Monday, May 27, 2013


Today things shift.
Things shift for Rev. Stefani as she goes from Reno to San Francisco
         and from parish ministry to diocesan ministry,
         which  is a decidedly strange new world.
The peculiarities of diocesan ministry will make
         Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley look like Main Street, Mayberry.
Things shift for this congregation
         as you begin a thoughtful process of self-examination
         and discernment of your mission, which will culminate
                  in the call of a clergy leader for your next stage of life.

From Heraclius to Buddha to the author of Ecclesiastes,
wise people have seen it.
Things shift. They change. They open from the familiar to the unfamiliar,
         from the known to the unknown.
And it’s all happening on Trinity Sunday.
So what’s God got to do with it?
Where is God in this new adventure?
What is God up to?
Implicit in those questions is a more basic one:
What do we mean by God?

If God is the source, the destiny, the purpose,
         the essence, and the foundation of everything,
         then what we believe about God should inform
         how we see and experience all life situations.
If our ideas about God do not affect how we deal
         with our life challenges, then what good are they?
So what do we believe God is like?

We can’t tie God down with definitions.
So we use metaphors. They don’t define God or explain God.
They are poetry suggesting a truth beyond words.
They don’t grasp God. They just point in God’s direction.

Our main metaphor for God is the Trinity,
a network of sacred interpersonal relationship.
This God image suggests a multitude of truths.
To flesh out those truths, the metaphor of the Trinity
         spawns other metaphors.
The very first one, dating all the way back to the 4th century,
when the Doctrine of the Trinity was brand new,
is the cosmic circle dance.

What does it mean to say the essence, the core of reality,
         is a circle dance?
It means is that there are two things in God
-- stillness and motion.
Not one or the other but both – stillness and motion.

A circle dance needs both.
It needs a stable center.
We call it the still point.
The second thing a circle dance needs is motion,
         the dancers hand in hand moving to the music.

In his classic poem, The Four Quartets, Anglican poet T. S. Eliot
         painted a portrait of God by describing the relationship
                  between the still point and the motion.

                  At the still point of the turning world . . .
                  at the still point, there the dance is. . .
                  Except for the point, the still point,
                  There would be no dance,
                  And there is only the dance.

There is a lot of movement in the world.
There is a lot of movement in our lives.
Things are constantly changing.
That is life.
Without change, there is no life.
That’s what Eliot means when he says, There is only the dance.
But the change happens around a certain stillness.

So what does our belief about God tell us about change?
It happens. It keeps things interesting.
Today is the first chapter of a Lord of the Rings adventure
         for Rev. Stefani and for Trinity.
The Holy Spirit Gandalf is calling you
out of your respective hobbit holes
         into the unknown future.
Change happens and God is in the change.
Our lives are in motion and God is the motion.

But there is also in God a serene center.
For sailors in olden days, I would have called this part of God
         our North Star, our azimuth, our point of orientation.
Today a better metaphor might be our Global Positioning System, GPS.
A GPS works with 24 satellites whose orbits are coordinated
to create a constant field of overage.
Though each satellite individually is moving,
         together they create a motionless, comprehensive field of vision,
 a kind of all embracing stillness,
 so wherever we go,
         this satellite network can tell us where we are. 

Faith is trusting our spiritual GPS, our Godly Positioning System.
God knows where we are.
God knows our direction even when we do not.
Faith is trusting that God is always God,
that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever,
and that in him there is no shadow of turning,
we trust in God’s eternal faithfulness – which is our still point.

Stefani, as you drive to San Francisco,
God will be with you through every mile.
And when you get to San Francisco,
you will find God was already there waiting for you.
Trinity, as you take each step in your discernment process,
God will be with you.
And when you reach the next stage of your mission,
you will find God already there waiting for you.
God is faithful. God is always and God is everywhere
in the motion and in the stillness.
That’s what sets us free to move about.
It is, as Paul said, God in whom we live and move and have our being.

“Whither shall I flee from thy Spirit O Lord?” the Psalmist asked.
“Whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up to heaven, thou art there.
If I make my bed in hell, thou art there also.
If I take the wings of the morning
         and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there thy hand shall lead me
         and thy right hand hold me fast.”
That’s the God part of this situation.

But we also need to consider the human part.
Fortunately, it’s easy because since we are made in the image of God.
Thanks to the innate godliness of ours souls,
         the human part is parallel to the God part.
It works like this:
In order to survive, every organism has to do two things.
First, it has to change.
It has to adapt to the shifting circumstances.
This is a very different world from the one most of us grew up in.
And the world is going to be even more different in the future.
We have to change or die.

The Church has to change or die.
It has changed many times before.
To keep changing is the only way we can remain true
to our firmly fixed tradition of constantly changing.
Richard Hooker, the 16th century theologian who first said,
Anglicans are guided by Tradition
said Tradition is not a fixed position but a trajectory of motion.
Tradition is not a position to defend but a path of constant change.
That’s Richard Hooker, court theologian to Elizabeth I, 16th Century.
The capacity to change, to adapt, is essential
to the survival of any individual and any specie.

The second thing an organism has to do is resist change.
It has to hold fast to its core identity, its core values.
Without maintaining that stable core identity,
we fall apart and perish.

That’s true in biology and it’s true in business.
Business leadership guru, Jim Collins,
 in his book, Good To Great, says
a company has to do two things to succeed.
It has to adapt to new market circumstances
and it has to keep faith with its core values.

So, if you find yourself resisting change right now
-- and I know you are because some of you have told me --
if you find yourself resisting change right now, that’s good.
If you find yourself a little excited, a bit eager to see
what the new day may hold, that’s good too.
And if you find yourself vacillating back and forth
between excitement and dread,
         that’s perfect.
We need both.
We need the still point. We need the swirling dance.

And that’s what we are going to do.
We will dance. We will move about. We will change.
But we will move around the still point of our identity,
our core values, our faith in the Serene Center.

Stefani in San Francisco will still be Stefani.
And Trinity, a few years from now,
will still be Trinity.
You will do some new things.
You will let go of some old things.
You will keep doing most of the old things,
some of them in slightly different ways.
But you will still be Trinity.
And God will still be God, forever and ever.

Thursday, May 23, 2013


I am not that impressed when people say they believe in God.
I don’t even know if their belief is a good thing
         until I know who this God is that they believe in.
Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, said:
         “If you have a false idea of God,
the more religious you are
                        the worse it is for you
 – it were better for you to be an atheist.”

So we need to clarify what mean by “God.”
We must use the word carefully – dare I say reverently.
In Christianity, God means the Holy Trinity.
The Trinity is a way of imagining God
that the Eastern Orthodox
         understand, enjoy, and delight in.
But most Western Christians either distort it or ignore it.
I was reading in the student lounge of Harvard Divinity School
when I overheard a conversation at the next table.
Two young women on the verge of graduation
were discussing their futures.
The first wanted to be a Congregationalist minister,
but she didn’t think the ministerial board would approve her.
They would, she feared, expect her to believe in the Trinity
– and she was not going to say that, no way, no how.

The other agreed that it was unjust and oppressive to expect her
to affirm something like the Trinity.
The first shook her head at the waste of her theological education
and the cutting short of her ministry.
The second then mused, “It’s so seductive though, isn’t it?”

 “What do you mean ‘seductive’?” the first asked.
“Well,” the second said, “the way Prof. Coakley explains the Trinity,
it’s just so beautiful.
It’s about relationship as the heart of everything instead of power.
It’s really beautiful and so good, so moral.”

The first student nodded and sighed,
“Yes,” she said, “it is, and when you read St. Basil and St. Gregory,
and St. Thomas Aquinas, it just makes so much sense.
It really seems true.”
There was a pause in the conversation.
Then the first student continued.
“It’s hard to sacrifice all I’ve worked for on principle.
But there’s no way I’m going to say I believe in the Trinity.”

“Of course not,” the second student said.
“It would be corrupt and absurd.”

These are bright people in their third year at Harvard Divinity.
They know full well that God is infinitely beyond any doctrine,
that all doctrines are just metaphors reaching out into the dark,
grazing the face of mystery
with our fingertips of language. 

So why is this particular language about God such a taboo
that they recoil against it no matter
how beautiful, how good, and even how true it seems?

The reason we resist the Trinity is all there in dear old Sigmund Freud.
He explained how we get a primitive image of God stuck in our heads.
It comes out of early childhood experiences of dependency.
The God image we get in the crib is of God the patriarch,
God the monarch, the supreme boss, the dominator-god.
We all have that God stuck in our heads.

But it is not the Christian God because it is not the Trinity.
If our parents were benign,
we will feel safer with this dominator God.
If our parents were frightening or neglectful,
our attitude may be less positive.
But either way,
the universal condition of children is dependent and subservient.
So we all get the image of God the dominator.

To think of God as Trinity is to reject that primitive image.
The Trinity does not represent God as an individual lording it over creation.
The Divine Nature is too complex, too relational, to loving
to be represented by a big guy in the sky.
So our image of God is an interpersonal relationship.

This is out of our ordinary box. So let me clarify.
The Trinity is not 3 Gods.
The Trinity is not one God with 3 jobs.
The Godness of God, the Divine Nature,
            is a relationship among three persons.
Their relationship is what makes them Divine.
The network is the essence of God.

If God is the Trinity,
then God is not a powerful individual dominating creation.
Rather, God is a web of relationship,
and this web does not dominate anything.
It loves creation into being.
It does not decree. It begets and gives birth.

I am not making this up.
It is ancient as the faith itself.
Let me offer two descriptions of the Trinity from the Early Church.
St. Gregory of Nazianzen and St. John of Damascus
called the Trinity a perichoresis.

Peri means “around” as in perimeter or perambulate.
Choresis means “a dance” as in choreograph.
The Trinity means God is
 like a Native American or  Middle Eastern circle dance.
T. S. Eliot wrote in his poem, Burnt Norton:
                                    At the still point of the turning world . . .
                                    at the still point, there the dance is. . .
                                    Except for the point, the still point,
                                    There would be no dance,
                                    And there is only the dance.

Hindus describe the divine nature as a cosmic dance;
and here it is in the Trinity.
Reality is, at its heart, a dance -- a community, a striving for relationship.
Feminist theologians say this cosmic circle dance
signifies the ultimate value of relationship among equals.
It is the foundation of everything beautiful in creation.

The second image of the Trinity is from St. Augustine.
He said the Trinity is a symbol of love.
 The first person of the Trinity is the Lover.
In order for the Lover to be the Lover, there must be an object of his love.
The second person of the Trinity is therefore the Beloved.
The Lover makes the Beloved “Beloved” through actively loving.
The Beloved makes the Lover “Lover” through being loved.

The spontaneous response to such love is to return it.
The Beloved becomes the Lover;
and the Lover becomes the Beloved.
Between them flows the love,
and that love is the third person of the Trinity.

Now you may ask what difference this makes?
And I answer: everything depends on it.
Our image of God determines what we value, what we do,
and ultimately who we become.
 The word “God” contains our most deeply held value.
God represents what we believe to be the highest good,
the truest truth, the most beautiful beauty.
God is the North Star that orients all our values,
and indeed our whole life.
We become like God as we define God. 
If we worship the dominator God of primitive theism,
            we will worship power
            and spend our lives either cringing before it
                        or trying to become dominators ourselves.
But if we worship the Trinity,
            which is the cosmic circle dance of love,
            then we will strive to become dancers and lovers.
We will practice friendship as a spiritual discipline.

And how will we go about being the Church?
If God is the ultimate dominator,
            then the Church should be a top down hierarchy.
But if God is Trinity,
            we are equals in relationship – not competitors.
Neither hierarchy nor anarchy looks like God.

An orderly, disciplined practice of compassion
            and mutual submission,
            patience,kindness, and even humility --
                        these things look like God.
Being what Wes Frensdorff called “a ministering community”
            a family of servants,
this is how the Church shows God to the world.

I will close with a bit about the Bible.
We have mostly cobbled together our Trinitarian image of God
            from a bit of Scripture here and a bit there.
The only clear reference to the Trinity as a unified picture of God
            in the whole Bible is today’s Gospel lesson.
It is where Jesus gives us the words of Baptism.
We baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

We are not baptized to make us docile
before oppressive powers either human or divine.
We are not baptized to be dominators of our brothers and sisters,
            or to be free range maverick rebels doing it “our way.”
We are baptized into the dance,
baptized into the sacred pattern of mutual delight,
            baptized into the joy of serving each other in love.