Friday, May 25, 2018

You Are the Dance

I’ll be honest with you.  I tried for years to make Trinity Sunday something memorable.  I was even rector of a Trinity Parish for thirteen years.  So at least on thirteen different occasions I worked hard to make it something other than the last Sunday of the church school year, the Sunday that often fell on Memorial Day weekend, the Sunday that paled in comparison to Pentecost the week before, the Sunday that Hallmark cards knew nothing about, and the Sunday that clergy frequently blow by saying that the Trinity is just totally beyond understanding. 

You might want to read it.
My enthusiasm for the Trinity has been rekindled, thanks in no small measure to Richard Rohr’s new book The Divine Dance:  The Trinity and Your Transformation.[1]  The title gives the message away. The Trinity is about your transformation.  But if you’re like me, you want to know why the transformation and where it’s coming from.  You want to know, if somebody wants to transform you, what you’re being changed into.

I want to deal with those questions, but first I want to tell you a couple of stories about my own pilgrimage with the Trinity.  When in seminary one of my first and favorite courses was one entitled “The History of Christian Doctrine to the Middle Ages.” When we read St. Augustine’s famous tract “On the Trinity,” I was tickled by his phrase, “vestigia Trinitatis,” which can be translated “traces of the Trinity” or “footprints of the Trinity.”  Augustine found that there were three’s all over the place in nature, in human beings, and so on.  I thought it was hilarious.  Smart-aleck that I was, to some of my friends I lampooned the idea saying that I supposed when Augustine ran into some poison ivy with its three-leaf clusters he thought of the Holy Trinity.  Now, however, I have come to see that Augustine was onto something, as we’ll see in a moment.

A couple of years after seminary, I was ordained and in my first parish as the curate.  On my first Trinity Sunday, which fell soon after my arrival, my rector preached a sermon in which he said that the Trinity—one God expressed as three persons—contains the brilliant insight that the very nature of God is relationship.  For God cannot be understood apart from community—it’s in God’s very nature.  I’ve spent the ensuing 45 years processing that sentence.  Putting both these anecdotes together, I can see how for years I’ve been carrying around with me these two ideas that have now come not only to make sense to me but are quite literally transforming the way I approach and appropriate reality.  Augustine’s notion of the traces of God throughout nature has less to do with poison ivy and shamrocks than it has to do with relationship.  We now know that everything in the universe affects everything else. There is literally nothing in complete isolation, because isolation is an illusion at best.  Not only is everything related to something, but each category of thing, no matter how we slice the cake, is contained within a larger category.  In quantum physics, “entangled particles” remain connected so that actions performed on one affect the other, even when they are separated by great distances. Einstein dubbed it "spooky action at a distance."[2]  Although this might be a prominent but unique example of relatedness, the same thing occurs repeatedly in both physical and psychic experience.  Even without resorting to these sorts of discussions, consult your own experience to find how not a day goes by that you are not affected in hundreds of ways by a host of things.  It comes from being in a body.  Because bodies have to be somewhere.  And that somewhere is always some kind of environment, if nothing more than a bed in ICU or a prison cell where a body is affected by whatever else is in that space.

Entangled particles

My friend Bruce P. Grether has recently published The 9 Realities of Stardust, in which he argues persuasively that nothing is actually separate from anything else.[3]  We are quite literally stardust, creatures that are made out of stars born of the Big Bang, stars that died and turned to dust just as we ourselves will do.  And the dust of the stars becomes the stuff of planets that ultimately takes the shape of specific forms.  Fascinating! You see where this is going.  The Force that sets off the Big Bang bringing the universe into existence is the Source that incarnates itself in every particle, quark, string in the universe.  What is not material is the sheer energy of that Force itself.
Peter Paul Rubens, "The Three Graces."  1630-35, in the Prado, Madrid.
In Greek mythology, the Graces are often depicted dancing together in
unity, not unlike the Greek Fathers' depiction
of the divine dance of the Holy Trinity.
The name Christians give to the Source is God.  But “God,” the primal and overarching Unity, is a dynamic that manifests in three distinct ways.  There is always the Source itself. And there is always whatever way the Source makes itself known, felt, observed, experienced.  And thirdly there is what Rohr calls “The Divine Dance” engaging the two.  Rohr writes, “Whatever is going on in God is a flow, a radical relatedness, a perfect communion between Three.”[4]  The ancient Greek Church Fathers depicted the Trinity as a round dance, an endless flow of love back and forth between Father and Son, a trinitarian dynamism that goes on endlessly. 

This would all be just another exercise in trying to understand the Trinity rationally if we were to stay in our heads cogitating about it.  Quite honestly, that is where a great many people in our culture are most comfortable.  We tend to want to figure it all out before we plunge in.  But here is the very point at which I become charged about it. This divine dance is not going on somewhere out there.  It is going on right here and right now.  Not just in this church but this very minute in you and me.  There is not a cell in your body, not a substance passing through your alimentary canal, not a hair on you or a microscopic mite clinging to you that does not have the imprint of the Trinity.  It doesn’t even matter whether you believe in God enough to use the word “God.” If it exists, whether animate or inanimate, it is buzzing with life.  The dance takes the form of electrons whizzing in their subatomic clouds.  The gorgeous crystals of geodes are as alive with the dance as any bacterium or protozoan or elephant.  Complexity varies.  Consciousness makes a huge difference.  Mind differs from species to species.  Plants and planets vary widely.  But there is nothing that does not fit in the universe. 

Rainbow crystal geode

But what about other things that we associate with God?  Does this Trinity not have a moral standard?  Of course it does.  Or more precisely, of course God does.  But what our Triune God doesn’t have is a human-made morality.  And that is frequently what people suppose God is, namely a great big being who thinks like us.  Remember that the very nature of God is Love.  Thus the divine dance is pure unadulterated love.  The only way to be with the flow is to love.  We are, so far as is known, the only species on this planet that has difficulty being what we are created to be.  Plants and other animals just simply are.  Sometimes their nature is pretty.  Sometimes by our standards it’s not. 

But we humans get into deep trouble when we start living contrary to the flow.  Trinitarian morality, as evidenced by Jesus, is neither flimsy nor fluffy.  It certainly is firm, courageous, and bold.  Everything that Jesus reveals about God accords with love.  If you want to see what love is like when it is diverted and obstructed, then go to Jesus’ denunciation of the religious leaders of his time and read aloud what he says to them [Matthew 23; Luke 11:37-53].  Listen and understand that when love is thwarted, dammed up, twisted by systems how quickly it is displaced by injustice and downright hate.  Read aloud those passages in John’s gospel where Jesus takes on the forces of darkness [John 8:31-59].  Read and re-read today’s gospel about Nicodemus and hear Jesus talk about transformation in terms of being begotten anew (or “born again.”) [John 3:1-17] To live life from the motive of love is in effect to reinvent what it means to be human.  The most radical thing that Jesus ever said was “except you become as a child, you will never enter the kingdom [Matthew 18:1-4, cf. Mark 9:36-37, Luke 9:46-48].”  He was not talking about an afterlife, but a different way of living.  That is what he means when he tells Nicodemus that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.  The child is the model not because of innocence or purity, but because the child is newly minted—and, if young enough, malleable and not stuck in ruts.  Return to that moment of your own creation, when, as the poet Rilke wrote, this happened:

God speaks to each of us as [God] makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.[5] 

That is what it means to be transformed—to return to the Source, to be in its flow, to live free, to play, to love profligately not just people but all creation.  And while you’re at it, don’t forget that love won’t go very far from you if you don’t first love yourself.

A sermon preached on Trinity Sunday, May 27, 2018.

Newly minted

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018.

[1] Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. New Kensington, PA:  Whitaker House, 2017).
[3] Bruce P. Grether, The 9 Realities of Stardust:  A Guide To Being Human In the Universe.  (Wimberley, TX:  Heart Bird Books, 2017).
[4] Rohr, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, Kindle Locations 362-363.

[5]  Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (The Berkley Publishing Group: 1996), 119, text alt. by the writer.

Sunday, May 13, 2018


It’s hard to imagine life without her in it.  She was a constant from the moment I was born until this week when she died.  I sat at her funeral in the church to which she belonged all but the first eight years of her life and felt more than I thought, listened to my body’s own fullness more than cogitated her absence.  Words are of little use at the moment of seismic change. 

And the death of Kathryn Cherry Lundy, my cousin “Tat,” was just such a moment.

Now, however, words are coming, borne on the wings of memories.  Here is one.  On a May day in 1955, I was with her little girls Suzanne and Jo together with some neighborhood kids in the yard next door to the Lundys' house.  A boy more adventurous than careful, I went in search of a dead snake to identify it.  Four or five steps into the canebrake and I looked down and saw the object of my search—under my right foot. The copperhead wasted no time, once I'd removed my foot from his head, in striking my ankle, sending me into paroxysms of sheer terror.

Hearing the commotion, Tat came to see what was the matter. She quickly retrieved from the ironing she was doing one of Lloyd's handkerchiefs, tied a tourniquet around my leg, called my mother at work, crammed me and the other kids into the car, and got me to the old Conway Hospital in probably no more than 10 minutes, picking up Mama along the way. It's not too much to say that she saved my life that day with her quick thinking and calm response. 

Tat and I
She could be that way:  no nonsense, yet compassionate; funny yet reliably steady; firm yet imminently approachable.  Here she is in a  photo taken when she, a senior in high school, held me, a newborn probably only days old.  I came into her life just a short while before she left for Winthrop College.  One of the first really big trips I made was with Aunt Myra to see her graduate from college—the first Burroughs grandchild to do so.  I strained to see her walk down the aisle at Kingston Presbyterian Church to wed Lloyd a couple of years later, went multiple times out to Jordanville to meet and play with her new Lundy relatives, picked beans and shelled peas with her in the summer.  I even have a few memories of aggravating her, as when I wandered into her house weeks before her marriage and took it upon myself to rearrange her gifts that she'd carefully laid out in the dining room. She brooked no foolishness of that sort.

Years went by and my visits to Conway were sparse. Time came when my mother was dead and my father was living in a skilled care facility.  When I'd visit, her house became the place where I was always welcome, always well fed, and treated to conversations in which I would sometimes turn over her tickle-box when I imitated various relatives.  There were many subjects we never discussed, and to this day I never knew her opinions on a variety of hot-button issues. But there was one position that I knew well firsthand, and that was how accepting and inclusive she was.  Having a gay cousin seems not to have crossed her mind until on one visit I told her she had such a one.  She neither sat in silence nor rushed to gush over me nor uttered a word of disapproval or disavowal.  From that day forward, her home and heart were open to me and anyone who happened along with me.  I rather doubt that I was anywhere near an exception to any rule.  She knew how to practice hospitality, which, after all, was the broadest, most creative, most limit-challenging ministry that Christ ever had.  And, to her credit, while we chatted a bit from time to time about religion and my vocation in it, she never invoked to me a religious reason for doing anything.  She just did what she did because it was the right thing to do. 

She was more than a cousin. She was a sister.  The only one I've ever had.  And I couldn't have had a better.

© Frank Gasque Dunn
May 13, 2018

Saturday, May 12, 2018

What Are We Up To?

I was having a conversation a few days ago on a subject that I’ll bet you weren’t even remotely thinking about.  It was about Jesus’ descent into hell. Someone was telling me that when he was a young boy he asked his priest what sense it made to talk about Jesus going to hell.  The priest seems to have taken the question seriously but whatever answer he gave didn’t come near satisfying the boy’s curiosity.  I remember a time when an adult parishioner asked me a similar question. “What is Jesus’ ascension and how is it different from his resurrection?” I don’t know that my matter-of-fact answer was any more satisfying although it was a textbook answer. I said that the resurrection refers to Jesus’ rising from the dead and the ascension refers to his ascending to the Father. Not necessarily wrong, but many times those are the stopping places for such questions and such discussions. 
Icon of the Ascension

The problem with both of these things is that the very terms “descent” and “ascension,” carry with them spatial pictures—down and up. They reinforce the idea that hell is “down there” somewhere and heaven is “up yonder” somewhere. I was in my hometown this week for a funeral.  Conway, South Carolina, is about as flat as pancake. Yet even in that flat stretch of coastal plain there is in Conway a section that is historically known as “the hill.” Driving up the street on which I grew up, I could see in the distance the land rise. I vividly remember that when somebody told me at about age 3 that the devil lived in hell and that hell was below the ground, I imagined that “the hill” must be the place where the devil was coming up out of the ground to snatch people away, and a sign that he was getting close. 

Spatial descriptions work for the untrained, concrete mind. But in a few years we learn that if you travel down through the crust of the earth, you don’t ever run into a literal hell, and if you travel out into space, you can go forever without running into a literal heaven. So, if you’re thinking about the ascension at all, I invite you to loose yourself from any idea that it is about Jesus going “up there” some place. It is a metaphor, not a map. It is an experience, not a geography lesson. And it is about a truth, not a worn-out fairy tale. 

Typical image of the Ascension. 
Can  you relate?
What, then, to make of the ascension, if it has nothing to do with going up?  A good place to begin is with today’s gospel. What is interesting is that this gospel has nothing to do with an ascension narrative as such. It comes out of that long passage in the Fourth Gospel that the writer sets in the context of the night preceding Jesus’ crucifixion. It is in the form of a long prayer that Jesus is praying for his community as he is about to be killed. He is going to leave them. Known as “the high priestly prayer,” Jesus is interceding for his community. Packed into the passage shaped like a prayer is a mine full of insights about the nature of God, the purpose of Christ’s community, and the relationship that Jesus has with both. To grasp the “ascension” of Jesus we have to let the essential idea of this passage sink in. And that idea is oneness. 

Yet there is a troublesome word that we could well misinterpret and thereby miss the main point. That word is “world,” or, in the Greek, κοσμος. The key to understanding what world is driving at is to realize that the entire message of Jesus is a clarion call to live a kind of life different from the life that human societies and organizations and governments and cultures frequently construct and promote in this world. It is a life that Jesus called the kingdom of God. Nearly all his parables and pronouncements were about this different kind of living, marked by generosity instead of greed; justice in place of domination; radical inclusiveness in place of religious, racial, gender and ethnic exclusivity. In short, life in the kingdom is what you pray for if you take seriously the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer. It is not about trying to get God to love you. Nor is it about working to get yourself ready for an afterlife. And it certainly is not about appeasing an angry God who creates you one way and expects you to live another.  There is a sense in which the systems of the world, dominated by power and control, indeed hate anyone who dares defy them.  If you have ever been a whistleblower, you perhaps know that firsthand. Any time the systems of human societies are threatened, they will go into overdrive to assert themselves. 

It is critical to note that not all systems of the world are corrupt, though all are corruptible. It’s important to distinguish between purpose and performance. It’s also important to understand that not everything in the world of human affairs is counter to the purposes of God. When religious communities have taken stands against art, suppressed humor, forgotten how to play, identified bodily pleasure with evil, the result has been disastrous in nearly every way,  and in the end such renunciation of many things in this world that make life wonderful to live has led to making it a sour, boring enterprise. Such renunciation is about as far away from the joy of Jesus that he continues to say he wants his community to know completely as anything we could come up with. 

Another image of Ascension.  Where is the Body?
Have we digressed from the ascension? It might seem so, but all of this is actually to get at what the ascension truly is about. It is about a joyful, caring, generous, accepting God whose very nature is love, inviting all creation to share the very divine nature. And that means oneness.  Jesus is one with the Father. We are one with Jesus. Therefore we are one with the Father.  And because we are one, “we”  include every single person on the planet. “That they may be one even as we are one” does not stop at the twelve disciples, nor at the thousand, nor at the edge of this, that, or the other church. It is a re-writing of the old Covenant first made with Abraham—that the community of God might include as many people as the stars in the universe and the sand on the seashore or in the desert. Jesus “leaves” his community only in the sense that he is no longer physically present. His mission is fulfilled when the divine life that he manifests is the life that the entire human species recognizes in itself. 

C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that we are to be “little Christs.” As one of the great Fathers of the Church, St. Maximus the Confessor, put it, “What he is by nature, we become by grace.” The Ascension is actually about our discovering that instead of the physical presence of Jesus of Nazareth, the physical presence of God is in us. We become the sacrament of God: the outward, visible signs of the divine life, one word for which is “grace.” 

The Body of the Ascended Christ
 But we aren’t quite through with the ascension story. We’ve left out an important question from the discussion so far. Why is this necessary in the first place? What’s the matter with human beings that we need to go through all this in order simply to be what we are created to be—namely to be these visible, tangible manifestations of the divine life? No other species seems to have that problem. We never meet a dog that spends hours trying not to be a dog. Or a cow that is in therapy because she can’t quite come to terms with being a cow. We don’t see trees or shrubs or flowers or anything else on the planet that has a hard time being what they are, or with a need to be transformed into something else. Not even the species that are “wild” and become by human beings’ efforts “tame” or domesticated fit the same paradigm that humans do. I think you know the answer. It is because the way our own peculiar consciousness has evolved.  The very things that enable us to work wonderful feats and to accomplish marvelous things—think of the great literature, art, and life-saving abilities humans have developed—those things come out of the same consciousness that has turned the world into a living hell, trashed the planet, committed unspeakable atrocities among our own on a scale that shamefully outstrips anything any other species has done. Civilization, for all its faults, has been at its best when it has worked to tame the savageness of humanity. Many traditions put it in different language, but the Christian vocabulary simply says that God’s project for human beings is “that they may be one,” sharing the divine life in their very flesh.

Perhaps, in the end, the old metaphor of “going up” is not so bad after all, if by it we mean that Christ has lifted us up from the bogs in which we’ve been stuck to a higher, more beautifully joyful life than we’ve ever been able to construct on our own.  

A sermon for the Ascension of Christ based on John 17:6-19

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018