Sunday, May 30, 2010

Just a Little Sermon on the Trinity...

When I heard that Ragan has been taking you through the lectionary in his preaching series, I have to admit that in my cosy office with one wall of windows and one wall of books, I shuddered. I knew what was coming up on the church calendar. I knew what the lectionary would read before I even looked at it.

Trinity Sunday. The trinity. I have to preach on the Trinity. O God.

This is a problem for me you see because I remember once in seminary raising my hand and inquiring of my professor in a studious, inquisitive tone, not even in a smart alecy or an obnoxious I’m-gonna-challenge-you-tone of voice the such that young seminarians are often heard spouting off at professors or other students whom they find less enlightened than they, but just out of curiosity, out of a desire to know my place in the world, I asked, “What if we don’t really believe in the Trinity?”

“Then you’re a heretic,” my teacher replied.

Super. Three classes into seminary and I’m a heretic. Should have quit then while I was ahead.

Ten years later, and while I wouldn’t confess to not believing in the Trinity, neither would I admit that the concept has become any easier for me to understand.

I rather envy our predecessors, Bishop Alexander, those attending the council at Nicea, and the Capodocian fathers whom you may remember from your history classes, fought off heretics with their lavish sermons and verbose apologetics. They shut down Arianism (the idea that Jesus was created by God and therefore was subordinate to God) and Saballianism (the idea that God just takes on different modes, sometimes He’s the Father, sometimes He’s the Son and sometimes She’s the Spirit) and all sorts of other “isms” that sadly enough usually appeared as a suffix on the name of some Christian who was trying to explain God. But, other Christians had other ideas about God and as a result, after about 200 years of theologizing about the substance of God, the begotten-ness of Jesus Christ and where in the world the Holy Ghost fit into all that, we ended up with the doctrine of the Trinity: God, as one divine nature, is a unity of three persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Not only that, but we have two sub categories of Trinity: “economic Trinity refers to the manifestations of the three persons of the Trinity in relationship to the world,” i.e. to us and all creation while the “immanent Trinity is a term used to explore and, to an inadequate degree, explain the internal workings and relationships among the three persons of the Trinity.”

This is where in my seminary class I would start to get antsy and uncomfortable, worried that somewhere along the line I had bought into a polytheistic religion, and that my Hindu friends were right about Christianity all along: we worship three Gods. I’d sit there, shifting in my seat, trying to decide whether I should ask the professor to explain it one more time or if I should just let it go. I mean, it’s only the Trinity, only what some would call the crux of our faith. Three in one: the Father revealed through the Son who sends forth the Spirit. “Like water,” some Sunday School teacher tried to explain to me when I was a child. “Sometimes it’s ice cubes sitting in your freezer, sometimes if you leave the ice trey out it melts into water, and sometimes if your air conditioner is broken, the water evaporates into the air, it’s all God, see?”

“That’s a terrible metaphor,” our professor told us when someone brought it up in class and he shook his head at our primitive theology. That’s Saballiansim.


And the metaphor we’d been taught as children just got dumped down the sink and new, cleaner, filtered water filled up the trey and it went back into the icebox. According to our forefathers who wrestled with who God is, who Jesus was and how we experience the Holy Spirit, the Trinity is an issue of salvation, and they feared that the ideas their contemporaries were bringing forth challenged the ability of God to save the world.

And since God is in the business of redemption, I guess that would make the doctrine of the Trinity a pretty big deal.

In other words, you can’t worship the creator God, the father of the earth who got his hands dirty making creation come to life and pretend like Jesus and the Holy Spirit don’t exist. You can’t hold Jesus up as a Moral Exemplar, the perfect man after whom we should all pattern our lives and judge our ethics while writing off God as that angry guy in the Old Testament and the Spirit as something western rationalism has rendered irrelevant. Neither can you worship the Holy Spirit and chase after her wisdom (as if you could catch the wind) and in the same breath call God unknowable and Jesus just a really nice guy.

We can’t have one without the other two. Otherwise, we’re missing out on the great mystery that is God.

But I do think that we can relate to those three persons of the Trinity without having ever heard of the word Trinity.

As we heard read earlier, in John 16:12-15 Jesus consoles the disciples by reminding them that when he leaves they would not lose a friend or mentor because “the Spirit will guide you into all the truth.” My therapist told me this week that I should listen to myself, listen to what I hear being said to me, inside me. “You know,” she told me, “It’s been said that humans are the only animals who ignore their instinct.” And often that instinct is the Spirit, leading us to Truth, wailing to the Father on our behalf, warning us against what will harm us.

All of us, when we feel the Spirit, can explain Her as nothing other than, “I just knew.” Or “Something told me,” or an inexplicable sensation of joy or peace. “I just couldn’t explain it,” people say of a brush with the Spirit who is moving around us all the time. She’s like a cat who slips in and around and through our legs, winding her head, her body and her tail so sometimes you can’t tell where the cat begins or ends. She is God’s loved poured out on us, Romans 5 reads, covering us in God’s love.

Likewise, we relate to Jesus, especially to the human side of Jesus. The Jesus who needed a break from the crowds, the Jesus who thought there should have been a little more wine at that last wedding, the Jesus who cried when his friends died. We get that. Not to mention that we want that. We want the dependence on God, the trust that Jesus knew he couldn’t live without. We want the beatitudes. We don’t want to get divorced or even look at women lustfully. We don’t want to be fixated on war, but want to be blessed peacemakers. We want to forgive our enemies, and be strong, beautiful people even though we know we never will. And Christ gives us that. He gives us someone to give up to. We give up because He gave in. He gave in and became a part of our world: the hay bales and the fishing boats and the tax offices and the dinner parties. And he redeemed it all with his love.

And then there’s God the Creator. We know God the Creator too. If we go back just a few chapters earlier in Romans 1 it says that that people can’t help but notice God’s revelation through the created world. It is God the Father we turn to when we want protection, God the Mother we turn to when we need affection. Stereotypical, I know, so reverse them if you want. A mother’s fierce protection is not something to test when it involves the safety of her children, and a Father’s affection, to be seen by one who bears the burdens of the world and still has time for us… We know this God too. And we love this God too even though it is this God that we often blame, shun or deny the existence of because the Creator God’s person is tied so tightly to the baggage we carry with the words, Mother and Father.

I love the book that came out a few years ago and made quite a stirring among Christian circles, The Shack. It’s an allegory of a man who wrestles with the idea of God and becomes so embittered by the sadness in his life that he cringes when his wife calls God, “papa,” her favorite name for God. In the book after telling the story of how he became so unhappy, he mysteriously receives a note from “papa” to meet him at the Shack, the very location associated with much of the main character, Mack’s, pain. So he goes to the shack to take on whoever had played this cruel joke on him, sending him a note with the name, “papa” in it. But instead of a trickster fiend, he finds… well, let me read it to you…

…a large black woman put her arm around Mack’s shoulders, drew him to her and said, “Okay, we know who you are, but we should probably introduce ourselves to you. I,” she waved her hands with a flourish, “am the housekeeper and cook.”… She crossed her harms and put one hand under her chin as if thinking especially hard, “you can call me what [your wife] does.”
“What? You don’t mean…” Now Mack was surprised and even more confused. Surely this was not the Papa who sent the note? “I mean, are you saying, Papa?”
“Yes,” she responded and smiled…
“And I,” interrupted the man, who looked to be about in his thirties and stood a little shorter than Mack himself. “I try to keep things fixed up around here. I enjoy working with my hands although, as these two will tell you, I take pleasure in cooking and gardening as much as they do.”
“You look as if you’re from the Middle East, maybe Arab?” Mack guessed.
“Actually, I’m a stepbrother of that great family. I am Hebrew, to be exact, from the house of Judah.”
“Then…” Mack was suddenly staggered by his own realization. “Then you are…”
“Jesus? Yes. And you may call me that if you like. After all, it has become my common name. My mother called me Yeshua, but I have also been known to respond to Joshua or even Jesse.”
Mack stood dumbfounded and mute. What he was looking at and listening to simply would not compute. It was all so impossible… but here he was, or was he really here at all? Suddenly, he felt faint. Emotion swept over him as his mind attempted desperately to catch up with all the information. Just as he was about to crumple to his knees, the Asain woman stepped closer and deflected his attention.
“And I am Sarayu,” she said as she tilted her head in a slight bow and smiled. “Keeper of the gardens, among other things.”
Thoughts tumbled over each other as Mack struggled to figure out what to do. Was one of these people God? What if they were hallucinations or angels, or God was coming later? That could be embarrassing. Since there were three of them, maybe this was a Trinity sort of thing. But two women and a man and none of them white? Then again, why had he naturally assumed that God would be white? He knew his mind was rambling, so he focused on the one question he most wanted answered.
“Then,” Mack struggled to ask, “which one of you is God?”
“I am,” said all three in unison. Mack looked from one to the next, and even though he couldn’t begin to grasp what he was seeing and hearing, he somehow believed them.

You see, I don’t think the Trinity has much to do with doctrine at all. Rather, I think believing in the Trinity is an act of imagination.

I love to go dancing. Often on Friday nights, I can be found at the Spoke, dancing to some old honky tonk music. But I don’t love to dance because it’s exercise, though it is. And I don’t like to dance because it’s what my friends like to do, though it is. I like to dance because with each song, different steps are required. And as the band plays the slow waltz, the music enters my body which moves to the familiar steps I don’t even have to count and one, two, three, down, up, up, I am imagining myself in a beautiful ball gown dancing around the great castles in Britain or maybe dressed in Jewish wedding wear dancing in Fiddler’s “Sunrise, Sunset.” And then the music changes and I am back in my cowgirl boots two-stepping to “Your Cheatin’ Heart” by Hank Williams, wondering how in the world this girl from Missouri who swore she’d never live in Texas now calls Texas home. And then the band plays the perfect song for swing and as my feet playfully dance the one, two, rock-and, I’m back in St. Joseph, Missouri, at the Senior Citizen’s Center with my grandparents, hanging onto their hands and looking up into their faces as they taught their grand-daughter how to dance.

Dancing is a delight because it is an act of imagination for me. The trinity is beautiful, not because I understand it, but because it too is like a dance, sometimes intricate and sometimes so very simple we wonder why we never picked it up before.

The Creator, Son and Spirit dance together sometimes in a line and sometimes switching partners as they move about the crowded Texas dance hall or the empty green field, or the disco-ball-sparkling teenage gymnasium in whatever dance they feel appropriate to penetrate the souls and minds of those sitting on the side, their dance cards as empty as their hearts.

Methodist George M. Ricker writes, “The doctrine [of the Trinity] really says more about human experience than it does about God. Christians did and do experience the Creator God (Father and Mother), God revealed in the life and ministry of Jesus, and a continuing Presence.”

It’s true, we do. So what’s your experience of God? What about the mystery of God stirs up your imagination?

What about God makes you wanna dance?

Early church Father, Turtullian penned in only the 2nd century the following image of God as Trinity. “When a ray is projected from the sun it is a portion of the whole sun; but the sun will be in the ray because it is a ray of the sun; the substance is not separated but extended. So from spirit comes spirit and God from God, as light is kindled from light…. This ray of God… glided down into a virgin, in her womb was fashioned as flesh, is born as a man mixed up with God. The flesh was built up by the spirit, was nourished, grew up, spoke, taught, worked, and was Christ.

Who is God?

“I am the one who was and is and who is to come,” God replies.

I am.

I am.

I am.


Trinity Sunday Sermon
By Ann Pittman
Sanctuary Church, Austin, TX
May 30, 2010

* * *

Here is more information on the doctrine of the Trinity and how it came to be...

When did we get the “official” doctrine of the Trinity?

Council of Nicea 325C.E. presided over by Emperor Constantine in response to the theological and ecclesiastical war between Arius and Bishop Alexander.

Arius feared Sabellianism or Modelism, the idea that God is three modes or vehicles and felt Alexander treaded too close to the heresy that said sometimes God is Father, other times God is Son and finally, God is Spirit. He was influenced by Origin though who those that Jesus was subordinate to the Father. He, like Alexander was also influenced by Greek philosophy that assumed that “divinity is ontologically perfect in such a way that any change at all is impossible for it and improper to attribute to it.” Arius believe that God the Father was “eternal and immutable” whereas Jesus, the Logos, “was created before the world and therefore was capable of changing and suffering.” Alexander accused Arius the heresy of Paul of Samosata of adoptionism, the idea that Jesus was adopted by God the Father as God the Son. Think Jehovah’s Witness theology of today. Alexander also subtly suggested that if Arius was right, then God “changed” when he created the Son, because it was only after the Son was created that God became God the Father. Consequentially, they both feared that each other’s thoughts challenged the ability of God to save the world.

Arius and his followers, the Arians, were considered heretics and the Council of Nicea affirmed again that the Trinity is made up of three divine beings, all of whom are equally God. It affirmed that Jesus and God the Father are homoousios or consubstantial, of one substance and one being. And it emphasized the word “begotten” (as opposed to “made”) which it borrowed from the Bible itself.

To correct the impression that the Nicene Trinitarian orthodoxy implied three Gods, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa in the Council of Constantinople of 381 affirmed God as three hypostases or three persons instead of just one substance.

The Council of Constantinople rewrote the Nicene Creed in 381 which has been accepted in this final form as orthodoxy for most Christian traditions.

Nicene Creed
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

In 589 the Western church added the clause “and the Son” to the Nicene Creed regarding the Holy Spirit, namely that She proceeds from the Father and the Son. And in 850, The Eastern church argued that was a subordination of the Spirit and rejected this addition as Sabellianism or modelism (ironically what Arius feared centuries earlier). This became known as the filioque controversy and contributed to the Great Schism which created The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

John Wesley: “I dare not insist upon anyone’s using the word ‘Trinity’ or ‘Person.’ I use them myself without any scruple.. but if any man [sic] has any scruple concerning them, who can constrain him to use them? I cannot.”

Friday, May 21, 2010

Climbing in Bed

So Lynnette and I had girl time today. In the afternoon we were at home with the baby taking turns during the meltdowns. When Sam returned from work, he graciously took in the little bundle of spit-up and sent us off to dinner. More Girl Time! And over blackened Salmon and beer. Nice.

So I'm laying in my bed, having just finished watching Love Actually with Lynnette (one of our favorite movies), and I have half an instinct to whisper up to her bedroom to see if she wants to come crawl in bed with me. In the old days of apartments and college dormatories, bunking in another friends bed was the norm. If I couldn't sleep or was a little nervous, I'd go sneak quietly into Brooke's room, careful not to wake Colie; Brooke without even needing to ask would pull back the covers and whisper in her oh so tired morning voice (except that it wasn't morning yet), "get in." And Cat. When we lived together she had a huge queen bed and i had a little twin. Climbing in bed with Cat was much less of a maternal sleeping relationship, it was on the other hand much more a slumber party, and usually involved a giggling session that inevitably began right before the other dropped off to sleep. They'd subside, and then a few minutes later the giggles would usually start up again. It was like slumber partying with your sister. And then there was Julie's bed: Cuddle Island we called that. Where the women would come when they needed to be loved, to be cuddled, to hold that ratty old teddy bear of hers or was that Lisa's old bear? Who knows. One could end up on Cuddle Island due to some late night drama with a boyfriend or maybe over some existential question for a paper you couldn't quite finish. So you slipped on tennis shoes with your jammies and headed over to Cuddle Island.

I know, girls are weird. We sleep with one another. In the same beds. And we play with each other's hair and scratch each others backs and sometimes sing in bed or laugh in bed or do our nails in bed, but eventually we sleep. Eventually the reason we have crawled into each others beds is to sleep... in company. In community. For all our faults of nitpicking against each other and fighting one other in the men's world to get ahead, we do get one part of community right. That is, when we find women we love and cherish as sisters, we sleep with them. We crawl into the sacred bed that is usually reserved for our husbands or the husbands we plan to one day have, and we share all our intimate fears and joys together, under the covers, whispering, or with the covers pulled up to our chins as we stare at the night sky wondering if from it we will find our answers.

But ultimately, I think we find our answers with each other. And just to make sure, we climb into each other's beds and sleep next to our sisters and know that even if we don't find all those answers or heal all that heartache, at least we have each other. And while those beds will all probably be (and in many cases already have been) filled later with men, right now they are the beds of the sacred sisterhood of sleeping.

Cause sometimes the Sandman needs a little help getting started.

Monday, May 17, 2010

At Home in Nashville

You might find this a strange title to be associated with Nashville, but it's not the city so much that makes me feel at home (the city makes me feel rather oppressed... LifeWay bearing down over it and Billy Graham standing in stone at the foot of the cross, holding out his Bible to the cars that drive by, and Christian stations on every other scan of the radio.)

Rather it's the home on 7th street, north of downtown where I feel at home. Where I know where the pillows are kept and the pillowcases too, so i make my own bed as my hosts are busy making a bed for their baby. And i know where all Disney coffee mugs are kept and which one i will choose to use all week because it's my favorite (Tinkerbell). And I love stopping at least once a trip to this house in the long hallway to look at the large, framed, collage of pictures from Lynnette and Sam's wedding day. While I wasn't officially a bridesmaid, I was one of three who did the bridesmaid duties for Lynnette, and I was asked to speak about marriage at her wedding. While I relented to give up my best single friend to the man she would marry, I did so knowing that I was gaining another best friend. And now there is never just "Lynnette my friend from Seminary and her husband Sam." It's my friends, Sam and Lynnette, and together the three of us have become best friends in a new way. Or at least on my end, I know Sam has been added to my group of besties alongside his wife. They are people who don't just know me and love and tolerate me, but rather know and love and encourage me to live to my full potential.

And so I feel at home in their home. I feel safe.

It doesn't have to be clean, I'm not really a guest. Towels don't have to be laid out on my guest bed, folded and ready, I can get my own towel from the bathroom closet. And if the baby's clothes have been tossed in a laundry basket, I can fold them and put them away. The litter box can be full and stinky; I don't begrudge Missy (though I will be irritated if she begrudges me by my spraying my suitcase like she did last time). And if dirt and mud gets tracked in from the rain, I can sweep it up cause it's my home too... in a way. This is one of the places I call home.

I can always tell I'm happy if I'm snuggled in a bed with the computer on my lap and I'm typing, no, writing, telling a story. Then I'm happy, then I'm home.

Yesterday at the ordination service of Pastoral Resident, Joe Bumbulis I watched my own story be retold again. Dr. Stroope came down to offer the charge to the candidate as he comes pretty damn close to being Joe's father. Dr. Stroope kept me in seminary. When I'd had enough of crazy Christians, he walked around and around and around an airport terminal with me in China or Thailand or I don't know where the hell we were, and somehow, though I don't remember him saying any words, he convinced me to stay in school. In addition, there were people at Joe's ordination who were at mine. Tommy and Dana Chiodo, Suzy McLaughlin and her dad, Arleigh DeLeon, Stephen Reeves, Peyton Henderson, Suzii Paynter. Some of it I remember what they said, or what the rock that they slipped into my palm said. I still have it. Other words I have forgotten. But not the faces, not the lines, the solomness with which people laid hands on my head and ordained me into a ministry that Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie tonight at the Festival of Homiletics described as "more than a choice...a call... because if we had our choice, we wouldn't go." A Preacher's job is to speak the truth to the powers. Moses was asked to be offensive, not defensive. There is no syllabus for this practicum on liberation. So speak the truth no matter if you know if you have enough money or if you'll be heard or if you don't know how to do civil disobedience, or if you have someone to run the PowerPoint or not. Do it. Speak the truth.

In Roger's homily yesterday for the ordination he described ministers as sometimes laying plastic flowers at a grave, a trite gesture, not without meaning, but an adequate metaphor for how we have reduced our ministry. Plastic flowers. And I thought there for a minute, do I give my students plastic flowers? And tonight I wondered, or do I speak truth to the power they are already inheriting?

In my neighborhood do I give the already oppressed black people the right to keep on oppressing others who are different from them (homosexuals, "browns" and women) when I hear what they say in casual conversation and just ignore it, or do I speak boldly to what I believe is gospel truth about power verses liberation and risk having my voice shake and my faith shook as I may be called heretical and white and liberal and just a woman?

Cause that's my home too. And everybody wants to be loved in their home. At 4:45am I called my next door neighbor Clarence.
"Clarence, my ride didn't show up, can you take me to the airport?"

Of course he did. And he warned me not to find some man while I'm at this conference cause I've got a family (him) to come home to in Austin. But he also encouraged me to relax and have a good time learning and resting. Because he loves me and I love him. And his house is home too. I help myself to his cans of Pepsi and to his bug-killing powder and he helps himself to my extra long orange extension cord. And we bicker with each other over who isn't watering their plants adequately and we watch late nite TV and cry sometimes because we're sad about our losses. And Clarence always does the preaching, admonishing us to carry on, because Clarence has lived through a lot and found the faith to be his solid rock... and because Clarence likes to talk. I can hardly get an admonition in edgewise.

But it's all home, you know. And tonight I'm home in Nashville with people I love; with a baby who will someday call me Auntie Ann. And I'm nuzzled in their house and borrowing a room and a bed and a Tinkerbell coffee mug for a few days, and so i will call it my own home too.

They say home is where your heart is. I say it's where you love and feel loved, fully alive and fully safe to be yourself.

So, welcome Home to Nashville, Ann. Welcome Home.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


So my birthday's on Tuesday. I know I'm really late in telling the world. Usually it's March and I'm posting a countdown, April and I'm giving you my wish list.

But this year's a little different. I haven't been as excited about it, for a multitude of reasons I suppose (and NO one of them is not that I think I'm OLD, Emily, I'm NOT). I'm not even throwing myself a birthday party and I do love to throw parties.

Instead, I'm going to Nashville, to the Festival of Homiletics (that means preaching conference). I'll get to see Sam and Lynnette and Lindley and maybe do some flood relief work. I'll get to hear some great preaching. And since I'm taking the GRE in July, I'll be "going to class" on my birthday as I'm signed up for a Kaplan Internet Prep Course.

But, since mom's been asking, here's my list...

A Solid Wrap Swimsuit (size 4, cinnabon color).
Gift Certificates to Parts and Labor (my favorite local shopping spot on SoCo)
Gift Certificates to Anthropologie
and I guess gift certificates to Home Depot.

I know, I'm kind of lame this year. But I have so much stuff already. Hmm. What would my list look like if I asked for non-stuff?...

A Gift Certificate to have someone come deep clean my house (i.e. clean my stuff!).
A Gift Certificate to have someone come chop the dead tree out of my front yard ("before it falls on your roof!" Clarence keeps telling me).
A roommate.
A day at a spa.
and... world peace?

Happy Birthday to me. Tuesday.