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Images of faith: High flyers and hidden fire

Posted by Ron George on July 7, 2008

Holy Spirit Independence Day

Faithful reason engages a Spirit of holy wildrife

The Prayer of the Church: Lord God Almighty, in whose name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Reflections

Sunday’s preacher said it well, preaching on faith through ponderable images.

He spoke of faith as a high-wire act, recalling the foolishness of those who would walk high wires without a net. The Wallendas, remember? Their fall in 1962 was inevitable and, for lack of a net, so were the deaths. It didn’t have to be that way. The Wallendas paid the inevitable price for hubris, for believing against all reason that they would never fail, never make a mistake, never fall. They knew the risk and the price of failure, but they trusted only in themselves. For the most part, they succeeded, probably hundreds of times. We admired them. We hoped they wouldn’t fall, and when they did, it was horrible. We were aghast but also transfixed. We imagined what it would be like to walk the high wire and fall like the Wallendas. We imagined their courage but not their foolishness. Sin is like that: It looks like something other than it really is, something appealing, like luscious fruit in a garden — and death is a warning against it. Hebrew wisdom puts it in a nutshell: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)

It’s not smart and it’s not faith to walk high wires without a net.

The preacher compared that foolishness with the high flyers at Cirque de Soleil, who also work their intricate routines without a net but who are imperceptibly tethered against their inevitable fall so they will not die. There is wisdom in the tethering that prevents certain death. Still, there is danger, and we’re enchanted. We imagine what it would be like to fly high, fearlessly, and we’re daunted by the prospect and so all the more enchanted by the show. Knowing that these performers are tethered does not erode our admiration. These truly are wonderful human beings, and we imagine that they are good people as well as talented and beautiful. Certainly, they are not fools. They take care of themselves not to die, which means they also take care of us, because we don’t want to watch them die.

Faith, then, is not performing without a net but with a tether that keeps us from falling to our deaths. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that, for Jews (including Jesus), the Torah is such a tether, just as for Christians Jesus is such a tether. Ironically, then, reaching the end of our rope means life not death for faith that is infinitely other than mere assent to things our minds can not understand, as the preacher said on Sunday. Faith is not mere trust but the giving over of ourselves, our souls and bodies to the living God who loves us into courage for flying high with no fear of death. Our vocations are that if nothing else — God calling us to soar without fear, now and forever.

The preacher’s more troubling image was that of wildfire, not the kind we can see but the kind that burns underground until it finally bursts forth in some unexpected place. It was a compelling image of the Holy Spirit. “Come, Holy Spirit,” we pray. “Fill the hearts of your faithful people and kindle in us the fire of your love … and you shall renew the face of the earth.”

The Spirit is of the wildness of God, unpredictable for blowing where She will, brooding and questing for truth wherever it may be, inside or outside, a bit intolerant sometimes but always fair, letting chips fall where they may; and, as the preacher said Sunday, often hidden beneath the surface like wildfire gone underground, consuming that which lies below, making hidden change and transformation until, in a kind of fullness of time, She leaps for the sky to renew the face of the earth, perhaps to daunt us with the power of God as purifying flame, perhaps to leave us as though dead in Her scorched path, slain in the Spirit, as it were, and called to rise again in the risen Lord.

To be one in the Spirit is to be one with each other in the wildness of God, to feel the hidden heat beneath our trappings — our property, our wealth, our institutions, our nations, our cherished beliefs, our ways of speaking of God as though tamed, even as though dead except for our creative imaginations, which is the worst kind of idolatry. It is hear the Word of God calling us not to the comfortable discipleship of tithes and the tidiness of well-regulated institutions but to the way of the cross, which scandalously gives the lie to the pretension of our being able to walk the high wire without a net.

How can we possibly know, asked the preacher, how moves the Spirit beneath the surface? We can’t, except for our faith in the wisdom of the God who loves and gives and renews, to whom we are tethered without fear, for it has been cast out. C.S. Lewis once imagined God as a mighty lion, dangerous but good, the Lord of Narnia for having descended into deeper magic of death and resurrection. How alike the image of She Who Is Spirit descending as smoldering truth into the pillars of the earth to prepare a way, a truth and a life that is not of the world of our making but of the Kingdom of Being in Wisdom that is God’s.

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