Last month I was traveling in the south. I ate at Bojangles and drank Incredible Iced Tea. I listened to Charlie Daniels Band. The Legend of Wooly Swamp is still stuck in my head.  If you have heard that song then you already know “you better not go at night.” You already know “There’s things out there in the middle of them woods, That make a strong man die from fright. Things that crawl and things that fly and things that creep around on the ground.” And you already know “they say the ghost of Lucius Clay gets up and he walks around.”

I was traveling to Florida to visit with Mom and Dad. My picture of Florida has always included touristy spots and beaches. But my picture is changing. Here Dad likes to photograph ospreys and bald eagles. I am surprised by the amount of farmland there. And I really enjoy the forests. I have discovered barred owls and wild turkeys. The locals keep telling me to be aware of panthers.

These forests contain wetlands and swamps. And these wetlands contain alligators. And Dad and I stalk them. I find it interesting they gather in groups called congregations. Sometimes when searching for alligators we run into Dad’s friend Hal. Hal stalks birds. Hal is knowledgeable; talking with him is like consulting a field guide. He has special equipment and the skills necessary to capture great photographs. He is into things like detail, light, and color. Once he photographs birds he creates wood carvings.

One evening while talking with Hal, the sun set quickly and we were caught in the dark. We headed back around the wetland and through the forest. In my mind I was hearing Charlie warn us about being here at night. I could hear the warning about the things in these woods and the things they can do to even those of us who are strong. We could not see what was flying and creeping around out here. And we were unsure of the whereabouts of one Lucius Clay. I can’t help but notice the night sounds in the Florida forest are not the same sounds I am used to. I suppose some fear those sounds. I suppose some fear the alligators. I suppose some fear the panther. Me, I was doing my best to keep an eye out for Lucius.

In the spring of the year I often find porcupines.  Sometimes I follow them for a while just to see where they are going. If I get too close they will let me know by stopping and spreading their quill filled tail. I have never seen more than one at a time but find it interesting that a porcupine gathering is considered a prickle.

This past winter I was in Florida where I learned that a gathering of alligators is called a congregation. While that does make it sound like a religious gathering, I suspect if any one of us found ourselves in the midst of a congregation of alligators it would be a religious experience.

In the spring of the year you can walk out into almost any evening and hear an army of frogs singing their spring song. The names of gathering creatures are numerous. We might talk about herds, flocks, and schools but we might also talk about hives, colonies, packs, swarms, coveys, and convocations. Have you ever heard of a dazzle of zebras? Or a crash of rhinos? There are nearly as many names for gatherings as there are creatures.

The purpose for flocking is complex. But one undeniable reason is that being alone is risky. Traveling together helps individuals remain safe. An isolated individual can be an easy target. But beyond any practical reasons, Craig W. Reynolds points out the beauty of flocks, herds, and schools in the natural world. Group behaviors are beautiful to watch and interesting to think about. These gatherings are made up of individuals yet the overall picture is “one of nature’s delights.” This all requires a great deal of effort by individuals to stick together while avoiding collisions with one another.

I can’t read this stuff without thinking about the church. As part of the church we gather as an assembly, a body, even as a flock, and as a congregation. These gatherings have purpose. We gather because being alone is risky. We utilize our collective wisdom to allow for better decisions. We interact and rub shoulders with one another because together we demonstrate things like forgiveness, peace, and grace to the world. We keep getting together because things like salvation and holiness are group projects. While it is true that sometimes the congregation has sharp teeth and sometimes it feels like a prickle, the fact remains – we need one another.

There is a period in historical Japan known as the Edo period. A period where traveling abroad was not permitted. Ship building was forbidden. Foreign books were not permitted. Contact with all foreigners was being monitored closely. Christianity was banned. And persecution was severe. This is where we find ourselves when we read Silence, a novel by Shusaku Endo.

Early on Silence feels like a faith adventure about a search for a lost missionary. Three young priests, Sebastian Rodrigues, Francisco Garrpe, and Juan de Santa Marta refuse to believe their mentor Father Ferreira has apostatized. They plan to go to Japan to discover the truth about him. Santa Marta does not make it to Japan. Garppe makes it there, is captured, is forced to witness the persecution of Japanese Christians, and dies attempting to save some of them. The book suggests he had it easier than his friend Rodrigues. Rodrigues is the primary character in the story. Much of it is told in first person from his perspective. The book may begin as a search for Ferreira, but in the end, it is Rodrigues who discovers himself.

One of the subplots that kept my attention was the constant reappearance of a man named Kichijiro. Whether readers despise him or pity him, they will likely find him to be real. He is one who wants to follow Christ but who repeatedly yields to temptation. Silence would have us think this is the reality for people living in this “swamp” called Japan. A place where Rodrigues is told that Christianity cannot survive. Christianity may have been planted here but the roots will rot and the leaves will wither.

Another fascinating sub plot is the reappearing face of Jesus and the emotions experienced by Rodrigues when he sees that face. The face of hope and comfort. The face he considers the most beautiful in the entire world. And the irony that when Christians are asked to apostatize, the requested gesture is to step on the face of Jesus. They are literally asked to trample on the face of Christ. Silence is a novel about faithfulness and faithlessness and martyrdom and apostasy. It is a novel about things that haunt us. Denial and betrayal are always a possibility. All while the cicadas sing and the cock crows.

Endo may have been working through his own questions about faith and suffering. Martin Scorsese calls this a story about a priest who “begins on the path of Christ and ends replaying the role of Christianity’s greatest villain, Judas.” He tells us that Silence may be a painful story but it is one that tells us that God “is always present… even in His silence.”

Silence reminds us that some things are not as straightforward as we might like them to be. Sometimes even silence speaks with a hidden beauty. N. T. Wright would say that “these are uncomfortable messages for comfortable Western Christians to hear, and they are all the more important for that.” It is noteworthy the face of Christ speaks “it was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.” Perhaps one of the subplots of Silence is that this stubborn faith is able to take root – even in the swamp that is Japan.

Some things prompt thought and activity simultaneously. Hiking is one of those things. Hiking requires muscle activity and decision making. Hiking can prompt deep breathing and all senses on alert. It helps us learn to live with the gear we have and to live without unnecessary gear.

Hiking allows the imagination to become active. It helps you to see differently and to listen differently. Hiking helps you recognize the blurry line between beauty and danger. It helps you show reverence to both. Hiking will help you to appreciate undeserved gifts.

Hiking is like a trip to the cinema. The colors and acoustics and textures and contrasts and movement provide a live action performance going on all around you. Even the scenery reaches out to touch you. You respond to what is going on out there. And it responds to you. There is interaction. Hiking puts you into relationship. You are granted admission to a one time showing like no other. And you become part of the show.

Hiking surrounds you with life. You cannot take it all in. Annie Dillard says “in the top inch of soil, biologists found ‘an average of 1,356 living creatures in each square foot.’” Even if this figure is off by a creature or two this is a lot of life. She goes on, “ignoring them won’t strip them of their reality.” Life is in front of us, behind us, above us and beneath our feet. Hiking helps us understand that creation has us surrounded.

There is a practical element. Hiking will take you someplace. You might even grow from the experience. But the benefits are more than practical. You might make a discovery. You might get to know yourself. Hiking will do something to you. This is activity for the soul.

The Shack has become a religious phenomenon. At the same time it is a lightning rod for claims of heresy. Even before the movie was released there were responses to the book titled Finding God in the Shack and Burning Down the Shack. You can probably tell which is for and which is not. Despite the potential of being burned at the stake, Layne and I attended the movie over the weekend. I had read the book a few years ago and tend to enjoy an imaginative narrative so I suspected that I would enjoy the movie as well. I don’t often say this, but I think I preferred the movie over the book.

The movie presents a theme of invitation that I particularly liked. Jesus invites Mack, the main character, to walk with him. The Spirit invites Mack to join her in the garden. “Papa” invites Mack to join the Trinity for a meal. I especially liked that scene where we see the Trinity at fellowship with one another. A picture of perichoresis. We do not often see good pictures of the Trinity at fellowship but here at least is an attempt. The general theme of the movie is an invitation to forgive.

Some highlights for me include the part where Jesus first arrived at the shack. I enjoyed the garden that was portrayed as a beautiful mess. That is, until we saw the view from above and realized it was actually a work of art. I enjoyed when Papa tells Jesus to show Mack some of his handiwork. I was expecting them to walk to the wood shop where Jesus had been working on something. Instead he took him outside showed him the sky, including a shooting star.

I like how the movie demonstrates the involvement of God in the lives of people. I suspect this is one reason many are attracted to the story. People want to have an encounter with God. The Shack presents a passionate God who is not without emotion. Here human pain is embraced by a deeply loving Trinity. Yet, I suppose one of the problems people are having with the movie is the way that God is portrayed. The Shack is an attempt to portray a story with imagination. Sometimes we forget that movies are a form of art (and a form of making profit). They are not intended for theological instruction. While theology may show itself in a movie, we should not be going to the theater to get our theology. Having said that, I like that The Shack reminds us that we have not got the Trinity figured out.

Here are some reasons to not see the movie;

  • You are certain you will like the book better
  • You think theaters are always too loud
  • You always wait for the blu ray

In other words, don’t stay away for theological reasons. I hope you never choose to go to the theater for theological reasons. Hollywood stinks at theology. If its theology you are looking for, read Barth’s Dogmatics. Go ahead and try to make a movie about Dogmatics. I doubt anyone would want to see it. But people are going to see The Shack which gives us an opportunity to talk about things we like to talk about with people who may not ordinarily be interested. I do like that The Shack is a catalyst for an important conversation.

The fact is, we want stories that speak to both head and heart. So when evil and forgiveness and the work of God are presented in The Shack it surprises me that some of us are not more interested. The criticism reminds me how much easier it is to criticize something we feel is wrong than it is to demonstrate something we believe is right.

Should The Shack be taken seriously – yes. Should The Shack be taken literally – no. Is it an exaggeration – yes. Will it prompt people to think and talk about God – yes.

Last week I started a charcoal fire and looked up into a clear sky where Orion was hanging directly overhead. I like the familiarity Orion adds to the winter sky. He is the mighty hunter and adds great scenery while enjoying the smells salmon makes when cooking over a flame.

However, when I looked again it appeared he was adjusting his grip on his sword. And I am pretty sure he was licking his lips. There was no doubt he was interested in my salmon. If he thinks he can come down here with that big bow and fiery belt and flaming sword and take my supper he had better think again.

Bring it star face, bring it. You will need more than that. Just in case, I kept my eyes on him until I was finished and back inside the house.

Every Sunday we pray together the Lord’s Prayer. A prayer that reveals the bare bones of Jesus’ teaching. The bare essentials of what we bring to God in prayer.

This prayer reveals what it looks like when heaven comes to earth. When kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. The reign of God shows itself in things like daily bread, forgiveness and being delivered from evil.

It reveals an emphasis on loving God AND loving others. The first part is what we might pray if we love God. The second part is what we might pray if we love others. The prayer reminds us, we cannot pray one part without the other.

This prayer is prayed with knowledge of a new reality. We cannot pray this as a mere habit or a simple recital from memory. When we utter these words – we pray for nothing less than a revolution.