To Build a Fire

It is deep now into that season of the church year when we really start blowing the dust off of neglected old language – the Holy Spirit, Pentecost, Ascension. By the time we get to the Trinity, it feels like pulling a grimy old fire extinguisher out from back behind the stove. An important enough thing to have around, but with a year’s layer of grease accumulated since the last time we checked it.

Even on good days, the doctrine of the Trinity seems like a pretty forgettable, if serviceable, tool. Then it gets taken out on Trinity Sunday like a real killjoy, to tell us what we can’t say about God and still say that we’re Christians. I have to think there’s no small part of us that wonders if it wouldn’t be far more exciting to leave the doctrinal business there, but unsaid. To experience God without surveillance or control.

That is where the Trinity seems to find itself in the texts for the week. Not in a canon or a creed, but in use. Each passage is subtly laced with creation, redemption, sustaining. When David hymns God in Psalm 8 he looks to the work of God’s fingers. He marvels that God was mindful of mortals, and that God is majestic in all that has breath. In Proverbs 8, Wisdom is scripted as the One who works with the LORD at the beginning of all, who when beloved overcomes death, and who when found is the founding of life. And in Romans 5, when Paul marvels at his wretched flesh made whole, the persons of the Godhead are tangled together like seaweed in a net he cannot escape but be dragged to shore by. Here in act – in praising, in thinking, in weeping with joy – Christian life is flush with the fire of the unnamed triune God.

What then is the role for homoousious? For hypostatic union? Perichoresis? Is doctrine nothing more than a diligent safety patrol off in the wings to make sure we don’t catch the cathedral alight?

To see maybe why not, consider two examples from this one lay person’s life. Both deal with the trinitarian baptismal rite, and both flicker at the edges of heresy. To start off I will tell you that of the countless times I have said “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” it has, somewhat suspectly, never been spoken over a live, living person.

First, in Godly Play with children we say that “sometimes people are baptized when they are babies, or children, when they are teenagers, or grown ups, or sometimes when they are very old” and that “we have this baby doll with us to show us how it’s done.” Our white-gowned 10-inch doll has been baptized an ungodly, heretical number of times. But each time we say its name again, because “names are very important in baptism,” and “we baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

We set the stage like this. We decant “the water of creation, the dangerous water of the flood, the water the people walked through into freedom, the water Jesus was baptized in, and the water that you were, or one day will be, baptized into” and remember the works of our Father. We pass and inhale the oil of anointing as we remind ourselves that “the Holy Spirit moves on the invisible wind like the wings of a dove, going where it will, and coming to us when we need its comfort, or its power.” We say yet again how “there once was someone Who did such amazing things, and Who said such wonderful things that people had to follow Him, but they didn’t know who He was, until finally one day when they asked Him, he said, ‘I am the light”’ as we strike a match and light the Christ candle, now placed on the floor, illuminating one of the three white interlocking circles that are the backdrop to this ritual.

When the children and I play with this story, there is sometimes the faintest hint that God fills the whole space of our room. That God goes so fully before us as to include all the sacred stories of the people of God, goes down beneath us to the depths of the grave whence He comes back unflinching, and goes ahead into that mysterious victory known only to God.

And then we light candles for each child. “Name this child.” “Lena, receive the light of your baptism.” “Julie, receive the light of your baptism.” A circle of light grows in the sand, placed in the center of those three large white circles.

Playing with this language, we wonder if, somehow, included in this mystery of water, fire, and air there is not also earth. Flesh, our clay, made new by Christ’s flesh. Our bodies, brought into the mysterious life of God.

But it is not at this juncture that the theologians step in with their spray foam, to fend us off as we drift too near the pagan fourfold cosmology. Instead it is theologians and doctrine that taught us to arrange these objects in just this way in the first place. It is the studied wisdom of our mothers and foremothers that makes us know without knowing how it is that this fire is built. “From somewhere that we never see, comes everything that we do see,” says Charles Wright. Only by arranging sticks in this way and not that, does God send our cold, tired bodies the fire and water and the breath of God’s life.

There was also one time when I thought to say the words of baptism not in play, but for real. Over a 10-inch long baby with no gown. Newly dead, who died before living. It was not without dumb trepidation that I asked the parents would they want this. For a clinician it’s out of place; for a lay person and a non-living baby, quite possibly wrong.

No one who’s been there needs telling how bleak a low-slung over-lit hospital room can be. How there is no sun or promise of sun. Nothing but cold and grey. How fast the heat goes out from the body, as swiftly as from from the unmittened hands of the man in a Jack London story. How alone in the wilderness each one in a crowded room can be.

With a styrofoam cup of tap water at a cool, unneeded warmer, I said, putting one word in front of the other, “I baptize you, 21 week old daughter, born of water and now the Spirit, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And there hissed and blazed for an instant the light of 70 matches at once. The hint of a fire that could save from the cold. The structured hope of our creed the one thing that could turn a desolate room into a stage for the theater of God’s life. “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” These words are no fire extinguisher, but the paper thin bark that just might catch despite our foolish, frozen cold hands.