This past week sport climbing made its Olympic debut, combining the disciplines of bouldering, lead, and speed to challenge teams from around the world. There were exciting match ups and disappointments. Jacob Schubert was the only person to top the 45-foot lead wall and Slovenian Janja Garnbret dominated the women’s bouldering competition, setting herself up for eventually claiming gold. The U.S.’s Brooke Raboutou, whose image has adorned my daughter’s wall, came in second for bouldering, but wasn’t able to score well enough in the other disciplines to secure a medal.
The Olympic climbing competition was particularly exciting of my family because for the past few years, following the lead of my oldest daughter Lily, my family has become dedicated to the sport. A few times a week we go to the Little Rock Climbing Center and occasionally we venture outdoors, visiting the sandstone bouldering mecca at Cowell or top roping at Rattlesnake Ridge.
One of the things I love about entering into a new sport is the vocabulary it brings. Every sport has special words, and climbing’s blend of technical skill and unique culture makes it no exception. For instance, if you climb to the top of a route you have “sent” it. “Choss” is the moss and dust that can get in your eyes while climbing outside. A “sandbag” is a climb that is judged to be harder than advertised. A “project” is a climb one is working on, but have not yet completed. A “beta” is the pattern of moves needed to solve a problem or route.
Climbing is a communal sport and often a contemplative one. It’s not uncommon to walk into the bouldering area of the gym and find three guys sitting on the padded floor, looking up at a wall quietly, sometimes muttering to themselves and moving their hands through the air, following some imagined route. If you watched the Olympics, you saw these kinds of gestures from climbers like Colin Duffey of Team USA, who stood before the final lead wall moving his hands like he was clawing the air.
At other times in the gym, a group will gather around a particular climb, discussing the best way to approach it. Someone who’s sent the climb might say, in terms that sound like an esoteric incantation to outsiders, “you go left and have to Gaston on the two crimpy holds then, grab the slopper while doing a right heel hook, and dyno to the top”—with everyone listening, nodding with understanding. But just as often, a climber will simply demonstrate her beta, even posting videos on a climbing app for others to follow. The art and skill of climbing comes in understanding these moves and imagining them for one’s own body, adapting as necessary to varied heights, the different lengths of arms and legs.
A beta could be called a pattern of imitation, and though the term is limited to climbing as far as I know, it names a truth that is at the heart of all human life. We learn how to do most everything, not through discursive teaching or even the powers of reason, but by imitation. This is why thinkers from the ancient Stoics to modern self-help podcasters say that one should take care in choosing those with whom you spend time. Moral formation happens in community and has far more sway than raw facts or data on one’s decisions. To make a change in ourselves usually also requires some change in our community. We are always watching what others do and doing likewise, for good or for ill.
Our teachers, too, are those who show us the way more than simply tell us what to do or believe. If we want to rise above our current condition and abilities, then we should look to those who are where we would like to be. In Islam, the scriptures of the Koran are accompanied by the hadith—stories about the Prophet Mohammed and his early disciples. It is the hadith that provides guidance on how to be a good Muslim, whether it be offering water to puppies or hospitality to a difficult neighbor. Likewise, the Gospels are far more filled with the actions and activities of Jesus than his explicit teachings. His command to “follow me” is a command of imitation. Yet in the imitation of Jesus we find ourselves called to something more than mimicking the movements of the messiah. As Paul puts it in his letter to the churches around Ephesus, our ultimate call is to “imitate God.”
I find it hard to imagine imitating someone like Mother Theresa or living like St. Francis. It is hard for me to think that I could follow the pattern of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s moral bravery, or the sacrificial life of Martin Luther King. If these human lives are hard to follow, it seems impossible to conceive of imitating God, and yet that is what Paul calls us toward.
This audacious call is based on an even more audacious claim right at the beginning of scripture. In Genesis chapter 1, the mytho-poetic story of creation tells us that human-beings were made in God’s image. We become fully human by living into this image, by adequately reflecting God’s life in ours. This imitation will never be complete. Paul accompanies his call to imitate God with the caveat that we do so as “beloved children.” The problem is that most of us don’t even try to imitate God, even imperfectly. We have forgotten the image of which we are a reflection and so no longer seek to follow its pattern. The early Christian theologian Athanasius said that human beings are like a masterpiece that has been covered over with grime and neglect. It needs restoration, but as any restorationist will tell you, it is best to have a picture of what you are working toward.
That is where Jesus comes in. Jesus is the image of God and the image of the human being fully alive. If we want to see what human life can be, we look to Jesus; like a climber following the beta of someone who has already sent a route. The challenge is to discern what this imitation looks like, we have to take the beta and figure out how these moves will work for our bodies, our circumstances and lives. Jesus shows us what is possible, the pattern of ascent toward God, but much work is needed to make that a reality.
It is helpful here to use another word that draws from a similar Latin root. In order to imitate Jesus and thus imitate God, we need to do the work of imagination. As the philosopher Dallas Willard puts it, we should imagine, “what would Jesus do if he were us?” This question sparks a myriad of others. How would Jesus live in this body, this place, this kind of work, this history? How would Jesus live in my family and with my friends? How would Jesus live into the particular gifts and limits of my personality and mind? Finding the answers to these questions is the work of discipleship. It is endless, challenging, and exciting work. Living into the answers we find is the path toward growth and becoming.
Not long ago Lily and I were at the climbing gym, working a boulder problem. A couple of other climbers were there with similar skill levels, working the same route. We all had different bodies, different heights. One climber found his way to the top, but it required a reach that I didn’t have. I watched and imagined my own way up, trying several different sessions, until eventually I’d built the strength to finally send it. Then Lily did the same, following the beta, but making it her own until she sent it with fives and fist bumps all around. And that is how the life of discipleship goes. We look to Jesus as the image of the divine; reading the Gospels, trying on his life as our life. But in that imitating we also look to others. We look to the great exemplars of the faith, we read the lives of the saints and the biographies of people like Bonhoeffer and the stories of people like Therese of Lisieux. One beta leads to another beta, and over time we fuel our imagination with the possibilities, the varied paths of imitation—all pointed to the ascent, the life with God that lies at the top.
At the same time, we build our strengths and our capacities, we stretch and train through the disciplines of the Christian life so that we can do the things we imagine with ever greater ease. Then one day we find ourselves challenged. Someone needs our love and we can give it. Someone provokes our anger and we let it pass. A person invites our slander and we refuse. The moves that carry us up the wall are easier than they once were. We move forward with greater clarity, greater joy. “Just wait until you can send V4s one climber told me,” offering a promised land beyond my current climbing grade, “then the moves get really fun.” And so, it goes with discipleship, on and on, to the increasing joy of living into God’s life and image. We all have problems, be they bouldering routes or the mundane realities of ordinary time. The best way to send them, to experience the pleasure even in a problem, is to take a beta from someone who has already been there—“Christ who loved us, and gave himself up for us.” Amen.