Trinity

Trinity Sunday  |  John 3:1-17

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

BrownGrassesIt is the most Christian of beliefs—the idea of the Trinity. Other religions and story traditions have saviour figures, even gods and heroes who die and are resurrected. Other religions espouse multiform expressions of the divine—little gods, greater gods, gods of every shape, form, nature and purpose.

Only Christianity embraces the concept of the Trinity, three in one, one God expressed in three persons: God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit. There are all sorts of explanations, endless theological views, all manner of descriptions. We have a host of clever illustrations. Clover leaves. Pretzels.

Though we claim we believe that God is one, we act as though these three persons were separate, untethered, more like generations of a family than aspects of one God.

Take God the Father. When we speak of God the Creator, we think of the Father. After all, how could the universe have come into being if God did not have a long white beard? Ridiculous question? Fine, you try to imagine it without those paintings in the Sistine Chapel popping into your head.

And who does evangelical Christianity expect to return but God the Son? It is  Jesus, riding on a cloud, surrounded by angels, never the Spirit, and almost never the Father unless one’s church is particularly inclined toward judgment and hellfire. No, it is almost always the Son, with a beard that is darker and shorter. You know it is true. Look at the illustrations in any illustrated Bible. The Father is left behind somewhere, and the Spirit is nowhere to be seen while a very intense and fairly young man rides into the picture with clouds and angels.

God the Spirit is more radical. We have our pet images, to be sure—a white dove, the fire of pentecost, even the wild geese of Irish tradition. (The Irish were always a little different. Ask them yourself if you don’t believe me, and they will proudly own up to it.) Like fire and wind, the Spirit is unpredictable, difficult to describe.

All of these images of God have one thing in common: each is an expression of what we expect to get from God. That’s right—our ideas about God spring from what we expect from God and what we want from God. From the Father we expect power and knowledge, and so we imagine a white haired king. The Son gives us ferocity of love, the healing touch, restoration, and so we imagine the energy of youth. The Spirit meets our desire for the mystical, for mysterious inner communion with the God who is Other.Candle In Darkness

God does not live to meet our expectations. Our concept of the Trinity enables us to contemplate the Otherness of God, but the Otherness that is God does not exist to fulfill our conceptualization.

In other words, we may be a little like God, but God is not like us. And our faith should not be concerned with whether God meets our expectations. Our faith should not be based on what we hope to receive from God. Our faith should be simply that God is, for God’s own sake, in God’s own way.

In his novel Looking for Alaska, John Green retells this story:

Rabe’a al-Adiwiyah, a great woman saint of Sufism, was seen running through the streets of her hometown, Basra, carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked her what she was doing, she answered, ‘I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell, and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for want of heaven or fear of hell, but because He is God.’”

[Green, John (2008-08-14). Looking for Alaska (p. 174). Penguin Young Readers Group. Kindle Edition.]

The point this wonderful woman made is remarkably similar to the conclusions of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). In his work On Loving God, Bernard explored the various reasons we might love ourselves, others and God. While we might love God for those things we seek to receive, or in response to the power or abilities of God, the greatest reason to love God is God—loving God for God’s sake, without thought of gain or obligation.

Trinity Sunday is a perfect time to examine what we expect from God. It is a day to confess what we hope to receive in exchange for our acceptance, devotion, worship, and faith. All of that needs to be put aside. We may even, for the moment, lay aside our understanding of God as these three relatively defined persons.

At the end of our theology and our understanding, there is faith. Somewhere beyond our expectations and our explanations, God is who God is. In our moments of deep need, we are not seeking anything from God. We are seeking the presence of God.

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God is Odd

Sixth Sunday of Easter  |   John 15:9-17

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Some people turn away at any thought of God, not accepting any such concept, loving or otherwise. We might pause to consider that the author of the Gospel of John also rejected many ideas about God.

Ancient of Days by William Blake
Ancient of Days by William Blake

The bearded old man reading our thoughts. The angry judge. Inventor of disease. Permitter of evil. Rule maker.

I don’t blame anyone for not believing in that sort of god. As others have said, I don’t believe in the god they don’t believe in either.

The God in John’s Gospel is not a tyrant in the sky. In this Gospel we find a God who is present with us, one who suffers as we suffer, the same things we suffer. This God, not content to be called master of anyone, chooses to be called friend, chooses to call us friends.

Clearly, God’s odd.

It is easy to love the stranger, a people far away. Not knowing them, we are able to project any trait or personality onto them. We can imagine their loves, their needs, their gratitude.

It is also easy to hate the stranger, people far from us. From a distance, we imagine their failings, their enmity. We assign their guilt, dole out their punishment, decide their fate.

Real people are harder. They destroy our expectations. Up close, they are difficult to love. They are hard to categorize or generalize, impossible to idolize, harder to demonize. They disappoint us. Without distance, we lose the simple clarity of right and wrong. Choices settle into ambivalent shades of gray. We lose our secretly cherished ability to be right all the time.

Some people are monsters, true enough. That is easily seen, almost as easily accepted. What is harder is realizing that the monsters are still people, still like us, still loved by the God of John’s Gospel. God, this Gospel claims, does not love some people but everyone. Monsters included.

Up close, we lose sight of our enemies in the faces we can see. Up close, our enemies change as their hands reach out to hold their children or to support an aging parent.

Lemur groupOur friends may not be like us. They may be better looking, or smarter. They may be better athletes or artists. They may be broken, poor, unable to walk or speak. In fact, it may be that friendship is their only gift.

If the God of John’s Gospel chooses to be our friend, that does not make us the same as God. It does not make God the same as us. It does give us a new way to consider the idea of God. Someone who likes us. Someone who does not judge us. Someone who wants to see us reach our potential, follow our calling.

Someone real.

This is not a God of rules, a God of ‘shoulds’— how you should act, what you should do. This is a God who listens to our hopes, knows our dreams. This is a God who knows our failures and who accepts us anyway, an act of redemption.

Friends redeem us, to the extent they are able. Imagine what that means with God.

This is not the god that radical atheism opposes. This is not even the god that radical creationists preach. That entire spectrum of belief and denial is built upon gods they themselves have defined, gods limited to the functions of universe-maker, time-winder, anthropomorphic clay-shaper, with a handful of traits thrown in to suit one argument or another—supposedly omniscient, all powerful gods most peculiarly limited by the imaginations either of supporters or opponents.

The God in John’s Gospel doesn’t even sound like theirs, either the one some people deny or the one other people insist we accept. A god of our own making, whether for denying or following, is not real. A god of our own making, however powerful or clever or amazing, is not this God of the Gospel.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. That is the command of this odd God, the heart of this odd Gospel. Not that the idea was new. The prophet Micah had figured it out long before the Gospel of John was written: What does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.

You know. All the things a friend does.

Friends

Hide and Seek

Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany | Mark 1:29-39

Lectionary Project

Hide and Seek

“You cannot step into the same stream twice.” —Heraclitus, c.535—c.475 BCE

It would make more sense, in many ways, to write about science, or science WhitewaterRavinefiction, or psychology. More people would read this blog if I did. It may even be that more people would benefit from it.

A good number of people, with good reasons, turn away from anything that smacks of Christianity or religion. Sometimes I see and hear the expressions of Christianity around me, words of judgment, acts of exclusion, airs of superiority, and I wonder whether I want to be identified with the movement. Too often being a person of faith is equated with ignorance, lack of intelligence, lack of compassion.

My novel I,John is often characterized as Christian fiction, a label that I resist. To label any writing as Christian, or Jewish, or Buddhist, is to place walls around it, to relegate it to a ghetto. Either something is worth reading or it is not, regardless of the writer’s spiritual, geographical, political or biological place of origin. Being part of a faith movement should not sell books any more than being outside of that movement.

RapidsUnderTreeI wonder, though, whether the same thing holds true for the Gospel of Mark. A person within the faith community, however widely and loosely one might stretch the fence around Christianity, will read and understand the words of the Gospel differently than someone who does not embrace the possibility of God, let alone the possibility that Jesus was actually God incarnate.

There’s a concept.

God, walking around in the form of a human being: what an idea for a science fiction story, or an elaborate fantasy novel. One might imagine a plot line for a psychological thriller, keeping the reader guessing as to whether the main character is more than human or just deeply disturbed.

Mark writes of demons who know the true identity of the man Jesus. They begin to name him, calling him the Holy One, but in this Gospel story Jesus forbids them to tell what they know—his identity is a secret. Even beyond the idea of talking with demons, doesn’t the notion of silencing anyone who identifies the true nature of Jesus seem odd?

Mark adds another strange element to the secrecy motif. While one might Rapid Streampresume that God would welcome those who come seeking God, Jesus gets up and slips away in the night, refusing to meet the people who have come looking for him.

“You will find Him if you seek him with all your heart and your soul.” That’s what is promised in Deuteronomy 4:29. “You will seek me and find me when you search with all your heart,” echoes Jeremiah 29:13. Yet Mark tells us that Jesus, God become human, leaves the people who are looking for him and goes off to other places, to seek out a different as yet unbelieving audience.

The ones who know him are forbidden to speak. The ones who seek him are left behind. It is not what we expect from the plot.

Those who do not believe they have encountered God might take some comfort from these things, if they have any interest in God finding them. Those who think they know something about God are bound to be a little discomfited.

Mark tells the story of a God who does not stand still, but who is continually moving, seeking, touching new people and new places. There is no room in Mark’s Gospel for a God imprisoned on a throne.

The disciples never seem to understand who this Jesus is, at least not in Mark’s telling of the story. Each time they look, they expect to see the same Jesus they think they know, but he is already moving, changing, waiting until those who seek him realize that he will always be found somewhere unexpected.

God is a river running through our lives. Though we stand perfectly still, what we touch around us is always new.

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The God Problem

The God Problem  |  Matthew 25:14-30

In the parable of the talents, we hear about three people who are entrusted with wealth. We know the story. It gave the English language the word ‘talent’ as we use it today—a gift or ability that one may use and improve upon, or not.

Two of the servants went off and doubled their money. When their master returned, he was very pleased with their use of what he had given them. The third servant, more conservative, or less bold, or perhaps afraid of his master, buried his money in a hole in the ground. It was safe when the master returned, but the man was not. For failing to use what the master had given him, the master took everything away and threw the man out.

Ok, we get the idea. Use your talents. We might not do it, in real life—we might be distracted, or busy, or afraid—but we really do get it. We understand that gifts are to be used. Not to use a talent is the same as wasting it, and hiding an asset away is no better than squandering it.CoinsfromJarVert

If we stop there, fine. We’re good with it. We’ve got a meaning we can apply to our lives. Fine. We can walk away.

There’s a problem, though. For all of us who walk away from this parable with a good grasp of the central point, at the back of our minds there’s a God problem. Sure, the guy who buries his one talent in a hole in the ground could have done better, but he doesn’t squander it, does he? He doesn’t go and spend it all. He keeps it safe, which isn’t nothing, right? And his reward? He loses everything. He is thrown out. With nothing. Not even with the one talent he had kept buried.

And there’s the God problem.

“Lord, I knew you, that you are a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter.” The master in the story does not deny any of it, and if the master in the story represents God, there’s our problem. Matthew seems to be painting a portrait of God as demanding, avaricious and cruel.

It’s not even the only time he does it. Try Matthew 22:1-14, the story of the king and the feast. (Here’s an earlier post on that story: Whims of God.) There Matthew gives us a king who’s vengeful and capricious, and once again the king represents God.

So what do we make of that? Did Matthew have God issues?

It is hard to reconcile Matthew’s images of a demanding, harsh master with the Johannine idea that God is love. (1 John 4:8,16)

Maybe we’re reading too much into it. Literally. The parable of the talents is just that, a parable, a story with a point. It is not an allegory, where each element represents something else, at least not completely.

We still see the figure of the master as telling us something about God. We just don’t like what it says. We especially don’t like it because we suspect that out of the three servants, we are most like the one stuffing his talent into a hole in the ground. We’d prefer a story where the master takes the moldy little coin, wipes it off, and praises the poor fellow for at least keeping it safe.

God does not meet our expectations. Matthew describes a God who acts in unexpected ways, outside our social norms, in ways that we find disturbing.

It’s unsettling.

That was the point. This entire portion of Matthew, starting with Jesus sitting in the Temple to teach, is about upsetting our understanding of God. It’s about undermining any complacency we may have about our notions of God.

If we made up the idea of God, if God were made in our image, then we could be happy with the concept. If God is just an idea that humans created, then we can change God, or even throw God out. Who needs to carry that kind of baggage?

FireCloudsIf we didn’t make God up, if God is really God, then we may need to throw out some different baggage. Maybe God does have expectations. Maybe God’s expectations don’t match our own. Maybe we don’t understand as much as we’d like, probably about anything.

So now what?

I think about my grandfather. Like many men of his generation, he had been disappointed by bank failures and limited opportunities. From time to time, he would wrap up some money, or put it in a Mason jar, and bury it for safekeeping. It was prudent. Given what he had seen in his lifetime, it was even wise. If he left the money buried long enough, though, there was the danger that he would forget where he put it. Instead of keeping it safe, he might have lost it for good.

We need to get out our shovels and start digging. How’s that for a Gospel message? If we start growing into the people we can be, we’ll have no cause to worry about God’s expectations of us. Never mind the sweet by and by. Get digging, and the kingdom of heaven is Diggingalready within us.

Maybe our jars don’t hold as much talent as some others.So what—better a small talent that is used than a great one left buried. Regardless of God’s expectations, we will become better people, and those around us will enjoy richer lives, if we go ahead and use the talents we have, great or small. It is true, and it makes our lives better, whether or not we believe in God—an ironic insight from the Gospel.

And Matthew’s story?

We have encountered an image of God that makes us uneasy, but complacency with God would be dangerous. A God that we made up would always meet our expectations, but that would not be a God worth a second thought. Matthew tells us that the God whom we did not make will not always meet our expectations. This is a God who acts in unanticipated ways, at unexpected moments, unbound by our religious rules.

Buried talents and made up gods are safe. An applied talent and a live God are not safe—either one may turn out in ways we do not anticipate, with results we have not dreamed. Start digging.

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Photos by Granny™

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God Doesn’t Talk to Me

God doesn’t talk to me. At least, not in ways that are distinguishable from the voices of conscience, or reason, or empathy, or indignation, or anger, or love.

So do I believe in God?

I think sometimes that I have lost my faith and that I would be happier, that my inner dialogue would be simpler, if I eschewed the supernatural in favor of the natural, if I dropped faith in God and embraced a life approach centered in reason and the scientific method.

SurfAnd then I find myself talking to God. Praying. Having one sided conversations. Short whispered statements. Expletives. The sorts of things that one is presumably not supposed to say to God. If there is a God. Still, so long as I keep talking, praying, whispering, muttering to God, I must suppose that I have faith, that I am conversing with someone other than me. Suddenly, faith appears much more like mental illness than I am comfortable contemplating, but there it is.

Faith. Science. Mental illness.

When I hear about evolution and biology and the meditations of astrophysicists (and listening to Stephen Hawking describe black holes is pretty close to a spiritual exercise,) I embrace all of it. It is wonderful. It is inspiring. It makes perfect sense. And it still falls short somehow.Running on Beach

Let me explain. Take the story of Noah and the ark, or the two creation stories that open the book of Genesis. Do I believe these stories literally? Of course not. These stories are myths, in the very best sense of the word: stories that are imbued with truth about our lives. A story need not be true to convey truth. The creation cycle of Genesis? Everything came to be, all at once and then over time, evolving more or less in the same order that scientific theories have conjectured, an interesting thing in itself. The expulsion from the Garden of Eden? That story captures the moment when humanity became human: self aware, understanding the consequence of choice, realizing the mantle of moral responsibility for the world around us, a responsibility we carry simply by weight of being in the world. We learned that we would work and we would have children, and sometimes both would be hard and painful, but we would do these things anyway because our work and our children are what we leave behind us when we are gone. Our work and our children mark our passage, our having been here. They make our lives worthwhile.

MalachiSo do I believe the Bible? Yes. Clearly not in the same way that many people choose to understand it, but yes.

When I look at the world and listen to the science that explains it, I still feel that there is something overlooked, something unexplained, something missing. Science can explain to me how my dog came to exist, with his size and features and inclination to co-exist with me. Science does not explain why I love him, or why he loves me. Yes, I say that I love him, and it remains a matter of observation and of faith or self-delusion that he loves me. Still, at the end of our science, there is something else that makes us what we are. Each of us. All of us. Everything that is.

There is a gap between our knowledge and our universe. Right now, I fill that gap with faith. It is the God-gap, the missing spark that changes biology into living, chemistry into love. One day, our science may grow to the point that there is no gap, no way to distinguish what once were matters of faith and matters of empirical truth. On that day, I suspect that we will find that faith and science will have come full circle so that there is no difference between the purview of the one and the findings of the other.

Meanwhile, I am still talking to God. And no, God still does not talk back. That may make me a fool, or delusional, or it may make me a person of faith. It may simply make me human. Whatever it makes me, I will take it, and I will still look for that spark that separates being alive from merely living.

Sparks