What began this morning as a casual conversation has become a reflection that I just have to put into words. The subject of Community came up as Dr. Perkins mentioned his wonder of what sort of unifying symbols we have as Canadians that express our shared identity. Even more, what sort of unifying symbols do we have as Christians that allow us to recognize each other in the Canadian community. An image immediately came to mind. Last week my son and I had a chance to see the Coyotes play the Calgary Flames in Phoenix. In the parking lot we witnessed probably the most common unifying symbol of Canadian identity as a crowd of fans – all wearing Flames jerseys – discovered each other in the parking lot. By the time we were in the stadium, it was obvious that the Canadian “community” had arrived as more and more Flames fans were attracted by the gravitational pull of the jerseys. I must confess, even though I was determined to protect my interest as a Vancouver fan to cheer for a Coyote win against the hated Flames, my son and I found ourselves drawn to the Canadian crowd behind the Calgary bench as we watched the pre-game warmup. If there were a unifying Canadian symbol, it would have to have something to do with Hockey. But what about a similar symbol for the Christian community. Again, an image came to mind. The hockey game was on Thursday. On Wednesday my son and I had tickets to see the Phoenix Suns play the Boston Celtics. Different arena, different sport … but as we bumped our way into the stadium, I noticed another symbol. There was a large number of people in the crowd with smudges on their foreheads … Ash Wednesday, don’t you know. I must confess, there was a part of me that wanted a smudge on my forehead if for any other reason to be able to sense, in the crowd, that I – too – was one "of them." I realize that it’s not very Baptist of me to say it, but there is something quite compelling about the power of ritual and deep symbol. Maybe it’s part of this yearning for a tangible sense of identity and community that has animated a revival of interest in the “new Evangelicals” as named by Robert Webber toward ritual and orthodoxy. Back to this morning. As I returned to my office, I read an article by Nathan Bierma in the Christianity Today daily newsletter, The Shape of Faith. It was a review of two books, both of them historical studies of the ancient Christian practice of the sign of the cross: The Sign of the Cross: The Gesture, the Mystery, the History by Andreas Andreopoulos, and The Sign of the Cross: Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayer by Bert Ghezzi. Again, I confess that I was fascinated by the study. As Bierma writes, Protestants have traditionally dismissed the act as “a Catholic thing.” But, the fact is that it has roots much deeper into the early church and practice that extend beyond the Reformation. In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther prescribed the practice because of the powerful potential for physical demonstration and the remembrance of deeper meanings. As Bierma writes, the faithful can treasure the multitude of meanings behind symbols. It is something that identifies community: the sign, as an act, small it may be, expresses the impetus of crossing the threshold between thinking in theological terms and practicing the Christian life. So, I linger on the question with a sense of wonder. How do we, as Baptists, create a sense of identity not just as a human community, but as members of a heavenly family?
Life, death, hell, and worlds unknown, hang on the preaching and the hearing of a sermon. — Charles Haddon Spurgeon
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