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The Power of the Particular

In Jewish culture, there’s a tradition known as the Day of Atonement detailed in the biblical book of Leviticus. It’s known as Yom Kippur today, and I’m woefully ignorant of what exactly goes on today. (But I’d love to learn!)

Operating off my knowledge from Leviticus then, the Day of Atonement has a number of practices surrounding it. At the heart of these practices include a sin offering in which the head priests “transfers” the sins and wickedness of the people into a goat. The goat is then led out by an appointed person into the wilderness and then is set free.

The significance here is, as the name implies, an atonement for sins. We’re not going to get into the theological significance of whether or not there is something happening on a divine level to atone for the group’s sins, but I think we can agree that there is a symbology here of wickedness, sadness, and anger being separated from the people.

Fast forward to today, and the conceptual practice still takes place in our modern era. Again, I can’t speak for how Jews celebrate Yom Kippur, but Christians pray away sins through Jesus Christ. (Fun fact: This is why Jesus is referred to often as the Lamb of God.)

One of my favorite speakers, Rob Bell, decided to revitalize this literal Day of Atonement practice in the modern church just to see what would take place. Yes, I mean he brought in a live goat, prayed the sins into the goat, and had a person walk the goat out of the building, at which point Bell would announce,

“The goat has left the building.”

And people lost their minds.

Across every instance and city he did this, audiences always had profoundly positive reactions, ranging from cheering to singing to dancing. Bell even notes one audience that started a conga line in celebration!

I guess the question is, why?

Mind you, these were mostly Christian audiences that Bell was speaking to, and as I noted, Christians already have a sin atoning practice via prayer to Jesus. Praying sins into a goat? That’s not really needed then, right?

So why aren’t we dancing after the prayer?

Of course, this is all one example to illustrate the bigger idea I’m try to convey here, and like most of my other posts, I give away that idea in the title. There is power in particular acts that abstraction and conceptualization simply cannot offer.

Chip and Dan Heath’s latest book, The Power of Moments, is all about that idea. One example they offer in that book is the idea of “college signing parties.” We’ve all seen instances of students surrounded by cameras and fanfare as they raise up the t-shirt of the university they’re going to play sports at. It’s always situated around sports, but some people decided to reimagine that. What if they held a similar ceremony where ALL students could suspensefully reveal their college of choice to family and friends?

What they found was profound indeed. This concept became a regular recurring annual ceremony, and because students looked forward to this announcement so much, they found a decline in dropouts and an increase in college enrollment?

Again, what difference should a ceremony like this really make? Either way, you’re still going to college. Why does a dramatic reveal lasting but a few seconds suddenly change the whole thing?

I could go on about this, but I think I’ll stop here. Partly because it’s 3:35am as I write this, and partly because I think you probably get the point by now. Next time you see something seemingly frivolous or extraneous, ask yourself the question, “What is going on below the surface I’m not attuned to?” Or, next time you’re trying to figure out how to really give legs to something, try wrapping it in a coat of something real and tangible. Heck, maybe it’s a literal coat. (Which I know I wouldn’t mind in this cold month of February!)

Catch you all in the next post.

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