(delivered at the Pereaux Baptist Church)
(June 4, 2012 by Mark Parent)
In his book Confessions of a Philosopher, the author Brian Magee makes the rather pointed comment, “in ordinary life one knows that it is possible even with the best of intentions to utter words and yet say nothing – we are accustomed to hearing decent men do it from pulpits, and empty utterance is the order of the day throughout the mass media, . . . .”
In defense of the ministerial profession this is often the result of our training, which seemed, and I am sure, still seems to focus on issues and concerns that are almost irrelevant to the layperson. I remember, for instance, a bible study that I conducted in the Richmond Hill Baptist Church in Richmond Hill, Ontario. This church was my first pastorate and I was determined to do everything right, just as I had been taught at Divinity College, and so I spent the entire hour and half dissecting a chapter in the book of Jeremiah with the express purpose of determining whether or not Shennacharib invaded the city of Jerusalem once or twice.
When I reflect back over that event I can still see the glazed eyes of those poor bible study participants.
This habit of speaking without saying anything and of using eloquent words, which upon closer inspection proved to be next to meaningless, surfaced most often when I tried to preach on the Christian doctrine of the trinity. I remember far too many sermons in which I blabbered on a great lengths to long suffering church members concerning the dangers of tritheism on the one hand and modalism on the other – as if by noting these dangers I was somehow explaining the significance and importance of the trinity.
You’ll be relieved that this is not what I intend to do this morning for two reasons. The first is that I have gotten a little (not much mind you but a little) wiser in my older years, and the second and more important reason is because I have come to see the doctrine of the trinity not as something which is abstract and academic, divorced from everyday living, but as something concrete and practical.
You see, the importance of the doctrine of the trinity is not primarily that it guards against tritheism (the belief in three gods) on the one hand, or modalism (the belief in one god who changes modes over time) on the other hand. Instead, on a far more practical and helpful level, the importance of the doctrine of the trinity is that it safeguards us from treating the complex in an overly simplistic fashion and, almost paradoxically, of making complex that which is really simple.
To begin with, the divine being, if we take the doctrine of the trinity seriously, cannot just be isolated to one task, one role. When we do so we treat the complex in a simplistic fashion.
God is not just the Creator who starts everything but then no longer is involved with the creation. God is not just the Son, broken and dying on the cross of Calvary. God is not just the Spirit who comes out of nowhere like the wind and goes into the unknown but along the way touches our hearts with the sensation that there must be more – more love, more hope, more glory – and not only touches but gives us the energy to pursue this greater love, hope, and glory. God is all these three and much, much more. God is bigger than we can ever imagine. God explodes every role to which we seek to limit the divine. God escapes every box in which we try to confine Him.
Too often we want to make everything black and white, this or that. We what to systematize, break down, reduce, but the divine refuses to be systematized, refuses to be broken down, refuses to be reduced.
My son, Jeremy, because of his mother’s sudden death, has a very hard time believing in a good, all-powerful God. He has confessed to me on numerous occasions that in light of all the suffering and pain in the world he has concluded that either God is evil and cruel or else God is good but doesn’t have any control over the world.
On first blush Jeremy’s analysis seems correct. It is the same analysis that can be found in Rabbi Harold Kushner’s bestselling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner looked at life and claimed that there are only two choices 1) God is good but has no power, or 2) God is not good.
Although persuasive, I remember when I first read Kushner’s book feeling uncomfortable. He was leaving something out. He was treating the complex in a simplistic manner because there is a third option, and that is to redefine what we mean by pain and suffering. Things are not as simple as they first appear.
Every great religion, at its best, fights against this human temptation to treat the complex in a superficial and simplistic manner. For example the Taoists admonition us to mediate on the sound of one hand clapping, while the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther once noted that “God is farther away than the farthest star, yet closer than the beat of our own heart.”
How can it be, we ask ourselves? One hand cannot clap, so how can it make a sound? God cannot be farther away than the farthest star, yet closer than the beat of our own heart. It must be one or the other, this or that. That is why when one studies the development of the doctrine of the Trinity one always finds this tendency to ignore the complexity of the three in favor of a modalistic interpretation that God is not three in one but rather one God who appears in three different modes, or faces as it were.
The various Gothic tribes who conquered Rome took this approach. They had converted to Christianity prior to the conquest of the Roman Empire but it was a form of Christianity known as Arianism, which rejected the concept of one God in three persons. It was a modalistic view of God similar to what we find with the Jehovah’s Witness religion today.
The main wing of the Christian Church, however, rejected this view of God. The complex could not be reduced quite as easily as that so they formulated the historic doctrine of the trinity which helps safeguard the complexity of God and does not allow for a simplistic and reductionistic view of God and God’s activity within human history.
But along with guarding against oversimplifying what is complex, the doctrine of the Trinity also guards against the opposite tendency as well and that is to treat what as simple (notice I said simple not simplistic) as complex. Muslims claim that Christians believe in three gods. This is not true. We believe in one God in three persons, but nonetheless one God who is in all and through all and over all.
I will never forget, and never stop telling and retelling, the comment a dying parishioner made to me. I have shared this incident before with you in the context of God’s healing. Stricken with cancer, Ray Maybee thought God was punishing him – breaking him as he put it — but near the end, long after his family and I had switched to praying that God would take him rather than heal him because his suffering was too intense for his loved ones to bear, he awoke from his morphine-induced fog and looked around his hospital room. Spotting me, he reached out for my hand and then taking my hand in his, he said to me, “Mark, after the brokenness comes healing, and after the healing, simplicity.” And then he lapsed back into his confused state and died not very long after.
There is a marvelous simplicity at the heart of life if only we take the time to look. It is the simplicity that God is present with us in the midst of all the ups and downs of life. It is the simplicity that God’s final word is not no but yes, not judgment but love, not condemnation but grace. It is the simplicity that in the beginning God created all things and at the end God will take all things unto himself. It is the simplicity that as Father, as Son, as Spirit, in all the varied aspects of the divine being, God seeks to love us and to care for us.
In the Old Testament there is the story of a man named Elijah. Elijah was a prophet but a very discouraged one. He felt he was abandoned by his allies, left all alone to fight for the true faith. And so he took off to wilderness to rest and to escape. It was there in the wilderness that Elijah met God.
The Bible tells us that Elijah was sleeping in a cave on the side of a mountain when he heard the voice of the divine tell him to come to the mouth of the cave. As he stood there the scriptures tell us “behold the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.”
“’Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free” goes the old Shaker hymn which forms the tune to the hymn we know as “Lord of the Dance.” At the heart of life, when we quiet our souls and still our spirits, we do not find the wind of troubles, nor the earthquake of uncertainties but the still small voice of God telling us of His love for us, assuring us that it will all one day be all right.
And this is what the doctrine of the trinity is all about, not some high sounding confusing theological and philosophical discourse but the assertion that at heart of life is not brokenness but simplicity, the simplicity of God’s love and grace.
As Wendell Berry puts it in his poem “The Peace of Wild Things” and with his words I close:
When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.