FIRE AND WATER
January 10, 2010
Christianity is more an experience of the heart than of the mind, I believe. That is not to say that it is mindless, only that we can’t just think our way to it but must pass through the less predictable place of feelings and emotion. As such it is best told in poetry and story and song. The imagery in the texts for this day of fire and water are moving examples of how words have more than facts to tell and that the truth they tell is more than simply what can be observed and neatly categorized in organized columns of information. They are in short the words of faith that suspend the usual norms of what can be known to make room for passion and vision and they call the hearer to a deeper place than we usually think to go.
The prophet and poet Isaiah speaks of passing through the waters and walking through fire and we know without knowing that this is about something more than water and fire. It is about the struggle of living and the dangerous road that every life must take on a journey that begins in pain and ends in pain and is tested all along the way and the poet/prophet uses this imagery to help us feel more than know that through it all God is not only with us but protects us, delivers us, delivers us through the travails of birth and death, through the sufferings and tumults of living, through the mountain passes and the rushing rivers unto the very valley of the shadow of death, through fire and water, through it all God delivers his people.
It is over the waters that God moved in the very beginning as the earth itself was created. Life itself is contained in this word, water. Fire brought light but also destruction. The psalmist also a poet saw God moving over the waters again with a voice like thunder proclaiming the Lord over mighty waters, the waters of life. Fire is there also in the beginning and in the end.
“It ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living Fire, in measures being kindled and in measures going out.”
It should not surprise us to find the beginning of Jesus ministry to the world in the river, in the water where it is John who knows that his baptism of water is only the opening to the baptism by fire that is to come. It is water that destroyed the creation the first time and it is unquenchable fire that that will burn the chaff this time. Fire and water as symbols of meaning carry double weight as life and as death, as creation and destruction. Maybe this is what another poet meant when he wrote :
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
(Four Quartets, Eliot)
All of this is to say that this is serious business. Life is hard and dangerous and there is so much that can go wrong with us but that is not all. There is a God who, taken seriously, can provide what we need to live fully this life. We are tempted to escape by way of the frivolous and superficial but there is no escape, no place to hide. The waters are deep and they call us to wade in by faith and live. There is no escape from the fire but which fire will consume us, the fire that creates life or the fire that destroys life?
We dare not take lightly this baptism of water and fire for it is the Spirit, also represented as flame, that moves us beyond our own experience to see the many splendored thing that is of God and can only be seen with the eyes of the heart. The poet Isaiah said in a thundering voice: Do not be afraid for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine. These are the words of God spoken through the prophet and they are the words that carry the meaning of our baptism to its deepest place, a place in the river where Jesus is named as the beloved son and the place at our own baptism when we are named by God because we belong to God and our name is beloved, too and this place in God is forever unshaken by the changes of life and death and any suffering that ensues but solid as a rock, yet another poetic word, a metaphor that helps us to feel what is happening even before we know what is happening. And what is happening that is happening is that we are being delivered, delivered from captivity, delivered from fear, delivered from death. And if we are not moved by this deliverance of God it is because we are not paying enough attention. We are numb to what really matters because we are too busy and too confused to care about anything else but the barest facts and the smallest details of getting from one place to another. We have hardened our hearts to the splendor, we turn from the light because we dare not hope the wrong thing. Again it is the poet who speaks to our greatest fear:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Yet it is the truth that holds us before we even know our own name and the truth that holds the universe from its inception to its unknown future days and it is the truth that will set us free from the usual way of thinking and remembering and carrying on as if nothing really mattered at all. And it is faith that unlocks the heart and gives us eyes to see the light and the courage to wait without hope and without love so that hope and love will come and we will know what is true. We often say in our hearts that when we see it then we will believe it but what if it is the other way around and it is not until we believe that we have any chance of seeing? “Launch into the deep,” says Jacques Ellul, “and you shall see.” And what is belief in impossible things but a radical leap of the heart into the depths in order to transcend what we can know to trust what we can only hope for. The poet is correct when he warns against hoping for the wrong thing. Only God can deliver us. Only God can save us. News flash: We are not going to save ourselves. No amount of knowledge or good will can bridge the gap between us. Only when we wade into the water, when we walk through the fire and risk everything we ever hoped for will we know what hope is and we will know that God is real and reality goes deeper, much deeper than what we yet know to hope for, deeper than what the world will tell us is true, deeper than what we thought we needed to get by.
Don’t you feel it? Surely it is not just me. We have been secularized, modernized to the point that we struggle to feel it but that is what the big nothing does. You don’t feel a thing. Something is just missing. Well it is more than something that is missing, it is life itself that is slipping away before we ever really live it. Dillard was right when she wrote: God used to rage at the Israelites for frequenting the sacred groves. I wish I could find one. Martin Buber says: “The crisis of all primitive mankind comes with the discovery of that which is fundamentally not-holy, the a-sacramental, which withstands the methods, and which has no ‘hour’, a province which steadily enlarges itself.” Now we are no longer primitive; now the whole world seems not-holy. We have drained the light from the boughs in the sacred grove and snuffed it in the high places and along the banks of sacred streams. (Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard)
“Then one day I was walking along the Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all, and I saw the tree with lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard)
And we are so far gone from the sacred groves and the holy rivers that we no longer even miss them. There are no lights in the trees. The grass is not on fire. We don’t see that this is a problem. We accept the modern version of life with it’s material realities as the final truth. We have enslaved the fire and water to heat our homes and flush our toilets and we have everything under control except that our world is blowing up and violence rages everywhere and it is more and more difficult to know who is telling us the truth.
But the fire is unquenchable and the water is mighty and deep and God still has something to tell us about the truth and we listen or not, open our hearts or harden them further against the light to hold off surrendering to the power of God and of the love that matters because we can’t know where it will take us. We prefer the rocks and the desert of own wilderness in the vast starless night because maybe we are more afraid of love than of death.
Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain,
Spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit till
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto thee.
God said: Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
And God said: You are my beloved.
Fire and water. Life and death. Dare we hear God’s everlasting command to choose.
Always there is the choice to rise up and live or turn away and die. Always. Come to the river. See the fire in the trees, the fire that comes from above. Wade in the water. Choose to live. God is gonna trouble the water and God is going to redeem God’s people. God will deliver us through the fire and through the water. Amen and Amen.
Office hours at 421 Common Street in Belmont (phone: 617-489-0730) are:
Monday through Friday
9:00 AM to 3:00 PM
Office hours at 80 Mt. Auburn Street in Watertown (phone: 617-926-2931):are
Tuesday and Thursday
4:00 - 6:30 PM
The United Methodist Church