Sunday, June 19, 2011

Numbers Game

Trinitarian Musings

In a remote forest miles from the nearest Guatemalan village, on a windy and downright cold morning in August five years ago, I stood in a group of indigenous people, descendants of the ancient Mayans, curious about the religious rite I was about to witness. They had a great idea on that cold morning during the rainy season, also known as “invierno” or winter there, and that was to build a bonfire. Shivering in my summer clothes, I could hardly wait. Women clad in colorful native cottons, began laying the fire, placing incense discs in a cruciform pattern. They scattered ample grain around the circle that was to be the base of the fire. On top of that they placed the pastel petals of bunches of chrysanthemums. After the wood was gathered and laid on the fire, shamans, including at least one woman, oversaw the burning of various objects—including cigars, beans, coffee, grain, and various liquid drinks, all poured on the sacred fire. Facing in turn the four directions, the assembly invoked the winds and the gods, summoned the spirits of the ancestors, and ultimately had what looked to me like a Christian healing service, the shamans taking persons one at a time and laying on hands over their whole bodies, praying for healing, prosperity, success, wholeness.

It didn’t feel so strange to me, this ceremony with roots more ancient than Christianity. Partly, no doubt, that was because it included any number of elements contributed by Roman Catholicism and various other Christian expressions from the past several centuries. I came away with the distinct feeling that I had worshiped that morning, though the language was one I did not know and various ritual practices were outside my experience. I would not want to do those modern Mayans a disservice by calling their ceremony “Christian,” because it clearly wasn’t. And yet I recognized elements of my own community’s practice, including the building of the New Fire at the Great Vigil of Easter, that bore out the fact that so many religious symbols and practices are the dances that human beings do around One God.

And that brings me to the occasion we are here to celebrate today: Trinity Sunday. Anglican Christians have been rather reserved in celebrating doctrines and dogmas. The Book of Common Prayer makes some provision for celebrating Corpus Christi, for example, but ten to one, half of you don’t miss it or even know what it is about. No reflection on you; that is just par for the Anglican course. Not so with the Trinity. Every year, joining with most liturgical Christians, we celebrate the Blessed Trinity a week after Pentecost Day. Most of the time, in my experience, preachers on Trinity Sunday either try to explain the doctrine of the Trinity or complain that it is so hopelessly complex that there is no earthly use in trying to do so. Both approaches, frankly, irritate me to the point that I usually arrange to take Trinity Sunday off, or, if not, like today, preach on it myself.

I presume to understand what the doctrine of the Trinity is driving at, which is different from saying that I presume to understand the Trinity. But understanding is not my aim today, but rather what I would call encouragement—or perhaps exhortation—or maybe, with luck, even inspiration. I would like to convince you of the value in assuming that God is so great that we cannot possibly understand God in limited rational categories. And, if that is true, then the question I pose today is how come it is “Trinity” Sunday, rather than “Plurality” Sunday? I’m not joking. Why only three ways—primary ways—of thinking about God, as if somehow God can be squeezed into that particular formula? Hold off, all ye who are traditional theologians! Give me a little room here. Let me press my point before the wheels come off your wagon.

As far back as the Priestly document that we read today as Genesis 1, and much farther, the ancient Hebrews were using “Elohim” as one of several words to denote God. The word is plural, no doubt a vestige of an even more ancient past when before “God” our ancestors had a pantheon of gods. But even when Moses molded Hebrew monotheism, there were some aspects of God that couldn’t be quite neatly pressed into the container. They were not other gods, but certainly they were dimensions of the One God that were somehow more than characteristics or descriptors. Take, for example, the Hebrew word “Shekinah,” which in later Hebrew writing is a circumlocution for the holy nearness of God to God’s people. Although we don’t find the word itself in the Bible, we do find the idea. And it comes to have great importance in the New Testament, because it is akin to the belief that God peculiarly dwelt in the person of Jesus.

While the presence of God is connected with various places, and above all with the Ark of the Covenant that goes before Israel in battle symbolically representing the presence of Yahweh, God in the Old Testament frequently appears as “the Angel of the Lord.” In a number of stories, it is clear that “the Angel of the Lord” is a way of talking about God, as is the case, for example, when Jacob wrestles with the angel. It really is God that Jacobs wrestles with, as Jacob himself says, “I have seen the face of God and lived.” In fact, the “face of God,” while clearly a metaphor, is another way of talking about the divine presence, in perhaps a stronger, more intimate way. And a third way is to speak about the glory of God. Ultimately, that is what “shekinah” comes to mean perhaps most directly.

Now, to be sure, these don’t come close to being rival gods, or different beings. But there is still another term in Hebrew literature that becomes the focus for a whole body of literature in itself. That is wisdom. You have encountered that notion. In fact, it played a part in the Great Vigil of Easter. The books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and Wisdom depict Wisdom as a helpmate to God in fashioning the world. Wisdom is clearly God, even possibly an aspect of God, but at the same time she can be spoken of as a separate person. She is the one who fashions the works of God. One can see similarities between the Christian concept of the Holy Spirit and Wisdom, as well as similarities between Wisdom and the Word of God, which becomes incarnate in Jesus.

And this is just the beginning. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all have traditions of Names of God. And in each of the monotheistic religions there is a tradition of disclaiming that any one of them is absolutely definitive or descriptive. We are heavily agreed—certainly Judaism and Islam are—that there is but one God, no matter how many names that God can wear. Christianity is slightly different because we talk of God in three persons, while insisting that all the persons are expressions of a oneness that we call—guess what?—God.

Human beings are remarkably united in the belief that there is a “higher power” or some “higher powers” in the universe. When it comes right down to it, is there any difference between the Mayan ceremony out in the woods of Sacatepequez and us who are singing “Holy, holy, holy” today? Is there any difference between the 99 Names of God in the Quran and the various names we give Jesus and the Holy Spirit, not to mention God the Father, in Christian tradition? Have we simply taken the old pantheon of divinities (such as the Greek gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus) and rolled them all into one? Is our monotheism functionally different from, say, the Hindu understanding of Atman, Brahman, and Vishnu, and all the many avatars that Vishnu, for example, can assume?

Maybe it really does not make much difference at all what we take God to be. But I have a slightly different take on it. And here is where my exhortation comes in. It is possible that the worst disservice we can do to God, or at least to the idea of God, is to assume that God is small enough for the human mind to contain God. That may be far worse than our getting mixed up and thinking the wrong things about the Trinity or getting confused about what is an aspect or what is an avatar or what is a persona of God. God is not much on being domesticated, trained like a pet or controlled like a not-too-bright friend, always doing our bidding. To live in God, far more than merely believing that there is a God, involves opening oneself to mystery, to the power of story, to the presence of paradox in life. In other words, there is no way we can get it all down to the very simple so that we can move on to the next thing. God is far more than we can sketch out with textbook definitions.

And here is what inspires me and what I hope inspires you. There is no part of life, no experience, no feeling or thought, no problem or challenge that somehow doesn’t involve God. This marvelous and messy life we are living is a process where everything and everybody is caught up in things like light and shadow, good and evil, struggle and peace, giving and taking, failing and succeeding, dying and living. God is involved in all of it in one way or another. God’s business, so to say, is not just with the nice, polite and tame parts of life, the kinds of things your grandmother thought you ought to be preoccupied with when you come to church. God is also down and dirty, in the grit and grime, in the tick bite and poison ivy, in the untamed sexual expression and the hideous birth defect. There is no place that God is not, and no part of life where God is somehow above showing up. But the Good News is that in all these things, the nature of God is community. The crucible for discovering community is relatedness. And the goal of human relationships is to express love.

And before you know it, we are back from a list of a thousand things and from a list of 99 Names to a very short list of basics. Three, in fact. There is the undifferentiated creation and the God who is present in it all. There is the marvel of community, made possible when Love emerges in human flesh. And there is energy that keeps forming human community mirroring that Love we keep striving for and which, though it eludes us, still drives us onward.

And when you give a name to those three things, they are not a proposition to be debated but a way of life in a community of utter belovedness. You can call them Creator, Savior, and Life-giver. Or you can call them by the ancient names of Abba, Son, and Holy Spirit. Put aside words and labels, and draw closer to the Fire. It is the Truth that warms and changes you until you become aflame with love itself.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Experiencing Pentecost

John 20:19-23

We still have a few hours of Easter left. The alleluias still ring. The Paschal Candle still burns. Pentecost is a part of Easter. Indeed, John’s gospel folds the heart of Pentecost—the giving of the Holy Spirit—into the story of the Day of Resurrection itself. Luke and later tradition break them apart, and there is a good deal of value in that. But John and much of the Early Church saw Easter as encompassing all the mighty acts of the Risen Lord, including the coming of the Holy Spirit.

A part of the Resurrection story is that the Jesus empowers his disciples to carry on his work in the world. To take that out of the Easter story is to leave Jesus risen, but high and dry. The whole point of the Jesus story from conception to ascension is that it is as much about us as it is about him. We are united to him. We are infused with his spirit, Holy Spirit. We are alive with him, sharing his Divine Life.

But wait a minute. You have heard all that before, certainly if you have been hanging around St. Stephen’s for very long. What difference is it making? What does it mean in your life and in the life of this community?

I think you have had the experience of Pentecost, and I don’t mean coming to church on Pentecost Day. I believe that, perhaps more than you realize, you have experienced the infusion of power. On some occasion you have been faced with something quite beyond your known capacity. You might have been fearful, overwhelmed at the thought of doing something so strange and daunting. You have had a speech to make, an athletic feat to perform, a role to play, a song to sing, a particularly challenging interview, or possibly the problem of coping with an illness—yours or someone else’s—that totally knocks the props from under you. Somewhere there comes to you an uncanny power, perhaps an unexpected calm, a surge of confidence, or perhaps a kind of “zoning out” that curiously positions you to drive the ball or sway the crowd or do the task you simply would never have imagined you could.

What does it feel like? Does it feel as if something came and settled on you, some power from an external source? Or does it seem that you have been able to reach deep inside yourself and grasp a hidden strength you may never have known you had? I want to suggest that it hardly matters whether the sensation is that help comes from outside or inside. Either is an experience of “Holy Spirit.” And that is to say that both are experiences of God. God is not external to us, nor internal to us. God cannot be nailed down to such categories, but transcends them.

A few years ago Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi published his popular study called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. It is a fascinating attempt to articulate what happens when we get “in the zone” or “in the groove.” Going with the flow, in that sense, is more than likely what Tiger Woods feels when he hits the sweetest of shots, or what Joshua Bell must feel like when he makes the violin practically weep for his audience. I think a good argument can be made that “flow,” while an optimal experience, is indeed a relatively common one. On the one hand, we cannot be coached into getting into the flow—it is a gift. But we can be taught how to do things, how to perform or play golf or preach or write, so that eventually something extraordinary begins to happen. Skill and temperament, passion and delight align in such a way that an enormous joy abounds. The human being is peculiarly alive and able to do quite astonishing things.

That is a good percentage of what the event of Pentecost is about. It is about stepping outside one’s fears and giving oneself over to the flow of the Spirit. When that happens, power is unleashed and we are able to do astonishing things. That is in fact what Jesus promises in John’s gospel when he repeatedly teaches the disciples that he lives in them and they in him. They will do, he says, the works he does—and in fact greater works than he does—because he goes to the Father. The Father will send the Advocate who will teach them all things, bringing to mind all that he has taught them. Jesus gives his life for us; we give our hearts and minds to Jesus. Jesus comes from Abba and goes to Abba. Abba sends the Spirit to us enabling us to be the community of love that lives out the commandment that Jesus gives us to love one another and so prove to be his disciples. You can see that all of this is about our being connected—to Jesus, to Abba, to the ever-present Spirit, to each other.

But this is not quite all of Pentecost. Jesus comes into the midst of the scared disciples and greets them with Peace. Then he breathes on them, imparting his breath, his pneuma, his Spirit to them. They are overjoyed on seeing him, and they are empowered by him. Being in the flow of the Spirit means authentic peace, incredible joy and amazing power. And that is what I think is a well kept secret. It is about time we blew the lid off and let each other and the world know that this thing of living in community with Christ is not essentially about onerous chores associated with organizational life. It is rather a wild ride of sheer gladness. Sometimes it is being deeply centered in a way we can only speak of as being peaceful. At other times it is hilarity and great fun. At still other times it is incredibly stunning, this life, in its capacity to speak Truth to worldly power, to fight for justice instead of giving up, to insist on equity instead of capitulating to prestige, to resist making pacts with oppression. Being in the flow of the Spirit is not just about an optimal experience for the sake of the experience (though there is nothing wrong with that!). It is being centered, charged, and empowered to do the right thing. It is about being in the forces aligned with the Truth of the Universe, which is nothing less than God.

Yes, there is scut work to do. No, it is not all attractive. Yes, if we don’t watch it we can get burned out and become relatively useless. No, we don’t have a guarantee that we won’t become self-righteous and have to be taken down a peg or two. Yes, there are days when we tire of stomping grapes in the vineyard of the Lord. But every time one of you speaks up for justice, the Spirit of the Lord has found a voice. Each time you opt for kindness instead of arrogance in public spaces, the Spirit of Jesus walks again on the earth. Every occasion when St. Stephen’s opens its doors to the homeless and musicians and artists and truth-seekers and the hungry and the jobless literally welcoming the world to come find a home in this place, the Spirit has inched closer to changing the face of the world into the face of Christ. Every time we proclaim the gospel in words that may be strange to some but which communicate with a new population, including those who have not yet met Jesus, a new outbreak of Pentecost occurs. When we look for ways to put it all together, so that Peace and Joy and Power all find a nesting place here, then Wind of the Spirit blows through anew, shaking the foundations, drawing us tighter into its mighty flow, sweeping us forward to the future of the One who still stands among his disciples, nail-scarred but dazzling, saying, “Peace.”

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011