Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Fire, Air, Earth and Water

Been away for a while (can't believe it's April since I last posted. Still on Study Leave (since June) and here are a few thoughts in advance of Greenbelt.

On a cold winter’s day, who can resist coming in to a house where the central heating has been on, the radiators are pushing out their dry heat, and it’s all warm and toasty... ...and sanitised. Maybe that’s why for so many of us we have opened up the chimney again and reset the fire place to take actual logs and when we come home, yes maybe the central heating is on, but what we really want is to put some of the logs on the fire and have something warm and orange, moving and seemingly alive heating the house. Who hasn’t, at some point in their life, been mesmerised by the dancing flames, alive, giving warmth, and yet inherently dangerous. Within the hearth they are kept safe, or as safe as we can manage. We think we’ve tamed fire, and that’s why it remains so dangerous.

Of all the traditional elements, fire is the one that we fear most. Earth we need. Air we need. Water we need. Fire we desire, (although you could argue that without the fusion fires of the sun we wouldn’t be having this conversation!) But of the four elements all animals need Earth, Air and Water; only humanity has mastered Fire. And with that mastery has come power. Some have even speculated that it was the ability of our distant ancestors to use fire to cook meat which gave our bodies access to greater energy reserves and which powered our evolution towards the sentience we now have. Fire is power. Fire can make us...

...but it can also destroy us. The lust for more Fire-power has led almost every great nation the world has ever seen to spend more money on armament than its people can afford. Imagine the difference it would make if some of the billions upon billions that were spent on armament were spent on health, food, education, on the renewing of our planet’s forests and woodlands, savannas and oceans. But Fire brings power, and humanity is seemingly always desperate to have more power than the next person or nation. Fire destroys though because Fire consumes. Whatever organic matter you put into the flames ends up the same eventually; blackened and reduced to carbon and trace amounts of whatever non-combustible elements were also present. This is ultimately the vision of hell, that Fire takes what was once alive and destroys it.

Hell is not an everlasting torment but a final destruction. How very ironic that the thing so many yearn for can reduce their dreams of power to ashes. Fire cannot be tamed in the end, but it can be used for good. Not only can it keep us warm but it can be used to refine precious metals. The heating process melts the metal, and being heavier than the dross, the slag, it sinks to the bottom of the cauldron allowing the worker to skim the worthless rubbish from the top. It can be a lengthy process of reheating and progressively refining the metal until what remains is pure and of high value. Only fire allows us to do this. Only fire can refine. It can be tempting when we are in the fire-filled challenges to cry out to God, ‘Why did you do this to me?’ Yet it seems more likely that, for the most part, the will of God is not to destroy us but to use what life throws at us as a fire to refine us. The little deaths that threaten to destroy us may actually be the makings of us.

That is not to minimise the suffering of the bullied and the abused. Nor is it to lay the blame at God’s feet for those things taking place as some great master plan he has for us. God is not cruel and cannot wish ill on those he loves. But he can use the fires of life to remake us so that we, too, can become like Fire itself, dancing, mesmerising, full of life and heat, bringing warmth to the lives of others, but not safe. Never safe... The refining is painful, but what do you hope to be at the end of it?

Is anything stopping you from becoming that?

Can you do something to change that?

Air, wind, breath, spirit... To the Hebrews and Greeks it was all one word, but it changed its gender with time. For the Hebrews this element was feminine. To the Greeks is was neuter. By the time the church had got its hands on her/it the Latin rendered she/it as he. I think the Hebrews were right. When Jesus told Nicodemus about the people born of the Spirit, the Greek renders it that Jesus also told him that we were born of the wind. That resonates with me because the wind blows where she wills. We can’t see her, we can see only the effects of her passing. The wind draws no attention to herself but seeks to affect change by her movement. Would that we were more like that. But instead we seek always to draw attention to what it is that we do. The wind is always invisible, yet we seek always to be visible. Her very invisibility is what makes her so hard to pin down, and maybe that’s why the Roman church made ‘her’ into ‘him’. The distinction in so many religions, both Christian/Monotheist and Pagan, is to think of the masculine as being the logical and well planned out, fully thought through and decided part of our duality. The feminine instead is mysterious (to men anyway!), more likely to be intuitive, guided by feelings, ‘blowing where she will’. Perish the thought that the church might attribute feminine aspects to God... But why? Or why not?

The earliest reference to the Spirit is Genesis 1:2 which says something like, ‘The Wind/Breath/Spirit of God hovered/brooded over the surface of the waters.’ The image is of a pregnant mother, sitting with her hand over her swelling belly, pregnant with possibilities, yet with none of them yet realised. Waiting, watching, wondering.

Is it blasphemous to imagine the Holy Spirit dreaming of our future as She prepared to bring us to birth? I think not.

So do you feel like a child born of the Wind, of the Air?

Do you feel ready to be, as Hildegaard of Bingen phrased it, ‘A feather on the Breath of God’?

Or are there too many things tying you down?

Some commitments we make for ourselves in a pact with God as we seek to grow a new future. But some we unwittingly take on until we discover ourselves to be like a shackled balloon, with the power to soar but with the tie-down straps keeping us firmly anchored in one place. Born again. Born from above. A child of the Spirit. A child of the Wind? Shouldn’t that mean we can be blown on the Air to somewhere new? So what’s stopping you?

Every step that we take is dominated by the planet beneath us. When a baby is born its head must be supported for the first few weeks because the earth beneath exerts its pull and the newborn’s muscles are not sufficiently developed to resist. As the child grows she learns first to crawl and then eventually to defy the earth’s pull enough to stand on two tottering little legs. Eventually she will run and jump, and if she becomes an athlete she may jump very high. If she becomes an astronaut she will jump very high indeed. But eventually she will come back down and the earth will claim her again.

Even before she stirred in her mother’s womb the earth was exerting its pull on her for everything of which she is made comes from the earth and when she is finished with it, when she has finished running and jumping, it will all be returned to the earth. This is the way of things for humans. We may not necessarily like to call the earth our Mother as some religions do, although we may be content with that epithet, but everything that we physically are is made from the stuff of earth. And that is why Genesis gives the name of the first human as Adam. Adam literally means earth-man, dust-man, or dirt-man. That is what we are. But in our arrogance we so often forget this, treating the earth as something to be tamed when its wildness is life, or something to be raped even though the earth offers herself willingly. We have taken the command, ‘To have dominion...’ and turned it on its head and so where we were called to be stewards we have instead stripped, mutilated and destroyed. And now, now we have the arrogance to say, ‘We must save the planet.’

What a ridiculous and arrogant notion. The planet does not need saving. If we were to be wiped out tomorrow the planet would continue, and the sun would rejuvenate the damage we caused until there was no trace of us. And the earth, too, did not begin by itself.

Our universe was born with a multitude of hydrogen and helium. Everything else had to be forged in the hearts of stars as heavier elements were fused under intense pressure and heat before being thrown cataclysmically into the universe at the violent and explosive death of their stellar creator. This earth, and you and I, and everything we can see, are all stardust.

So what then is earth to us as an element? It is a reminder of our smallness and our arrogance. It says to us, ‘Jump as high as you like, I’ll always be there to pull you back down.’ And it says, ‘Put as much effort as you like into earning your high salary and your big house, and wasting your tiny minuscule life in the accumulation of financial well-being that will take all your energies and suck out all your creativity. Do it and remember that when you are finished I will have you again, just as I birthed you, lending you parts of myself to use for a few years, seeing what you could make of inert matter guided by your Creator. But I will have it all back because you are made of borrowed stuff and I will reclaim, of that there is no doubt.’

Earth may be mother, resource, solidity and reassurance, but she is also the one who reminds us of our mortality. We would do well to remember that the loan she makes of her elements is only for a short time in her terms, and when we have to pay her back will we have generated anything of value?

What do you value?

What do turn your energies to?

When the earth reclaims you, what legacy will you leave for another to build upon?

Who will be healed because you were here?

If you don’t like the answers to these questions, what can you do to change the direction of your life?

Water moves like it has a life of its own, yet of course it doesn’t. Water instead is an indicator of other forces at work. Put it in a glass and swirl it and the water will move, but put the glass down and eventually the water will become still as the energy you put into it is all used up. When it is still it’s indicating that no force is operating on it. Yet even at rest water is telling us that a force is actually still present, the force of gravity, pulling all of the fluid towards the earth creating a flat surface. Even at rest water is telling us something about its surroundings - it remains as an indicator.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the glass is an ocean. Although sometimes calm the water is in ceaseless motion. Watching the tides reminds us that water is indicating the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon. Measuring how far the tide moves will even give us an indication of the positions of the sun and the moon relative to each other. In all of this, water remains passive, being moved around by forces beyond its control. And when it flows in a river, water can indicate for us a number of things. Most obviously it shows us which way is down hill as the gravity of earth relentlessly pulls the river along the path to the sea.

But the river does more than that. It shows us the state of the river bed. Watch water as it rolls lazily along the river and you soon notice that although the water is flowing, moving, tumbling, it is doing so in patterns that remain broadly the same. The peaks and troughs themselves don’t move; the water flows but the shapes it carves are the same. Water is again passively indicating what the land is like underneath the surface.

So what does water teach us from these things? Firstly it can serve as a warning. Water is always at the mercy of other forces. We may talk of the destructive and murderous force of the tsunami, but in reality the destruction was wrought by the earth moving. The tsunami was helplessly indicating another force. The water was passive. Water is always passive. It’s good for water to be like that, but not so good for you and I.

Yes there are times when it is appropriate simply to respond to other forces, but if all we ever are is passive, what good are we? So why do we fall into passivity? For many of us it is simply fear. Maybe we have been damaged in some way by others to the point where we cannot dare to speak out anymore. We don’t want to be passive, it’s just that all the fight has been taken out of us. If this is you then perhaps it is time to seek help and healing. If it just doesn’t seem worth fighting anymore, ask yourself why.

And maybe consider who else may be suffering because you’re not doing anything about it. At a time when we’re talking about saving paradise, whatever we mean by that, simply sitting around passively responding to other forces will accomplish little. The river teaches us something quite different, and again at the other end of the spectrum. Many of us, far from being passive, have become instead convinced of our own importance; of our own indispensability. But look again at the way the river flows. Look again in your imagination at the humps and bumps in the surface, at the little repeating eddies. We’re more like the water than the subsurface that shapes its flow.

Our time on earth is just fleeting and we cannot return back up the hill of the river of time. Instead we flow over the rocks of a place, being shaped by circumstances and the Lord, before moving on to the next place, and the next, with the sea an inevitability for us. Water reminds us, therefore, of our mortality and the importance of not clinging on to what we have now, but being prepared, when the Lord requires it of us, to flow on downstream to the next place he has prepared for us.

We can never go back; never repeat, but instead of mourning this loss of youth, loss of place, loss of ‘now’, we should remind ourselves that the flow may take us somewhere more exciting, or perhaps even more still. Water is passive in reality, but it can be active in our prayerful imagination if we allow it to be. What will the church be like in the future - passive or active? What role will you play in that, or do you want to just let it all flow over you?