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.

Amazed

Pentecost
Acts 2: 1-21

I am a sucker for wonder. I love to see a waxing or waning moon at twilight, when you can just make out its three-dimensionality. I jump at the chance to look through a telescope at Saturn, and admit to the occasional, brief squint at the sun—that massive ball that is, for us, a constant, consistent, continuous explosion of the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium. Recently, I experienced a glimpse of the sacred, for me a holy moment, while watching a CGI animation of the Earth’s magnetic field dispersing the lethal solar wind that would otherwise strip off our protective ozone layer. A giant shield surrounding the planet, our magnetic field means we can bike to the bakery for bread, through a gentle breeze, without fear of burning to a crisp; it means that you and I can exist. Read more

Worshiping the Ascended King

Note: This blog post concerns the lectionary passages for the Feast of the Ascension (May 30, 2019), which can be observed on the Sunday afterward (June 2, 2019).

The ascension is an oft-neglected feature of Jesus’ story. There are several possible reasons for this. First, conceptually the ascension seems to some to be an understood part of Christ’s resurrection. Along these lines, several Pauline texts are not always clear in distinguishing Christ’s resurrection from his ascension (see Ephesians 4:8-10). Second, not even all the gospels discuss the ascension. In fact, only one gospel explicitly mentions this occurrence. Finally, because the ascension occurs forty days after the resurrection, its commemoration always lands on a Thursday, leaving it prone to be forgotten between the sixth and seventh Sundays of Easter. For all of these reasons (and perhaps many more), it is good to examine the lectionary texts appointed for this occasion. Read more

Revolutionary Relationships

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 16:9-15
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
John 14:23-29

“Whoever loves me will keep my word. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” John 14:23, CEB

“If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” Acts 16:15, NRSV

“And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” Revelation 21:10, NRSV

Now hear the good news of the Gospel: God has come to make God’s home among us. This is indeed Good News! Read more

Defiant Requiem

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Revelation 21:1-6

I have read Revelation 21:1-6 at numerous funerals, and have done so as tenderly as I could for the sake of those who were grieving. In that setting, I believe that was the right tone of comfort and hope. But this passage is far from a lullaby. Other tones ring out from these words, which is why it is important we read them on occasions other than funerals. Read more

Desperate and Joyful

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17

Reading the book of Revelation always takes me back to the years my family and I spent down south. In the mountains of east Tennessee, we were fed a steady apocalyptic diet just driving around town. Revelation showed up on homemade county highway signs warning, “Repent! Jesus is coming back! Get right…or get left!” complete with little hand-painted flames at the bottom. After nearly twenty years living up north, I miss those signs more than I ever knew I would. Maybe not the flames so much, but the announcement that there’s another reality out there—something beyond our culture, our country, something beyond ourselves. There’s something more to hope for, and God is responsible for it. And that something is so big, it belongs on a billboard in giant red letters. Read more

By the Sea, on the Road

Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 9:1-6(7-20)
John 21:1-19

A few years ago, my wife Lisa and three young kids joined me for the first time at the EP Gathering in Chicago, making a family vacation of it. During the time we spent in that metropolis, we took in some museums, visited Lake Michigan, and saw the fish at the aquarium. It was a busy few days. But of all the things we did, simply getting around might have been the most stressful. For kids used to walking down the sidewalks of Erwin, Tennessee (population 8,000), attempting to navigate the hustle and bustle of a city of millions was a new experience altogether, and as a parent, it was important to me to make sure they did it safely. It was up to me and Lisa to take their hands when we came to a busy intersection. It was up to me and Lisa to speak clearly and sometimes firmly as we gave instructions about how we were going to catch a bus or hop on a train before the doors closed.

Throughout those few days in Chicago, our chief responsibilities as parents were to keep everyone together and to keep everyone safe. The kids’ chief responsibilities were simply to trust us, to listen to us, and of course, to obey us. It’s hard to be an adult sometimes. But it’s hard to be a kid, too. Responsibility is hard. So is dependence. And for those of us called to follow Christ, living in that tension is sometimes the hardest thing of all. Read more

The Art of Discernment

Acts 5:27-32
John 20:19-31
This season, when we boldly proclaim our Lord’s resurrection, doesn’t seem like prime discernment time. Surely, that’s for the anticipatory seasons of Advent, and maybe Lent? Surely, in the face of something as amazing as the resurrection, we are no longer at the point of careful discernment but rather at the point of charging ahead! Yet I suggest that this week’s readings speak to us of the importance of discernment and of careful reflection, even and especially in the midst of the excitement of the resurrection. Perhaps this is all the more important in our contemporary, fast-paced, efficient culture! Read more

He is Risen, Indeed!

Easter Sunday
Acts 10:34-43
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Luke 24:1-12

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!

These words will roll off the tongues of Easter worshippers this coming Sunday, proclaimed with a seemingly naive brazenness, given the world’s current state of affairs.

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!

The gathered Church will proclaim this as Truth as they point to flowered crosses and release butterflies into the springtime sky. But while it’s certainly joyous news that after the long gray of winter, bright sunshine and vibrant color will again have their season, the Easter proclamation is not meant to be a weather report. Rather, it is the radical declaration that God’s good future has erupted into our now: it is here, in the present, smack in the middle of history, in the midst of this world’s pain, standing among our broken dreams.

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!

But if the Resurrection is real and the tomb is empty, where is the Risen Christ? Would we know him if he was standing right in front of us?

Like the women at the tomb, I suspect that if we are going to find the risen Christ, we will first have to learn to name the signs of Resurrection in our midst and claim them as signs of hope. This will mean recognizing and abandoning our tendency to “look for the living among the dead.” We are as inclined as they were to misunderstand what Jesus foretold to his disciples: that he would be crucified, dead and buried, and then raised on the third day. Like those women and disciples at the tomb that first Easter, we know all the words Jesus said, and believe we have all manner of faith in God’s ultimate triumph over the forces of sin and death so clearly at work in this world. Yet we live and work and play as if that triumph is but an unrealized longing. We have become quite comfortable inhabiting a world where death is the norm, and we arrange our affairs and hedge our bets accordingly.

In his novel The Second Coming, Walker Percy writes:

Death in this century is not the death people die but the death
people live. Men love death because the real death is better than
the living death… Here are the names of death, which shall not
prevail over me because I know the names…

Death in the guise of God and America and the happy life of home and family and friends is not going to prevail over me…

Death in the guise of belief is not going to prevail over me, for believers now believe anything and everything and do not love the truth, are in fact in despair of the truth, and that is death.

Death in the guise of unbelief is not going to prevail over me, for unbelievers believe nothing, not because truth does not exist but because they have already chosen not to believe, and would not believe, cannot believe, even if the living truth stood before them, and that is death…

Death in the form of isms and asms shall not prevail over me, orgasm, enthusiasm, liberalism, conservatism, Communism, Buddhism, Americanism, for an -ism is only another way of despairing of the truth…

Death in none of its guises shall prevail over me because I know all the names of death.

The American dream, with its attendant security. Sex. Alcohol. Drugs. Wealth. Power. Notoriety. Do we know all the names of death in our world?

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Can we learn to recognize the places and things in and through which we seek life, that are in truth nothing more than pretty flowers ephemerally masking the stench of death?

The Easter proclamation stops us in our tracks and catches us as surprised and fearful as those women on the first Easter morning. While we are on our way to anoint death in a graveyard, life has broken into the world. As the men on the road to Emmaus would learn that same day, it takes a different kind of vision to see and know the risen Christ. It takes new eyes, rather than eyes trained to seek salvation in the living death.

The work of Easter, then, is this: To point to death and name it as death. Then, to find and point to evidence of resurrection in this world, and name it as life. And this is the thing: it might be where we least expect it. But it is there nonetheless, a sign of God’s good future here, in the present, smack in the middle of history, in the midst of this world’s pain, standing among our broken dreams:

It may be found on Tuesday evenings at Reality Ministries, where a community of belonging is created when youth and adults with and without developmental disabilities come together for food and prayer and play. It may be found amongst members of the Holy Friendship Collaborative as they walk alongside those bound in the chains of opioid addiction in Southern Appalachia. In Athens, Ohio, the folks of Good Works, Inc are “believing people back to life” through a ministry of hospitality that proves that the forces of life and love are stronger than the forces of death. There is evidence of resurrection at Central Women’s Prison in Raleigh, NC where a woman convicted of murder receives a weekly visit from a member of a group of laity who have come faithfully for over 20 years.

It is the Body of Christ claiming victory over the powers of sin, death, isolation, and despair. It is visible evidence of a community that defies the kingdoms of this world. It is hope and life revealed in the breaking of bread. It is what happens each and every time the Church gathers around the Eucharist table to share in Christ’s broken body and blood and we proclaim his death and resurrection until he comes in glory. It is the new life of Resurrection.

This Sunday, whether we gather in the majesty of a towering cathedral or in the humility of a few friends around a table, the great mystery and miracle of Easter abounds. As we receive the grace of Christ’s Table, may all of our eyes be opened to see evidence of God’s resurrection victory in the unlikely and ragtag communities in which we gather. When the proclamation rings out: Christ is Risen! May we look around with awe and respond with joy: He is risen indeed!

Palms, Permaculture, and the Passion

Palm Sunday

Luke 19:28-40

Philippians 2:5-11

Luke 22:14-23:56

Last Fall, I spent ten intensive days studying permaculture with Chris Grataski–a theologically astute, justice driven, ecological designer. Sitting with a group of students around folding tables in a cramped upstairs classroom in my church, we had our minds opened to a whole new way of thinking about life and human relationships with the whole of creation. Chris offered many definitions of permaculture, but the most robust, if my notes serve me, was this: “Permaculture is a principled design discipline concerned with the cultivation of high-biodiversity human habitats where the needs and desires of the human community are met through serving the needs and desires of the non-human community.”

Chris went on to reflect theologically about the nature of the permaculture design philosophy, arguing that it is essentially kenotic, and more that, there is an underlying kenotic nature to the whole of creation. If we seek to serve our own ends, we end up with a world that is depleted and diminished; if we seek to make room for the life of others, for their own flourishing, then we will join in wholeness that is also health–our own humanity will come into its fullness.

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