Trinity – A Glimpse into the Mystery of God

[A slightly revised excerpt from a 2001 sermon preached by Bill Lewellis on Trinity Sunday]
 
 
Religion is about relationship because that is what God is about. God is three-in-one, being-in-relationship, being-in-community. That is what we celebrate on Trinity Sunday.
 
The ancient Greeks had a word that sounded like "mystery." Its Latin translation is a word that sounds like "sacrament." Christian thinkers used both words, mystery and sacrament or sign, to refer to the hidden presence of the real -- the partially veiled and partially unveiled presence of God -- to mean something visible (e.g., persons, community, bread and wine) something visible that communicates something of God's hidden presence.
 
Whenever we talk about God, we're in that realm of mystery. Unfortunately, our English word speaks of puzzles, riddles or problems to be solved. God is not a problem to be solved, an issue to be dealt with, or a belief to be held. God is first of all a presence to be encountered in our relationships, a presence that lures us into life.
 
Most of the great days of the church year celebrate events: the events of Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost. Today, however, we celebrate and give thanks not for an event but for a glimpse into the heart of the mystery of God, a glimpse into God as a community of persons. We celebrate our faith that the mystery of God has to do with relationship, and that the relationships within the being of God form a pattern for all of our relationships, relationships meant to reflect God’s dream for all of us, the dream we refer to at times as the Kingdom of God or the Reign of God.
 
A glimpse into the mystery of God. In a university in Rome, where I studied theology, this was how a professor in a large lecture hall introduced.his course. He made a white chalk dot on a very large blackboard. “The dot,” he said, “is what we know about God. The blackboard is what we don’t know about God. What we know about God is precious little. But the little that God has given us to know is precious.”
 
I’ve found that to be a helpful image. What we know about God is precious little. But the little that God has given us to know is precious.
 
Experiencing God as Trinity. Most of us, as children, were baptized in the name of the Trinity. As children, many of us learned how to sign ourselves in the name of the Trinity. The most popular name for churches in our diocese is Trinity. The three-in-one God is a core teaching of the Church.
 
The idea of Trinity was not thought up by ivory-tower theologians to make things more complicated than they needed to be and to obscure the simple faith of ordinary people. It was, in fact, pretty much the other way around. It arose from how the early Christians, ordinary people, experienced God in their lives after the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit. They experienced God as three different persons. Yet, there could not be three gods. God, to be the biblical God and the only God of all, had to be one God. They attempted to put their experiences of God into words. Among the words they used to capture this experience were Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
 
The faith that arose from the experiences of ordinary people was then handed over to the theologians to try to make more intelligible. They have been trying ever since. A simple definition of theology is “putting your experiences of God into words.” The doctrine of the Trinity is our human attempt to use words to express our understanding of God – yet none of our words or images will ever be adequate to capture all of God.
 
I used to wear a tight, white T-shirt much too often in public, even after it framed my growing middle too well. Black lettering on the T-shirt proclaimed, “My life is based on a true story.”
 
Truth is not a thing apart. Truth is a relationship. If I remain in the relationship, continuing to explore the pattern of Trinity, I remain in the story.
 
God as Trinity means that relationship is at the heart of the universe, that relationship is the ultimate pattern, the ultimate design on which we explore the infinite possibilities of creation. God as Trinity means that you and I do not exist as genuinely human persons unless in relationship with others and with God. We are anchored by relationships. Our soul (spirituality, meaning, reality) is neither within nor without, but between… exploring the infinite possibilities of relationship.
 
Our lives are not limited by failure, nor by our illusions of success. There is always a call forward. None of us is there yet. Don’t ever think your life has come to a full stop. We are seeds swelling toward a ripeness never fully achieved, but ever in the process of becoming. In this moment, in every moment, we are being lured into life. We are becoming fit to live.
 
In the same way that nature constantly explores the infinite possibilities in a simple pattern like a tree, a leaf, a head of cauliflower, a snowflake, a human face, we too are exploring the infinite possibilities of the basic pattern of Trinity, being in community, being in relationship.
 
Life is a dance… with steps you don't know… Learn as you go.
 

Benedictine Oblate Chapter Starts in the Diocese

By Mother Laura Howell
Rector, Trinity Bethlehem

Benedictine Oblate

On Sunday, April 17, at 1:30, twelve years after I became an Oblate of St. Benedict, Trinity Bethlehem (44 E. Market St.) will host the organizational meeting of the Diocese of Bethlehem’s new Benedictine Oblate Chapter. Bishop Sean has blessed our new undertaking.

An oblate is a lay monastic who offers his or her life to God. To quote St. Paul in Romans 12: oblates “present <their> bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” Oblates promise to live a Benedictine life in the world, while maintaining a spiritual connection to a monastery. We are male/female, young/old, married/single, of all races and ethnic groups, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, other denominations, and from countries all around the world. We make promises of obedience, stability and conversion of life, to be lived while continuing in the station of life God has called us to. For me, that’s being a priest at Trinity Episcopal Church in Bethlehem, PA. Each oblate has a different path. But we all promise obedience to the will of God; stability in continuing in the Way God has called us to; and continuous and daily conversion of life, trying always to become more the person God wants us to be. You can also see these promises as distilled and focused versions of some of our baptismal promises.

Part of the promise of stability is that each Benedictine monk or nun plans to spend the rest of their lives in a single monastic community. Oblates are not monks or nuns, and therefore, most don’t live in monastic communities, although we are part of the international Benedictine family. However, we all do have an affiliation with a monastery. Oblates live out their promises of stability by being part of their home monasteries at the spiritual level, rather than at the residential level.

My home monastery is Sacred Heart Monastery in Yankton, South Dakota, and I have received the great honor of starting a new chapter here in Pennsylvania. You can visit their website by going to http://yanktonbenedictines.org. They operate both a hospital and a college, and pioneered the first Online Oblate Chapter, so it should be no surprise that we feel an affinity. We are also members of the North American Association of Benedictine Oblate Directors (http://naabod.org).

You are all welcome to attend our first meeting to find out more about the course of study and faith formation that is involved in becoming an oblate. Or have a chat with me. Or send me a note at laura@trinitybeth.org. Read more about Benedictine oblates at http://osb.org/obl/index.html .

Benedictine blessings to all,
Mo. Laura Thomas, Obl.S.B.


Grave: TRINITY by Bishop Paul Marshall (1 of 4)

Grave: TRINITY
© Paul V. Marshall

[Bishop Paul Marshall of the Diocese of Bethlehem served as conference preacher for the June 2012 Association of Anglican Musicians in Philadelphia. He preached four sermons. This is the first.  "Grave" is a musical term meaning "played slowly and seriously."]

Gratitude is the chief word I have for the opportunity to share this week with you, gratitude and a little awe, but with your permission I will not go into that now beyond acknowledging the keen pleasure I take at the invitation to be among this company in this hallowed place.

You have given me a tough place to start, however, as our propers are “of the Holy Trinity.” 

You know better than I that Gustav Mahler was asked why, given the immense spirituality of his compositions, he had never composed a mass. His reply was telling, “Do you think I could take that upon myself? Well, why not? But no, there’s the credo in it.” Fair enough, but then he went on to recite the creed in Latin, keeping the ambiguity of the encounter high. 

I think of Mahler today just because his story is tantalizing. We cannot say with precision exactly what if any brand of faith he had. Nobody can prove what his conversion was ultimately about, and there are lots of opinions. That multitude of opinion about the very same information reminds us that all beliefs, including our own, are motivated, motivated by many things going on inside of us in our deepest unconscious, so we may perhaps put nagging historical questions in favor of the theological one when we think of this story. Mahler would not have been the first to write a mass with no creed (of course, he couldn’t write anything-Brevis); why would he have focused on the very existence of credo as a reason to bow out of mass-writing entirely?

Let me thicken that question. More than one of the great composers of religious music in the Anglican tradition, when pressed about theology, have chosen to declare for atheism or agnosticism as did Vaughan Williams. Others will mount an esoteric heterodoxy like that of my beloved Parry. Again, we can speculate about their deepest motives, but is it not possible that for those who sing of God and the Lamb the language of dogmatic theology is, forgive me, not always very interesting, and perhaps quite alienating? Bach is the greatest exception here, but he is always the greatest exception. But for Mahler and my English examples, perhaps it was one thing to set the earnest prayer “Veni Creator Spiritus” in a symphony of a thousand, and quite another thing to set to music a group of propositions. Not all of us believe with words. Not all of us believe with words.

Perhaps the dogmatically hesitant have a vital point to make, at least in the present culture that speaks so trippingly of the uncertainty principle and parallel universes. That is, I have to remember that for the orthodox Christianity of Mahler’s day, the creed was for the most part data, not a song. So perceived, it ultimately reduced God to an object, capable of study, dissection, and definition, the fuel for debate and even persecution. Such talk of a domesticated and definable God does not invite the ecstasy of music. Who would want to set the periodic chart of the elements to music?—well, of course, Tom Lehrer did just that, but you get my point.

To those for whom the idea of God as object is unthinkable or at least uninviting, it is life-giving to observe that the creed has gotten more musical of late. The revival of Trinitarian theology in the last two generations has been at its heart the rediscovery by western Christians that what the ancient church chose to say about God is not in the first place data; it is doxology. That doxology (and let us steadfastly remember that all doxologies get an Amen played at the end, just as one is said at the doxology in each prayer!), that doxology comes from reflection on both practical and ecstatic experience, and Trinitarian doxology comes to the conclusion that God is, in God’s deepest self, in relationship, from before time and forever.  Many have observed that the Greek word for that relationship is very like the word for dance. Three distinct persons in one eternal Dance. Delicate, rhythmic, supple, inviting.

It is also worth reflection that over the course of the years most of the so-called Trinitarian heresies that have been rejected have one thing in common: each of them simplified words about God, made God seem to be understandable and manageable, pedestrian, and certainly less lyrical. What we call the heresies often moved theology from the mystical dance to something like bad Powerpoint. (This is not to say that the Arians, for instance, didn’t have popular songs, but their songs were apparently shallow, slogan-like, and not very sophisticated musically—but that was a long time ago.)

So to the part of us that resonates strongly with Mahler and other spiritually rich composers who balked at dogma perhaps because of its ineradicable unmusicality, there come two words. The first is that our God worshiped with the creed is not worshiped as a datum, but is adored as the eternal dynamic relationship, and that we perceive that very God inviting us to join the dance. The second word is that if I try to figure God out rather than relax and adore the mystery, and lose myself in it, I condemn myself to theological tone-deafness and will not get to dance.

We can focus this by asking what does any of this doxological dance look like when it is at home?

Let me illustrate by mentioning the spirit of a musician who hovers over this meeting. A colleague[1] in my office wrote this about Gerre Hancock back in 2000:

“When I was a seminarian and the thurifer for a Sung Eucharist one Sunday, I opened the ambulatory door as quietly as possible to see how soon incense would be needed in the service.  The ambulatory was empty, and the view from that door to the organ bench is perfect.  And there was Uncle Gerre sitting on the bench, unaware that someone was watching.  The heels of his shoes were cocked on the beam beneath the bench itself.  His hands were just outside his knees, gripping the bench.  His head was bowed, and his shoulders were slumped.  I put it to you that he wasn’t trying to remember how to play Merbecke….

“He was doing that rare thing, rare for church employees everywhere, both lay and clerical.  He was praying.  He’s based his life on the conviction that he’s on earth for one reason: to praise God.  And, he does it with his playing.  He does it with his composing.  He does it with his conducting.  He does it with his teaching.  All of which is to say he gives thanks and praise unto the Lord with his whole heart.”

I left those verbs in the present tense, because that is where they belong. Gerre Hancock touched many in this room with his authentic blend of faith and art. Perhaps as we honor his memory by singing it, we may also experience just a bit more gladness to feel, experience, and say, “Credo.”


[1] The Venerable Howard W Stringfellow III, whom I quote with permission.