Tuesday, May 29, 2018

God Above, Among and Beyond


Matthew 28:19-20

2 Corinthians 13:11-14



               There was a three generation household in which James, Sr., was living with his son, James, Jr. and young grandson, James III.  One day the phone rang and the caller asked to speak to Jim.  The response was, “Do you want Jim the father, Jim the son, or Jim the holy terror?”

               Today is Trinity Sunday.  It is a day when our service and our sermons are supposed to focus on the concept of the trinity.  Supposedly the trinity is one of the most important theological concepts for our faith, but it is also one that most people find challenging to understand.  So much of our faith we grasp and internalize because it meets with our experience of God.  So much of our faith is tied in with stories, both from the Bible and from our own lives, stories that say in ways that theological statements or ideas about our faith often cannot, what it is we believe, what it means to be children of God, who we are as a community of faith, and who we are as Christian believers.  But the trinity often seems to me to be an intellectual concept which is up there somewhere; high above our experience of God, outside the realm of stories, or even of intuition.  The trinity is proclaimed to be a great mystery of our faith.  But in the theological headiness of the concept it can lose what is most important about our faith, which is that the meaning of our faith comes when we experience it and live it out.  Discussion and debate, while interesting, ultimately do not make us the people of God, something that should claim every bit of our lives and everything that we do with those lives.

               As I have studied the trinity, hoping to find something that would make it a more accessible concept, I found myself more and more convinced of this division between those ideas that we intuitively understand and which help us to live our lives more fully as Children of God, and those ideas which belong in theological and biblical studies, but which do not seem to communicate the Good News to us, which do not help us as a people to truly give up all we have in pursuit of that one pearl of priceless value that is God in our lives.  Additionally, the first thing that every theological book, article and commentary I read had to say about the trinity was that this is not a concept found in the Bible.  The two passages that we read today are the sole basis for the theology of the trinity: two tiny verses that use a “trinitarian formula” but which don’t explain it as a trinity, never mention the idea of three persons in one God-head, never define those relationships between the “persons” of the trinity, or even define them as unique persons.  The idea of trinity, or three persons in one God-head first seemed to have arisen at the council of Nicea in 325 AD.  It simply did not exist before then.  And it is one of the great concepts that separates us from Jewish brothers and sisters who argue that they in fact REALLY have one God whereas Christians have a 3 God in one God-head thingy.  The first division or complete split in the Christian church was in fact a division over the nature of the trinity.  And the discussions, arguments, divisions over this concept which began at that time have never ceased.  Indeed, while most the books and commentaries I have read on the trinity were written by renowned Presbyterian theologians, no two of them agreed about the trinity meant or how it was to be understood.  For example, one commentary said that the trinity is like water in its three forms of ice, liquid and steam: all made of the same substance but in very different forms.  Another commentary completely disagreed with this declaring that this understanding of the trinity is a kind of modalism: that instead each person of the trinity is water in all of its forms.  According to this theologian, if we stick with the analogy of water, one person of the trinity is the plasma within our bodies, where as another is sea water: apparently both have just about the same make up chemically, but they simply exist in different places.  One theologian reported that the different persons of the trinity involve different jobs: there is the creator, the redeemer and the sustainer.  Another said that this was inaccurate because each person of the trinity was fully creator, redeemer and sustainer all by themselves.  One theologian said the mystery of the trinity was that there were three persons within the one God.  Another disagreed saying the mystery of the trinity is that there is one Godhead that encompasses three distinct persons.  Almost all of the theologians used scientific analogies are a way of describing their understanding the trinity.  The simplest example was that of the three forms of water I described earlier.  The most complex involved quarks, the smallest known particles of matter, and the interdependence of quarks who cannot exist, apparently, as single beings, but must exist in community with one another.  And again, it was interesting intellectual fodder for budding brain cells.  But when it came down to how this concept would help us to live our lives as Christians, how these ideas would bring us comfort when we are afflicted, or how these concepts would challenge us when we are falling short in our ability to forgive or to heal or to love God, self and each other, theologians had very little to say.  The books and discussions on the Trinity were strangely and starkly mute on what this had to do with our lives as people of faith.

               Many years ago, I was sitting in on a 6th grade Sunday school class in which the kids were all invited to make collages of their images of God.  As I watched the kids work, I noticed that each child had a very different collage in front of them.  David’s collage was made up of magazine pictures of angels: statues of angels, pictures of angels, in child and adult form, covered David’s picture.  Carlie sat next to David and her picture was made up entirely of nature scenes.  She had drawn rainbows and sunsets, beautiful flowers and strong animals like lions.  She had cut out a picture of the beach and had glued a feather onto the top of her collage.  George for his part had put pictures of people and names of people all over his collage.  Some of the pictures had no names, some of the names had no pictures, but his collage was people of all different kinds.  Megan for her part had the simplest collage.  Her picture was hard to figure out at first, but when I asked her she said that it was a voice; a voice inside, which she didn’t know how to draw except through wispy lines, like whispering.  My question to Megan, while simply inquiry began an argument among the children.  Carlie looked at Megan’s picture and frowned.  “You don’t really think God is a voice inside of you, do you?  God is much bigger than that!  God couldn’t fit inside of you!  Look at the wonderful things God has created!” And with that she showed Megan her own picture of the nature scenes of sunsets and beaches and great majestic beasts.  David jumped in at that point and said, “You haven’t created a picture of God, just a picture of what God made a long time ago.  If you want to see God now, you have to look at the angels.  The guardian angels all around us who look out for us and care for us.” To which George replied, “I don’t believe in angels.  I think God acts through people around us.  There aren’t really angels, you know.”  I was about to step in and encourage the kids to think about all of these images as important, when David said, very quietly, under his breath, “I have a guardian angel.”  The other kids all looked up from their work and David continued, “Not that I’ve seen him.  He always stays hidden, but I know he’s there.  Last week, for example, I was running home from school and was about to cross a street without looking when I heard someone call my name.  I stopped and turned around and just as I did, a car went careening into the intersection without stopping.  There was no-one behind me.  I know it was my guardian angel protecting me form that car.  Lots of stuff has happened like that.  I know I have a guardian angel and that is God in my life.”

               George jumped in, “A couple weeks ago my mom got fired from her job.  My dad’s been out of work for a while and has stayed home to take care of us.  So when my mom lost her job it was really scary.  But one of the women in church heard about it and she offered my mom a temporary job at her work; the job lasted just long enough for my mom to find a permanent position.  I know God was working through that lady in our church.”

               Megan added, “My little brother has some problems.  He’s kind of slow and a lot of the kids at school pick on him and give him a hard time.  One time a bunch of kids had surrounded him and were yelling names and closing in on him.  I thought they were going to beat him up and I was all ready to jump in there and defend him.  I’m sure we both would have ended up hurt if I had.  But just as I was about to jump in, I heard a voice inside of me say, “Why don’t you invite all the kids over to your house and they can see what Kevin can do at home and how important he is around the house.’ So I did. And they all came over and my mom ended up telling them a lot about Kevin’s situation.  Now they take care of Kevin and make sure other kids don’t pick on him.  I know I didn’t come up with that idea on my own.  God told me what to do.  And I did it.”

               Carlie had been quiet during all of this.  And there was a moment after the other kids finished that I wasn’t sure if she would speak up.  Carlie lived in a foster home.  She had been moved around a lot, and didn’t have a regular family taking care of her.  She never talked about this with the other kids, so I wasn’t sure she would say anything that day.  But she surprised me.  “I don’t have any parents,” she said, “but I do know God loves and cares for me.  Every time I see a sunset or get to go to the beach, I know that God made all of this and God made me and that everything is going to be okay.”

The kids continued to share and talk.  But it was no longer an argument over who God was or how God acted.  Instead, they were learning that people experienced God in different ways.  Perhaps more importantly, they were learning to be open themselves so that they might also experience God in different ways.

For myself, this is where the concept of the trinity finally meets experience.  I believe the theological concept of the trinity began as a way for people to try to explain a complex experience of God.  And that experience is that God is not just a distant creator, though God is creator and has done that.  God is not JUST present to us in the person of Jesus, though God was present to us in Christ and still comes and lives and walks among us.  God is not JUST present in the stillness of our solitude, in our prayers, in our community, in our reading of scriptures, though God is very active and present there as well.  God is all these things: God is above us, God walks among us, and God is within us.  The good news of the trinity is the good news that we celebrate every Sunday.  That God in all of God’s actions and forms, in all of God’s persons loves us beyond life itself and is present with us in that love to the end of the ages.

I also believe that part of the reason trinity continues to be so controversial is because it, too, is a human construct that cannot and does not completely capture God.  God goes beyond all of our human descriptions.  And our experience of God also goes beyond human explanation.  For me, trinity is a powerful way of describing the powerful, amazing, love-filled experience of God who made us, walks among us, and is within us; all at the same time, always caring for us, upholding us, and challenging us to be more loving.  Trinity does not need to stay a difficult theological concept.  It can become again what I believe it was meant to be; a way of understanding an experience that can’t be described adequately by words.  A metaphor for an experience of our God as real and tangible to us in many ways, in many forms, in many situations.

If we see the trinity as a metaphor for our experience of God, the image of trinity opens up to us many different layers and gives many more insights into God and our relationship to God as well.  The trinity becomes more complex than just the understanding of God above, among and within.  It also reflects other truths about God, one of which I find especially wondrous, but perhaps even harder to put into worlds.  What makes us persons is that we are relational.  If we were not in relationships to other people, we would not be persons, but simply beings acting out of animal instincts.  So, too, while God is one, God is also relational with God-self.  That relationship is what makes God persons, what makes God desire to be relational with us as well, and what allows God to be communion in being within God-self.  God, like us, is community which holds diversity within itself.  That, to me, is the greatest wonder and greatest mystery of the trinity.  Like the Bible which is one book and yet a book of distinct and different books which relate and inform one another, like a church which is one in its mission statement and yet holds within it a community of persons, God is community within God’s one-ness.  I think that this mystery too is one which must be understood and worked out through one’s own experience of God. 

Two people went up in a hot air balloon.  The balloon went way off course and the couple ended up totally lost, having no idea where they were until finally the balloon came down in the middle of an open field.  One of the people in the balloon called out to a man who was standing watching the balloon, “Say, can you tell us where we are?”

“Sure,” the man answered, “You are in a hot air balloon.”

The woman who had asked the question turned to her companion and said, “that man must be a preacher.  What he said is completely true and has absolutely no relevance to our situation.”

I hope that the concept of trinity does not stay for us an intellectual and irrelevant mystery that is above comprehension.  Rather, I hope for all of us today that the beauty of Trinity, of one God in community with God-self, will inspire you with its beauty to ponder ever more deeply, and to live ever more faithfully in the presence of our incredible loving God who is above, among and within.