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.

Polyphony of Glory

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.
Isaiah 6:3

The creeds can seem like rote, take-it-or-leave-it dogmatic moments in the liturgy, rather than expressions of hard-won, blood-stained wisdom wrung from centuries of wrestling with the meaning of God and human experience.
Tom Long

Talk about the Trinity sounds a far cry from “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Actually, the former can help illuminate the latter, and vice versa, but there are a couple of things one must keep in mind. The first is that Christian theology is a conversation that has been going on across two millenia and in countless historical situations. Taking it seriously involves the effort to become more fluent in this vast language.

The other thing to acknowledge is that each and every discipline has its unique vocabulary, from a CNA conversation in the hospital hallway to a quarterback calling plays in the offensive huddle. Theology is the kind of language that probes, clarifies, parses, distinguishes between ‘not this, not this, but this.’ One who properly uses this language admits with fear and trembling that even though words about God are “a raid on the inarticulate,” we must not settle for “the general mess of imprecision of feeling / Undisciplined squads of emotion (T.S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’). Read more

With Us to the End of the Age

Trinity Sunday
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Talk about God’s authority over all things can make people uneasy. “Authority” sounds like it might be a threat to our freedom, as when, in the movie “The Truman Show,” the director of the reality show that is Truman’s life controls every circumstance in his world. He finally speaks to Truman from the fake clouds in the set’s fake sky: “In my world, you have nothing to fear. I know you better than you know yourself….I’ve been watching you your whole life.” We cheer to see Truman refuse to live as a slave.

That kind of domination is what happens when humans try to be God, to control each other. Read more

Life Together

Trinity Sunday

Genesis 1:1-2:4
Matthew 28:16-20
2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Read in concert, the lectionary passages selected for Trinity Sunday serve up a message that builds upon itself like a well-planned progressive dinner party.

I’ve never had occasion to participate in one, but it sounds fun. You gather a group that travels together to eat at different homes for the evening. Various members are in charge of hosting a particular part of the meal. At the first stop, you enjoy appetizers and drinks, for example. The host at stop number two has prepared a main course, and stop number three features dessert.

A plan is helpful to ensure a coherent and palate-pleasing experience. The menu at each home should stand on its own, but also complement, build on or reference the others.

Welcome to a delectable party – Bon appétit! Read more

Bonds Unbroken

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
1 Corinthians 3:16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

At the start of an interview with America magazine last year, Pope Francis was asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” The Pope paused a moment before saying, “I am a sinner,” and then went on to clarify: “…but the best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”

Perhaps you, like me, take heart at these words, which sound like the fruit of hard experience, not the stale repetition of some pretty formula. Perhaps you, like me, know the wounds – many of them meticulously concealed – of broken relationships, the compounded result of a willful and persistent alienation from God and God’s Creation. Yet the maker of the Universe regards Francis, me, and you, and mercifully refuses to let our “no” be the final word. Though we’ve devoted much time and energy to severing our bonds of connection, God has not, does not, will not. Read more