Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Threefold all-kindly

My walk this day with God,
My walk this day with Christ,
My walk this day with Spirit,
The Threefold all-kindly
Hō! Hō! Hō! The Threefold all-kindly

My shielding this day from ill,
My shielding this night from harm,
Hō! Hō! Both my soul and my body,
Be by Father, by Son, by Holy Spirit:
By Father, by Son, by Holy Spirit.

Be the Father shielding me,
Be the Son shielding me,
Be the Spirit shielding me,
As Three and as One:
Hō! Hō! Hō! as Three and as One.

From The Celtic Vision by Esther De Waal, page 145

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Friendship Dance (of the Trinity)

As Trinity Sunday approaches, here is something I wrote for The Living Church a few years ago (June 11, '06):

Have you ever wondered what God was up to before getting around to creating the universe and us in it? Meditating, like Rodin’s “Thinker”? Contemplating, like some great cosmic mystic, the beatific vision of himself? On one hand, attempting to answer such a question seems presumptuous. On the other hand, what we imagine God to be like in eternity affects how we imagine God to be present in our own lives and in all creation.

All metaphors are inexact, but I suggest answering the question by imagining God dancing. More than dancing – before and beyond and within all creation God is a dance, God is a friendship dance. From all eternity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit dance the dance of love and truth and joy. God is a dynamic dance of mutual giving and receiving and delighting. As they sought language to point toward an understanding of God as Trinity, the early Christian theologians used the Greek word, perichoresis, which means something like “they dance around together.”

Out of this Trinitarian friendship dance, God creates. All of creation (and each of us in it) is an expression of God’s love and truth and exuberant joy. We are created to participate in the dance of God’s own life.

Jesus came dancing. He is the perfect image of God – the perfect image, if you will, of the dance. Jesus proclaimed God’s love and truth and joy. But he didn’t just proclaim it, he embodied it. Wherever Jesus was, there was the friendship dance. Jesus comes to us as God’s personal invitation to the dance, inviting us to participate in the dance at the very heart of it all. In his death and resurrection Jesus broke the power of sin and death, making it possible for us to dance again.

If Jesus is the invitation to the dance, the Holy Spirit is the power of God moving in us to RSVP. The Holy Spirit choreographs our participation in the dance. Wherever the Spirit of Jesus is, there is the friendship dance.

The triune nature of God is one of the central mysteries of Christianity. But mystery is not the same as conundrum. Nor is it the result of a presumptuous desire to explain more than can be explained. Quite the opposite. Historically, the impetus to clarify some understanding arose in reaction to those who, like Eunomius, claimed to define the essence of God. Theologians like Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa (Basil and the latter Gregory, under the influence of their sister, Macrina) reacted against such presumption. Collectively known as the Cappadocians, they argued that all we can really know of God is what God has revealed in Jesus and the Holy Spirit. What God is beyond that is unknowable. We do not use trinitarian language for God out of presumption. It is just that, as Rowan Williams has said, “It is the least worst language for God we have.”

The doctrine of the Trinity is the result of Christians living and praying with the reality of Jesus Christ breaking in on their lives, inviting them to participate in God’s life. It is the result of Christians experiencing the reality of the Holy Spirit empowering and enabling their participation in God’s life. The doctrine of the Trinity springs from the experience of Christians who knew from the history of Israel that God was one, but who, in the invitation of Jesus Christ and the experience of the power of the Spirit, came to understand that it was not that simple. God turns out to be more complex. God is love, dynamic love within God’s self – a friendship dance.

This is good news because it means that who God is cannot be separated from what God does. God has done something in the sending of the Son, Jesus Christ. God does something in the giving of the Holy Spirit. In that sending and giving we know God. But we are not just given some information about God. Rather, in sending the Son and giving the Spirit, God sends and gives God’s very self. No doubt there is more to God than we can hope to understand. But what Christians claim is that when God reveals himself, God reveals himself truly. Whatever more there is to God, it will not contradict what we know of God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

The doctrine of the Trinity means that at the heart of it all is relationship. Descartes got it wrong when he said, “I think, therefore I am.” It is truer to say, “I am related, therefore I am.” Or, better yet, “I am loved, therefore I am.” When Jesus summarized the law as loving God and loving neighbor, he was simply saying that this is the way it is at the heart of it all. Love – mutual giving, sharing and receiving – is at the heart of it all. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist through relationship with each other. Because that relationship is at the heart of it all, the quality of our relationships matters. Love matters. Relatedness matters. Community and communion matter. Connectedness is woven into the very fabric of things.

The doctrine of the Trinity is also good news because it means there is room for otherness. If there is “space” within God for the Son to be other than the Father, and the Spirit to be other than the Father and the Son, then there is space for us to be other than God. God makes space for creation and for us in it. Understanding God as Trinity means understanding God as involved in, but not overwhelming, everything. There is room for real freedom. We can celebrate our unity and diversity, not as a contemporary cliché, but as a reflection of what it means to be created in the image of God. God is one, but one in whom there is intimate otherness.

Jesus Christ is the invitation to the triune friendship dance at the heart of it all. The Holy Spirit, moving in us, enables our RSVP. Responding to that invitation, we begin to participate more fully in the life, love, and joy of God. It is a mystery. But it is a mystery that is the gift of God’s self into which we can enter. God is a friendship dance, so let us dance together.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Charged with the Holy Spirit

As the Feast of Pentecost approaches, here is something I wrote for The Living Church last year (May 31, '09):

When I was growing up on the farm we had an electric fence. Being curious, or foolish, or both, my brothers and I would play games with the electric fence. You could hear the click, click as the electric charge pulsed through the fence. So, one game was to see if we could pinch the wire between the clicks. If you timed it right, you could pinch and let go of the wire and never get shocked. Of course, if you didn’t time it right, you got a bit of a jolt. We also experimented to see what would conduct electricity. If you place an old section of rubber hose on the electric fence, nothing happens. If you place a dry stick or an old dry bone on the wire, nothing much happens. If you do the same with a loose piece of wire . . . electricity gets conducted!

The Holy Spirit is like divine electricity given to energize, empower, transform, and sometimes jolt the Church into action. Disoriented and disillusioned, fearful and uncertain, the followers of Jesus who gathered in the upper room on Pentecost were bereft of the life, energy, and power they had known in his presence. Then the Holy Spirit charged – shocked is not too strong a word – them with new life and power.

That first generation of the Church was not energized by some new religious insight. Nor were they energized by some new ethical ideal. They were energized by the power of Spirit of God – the same Spirit that had descended upon Jesus and that he had promised to pass on to his followers. The current of that Spirit electrified them with the love, peace, joy, and hope of Jesus. Empowered by his Holy Spirit, Peter and the others were transformed and became transformers who shocked the world, turning it upside down with the power of the good news of what God had done and was doing through Jesus the Christ.

The Church is like an electric grid, charged through with the Holy Spirit. It is an ever-expanding grid that extends through out the world and back through time to the original Pentecost. As one definition has it, the Church is an ever-widening sphere of an ever-deepening reconciliation. The Holy Spirit is given to the Church to empower and energize that reconciliation which is a sign of the promised “restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21).

Pentecost is a reminder that the divine-human drama centers not on the individual but on the community. While not strictly a matter of either/or, it does matter where we put the emphasis. By the Holy Spirit, God calls us into community where we learn to love one another as God loves us. In, with and under that community, the Holy Spirit moves like an electric current empowering the Church to make our “life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.” (BCP 429).

While the Spirit is free to blow where it chooses, the normal way its presence and power are accessed is by being connected to the community that it animates and energizes. When we are baptized we are connected to the grid and electrified by the Holy Spirit. Or, to use the more organic language of the New Testament, in baptism we are grafted into the vineyard of the Church. There we are able to abide in Christ by the power of his Spirit and bear fruit.

The Holy Spirit is given to us personally primarily through that connection. So connected, individuals are energized and empowered by the love and joy of Jesus. As we learn to love in community, participate in worship and sacraments, pray, study scripture and serve we are continually energized and recharged by that same Spirit. Like the Apostles before us, we too are charged with the spiritual electricity of new life, new creation. And, unlike my crude experiments on the farm, whatever in us that resists conducting that Spirit – the rubber, dead wood, and dry bone of our sinfulness and brokenness – will be transformed into live wire.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Now it’s Your Turn

We watched Bullhorn, one of Rob Bell's Nooma videos, in our Adult Christian Training class yesterday morning. It reminded me of an experience I had when I was a student at Indiana University in the late 1970's:

There were a couple of sidewalk evangelists who regularly stationed themselves along a main campus thoroughfare and harangued students on their way to and from classes. They carried big floppy King James Bibles and dressed like Secret Service agents, complete with sunglasses. They would shout at the students, accusing them of all sorts of sins, threatening them with hell, and calling them to repent – real hell fire and brimstone stuff. Often, a group of students formed to harangue them back. The students would heckle them and call out challenging questions. It was quite a show.

There did not seem to be any real engagement. None of the students seemed to be genuinely interested in, let alone attracted to, the message the evangelists were presenting. As a young Christian, I mostly found it embarrassing. I usually walked pass the spectacle with my head down, hoping not to be associated with either side.

Once, though, as I sat under a tree within earshot of the debate, one of the evangelists said something that I could not ignore. He made the claim that, since he had become a Christian, he no longer sinned. This idea can be found the “holiness” tradition, mainly among some Pentecostal groups. But, having listened to this guy for some time, I didn’t believe it. Embarrassed or not, I was fool enough to rush in where angels fear to tread. I got up, walked through the ring of students and said, “Wait a minute.” I pointed out that in 1 John it says that if we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. The evangelist countered with another text. For a few minutes, with a crowd of students watching on, we played dueling Bible verses.

Suddenly, the evangelist looked at his watch, said it was time to go, packed up, and left. Most of the students began dispersing and I turned to go on my way. But, a voice behind me said, “Wait.” I turned around and saw a small group of students remaining. One of them said, “Now it’s your turn.” They began to ask me questions about my faith. I attempted to answer as best I could and offer a different understanding of Jesus from what they had been getting. I was struck with the genuineness of their interest. These were some of the same students who had been heckling the evangelist just moments ago. But, like the Greeks who came to Philip in John 12, they wanted to see Jesus. They just couldn’t see him through the presentation of the evangelist.

That experience has stuck with me through the years. I know from experience that people are hungry for the good news of Jesus. I also know that many people inside and outside the church have been presented with versions of Jesus that have not sounded or looked like good news. If we want to share that good news we need to live and talk in ways that demonstrate that it really is good and that it really is news. If we want to make a defense of the hope that is in us we need to do so with gentleness and reverence toward those to whom we are making that defense.

Among other things, that means loving people as they are and engaging them respectfully, taking genuine interest in their own stories, their own hopes and fears, their own wisdom and understanding. Unless we do that people are unlikely to care what we have to say anyway. And until we do that, any challenge we might present to their personal beliefs or morals will ring hollow. The same is likely true for whatever critiques we offer of social and political issues. That’s what the evangelists all those years ago did not understand. But, if we understand that and live it, there are people who want to see Jesus.

Now it’s your turn.