It is fascinating to read the letters between Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell regarding the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It is obvious that Stone had a more difficult time accepting the Trinity than Campbell. Stone writes:
On this doctrine many things are said, which are dark, unintelligible, unscriptural, and too mysterious for comprehension. Many of these expressions we have rejected…
I wonder if Stone’s problem was that he was trying to comprehend the Trinity in the first place. Maybe the Trinity is something to be lived, more than learned, something to be experienced more than explained, something or someone with whom to relate more than to understand.
Modern Trinitarian thought uses a word spoken by Gregory of Nazi-anzus and Maximus the Confessor to describe how three can be one. These ancient thinkers of the fourth and fifth centuries referred to the inner life and the outer working of the Trinity as peri-co-reses, which means literally in the Greek, “to dance.” They were suggesting a dynamic, intimate relationship shared by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Thus, I don’t believe the Trinity is not a doctrine to learn. It is a connection to be enjoyed. It is to be encountered more in relationship than in religion. It is something that is unseen yet true, inexplicable yet real. It is more surreal than literal, more actual than factual.
The late author and lecturer Phyllis Tickle tells the following story that I believe speaks to the mystery of the Trinity. She was addressing a Cathedral gathering on the historicity of the Virgin Birth. She recounts:
The Cathedral young people had served the evening’s dinner and were busily scraping plates and doing general clean-up when I began the opening sections of the lecture I had come to give.
The longer I talked, the more I noticed one youngster—no more than seventeen at the most—scraping more and more slowly until, at last, he gave up and took a back seat as part of the audience.
When all the talking was done, he hung back until the last of the adults had left. He looked at me tentatively and, gaining courage, finally came up front and said, ‘May I ask you something?’
‘Certainly,’ I said. ‘What about?’
‘It’s about that Virgin Birth thing,’ he said. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘What don’t you understand,’ I asked, being myself rather curious by now because of his intensity and earnestness.
‘I don’t understand,’ he said, ‘what their problem is,’ and he gestured toward the empty chairs the adults had just vacated.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked him.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s just so beautiful that it has to be true whether it happened or not.’
So I believe it is with the Trinity. This dynamic, intimate relationship, this holy dance, shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is so beautiful that it has be to true, whether it is the most accurate description of the image of God or not.
C. S. Lewis once wrote:
All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love.’ But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ has no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, [God] was not love…
And that, wrote Lewis,
is perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity, God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, a kind of dance…
There it is again: a dance. The Trinity is an activity. It’s something moving, something to be experienced, something to be lived.
And now, what does it all matter? It matters more than anything else in the world. The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this Three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: (or putting it the other way around) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his [or her] place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made.
Trappist Monk Thomas Merton once said:
To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.”
In other words, this holy dance of self-giving love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is where we can find our holy purpose.
So, on this Trinity Sunday, I am not proposing we should understand the Trinity as much as we should appreciate it, celebrate it, and discover ways to participate in it—discover ways we can enter into the sacred dance by doing all we can, with all that we have and are, to selflessly love one another.
I believe we are given opportunities everyday to dance this holy dance during our lifetimes. The church itself, the relationships we share here, is one such opportunity.
However, for me personally, no dance has been richer or has emulated the divine dance more fully than the dance of fatherhood.
Before my children existed, I loved and was loved. And it was out of a mutual self-giving love they were both born.
I will never forget holding Carson and Sara in my arms, shortly after they were born and contemplating my love for them. Before they came to be, I thought I knew what love was, when in reality, I didn’t have a clue. I had no idea that I could ever love another so deeply, so completely, so persistently. Although I had always sought to love others as myself, as my own flesh and blood, until my children came along, I never knew I could truly love another more than self.
Consequently, it was not enough to just bring them into the world, to father them. No, my love for them demanded so much more. It demanded me to actually give all that I had give to them, for them.
I was far from perfect. At times I could be selfish, self-absorbed. It was on more than one occasion I heard their mama sing:
And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
‘When you coming home, dad?’
‘I don’t know when’
But we’ll get together then
You know we’ll have a good time then.
But there were times when I gladly sacrificed. There were times I gave my all. There were moments when I rose to the occasion. I protected, and I nurtured. I did my best to teach and to guide with words and through example. And I always loved them just as they were, graciously, generously, unconditionally. There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for them; no place I wouldn’t go.
I took them to school and I picked them up. I coached basketball and baseball. I went roller skating and snow skiing. I learned how to made cookies, waffles and doughnuts from scratch. There were football games, soccer games, carnival games, birthday parties, baptisms, orthodontist appointments, dance recitals, trips to the beach, trips to the emergency room, bicycle rides, rollercoaster rides, summer vacations, cross-country 5ks, awards ceremonies, concerts and graduations. Yes, there were graduations.
And now they are hundreds of miles away. I am no longer present physically, but I am still very much there emotionally, you might say spiritually. They are on their own now, yet they are still mine.
And just as it was not enough to bring them into the world, it is also not enough to raise them and teach them only to leave them to their own devices. No, my love still demands more. Our relationship is not over. In a wonderful way, it is a new beginning. I am no less their father. Maybe I am even more so. I know my concern, my desire to protect, my suffering, has not diminished.
A week ago, a friend of Carson’s from Oklahoma City needed help moving to Atlanta, so she bought him a one-way plane ticket to Oklahoma City. Last Sunday morning, while I was preaching, Carson and his friend passed through Van Buren heading East on Interstate 40. Unable to see him, the pain I experienced was indescribable. And my heart broke this past Thursday, as Sara celebrated her first birthday in 22 years without us.
My desire to be there for them, to do anything for them, to even die for them is now as great as it has ever been, if not more so. They will always be a part of me. I am in them and they are in me. I will always be there for them. My love for them is forever.
This is probably as close as I will ever come to knowing the height, depth and width of the love of the God who created me, became flesh and taught me how to live and love, and whose Spirit is always with me.
The good news is, said Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, if we who have have a tendency to be selfish know how to love our children, how much more does God love us? (Matthew 7:11)
No wonder the Apostle Paul was able to share such confident hope with the Romans in the midst of his suffering! If God’s love for us that we experience in the dynamic dancing relationship that is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is anything like an imperfect father’s love for his children, surely we can boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
If we have peace with God who not only graciously brought us into the world, but sacrificially showed us the way to life, and promises to never leave nor forsake us, surely we can boast in our sufferings.
If we know that the love that God has for us always demands for God to love us more, then surely our hope will never disappoint us.
Thus, when we feel like falling apart, we can keep it together. When we feel like giving up, we can keep going. When we feel like fighting, we can forgive. When we feel nothing, we can love. And when we feel like doing nothing, we can dance.
Yes, Barton Stone, this dance is a mystery. But it is a mystery that has happened and is happening to us. We can’t comprehend it. But we can join it. We can live it. Today and forever.