame Muslims. Live in Egypt and the latest coup didn’t go your way? Blame Christians – just ’cause.
Christ does two things that are totally different. He takes all this on himself. He lets himself become the scapegoat and take all the sin away. But then, BOOM, he comes back for good to dwell among us. He not only stands in heaven as our advocate, contra the accuser, but also dwells with us as a new model for peace. In this model, we don’t blame others, but confess our own sins, BUT then they get forgiven – first by our gracious heavenly father who can’t stop loving us, and secondly, to an imperfect degree, by our family, friends, and neighbors as the Holy Spirit works in their hearts as well. When you admit your own failure, the devil smells blood and will stir up a crowd to stone you, perhaps from within your own family. But in the Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus Christ, when you admit your own failure, you lay down and die – the perfect prerequisite to be raised to life.
Those who study philosophy and theology today often talk about the importance of the Christian “world view”. The general idea behind this is that first and foremost we are thinking things – walking brains that know things and then act on them with our bodies. First the thought, then the act. If our thinking is ordered, then we will act orderly. If we “know” God, then we will act Godly. If we know the difference between good and evil then we will not be deceived when we make decisions. If we have an understanding of how God made the world, then we will not despair when someone tells us He did not make it or does not love us.
But this kind of “knowing” is not what Abraham had. Hebrews 11 tells us that when he left his home to follow God, he DID NOT KNOW where he was going. He didn’t know what he was doing. He had no creed. He had no scripture. He had no written anything. He had a pagan world view with perhaps a distant memory of Babel. His “knowing” was ridiculously thin by our standards today. In a recent talk I heard by Bishop Todd Hunter, he talked about how Abraham’s knowing was “governed by his conversational relationship and trust in God.” He didn’t know anything that God didn’t tell him and of that there was no way to confirm it with other authorities or sources or with any sort of historical precedent. In this sense, Abraham is the father of our faith because he is our model. He had no model – nobody to follow or look to. He made the hard jump. Our jump is easier – be just be like him. Still easier than that, we have a model in Paul when he said “follow me as I follow Christ”.
But do you “know” what Paul knew? Even if you have pre-ordered N.T. Wright’s new 1700-page volume on Paul coming out in November, even if you’ve fully digested every word of it by Christmas, can you follow Paul? And even if you could, would you? Paul’s following of Christ was governed by his encounter with him on the road to Damascus and in the years he spent afterwards in the desert before beginning his apostolic work. Even more than that, he “knew” the God of the Hebrews from his youth in his daily memorization of the word and his worship activities in the temple. He was formed by these disciplines and rituals as a young Pharisee. His meeting with Christ didn’t negate his past, but rather fulfilled it. He realized that the God he worshiped was the God of the gentiles too.
It says that Adam “knew” his wife Eve and we know that doesn’t mean he read a book about her or even had an in-depth interview with her. It means he had sex with her. But the writer of Genesis is not using “know” as some kind of code-word because he’s shy and doesn’t want to talk about sex. He’s using it because it’s the best word for the situation. That today we only use it to describe things that go on inside our heads is a newer self-induced miscommunication as we interact with scripture and with pre-modern people.
This mind-body disconnect works it’s way into our concepts of faith and discipleship as well. If belief is a clicking that happens in your head, then the way to duplicate your belief in others is to write books, teach, and fill people’s heads with the necessary ingredients for that click to take place. It’s a conception of evangelist as rhetorical neuro-chemist. Whatever bodily redirection that may come later as a result of that is chiefly secondary and, when push comes to shove, can technically be eliminated. That’s sola fide, right?
But I think a better definition of belief is “to act as if you believe it is true”. I know that is self-referential, but it gets to the heart of a key property of our humanity – that we don’t always know what the heck we are doing. Our knowing occurs not just as a mental pre-action, but something that continues to form as we take action and live our lives. The best way to learn to love someone is to “act as if you love them”, and then you will find that love growing in your heart where you swore there was none before. This is the value of form and ritual in devotion and worship. We aren’t just “going through the motions”. The motions form who we are. They change our minds. They enable us to “know” more fully in a way that we can never know through filling up on words or teaching. What is more worshipful to God? To sit down and read, “Let us kneel before the Lord our God, our maker” (Psalm 95), or to actually get out of your seat, bend those joints that are part of your legs, and kneel and say, addressed to Him, “Lord, I worship you, my creator.” The enlightened modern would say that reading the psalm happened in your head and then you acted on it with your body. But the person who wrote the psalms would say the two are one thing – tied together in a way that makes them indistinguishable. To just read about it is not to “know”. You do it and THEN you know. We don’t know what we are doing, but we do, and then we know, or know more fully. Toby Sumpter said it best I think in a homily he wrote for Easter about 3 years ago: “We say, “I love you.” And we don’t understand what we are saying. I say, I love you, honey. I love you, son. I love you, dear. And I am quite literally out of my mind.” But here we are, still loving, even while confused.
In his book, Desiring the Kingdom, Jamie Smith pushes against the “I think, therefore I am”, not with the minor Reformation-era improvement (“I believe in order to understand.”), but with the full body, full being, “I am what I love.” And our loves, what drives our kardia (the Greek word for this), is formed not just by what knowledge is poured into us, but by the sum total of all our actions and the ways we “go through the motions” every day from infancy. I think that part of following Christ and returning to the faith of the apostles is to throw out some of our reliance on modern epistemology and get back to a more holistic “knowing”.
(I apologize if this post is poor and disjointed. It’s just an early pass at working through some of these issues.)
This is the prayer of St. Brendan the Navigator. It is told that this prayer was said as 5th century missionaries were sent out on the ocean in their rudderless coracles. Wherever they landed on the British isles they preached the gospel. If they landed nowhere, then they went to be with God, which was OK too.
Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home? Shall I turn my back on my native land, and turn my face towards the sea?
Shall I put myself wholly at your mercy, without silver, without a horse, without fame, without honour? Shall I throw myself wholly upon You, without sword and shield, without food and drink, without a bed to lie on? Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under Your yoke?
Shall I pour out my heart to You, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness, tears streaming down my cheeks? Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach, a record of my final prayer in my native land?
Shall I then suffer every kind of wound that the sea can inflict? Shall I take my tiny boat across the wide sparkling ocean? O King of the Glorious Heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea?
O Christ, will You help me on the wild waves?
I’ve been reading the blogs of African missionaries and also chatting with a few personally from Rwanda, Nigeria, and Kenya. The underlying story behind what they say continually reminds me how different Ethiopia is. Ethiopia is really a strange exception among all African missionary fields. It was the only place with an already-established church. A lot of the missionaries at first didn’t know what to do. They had been intensely trained for several years to convert pagans and largely avoid Muslims. What were they to do with these people? I was surprised to discover through my studies how so many of them really tried to initially present themselves as a reform movement working within the Orthodox church. Only a few of them were aggressive about planting new congregations and distinguishing themselves at first. They wanted to see the gospel preached and change people’s hearts, but most of them were able to quickly recognize that this did not require any sort of disestablishment among the Orthodox. Still, this almost never ended up happening, at least visibly. In the end, they always ended up starting new congregations. There was no way around it. It’s just how Christianity works.
I don’t think this is a case of the Holy Spirit working in their midst or not, but rather just a function of natural social dynamics. A lot of experienced people over the years have concluded that a congregation is a at it’s most active and communally potent somewhere around the 120 mark. To grow larger than that requires a certain amount of institutional glue that the leadership may not be able to provide. In that case, the most healthy thing for the church to do is multiply and start a new congregation. If they don’t, they will likely automatically divide over time regardless and not always in a positive way. I think this is the situation we find in the New Testament – the church as a network of house meetings. When Paul writes to the church in Rome, his letter was likely passed around many sub-congregations spread out around the region. Some probably had overlap of membership and their leaders being friends and acquaintances. Others were so separated by geography (remember, there were no cars) that they may have been only loosely connected to the nexus of the city and to the ones who originally received Paul’s written document.
So why do I mention this? As a young man, I used to think, “Wouldn’t it be nice if all the church’s could be united?” I remember attending prayer meetings where something along these lines was regularly petitioned for. That would mean our city of 25,000 would have one mega-church about 5000 strong. Wouldn’t that be great? Actually, no. I’ve changed my mind about that. Such a thing can never be and that’s actually a good thing. Diversity is good. Small congregations are good. Geography is a God-given natural state of creation, not some stumbling block of the devil. Our minds can only hold the names and faces of so many folks in our circle (some psychologists argue the max is about 400). It’s another “feature” of our intellect. We diminish when we try to bite off more than we can chew. Nobody should be more aware of this than shepherds. So now I’ve changed my tune. I say, the more faithful churches the better – just let them love one another whenever their paths cross.
A friend of mine has been telling me to check out the progressive Celtic rock band Iona for some time. Despite having heard a ton of neo-Celtic music in the past decade, I was unfamiliar with them. I recognized some of their personnel though from other projects and gave them a spin – a bit over-produced at times, but still a lot of cool playing and writing is going on. I’ve had this track on endless repeat for the better part of the week.
This weekend I went hiking in the wilderness with my wife and two oldest kids. My friends in the UK should understand that the state of Idaho is actually larger than England (if you don’t count Scotland) even though it has only 2 million people instead of 50+. Several large swaths of it are still true wilderness. Not a single soul lives there for miles and miles – not a single cabin. Into the edge of this we walked this weekend. Despite many camping trips as a child (and as an adult) this was the first time I had been on a very long walk from the nearest road and hours from the nearest power-line. My wife dreams of exploring these kinds of places. I listen to her stories.
Sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste.
Saw: Untouched rivers and many trees touched by fire and lightning without intervention. The sun moving slowly across the sky, the shadow of the mountain serving as a dial. Fish jumping, a muskrat mooching from our campsite, tiny birds with long beaks hopping. My family from many angles as I climbed the rocks on the opposite shore. And everywhere stinging insects – yellow with black stripes, black with yellow stripes, and some with a proper fifty-fifty mix of black and yellow.
Heard: The river’s unending din, louder and more steady than any freeway. The sizzle of driftwood lit to heat coffee in an old tin can. My own footsteps across the clanky river rocks – no ninja walking possible.
Touched: Stung by wasps, yellow jackets, hornets, and bees. Bitten by strange flies of mythic proportions. In my food, in my eyelashes, in my daughter’s hair, in my sons blood stream making his hands and fingers inflate. But also the breeze on my face, the unhindered starlight on my skin at 2:00 AM.
Smelled: The freshness of the trees, the foreboding of rain down the canyon, the arrival of rain on the sand bar. The chicken soup my wife made and served in collapsible bowls before we all collapsed ourselves. Where is the soap, the scents, the engine exhaust? Smells in nature are spread wide and thin. It is man who collects and synthesizes and refines them, exploding some and covering up others. The rain and smoke mellows them all fast.
Tasted: Wild berries and not-so-wild nuts. Fresh water straight from the river. The bug that flew into my mouth. The cookies I stashed in my pocket.
I also read, my back propped against a mossy rock, several chapters of Jamie’s Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom. I couldn’t help but realize that all of the “cultural liturgies” he analyzes – the shopping mall, the sports stadium, and the university only exist in the large city. Only the most distant rumors of these things have been heard of here deep in the sticks. Here, in the U.S., we are all familiar with these institutions because we can drive to them with our cars, even if we live on the edge of the wilderness. In Ethiopia (for example), there are 80 million people but about 63 million of those are rural and may never visit a mall or stadium, much less a university. It just makes me realize how the book is only valuable in a specific context. It has great ideas in it, but if one was going to translate it into Amharic or Oromo, at least half the book would need to be completely scrapped. How many other books do we have like that and don’t realize it?
Anyway, back to the wilderness. I’m sure I’ll go back again. It was a nice contrast to the bustle of Seattle the previous weekend. Both were a nice contrast to the daily rhythms of the office. I’m glad my wife can introduce me and the children to its beauty. I would be but a poor spokesman myself.