About 170 years ago, Kierkegaard famously said that faith in God should feel like we are being suspended over 70,000 fathoms of water – the waves of the deep crashing onto the rocks below, the wind howling, nothing to hold onto but the trust that God is actually a reality. Since I learned of Kierkegaard’s love of the terrible awe of God, I have often felt that it was a shame that he never had the chance to meet my grandmother, because the two of them would have got on very well. By and large, I was afraid of my grandmother. I never heard her shout. She never once raised a hand against me. In fact, it didn’t take me too many years of life to stand as tall as she did with her diminutive frame. Yet my grandmother could fill me with dread.
When I was a child, my grandmother’s house on the coast of south east England was something of a wonder in my life. It was four storeys high, plus a cellar I never did dare to descend into. The reason for that was partly because I was convinced, as the 25th or so of her grandchildren, that the cellar was where she kept the remains of my various cousins who had dared to disobey her over the years. It was also because in my grandmother’s house, a number of the 30 or so rooms were out of bounds for little boys. Every once in a while, I would catch a glimpse into one of them and steal a vision of fine furniture, or a grand piano in the corner, or paintings that the young could barely look at, let alone breathe near. Her home was to me like a small palace of wonder and mystery; a museum of sorts with trinkets from my missionary great-grandparents in China and collection pieces from my eccentric great-Aunts’ assortment of knickknacks from Victorian Britain. ‘You have not come to something that can be touched’, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, just might have well have been emblazoned on the doorframe of the front door.
One of my warmer memories of my grandmother was the one occasion I think when she came to hear me sing at St. Paul’s Cathedral, in London, as our parish choir sang evensong on Easter Monday while the Cathedral boys and men were on vacation. St. Paul’s was and still is a place of splendor even more untouchable than my grandmother’s home, and I can remember how the ushers, who directed traffic under the great cathedral’s dome, never smiled, but instead pointed worshippers to some dark huddle of chairs at the side for the unsuspecting visitor to stay absolutely still on, and at all costs, never to make a noise until the closing hymn. After all, this was God’s great English house, and it seemed that God didn’t care too much for visitors. As a child, then, both God and grandparents were fearsome things: like a blazing fire, something that cannot be touched.
All of this now makes me think of Annie Dillard’s wonderful appeal to church goers today that they might have ‘the foggiest idea of the power we so blithely invoke’. She says,
‘On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions…The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return’.
Isn’t that indeed Kierkegaard’s point with his image of faith as being suspended over 70,000 fathoms of the deep below? Faith must not be for us an experience that wraps us up in the comforting blanket of certainty and familiar religion; rather it must be the place in our lives to which we have been drawn out, suspended above all of our pretense at control and power, drawn out at last to a place of honesty and freedom.
Such honesty begins in our recognition of where it is we are gathering when we do in a church building on a Sunday and in whose name. To worship the living God is to come to a blazing fire, to draw near to a burning bush, to ground that is holy enough for us to tremble as we enter it, where wise prophets of old took off their shoes as they walked upon it. It is to come to a pillar of fiery light, illuminating the path of slaves set free.
Yet the fire of God is not meant to make us afraid such that we stay away; it is meant to transform us, like slaves who finally taste freedom after bondage. The liberation the blazing fire of God gifts to us is one that sets us free from the tyranny of believing that the only vision of life available is the one we can muster for ourselves. For God’s blazing fire of light in our darkness is the voice of truth we so often repress that tells us we are beloved, that we are of God, that incarnate within us is all that we ever have needed to be and to live freely in this world.
Yet freedom does not come to us without cost. Fire burns. Like the smelter’s fire that refines its gold over and over again, each time removing the dross, the blazing fire of God’s love for us will bring into the light the gods we have fashioned in our attempt to give value to ourselves – our money, our standing, our power, our desires fulfilled. And as they are brought into view we will have to choose: either to continue to enslave ourselves to their empty promise of fulfillment, or to face the painful honesty of change. Such pain sets us free, yet truth be told, most of us are not ready and willing to embrace such an honest journey. Indeed, left to our own devices, many of us would rather spend a lifetime avoiding who and how we really are in favor of bumping along the surface, and take pleasure as a consolation prize for the happiness honesty might gift us with – which is why life together matters.
To commit to life together in a community of faith is to be counted among those honest brokers in the kingdom of God, the motley crew of saints and sinners whose vocation it is to notice when one of us has been doubled over by life. For the blazing fire of God is meant not only for our own transformation, but for the freedom of others. Such fellow travelers are those who are to have the courage to be the hands of God in the lives of others, to dare to touch the untouchable blazing glory we each inhabit as children of a living God. And as such, the body of Christ is called to notice one another, to lift one another up, to see the blazing glory of God in the eyes of everyone that comes into their lives.
In this season of searing political rhetoric that burns as much as it enlightens, I wonder if our country could do with such people even more than it usually does. Everybody falls once in a while, even people who run for office. Everyone needs a chance to stand straight again. A fire blazes for each of us. Let’s look for it with awe and wonder.