Touching Fire

Prometheus Bound by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1611-1618, Philadelphia Museum

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 12:49-56

If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s. — Joseph Campbell

The Greeks told the story of the Titan Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to men. He knew that the gift of fire would raise humanity to a new plane, and he knew that he would be condemned to eternal torment for his gift. To put it another way, Prometheus sacrificed himself for the good of humanity. It is a hero tale that in many ways foreshadows the story of Jesus.

Fire is such a strange thing. It seems to have all of the qualities of a living being—it grows, consumes, even reproduces itself. Fire seems to move of its own will, dancing, even speaking to us with the crackling voice of heat. Fire is sometimes a result, sometimes a cause. Either way, it changes things.

Fire may define what it means to be human. We once said that our use of tools separated us from other animals, but then we began watching apes more closely. And otters. And crows. We talked about our problem-solving abilities, but there were still the apes, the otters, and the crows, not to mention octopi escaping from aquariums and opening jars with their sucker lined arms. We went on and on about our opposable thumbs, as though we had produced them ourselves from sheer will and determination, but then we noticed raccoons calmly opening our trash cans, and we gave up talking about thumbs so much. A few souls pointed out that we farm and keep livestock and train animals to work for us, but even ants tend aphids, milking them for whatever one milks from an aphid. Then we noticed the cats, watching us with amusement as we performed the duties they had trained us to do.

Not even cats have learned to use fire.

One of my grandmothers had a fiery disposition. If she loved you, all was warm and well in your world. If she disapproved, or worse, if she thought a thing truly wrong—taking advantage of the weak was one of the worst sins—then she would flare up, hot with anger. She was a remarkable woman, and she changed things. She refined the people around her.

Folio 14v of the Rabula Gospels (Florence, Biblioteca Mediceo Laurenziana, cod. Plut. I, 560), Pentecost
Pentecost, from the Rabula Gospels, 6th century

Scripture often describes God in terms of fire, but never as ice, not that I have ever found. It cannot be simply that ancient Judeo-Christian writers were men and women who lived in warm climates. Ice has more to do with death than with life; no one ever tried to gather ice in order to stay alive, unless one counts the igloos of the far north, but even there it is the warmth inside that keeps people alive.

The same fire that burns chaff will bake bread. Fire gives warmth, gives light, consumes. It creates and destroys.

When Jesus says he has come to bring fire, he likely means something of both—creation and destruction. Perhaps it is impossible to do the one without the other. Some things need tearing down, refining. The heat of a forge destroys the old nature of metals even as it creates new qualities.

Sometimes we just need to bring a little light into a dark corner. Sometimes we need to bake our bread or forge a new life. Sometimes we need to burn the whole house down.

The Jesus story is about freeing and forging, burning down barriers and lies and the walls of our own self-deception. It is the story of burning coals and the catharsis of fire, but it is also the story of a smaller fire within us, the lamp lighting our path. Reaching out to God is like touching fire. The fire of the Spirit may refine us or consume us or light our path, all depending on our response.

Prometheus Bound by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1611-1618, Philadelphia Museum
Prometheus Bound by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1611-1618

Three Strangers and Other Odd Notions

Trinity Sunday | John 16:12-15

Three Strangers and Other Odd Notions

God is one, and the one are three. Together they walk, in Trinity. –Folk Rhyme

The notion of the Trinity is one of the oddest ideas of Christianity. It’s a strange concept. You may well question the usefulness of it, whether there is any practical application. There is. Just stick with the theology for a minute.

Building on the older Jewish teaching that God is one, which was a contrast to the more common polytheism of the ancient world—Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One—Christianity developed the understanding that within this one being are the three persons of God: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

The Trinity, by Masaccio c.1427
The Trinity, by Masaccio c.1427

The descriptive references to the Father and Son and Holy Spirit are already present in various New Testament writings, but a fully developed idea of the Trinity took a while longer. For some three centuries, early Christian theologians debated and discussed the idea (modern theologians still do), trying to understand the relationship between each of the three persons of God, and trying to find language to express it.

Words like homoousios (ὁμοούσιος) and perichoresis (περιχώρησις) crept into Christian thought. The persons of God are homoousios—of the same substance or essence. They exist in perichoresis—in and around and interconnected to one another, distinct but inseparable.

Let’s put it this way. Christianity holds that God, in and of God’s self, before and after and outside of time and outside of all that is (if such concepts are imaginable), exists as one God in three persons, one being in three and three beings in one, in eternal relationship.

There is practical theology here. Thinking of God as the Trinity has powerful implications for what it means to be human.

At the center of God, within the irreducible idea of God, one does not find a singularity, a separate and lone being. On the contrary, at the center of God, one finds relationship.

That means, theologically speaking, that the entire basis of our universe is relational. The universe and everything in it is intrinsically relational, because it was all the creative expression of a God who is intrinsically relational.

Because God reveals God’s own self as relational, all of us are relational. To avoid relationship, to ignore the interconnectedness of all of us and of everything around us, is to lose the best part of ourselves, to miss the mark, to fail at being fully human.

Yes, you can reach a similar conclusion through psychology, or sociology, or philosophy, or ethics. All of those approaches tell us that to be intentionally connected to the people and society around us is healthy, beneficial, desirable. The theological approach—that we should practice relationship because we are the expression of a relational God—takes one more step. Being relational doesn’t just make us healthier or more balanced, and it doesn’t just make the world a safer and saner place. Being relational means that we are living in harmony with God, that we are, in fact, an expression of the creative will of God.

You might believe that God created an Adam and an Eve out of clay. You might believe that God used the same clay, the same stardust, over millenia, cell by cell and gene by gene, to form humanity. You might believe God had nothing to do with it. It doesn’t matter. In the end, none of these positions have a tremendous effect on the way you relate to other people and to yourself.

The idea of the Trinity? Far from being the esoteric past-time of religious intellectuals (not an oxymoron, despite the anti-intellectual behavior of some Christians), the theology of the Trinity is powerfully, insistently practical. To the extent that Christians embrace this revelation of God, we must embrace the world—all of the world.

That is to say, God as Trinity would have us embrace those who are not like us, those who do not look or act or sound like us, those who believe in God, those who believe in something other than God, those who believe in nothing at all. God would have us embrace all of these, including the least of these, the criminal, the poor, the broken, and the unlikeable.

It is in looking at our neighbors that we see God, and it is in reaching out to them that we touch God.


Song of a Man Who has Come Through

by D.H.Lawrence

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine wind that takes its course though the chaos of the world
Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;
If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge
Driven by invisible blows,

The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.

Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,
I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,
Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.

What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.

No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.

Masaccio, The Trinity (closeup), c.1427
Masaccio, The Trinity (closeup), c.1427

Peace Like a Waterfall

Waterfall

Pentecost | John 14:8-27

Peace Like a Waterfall

We don’t always know what we have inside us. That is true in more ways than we care to imagine.

Science tells us that there are as many nonhuman cells in our bodies as human ones, at least by number if not volume. (Here’s a link to a recent article on Nature.com.) As repelling as the thought of trillions of bacteria roaming our skin and gullet may be, we appear to benefit from their presence. Something we usually don’t realize is there, something we think is alien to our biology, turns out to be essential to our well being.

Nature is astonishing. Icky, revolting, but also beautiful and astonishing.

Toward the end of his ministry, Jesus spoke to his followers about his eminent return to God, though what he said must have been baffling to the disciples. He spoke of sending an Advocate, another different aspect of God to dwell with them, alongside them, within them.

StreamThey must have wondered what he was talking about. There was no developed idea of a Trinitarian form of God. These disciples did not have any thought-out model of God as One in Three, no Father, Son and Spirit. His followers had barely wrapped their minds around the notion that this Jesus was himself, somehow, from God and of God. Now he was talking about sending someone else, the Spirit of God, to them.

They had some notion of the Spirit. The stories of the prophets prepared them a little. Elijah had the Spirit of God upon him, didn’t he? They had heard that much when the scripture was read. And didn’t Elisha, his servant, ask for a double portion of the Spirit to come upon him as Elijah left him? It was not an entirely new idea, but getting from those old stories, even in scripture, to one’s own life? That was a reach.

It is still a reach.

If we spend any time at all in the world of Christianity, then we become used to certain ideas. Sin is easy enough—we all have a pretty good grasp on how to fall short, and other people are generally helpful in pointing out our failings. Repentance, now, is a bit more difficult, especially as we often confuse our regret at being caught with the notion of genuine repentance. We tend to substitute belief for actual faith, preferring to cling to a litany of ideas about God rather than attempting, or expecting, to engage with God, particularly a God we cannot see or hear or touch. That last thought brings us to the problem of Pentecost—the Christian teaching about the Spirit of God falling onto the faithful.

In the book called Acts, we read of the Spirit falling upon the disciples like tongues of fire falling from the sky. Those on whom the fire fell, those imbued with the Spirit of God, are changed, empowered, and they begin acting and feeling and talking differently than before the fire fell. John’s Gospel tells another version, the minority report, if you will. Here, Jesus speaks of the Spirit in quiet conversation. He himself breathes on the disciples, telling them to receive the Spirit of God. There are no flames falling from the sky, no tumult in the marketplace, and the followers remain much as they were: quiet, thoughtful, perhaps wondering whether anything had changed.

We still wonder.

Come, they tell us, become a Christian, be baptized, receive the Spirit of God, and so we respond. And then we wait. Perhaps there is a feeling of euphoria at making a commitment. We may feel moved by the sensations of baptism, the water and the litany of words. Sooner or later, the feelings fail, and we are left wondering. Is there anything in us that is of God? Is the Spirit of God real if we cannot feel it, touch it?

Sitting by a stream, it is difficult to hear the sound it makes. If there is more water, a river instead of a stream, then we begin to perceive the susurrus of the water. The murmur of the water was there in the stream, of course, though we did not hear it.RapidsUnderTree

We become accustomed to sounds, even accustomed to the most astounding conditions, sounds, and sights. Stand by a waterfall long enough, and our minds grow used to the roar and crash of the water. It becomes something that we know is there, but that we no longer notice, like a heartbeat.

Science tells us that our minds have developed to mask the sound of our own heart. (Here’s a link to the short abstract of a recent article.) Otherwise, the sound of the organ that pumps to keep us alive would drive us insane. Perhaps that is something of the way the Spirit of God works—the masking part, not the insanity.

If God is real, if as Christianity claims God is greater than everything we can comprehend, then perhaps a true glimpse of God would leave us staggered, blind, insane. Instead, perhaps this Spirit of God who may sometimes, for a moment, flash like firelight, chooses to fill our lives like the sound of the wind in the leaves, or like the murmur of water flowing past. It may be that at Pentecost, and all the other days, we should not look for God on the mountain tops like Moses. God surely is on the mountains, if God is anywhere, but most of us do not live our lives up there.

We are more likely to hear the still small voice of God in the everyday things, the sunlight, birdsong, the voice of a stranger. Instead of expecting fire to fall from the sky, we should listen for the steady susurrus of the Spirit, the quiet murmur of God.

Waterfall

Holding On

Blowing Bubbles

Second Sunday of Easter | John 20:19-31

Holding On

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  How people love to argue over that passage. Hold on, though, don’t turn away just yet—past the arguments, there may be something useful here, something practical.

It is no surprise that the Church has argued over this Jesus saying, much as they have over so many other passages, so many other notions, so many other lines in the sand. The world around us, and sometimes the world within us, is full of lines, walls, cracks, divides, most of them no more real or substantial than the edge of a cloud. People push other people away, or draw them closer, all for their relative positions, their ideas, their sexuality, their color, their religion or absence of one, their poverty or wealth, their education or ignorance.

None of that is particularly useful.

Oh, there are all sorts of theological arguments and ideas, if you are inclined to that sort of thing. Much of it comes down to who has power and authority over whom, which seems to miss the point. For instance, was the power of forgiveness (or the power to withhold it) given only to the twelve (or the eleven who were left after Judas) and so by implication limited to their spiritual descendants, the ordained priests who claim to trace their line unbroken through the patchy bits of history to the select few who received the Spirit of God from Christ himself? Or, is this forgiveness (or lack of it) tied solely to baptism, limited to entrance into the Church? Or, is Jesus talking about sins committed prior to baptism or those that follow it? And what sort of sin is he talking about, and just what constitutes a sin anyway…?

Blowing BubblesYou see why I say none of it is useful. Nothing in those arguments will get us through a dark night of the soul. There is nothing that would even brighten a cloudy afternoon. It is like giving a thirsty child a cup of honey–it’s very nice, but it won’t help.

Wait it a moment, though. How about this idea of retaining and forgiving, holding and releasing? There might be something useful in there.

How about the burdens we carry? You know, the ones we hold onto. And how about sin, however we understand it (it’s a bit like pornography — we know it when we see it), our own and that of others? We don’t really need to define sin to know it. Or experience it. Or regret it. Or do it, whether it is against God, or against other people, or against ourselves.

Burdens. Sins. Short fallings. Disappointments. Mistakes. Regrets. Injuries. Loss. I don’t know yours, and anyway yours are probably different than mine. We all have them, all of these things, in different measures and degrees and times, but we all have them.With a Bubble

This Gospel claims that God empowers people to hold onto these burdens or to lay them down. More than that, it claims that this Spirit of God empowers people to help someone else do the same thing — to let go, to lay down a burden, or perhaps the opposite, to hold onto something precious, to carry a responsibility, to keep a shoulder to the wheel.

After all, the things we carry are not always burdens, and being unfettered and unburdened is not always freedom.

And who gets such power to hold or to release, to forgive or to be forgiven? Well, in this Gospel, Jesus was talking to everyone who was there. He breathed the Spirit of God into everyone present. There is no list of names, no picking this one but not that one. They are just called οἱ μαθηταὶ (mathetai, from the same word that gives us “mathematics”, or ‘that which is learned’.) These are the disciples, all who were there, without limitation.

Jesus breathed onto his followers so that they might breathe in the Spirit of God. It is the image and symbolism of God breathing life into the world all over again.

It is a creation story, a new beginning. It is a love story. It is the miracle of forgiveness and of healing, the Easter story of God-whom-we-killed returning to fill us with the life that imbues all creation.

It is the power of letting go of what needs to be let go. It is the power of holding on to what needs to be kept and carried. And it is for everyone, the very breath of God.
__________

From this same Gospel, compare John 8:31-32: Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Blowing Bubbles

Trinity

Trinity Sunday  |  John 3:1-17

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

BrownGrassesIt is the most Christian of beliefs—the idea of the Trinity. Other religions and story traditions have saviour figures, even gods and heroes who die and are resurrected. Other religions espouse multiform expressions of the divine—little gods, greater gods, gods of every shape, form, nature and purpose.

Only Christianity embraces the concept of the Trinity, three in one, one God expressed in three persons: God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit. There are all sorts of explanations, endless theological views, all manner of descriptions. We have a host of clever illustrations. Clover leaves. Pretzels.

Though we claim we believe that God is one, we act as though these three persons were separate, untethered, more like generations of a family than aspects of one God.

Take God the Father. When we speak of God the Creator, we think of the Father. After all, how could the universe have come into being if God did not have a long white beard? Ridiculous question? Fine, you try to imagine it without those paintings in the Sistine Chapel popping into your head.

And who does evangelical Christianity expect to return but God the Son? It is  Jesus, riding on a cloud, surrounded by angels, never the Spirit, and almost never the Father unless one’s church is particularly inclined toward judgment and hellfire. No, it is almost always the Son, with a beard that is darker and shorter. You know it is true. Look at the illustrations in any illustrated Bible. The Father is left behind somewhere, and the Spirit is nowhere to be seen while a very intense and fairly young man rides into the picture with clouds and angels.

God the Spirit is more radical. We have our pet images, to be sure—a white dove, the fire of pentecost, even the wild geese of Irish tradition. (The Irish were always a little different. Ask them yourself if you don’t believe me, and they will proudly own up to it.) Like fire and wind, the Spirit is unpredictable, difficult to describe.

All of these images of God have one thing in common: each is an expression of what we expect to get from God. That’s right—our ideas about God spring from what we expect from God and what we want from God. From the Father we expect power and knowledge, and so we imagine a white haired king. The Son gives us ferocity of love, the healing touch, restoration, and so we imagine the energy of youth. The Spirit meets our desire for the mystical, for mysterious inner communion with the God who is Other.Candle In Darkness

God does not live to meet our expectations. Our concept of the Trinity enables us to contemplate the Otherness of God, but the Otherness that is God does not exist to fulfill our conceptualization.

In other words, we may be a little like God, but God is not like us. And our faith should not be concerned with whether God meets our expectations. Our faith should not be based on what we hope to receive from God. Our faith should be simply that God is, for God’s own sake, in God’s own way.

In his novel Looking for Alaska, John Green retells this story:

Rabe’a al-Adiwiyah, a great woman saint of Sufism, was seen running through the streets of her hometown, Basra, carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked her what she was doing, she answered, ‘I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell, and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for want of heaven or fear of hell, but because He is God.’”

[Green, John (2008-08-14). Looking for Alaska (p. 174). Penguin Young Readers Group. Kindle Edition.]

The point this wonderful woman made is remarkably similar to the conclusions of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). In his work On Loving God, Bernard explored the various reasons we might love ourselves, others and God. While we might love God for those things we seek to receive, or in response to the power or abilities of God, the greatest reason to love God is God—loving God for God’s sake, without thought of gain or obligation.

Trinity Sunday is a perfect time to examine what we expect from God. It is a day to confess what we hope to receive in exchange for our acceptance, devotion, worship, and faith. All of that needs to be put aside. We may even, for the moment, lay aside our understanding of God as these three relatively defined persons.

At the end of our theology and our understanding, there is faith. Somewhere beyond our expectations and our explanations, God is who God is. In our moments of deep need, we are not seeking anything from God. We are seeking the presence of God.

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