Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Talking Trinity

We had a Baccalaureate for the White Mountain School at All Saints' this past Friday. During it, I noticed that the "Easter white" altar hangings were back out, and wondered to myself whether we had anything with a Trinity image, since it was going to be Trinity Sunday. So I arrived early Sunday morning to change it out...and discovered we didn't have anything.

So I checked my collection of stoles: no images of the Trinity.

Now intrigued, I looked closely at all of the stain glass windows...all of the kneelers...even at all of the artwork throughout our campus...and I did not find a single image of the Trinity.

I was wondering if this is a coincidence, or if this speaks to the uncertainty with The Trinity. Could it be that we’re not sure what else to say beyond “Father, Son & Holy Spirit?” Perhaps we feel this way because the Nicene Creed seems to go into such detail concerning the Trinity:

We Believe in One God, the Father, the Almighty
We Believe in One Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God
We Believe in the Holy Spirit. The Lord, the giver of Life.

Perhaps we feel unable to add anything…or perhaps we’re afraid that if we don’t understand the Trinity this particular way, our faith comes into question. What ever the reason, it seems that we tend to avoid exploring the Trinity.

The story of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John (3:1-17) was the text for Trinity Sunday. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, and starts questing Jesus. Nicodemus isn’t your typical Pharisee found in the Gospels. He’s not trying to trick or trap Jesus. His is an sincere effort to understand Jesus’ teachings. It’s also important to say that Nicodemus is probability a better representation of your average Pharisee: sincere, questioning, and searching…than the so-called “Pharisees” of most of the Gospel verses, who represent those in leadership positions who opposed Jesus.

Jesus tells him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus replies, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Nearly everyone who reads this passage rightly sees that Nicodemus is missing the point by being so literal.

Jesus replies: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

I find it sadly ironic that so many contemporary people get caught up by Jesus’ words. “You have to be born again” is the cry of many people in response to this passage. “You have to be baptized” is the cry of others. There is this tendency to assign certainly to this passage…whether we take a literal or metaphorical tact. It seems not far off from Nicodemus’ response about reentering the womb. “Being born of water and Spirit” is a mysterious statement…tangible yet unexplainable. Look at Jesus’ example “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

What I think Jesus is saying is that life’s greatest mystery…the nature of God, and our relationship with God…can not be explained by “how.”

But Nicodemus, like so many of us, can’t resist asking: “How can these things be?”

I think this is the prevailing tendency of Trinity Sunday for most preachers. How can I describe the Trinity: be it literally or abstractly…as an idea or as doctrine. How can I explain or define it?

Perhaps this is in part response to the countless people through the years who have come up to ministers and said “I’m not sure if I believe in the Trinity.”

When someone says this to me, I want to explain to them the richness of the image…the vision contained in “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” I want to make things clear, in a concise way that their eyes won’t glaze over and that they won’t tune me out. I want desperately to convey “How these things can be.”

But in reality, I can’t explain the Trinity, and I’m fooling myself to think otherwise.

In the book Handbook of the Christian Year, the authors suggest that an alternative to explaining the Trinity is to instead "...treat Trinity Sunday as a day in which we praise and adore the infinitely complex and unfathomable mystery of God’s being to which we point when we speak of the Holy Trinity.” (Hickman, Saliers, Stookey & White, 1992)

This isn’t a blind following, but a sharing of experiences in the ways we have encountered God.

So here's one person’s exploration of the Trinity...based on a visual image of The Trinity.

Jan Richardson is a writer, artist, United Methodist minister, and director of a company called The Wellspring Studio. On her website, she is offers this Celtic image of the Trinity, and her reflections on it.

She writes:

Historically, Celtic Christians offered no systematic theology by which they sought to define the nature and work of Trinity, but evidence of their experience of the triune God abounds. Beyond their artistic and symbolic depictions of the Trinity, they left a remarkable body of prayers and poetry that offer us an incarnate experience of the Trinity. In their poems and prayers, Celtic Christians moved from the abstract to the actual; for them, the triune deity was not a theological concept but rather was deeply embedded in daily life. In the Celtic imagination, God, Christ, and Spirit are intertwined with one another and with all of creation. It evokes the God who both exists in a dynamic wholeness within itself yet also reaches out (or is it in?) to embrace us.

In the Celtic triple spiral, there is a space where the three spirals connect. It is both a place of meeting and of sheer mystery. Its vast, vibrant emptiness reminds me that, in this life, we will never know all the names of God. Even as the Trinity evokes, it conceals. We will never exhaust the images we use to describe the One who holds us and sends us, who enfolds us and impels us in our eternal turning.

We are to be a living sign of the Trinity who dwells in eternal, intertwined relationship within itself and with all creation. As individuals and as communities, we are beckoned to times of spiraling inward, to attend to our own souls. We are propelled, in turn, into times of spiraling outward, to attend to the world beyond us. In all our turnings, the presence of God persists. With you always, Jesus said. (Trinity Sunday: A Spiral shaped God)

I believe that it is this type of sharing: sharing our own personal experiences, and hearing the experiences of others, that leads to transformation of being born by water and Spirit that Jesus speaks of. It’s not the explaining how things are, or by the dictating of what we must do, but by seeing our life’s journey as an exploration of “the earthly things”: the fabrics of our world, the meaning of our lives, and the mystery that is God’s love for all.

A significant part of this exploration, for us, happens in the church.

Michael Hopkins, an Episcopal priest, writes this on his blog:

We are members of the Episcopal Church because of our calling to be a people at one with one another. It is because of the communion I experience in it, relationships, connectedness, that constantly give me a glimpse of relationship with God, in fact that are manifestations of that relationship itself. As Episcopalians, the church becomes our laboratory for human relationship, a body through whom God continues to choose to work in spite of its flaws. Put succinctly and personally, I am called to be a part of you and I cannot separate this call from my call to be one with God. (From Glory Into Glory, Michael Hopkins)

We are intertwined with one another and with God. We can’t really explain it…but we somehow know it’s true.

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)

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