Tuesday, May 26, 2015


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.

Saturday, May 23, 2015


Last week we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension
            – the day when Jesus passed the torch of his mission to us
            and promised that we would receive his power to continue
                        his mission.
Today we celebrate the birthday of the Church,
            the day we received the spiritual power to change the world.

But as we celebrate the fact that we are here,
            I find myself considerably confused as to what it is we are doing.
This is what confuses me.
A recent newspaper headline announced
            that only 10% of Americans attend church.
But 92% of Americans believe in God.
By my count, that means 82% of Americans,
            believe in God but don’t see the connection with Church.

These numbers make me wonder about several things.
What do they think religion is for?
What do they think Church is for?
What do we think Church is for?

One of our greatest living theologians, John Hick, looks at these facts 
            -- most people believe in God
                        but only a tiny minority attends Church –
            and he has this observation:

            “(T)he small minority of church attenders are generally happy
            with the message they receive from the liturgies, hymns, and prayers,
            and enjoy meeting with their friends there Sunday by Sunday .
            They see the Church as destined to always be a small minority . . .
            and believe this is an OK situation.
            It means we are where we should be within our comfort zone.
            But is this the right way to think?
            Personally,” John Hick says, “I don’t think so.”

 So what is wrong with this picture?
A few hundred years ago Christianity got lost
            and drifted into a carrot and stick religion
            all about going to Heaven and staying out of Hell.
Going to Church was our admission ticket at the pearly gates.
If we put in enough hours listening to boring sermons,
            God rewards us with a get out of hell free card.

But eventually some hack theologian decided
            all we really have to do is believe that God exists.
In the words of the country singer, Don Williams,
            “I don’t believe that Heaven waits
            For only those who congregate.”
So church just doesn’t seem necessary.

That’s right as far as it goes.
God does not require us to log x hours of church time
            as our price of admission to Heaven.

But without the inner transformation that comes
            from a lifetime of spiritual practice,
            Heaven may feel pretty uncomfortable.
As John Milton said,
            “The mind is its own place, and in itself
            Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”//
Getting God to let us into Heaven is not the point.
Transforming our minds so that we are capable
            of experiencing Heaven is more like it.
St. Paul said, “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

What we do here is not to buy our way into Heaven.
We are here to be changed right down to the core of our being.
Yes, this is to prepare us for Eternity,
            but Eternity doesn’t begin when we die.
Eternity is now.

What we do here is to change us now and for eternity
            into the likeness of Christ.
Christian practice -- which includes study, prayer, worship, and service –
            changes us now.
We receive the Holy Spirit – not when we die – now!

And what difference does that make?
It changes our hearts and our minds so we become
            new people with new capacities – new powers.
Paul said, “If anyone is in Christ,
                        that person has become a new creation.
                        The old has gone. The new is here.”

That’s what it means to receive the Holy Spirit.
We become capable of new things.
In Galatians, Paul gives us a list of 9 of the new things
            we can do and experience by the power of the Spirit.

The first is love. Everybody wants to be loved.
            But the problem is we are not very good at loving
            – needing maybe – but not so good at loving,
                        at caring for someone, at appreciating them.
We are here to learn how to do that.

Second is joy. How much joy do you have in your life right now?
            How much deep down shout hallelujah joy?
            Is it that the universe is not wonderful enough?
            Or is it that our hearts are not sufficiently open to it?
            We are here to learn and practice the art of joy.

Third is peace.
            How many of us have mastered true serenity
                        – the capacity to be the eye of the hurricane?
            Deep inner peace comes from training our hearts to pray
                        without ceasing until we float in grace
                        no matter what is happening in our outer circumstances.

The fourth is forbearance.
            That means the capacity to keep our mouth shut
                        when words will do more harm than good,
                        the capacity to be still and wait.

Then there’s kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness.
The last is self-control.
Have you noticed that most of the world is out of control?
Have you noticed how often we are not in control of ourselves?
Someone says x so we automatically feel y and then do z.
Other people push our buttons and we bark to their tune.
What would it be like to pull back
            and be ourselves instead of reacting to the button pushers?

So about the 90% of Americans who are at home this Pentecost
            -- will God let them into heaven? Sure.
But how much joy do you see in their faces?
When they enter a room, do they fill it with peace?
Have they mastered self-control?
If we want to do those folks any good,
            we need to get clear on what we are here for
                        and what we have to offer.
It’s not admission tickets. This is not the celestial box office.
We are here in the business of spiritual transformation.

In Ezekiel, the Lord said,
            “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you.
             I will remove from you your heart of stone
                        and give you a heart of flesh.”
That’s what we are here for new spirits, new hearts
            – hearts fit for this life and fit for the life to come.

We are about changing hearts, changing minds, changing lives.
That is what we ritualize in worship.
It’s what we pray for and accomplish through meditation.
It’s what we study in our ancient wisdom teachings.
It’s what we practice in our relationships and in our service.

When we change our hearts, when we change inwardly,
            the change doesn’t stop inside our skin.
We become change agents in the culture.
We Anglicans are not defined by a detailed set of theological opinions
            but by our spiritual practices and our mission.
We have 5 marks or points of our mission:
            To proclaim the good news of God
            To teach, baptize, and nurture new believers
            To respond to human need with loving service
            To transform unjust social structures; and
            To safeguard and sustain the life of the earth.

This is about transforming the whole tone of our personal lives, yes.
But it’s more than that.
It’s about changing the world in which we live.
It’s about filling -- not only our own homes and friendships
             but the whole world --
            with love, peace, forbearance, kindness,
                        gentleness and self control.
That’s what people do when they have new spirits and new hearts.
That’s what we do when we stop just believing in God
            and become disciples of Christ.
That’s what the Holy Spirit is doing through us.
Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more

            than we can ask or imagine.