Let’s Dance: Joining the Dance of the Trinity

dad and children

Romans 5:1-5 NRSV

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.

Lewis continues:

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.

Mirroring the Self-Giving Love of the Triune God

reclaiming jesus

2 Corinthians 13:11-13 NRSV

We Americans are often guilty of trivializing things that are important. Consequently, survivors of loved ones who gave their lives for their country often struggle during the Memorial Day Weekend, and rightly so. For it can sometimes be difficult to tell if Americans truly know what Memorial Day is about.

Is it about the end of the school year and the beginning of summer? Is it about going to the beach, the river, or the lake? Is it about playing golf, having a cookout, or opening the backyard swimming pool? Is it about red-tag sales at the mall or some other self-fulfilling activity?

No, it is about sacrifice. It is about self-denying, self-expending love. It is about people giving all that they had to give, for they so loved their country more than self.

This weekend is about honoring those who died for us, and it is about praying for those they left behind. It is also a time to recommit ourselves to those who continue to selflessly fight evil in our world, evil that demeans, devalues and destroys human life and sometimes does it in the name of God.

May God forgive us for forgetting what this weekend is all about or watering it down for our own selfish gain.

I am afraid that we have done the same thing to the Christian faith. Consequently, followers of Jesus everywhere struggle, and rightly so. For it can sometimes be difficult to tell if Christians really know what the gospel is about.

Is it about judging and condemning others who believe and live differently? Is it about pure beliefs and possessing an attitude of superiority? Is it about having the right to discriminate and treat others who differ from us as second class citizens? Is it about banning people of other faiths from our communities? Is it about depleting our natural resources because we believe the Lord is returning and the world is ending in our lifetime? Is it all about going to heaven one day or on some other self-absorbed venture?

No, our faith is about sacrifice. It is about self-denying, self-expending love. It is about a God giving all that God has to give, for God so loved this world more than God’s self.

Thus, faith is about honoring a God who died for all. It is about recommitting daily to continue to selflessly fight the evil in our world, evil that seeks to demean, dehumanize and destroy human life and sometimes does it in the name of God.

Monday is Memorial Day. May we remember what it is truly about. And everyday is the day the Lord has made. May we remember how God is made known to us, relates to us, and loves us, and how God calls us to make ourselves known to, relate to and love the world.

This is where I believe the doctrine of the Holy Trinity can really help us—Three persons in one. Throughout the centuries, people have been trying to explain this complexity in simplistic language.

You have probably heard that God is like a pie. You can cut a pie into three pieces, but it’s still one pie. Or God is like many of us. I’m a brother, a father, and a son, but I am still one person. Or God is like water, and water has many forms: steam, ice, and liquid, but it is still water.

However, I believe each of these descriptions only scratch the surface of who our God truly is. It is only a watered-down, version of who our God is. Furthermore, it is defining God based on our understanding of the world, instead of allowing our understanding of God to define the world.

God, the creator of all that is, the power behind our universe, gave God’s self, emptied God’s self, poured God’s self out and became flesh and dwelt among us through Jesus Christ.  And Jesus Christ, while he was on this earth, gave himself back to God by becoming obedient to God even to death, even death on the cross. But before he left us on this earth, he promised not to leave us orphaned, he promised to be with us always by giving himself back to us through the Holy Spirit.

Do you see the one characteristic of the Holy Trinity which stands out?  God gave God’s self through the Son. The Son gave himself back to the Father. And God once more gives God’s self back through the Holy Spirit. God is a self-giving God. God is a God who loves to give to others the very best gift that God has to give, the gift of God’s self.

God is a giver. That means that God is not a taker. For givers are never takers.

Isn’t interesting that many Christians, often characterize God as a taker? Again, I think it is because we like to create a God in what we want our image to be, instead of allowing the image of God to define and guide us.

For example: How many funerals have we attended and heard the phrase: “God took her home or God was ready to take him?”

We have all lost loved ones to death. But the Trinity teaches us that Lord did not take them. For givers are not takers. A more accurate way of describing what happened to our loved ones when they breathed their last on this earth is that God wholly, completely and eternally, gave all of God’ self to them.

When we experience the heartache and heartbreak of this fragmented world, there is one thing of which we can be certain, God is here with us, not taking, but giving us all that God has to give, the best gift of all, the gift of God’s self.  If we don’t know anything else about God, we can know this. For it is God’s very nature.

As we renew our discipleship mission as a church, let us renew our commitment to mirror our God by living not as takers, but as givers.

For I believe with all of my heart that mirroring the self-giving love of God that is revealed to us in the Holy Trinity can help us reclaim the gospel that has been high-jacked by people who prefer to live in this world on their terms instead of on God’s terms.

Mirroring the self-giving love of God can help us recover our faith that has been co-opted by takers, by people who have used and misused the name of God for their own selfish gain

For if we mirrored the Triune God as self-giver, think of how everything would change.

Think of how our Christian faith would change. Our faith would not be about what we can take from God—healthier marriages, stronger families, deeper friendships, peace, security, comfort, a mechanism to overcome trials or to achieve a more prosperous life, or even gain an eternal life.

Our faith would be what we can give back to the Holy Giver—namely all that we have and all that we are, even if it is costly, even if it involves risk, danger and suffering, even if it involves the loss of relationships, stress on our marriages, sleepless nights, a tighter budget, even if it involves laying down our very lives.

Church. Church would not be about what we can take from it. It would not be about getting fed, experiencing some peace, attaining a blessing or receiving some inspiration to help us through the week.

Church would be about opportunities for self-giving. Church would be about feeding the hungry, working to bring peace, being blessing to our communities and inspiring the world. Church would no longer be a place that we go to on Sunday, but who we are every day of the week, the body of Christ, the very embodiment of holy self-giving love in the world. Church would not be a way to for us to get some Jesus. Church would be way we allow Jesus to get us to love our neighbors as we were created to love.

And our neighbors. We would look to our neighbors, not for what they can give us, not for what we can take from them, or how we can use them, but for what we may be able to offer them, especially those things that others are constantly robbing them of in order to support their dominance and superiority over them—their dignity, their equality, their value as human beings created in the image of God, their hope, their freedom, their justice.

We would look to our city, our state and our nation, not for what we can selfishly take from it, but for how we can selflessly give to it to make it a more just place for all.

The environment would not be something for us to take from, plunder and exploit for our own selfish wants, but something for which we sacrificially care for, respect, nurture and protect.

I believe if we would truly mirror the triune image of our God as givers instead of as takers, God’s kingdom would fully and finally come on earth as it is in heaven.

Mirroring the triune image of God as self-givers can rebuild a broken world.

Mirroring the triune image of God as self-givers can correct a distorted moral narrative.

Mirroring the triune image of God as self-givers can heal sick religion.

Mirroring the triune image of God as self-givers can bring down walls and break the chains of injustice.

Mirroring the triune image of God as self-givers will erase racism and sexism. It will end sexual harassment and assault.

When we mirror the triune image God as givers, all hate, bigotry, and violence will pass away, and all of creation will be born again.

When we mirror the triune image of God as givers, liberty and justice and peace will come, and it will come for all.

When we mirror the triune image of God as givers, the words of the prophet Isaiah will be fulfilled:

Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
…[Then] they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:3-4).

Holy, Holy, Holy

trinity

2 Corinthians 13:11-13 NRSV

The Bible calls God “holy.”  I used to think that “holy” meant that God is good and perfect in every way.  But “Holy” is actually the designation for the distance of God, the hallowedness of God— “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

It is the designation for God’s awesome mysteriousness, God’s divine otherness. God is a peace beyond understanding, a love that can never be contained. As C.S. Lewis once said, God is a “dynamic pulsating activity, a drama, a life, a dance” that is larger than our mortal minds can comprehend.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the understanding that God is one but is experienced as Father, Son and Holy Spirit reveals just how awesome and mysterious our God is.

Three persons in one— Throughout the centuries, scholars have been trying to explain this complexity in simplistic language, but such explanations only scratch the surface of who God truly is.

You have probably heard that God is like a pie. You can cut a pie into three pieces, but it’s still one pie. Or God is like many of us. I’m a brother, a father, and a son, but I am still one person. Or God is like water, and water has many forms. Steam, ice, liquid, but it is still water.

However, no matter how simplistic we try to make it, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity will always underscore the complexity, the sheer largeness, the wonderful otherness, the richness, and the wonder of God.

My good friend and pastor, the late Warren Carr, used to be fond of saying he has never believed in Children’s Church or Children’s messages.  He said the reason that churches have children’s church or children’s messages is because they want to make sure that the children understand something while they are at church.  Carr used to say: “Maybe it is better that they don’t understand everything that is going on in church. Because when they come to church and don’t understand, they learn something very valuable about the sheer mystery of God.”

Carr understood that a great hindrance to the church has always been people who think they have it all figured out. For them, God is not a mystery. They understand God completely. There’s nothing complex and confusing or even Holy about the Trinity. When it comes to faith and theology, they know it all. They have all the answers. And, unfortunately they are usually the ones who are very quick to speak on the behalf of God

When Lori and I lost our first child late in the third trimester, these people came from everywhere to share their insight.

“Jarrett, God is just not ready for you to be a father.” “God has some reason for taking your baby.” “God doesn’t make mistakes.”

Although I remained quiet, I wanted to raise my voice and say back to them, “But God is ready for children born every day out of incestuous relationships, and God is ready for children to be born every day to abusive parents or parents strung out on cocaine or heroin!”

During that most difficult time in our life, people said some of the most hurtful things to us, and they said those things in the name of God—in the name of the God that they have all figured out.

The truth, is when it comes to God, with our human limitations, all of us are quite ignorant. The Apostle Paul was right when he said while we live on this earth, we will always see as through a glass dimly or darkly.

When it comes to theology, I have learned that one of the most intelligent things a person can say is: “I don’t know.”  And when you are trying to comfort someone who is grieving any loss, oftentimes the best thing to say is nothing at all. A sincere hug or even a simple handshake, a holy kiss on the forehead will express the wonder of God’s presence and love better than any words.

However, and it’s a big however, although God is holy, complex and mysterious, although we are limited by our human finitude, the good news is that God is not entirely unknowable.

This mystery, this wonderful otherness, this wonder we call God constantly reaches in and out to us, and continually seeks to encounter us as the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And here’s some irony. The same doctrine which reveals God’s mysterious distance is the same doctrine which reveals God’s intelligible nearness. The Holy Trinity is how we know the mysterious, distant, yet intelligible, intimate ways of God.  The Holy Trinity teaches us how God moves and works, what God wants, and where God is moving and working in our world.

Listen carefully, because what I am about to say is all I believe we need to understand about the Trinity. Forget all about the three slices of pie. Forget all about me being a father, son and a brother, and forget all about ice, steam and liquid.

  • God, the creator of all that is, the power behind our universe, gave God’s self, emptied God’s self, poured God’s self out and became flesh and dwelt among us through Jesus Christ.
  • Jesus Christ, while he was on this earth, gave himself back to God by becoming obedient to God even to death, even death on the cross.
  • Before he left us on this earth, he promised not to leave us orphaned, he promised to be with us always by giving himself back to us through the Holy Spirit.

Do you see the one characteristic of the Holy Trinity which stands out?  God gave God’s self through the Son. The Son gave himself back to the Father. And God once more gives God’s self back through the Holy Spirit. This is what we can know about this mystery, this wonderful otherness that we call God. God is a self-giving God. God is a God who loves to give to others the very best that God has to offer, the gift of God’s self.

Even when we rejected and nailed God to a tree and crucified him between two criminals, God gave God’s self back to us in the resurrection of Jesus. There is nothing in heaven or on earth which prevents our God from giving all that God has to give, the greatest gift of all, the gift of God’s self.

God is a giver. That means that God is not a taker. For givers are never takers.

Isn’t interesting that people, many of them Christian, often characterize God as a taker?  Do you remember the song, “O where, o where can my baby be? The Lord took her away from me.”  How many funerals have we attended and heard the words, “God took her home; God was ready to take him.”

Our first child died, but I do not believe God took him. We have all lost loved ones to death. But the self-giving nature of the Trinity teaches us that God did not take them. For givers are not takers. A more accurate way of describing what happened to our loved ones when they breathed their last breath on this earth is that God fully, finally and eternally gave all of God’s self to them.

When we experience the heartache and heart break of this fallen and broken world, there is one thing of which we can be certain, God is here with us, not taking, but giving us all that God has to give, the best gift of all, the gift of God’s self.  If we don’t know anything else about the complexity and mystery of God, we can know this. God is a giver. For it is God’s very nature.

This is a very important concept for us to grasp as Christians because God has mysteriously called us share this self-giving love with all people. Like the dynamic activity of the Holy Trinity, God calls us to give ourselves back to God, die to self. And then ask God to give God’s self to us, come into our hearts, fill us with God’s love, so we can share it with others.

When people face a crisis, I have said that it is oftentimes better to be present and silent. Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all.  A hug and handshake will suffice. Giving the gift of yourself, as God gives God’s self, through a hug, a handshake, or a holy kiss is more than sufficient. However, there are many of us who just have an innate problem keeping our big mouths shut.

So, if you have to open your mouth, remember the Trinity. God is a giver, not a taker. Therefore, always focus on the self-giving God instead of on some false taking god.  In ignorance, instead trying to explain why something bad has happened to someone, remind that person that God is there with them, not away from them. God is there for them, not against them. God doesn’t take. God gives. God is there giving all that God has to give, the gift of God’s self.

If you have open your mouth, you can never go wrong in pronouncing upon them the great Trinitarian benediction of the Apostle Paul—“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you.”

And you can promise them this.  Mysteriously, yet certainly, that gift of God’s Holy Triune self will be all that they will ever need.