Oh the Places You’ll Go: Amazement Parks?

Reflections from Dr. Howell

I love the way the Gospels tell us, quite a few times, that the people who saw and heard Jesus were “amazed.” It’s the only sensible response to the genius, craziness and wonder that Jesus was and is – but it’s hard to scrounge up much amazement when you’ve been to church thousands of times and read through most of your Bible more than a few times.

A virtue to travel is the chance to heighten your amazement quotient, to see something that makes your jaw drop. The more I’m amazed, the more I’m… amazed. And a particular type of travel I miss these days is to amusement parks all over the country with my son – due to competing work schedules. We never go for the parks per se. It’s their roller coasters – which we’ve ridden in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and best of all by far, Ohio, at Cedar Point.

Ten years ago, by some quirky connection, the Huffington Post asked me to write a theological reflection on – yes – roller coasters. Here’s what I gave them for publication:

“Riding roller coasters may be nothing more than sheer daredevil craziness – but I wonder if there are theological implications lying around unnoticed. There usually are when we dig in to things that seem utterly secular or just plain fun.

Or terrifying. While my son and I will burn frequent flyer miles to ride Millennium Force one more time, my wife will never, ever get on any even tame kiddie coaster. The first time I kidnapped my daughters and strapped them into Top Gun, as we clacked our way up the first hill, one shrilly pleaded for me to make it stop; the other swore she was about to throw up.

But you can’t get off; you can’t hit the brakes and stop the thing. I wonder if people quite rightly balk at the prospect of getting on the Christianity adventure, for it might just sweep you away and then it’s too late to back out. Of course, when Top Gun eased to a halt, both of my previously mortified daughters giddily asked, ‘Daddy, can we do it again?’

Statistics prove nobody gets hurt on even the steepest, speediest rides. In fact, people exiting are giggly, and get back in hour long lines to do it again. It is the abandon, the vulnerability that frightens us and yet is finally the allure. Roller coasters aren’t equipped with jet engines, or a steering wheel. It’s all about gravity – and you yield to the whims of the designer of the thing. God invented the gravity, and structured reality in a way that, if you give yourself over to it, can be a thrill. To buck the direction of the thing is foolhardy. If I pull too hard on the restraining bar, or lean way left or right, when I get off my neck hurts or my hip gets bruised.

Veteran riders hold up their hands while whooshing down the big drops or around lunatic curves. I suspect that on old-timey rides, when you weren’t as tacked down by shoulder restraints as you are on more modern rides, the hand raising was indeed a gutsy move. I wonder if Pentecostals, by percentage, raise their hands on rides more than pew-stiff mainline denominational riders.

Last time I was on the ridiculously fast Millennium Force, I raised my hands – and remembered the last time I’d raised my hands was actually just the day before, at the end of worship. After the last hymn, I stand before the congregation, raise my hands in a gesture of blessing, mutter some words, and then it’s over. As we whizzed around Millennium’s corners, I felt a rush of wind into my palms. What do I feel when I bless the people? The air seems still – but something is rushing from them to me. It’s not adulation, or even a blessing back. I think they look my way and (not counting those wishing I’d hurry so they can get to lunch) are blowing toward me something like appreciation for the worship, or more importantly, fervent wishes that it’s all true, their yearning that it won’t be just as temporary as the ninety second ride, their dreams, hopes, griefs and faith borne to the altar when I receive it into my raised palms. Now when I extend my arms, I try to detect the wind.

Recently I flew to New Jersey, not to ride a coaster, but to preach. Saturday night I was walking around and came upon a fairly tame roller coaster, bought my ticket, and got on – alone. It was fun –sort of. Roller coasters are designed when two, or four people sit side by side – rarely three, and never one. The exhilaration is heightened exponentially if you share the moment.

I do not buy those cheesy photos the amusement park people hawk of you screaming and hanging on for dear life. But I bought one, and it may be my favorite childhood photo of my son. We are on Magnum XL200; both of us have that zombie like facial squish, where the G forces press the front of your face to the side of your face – and both of us have hair flying. Noah’s mouth is wide open, and I can almost hear the delighted scream just by studying his mouth. I’m next to him, but my head is turned toward him, and I’m smiling my biggest smile ever at his larger than life smile.

Joy is communal, and we only know true joy when we notice and celebrate the joy that has infected the one we see, and love. And you never just get off the ride and walk off in silence. Whoa, that upside down loop! or The tunnel surprised me! or That reminds me of the Hulk! or I thought I was gonna die! There’s a story, an experience shared, a moment to relish. And even if you’ve ridden a great ride quite a few times, the thrill is always fresh, the edge is never lost.

I can’t get to a roller coaster every week, but I go when I can, and I reminisce with my son. I’m a rider. I’m always amazed by the ride, and feel entirely out of control – and maybe that’s the thing: the confusion. The roller coaster is a blur, for riders and spectators alike. I’m never for a second tempted to say, “That spine-tingling drop at Millennium Force is clear!” To get Jesus, it’s better to get a little dizzy, shed security, feel the plunge, and see if some of that mighty wind might blow through this place, even to my uplifted palms.”