Trinity Sunday as United Methodist Hope

General Conference 2012 was a wake-up call for United Methodists to recapture our ecclesiology based on the Trinity. Much of our muddling was because we left out the theological underpinning that we so desperately needed to be civil in holy conferencing and to do good, not harm in our actions. I think that two of John Wesley’s best contributions to theology come from his understanding of how we as human beings are reflective of the Image of God, the imago Dei. Those two emphases, simply put, are an intentional concentration on sanctification and conferencing. While other faith groups emphasize that humankind carries the Image of God in a legal way that underscores dominion and ownership of the earth, Wesley believed primarily that we are made in the Moral Image and the Social Image of God. If God does the right thing, we being made in God’s image should do the right thing. Jesus said in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Hence, our Wesleyan understanding that God doesn’t save us in Jesus Christ to leave us the way God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world.

Then Wesley really hit the jackpot in emphasizing our reflecting the Social Image of God. One of the best ways to think of the Trinity as social community is through the Greek word perichoresis. Think of two words to get at its meaning, peri is where we get the beginning of our word perimeter. It means “around.” Choresis is where we get the first part of the word “choreography,” which, of course, is about “dancing.” So the Greek or Eastern word with which Wesley felt most comfortable when thinking of the Trinity, literally means “Dancing Around.” When we see God as Parent, Child, and Spirit; Father; Son, and Holy Ghost, we see God dancing around in community, with intimacy and unity of purpose – a great model for Christian Community that provides a Wesleyan basis for holy conferencing. If God needs to dwell in community how much more so do we? So, as United Methodists, we have charge conferences, annual conferences, district conferences, annual conferences, central conferences, jurisdictional conferences, and general conference. The work of community is also found in Wesley’s class meetings and small accountability groups. The image of God is literally in our DNA and especially as it is reflected in our ecclesiology, our practice of being and doing church in the world.

The first Sunday (June 3, 2012) after Pentecost is always Trinity Sunday in celebration of God’s Three-In-One nature and action on creation’s behalf. If you’ve ever tried to explain the Trinity to a child or an adult, you know how difficult this doctrine is to comprehend. Though believing in a Three-In-One God seems more polytheistic than monotheistic, I don’t care. The more the merrier. I need all the help that I can get. I need God’s loving care as a parent, as Jesus the Savior, and through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. The Trinity makes sure that we as individuals plus the Godhead are always a majority against any enemy. To be clear, however, we are monotheists. We just believe God has chosen to reveal God’s self through three distinct but indivisible persons.

To be sure, the Trinity is an unfathomable mystery. Every analogy from water (liquid, solid, and gas) to St. Patrick’s shamrock falls short of explaining the unexplainable mysterium tremendum of the Trinity. However, we miss the greatness of our God unless we accept how God has presented God’s self as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Harry Emerson Fosdick illustrated the revelation of the Trinity by pointing to various portrayals of Theodore Roosevelt. His Autobiography portrays Roosevelt as a statesman, politician, president and public figure. His Winning of the West portrays Roosevelt as a sportsman, hunter, explorer and soldier. His Letters to His Children shows him as a winsome, lovable, gentle father, husband and family man. Each one of these portraits was true to whoRoosevelt was. We know enough from each one of them to know something. But even when we put them all together, we still don’t know everything there is to know about who he was.

Likewise, Frederick Buechner, in his book, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC says, “If the idea of God as both Three and One seems far-fetched and obfuscating, look in the mirror someday. There is (a) the interior life known only to yourself and those you choose to communicate it to (the Father). There is (b) the visible face which in some measure reflects that inner life (the Son). And there is (c) the invisible power you have in order to communicate that interior life in such a way that others do not merely know about it, but know it in the sense of its becoming part of who they are (the Holy Spirit). Yet what you are looking at in the mirror is clearly and invisibly the one and only you.”

The Trinity is an affirmation of teamwork – One in Three and Three in One. Madeleine L’Engle says, “The Trinity proclaims a unity that in this fragmented world we desperately need. We are mortals who are male and female, and we need to know each other, love each other. The world gets daily more perilous. Our cities spawn crime. Terrorists are around every corner. Random acts of violence increase. Less understandable and less advertised is the sad fact that Christians are suspicious of other Christians. Don’t we have all the central things – God, making; Christ, awaking; the Holy Spirit, blessing – in common?”

The Trinity, therefore, models the unity that we should share. As United Methodists I hope that we will embrace our Wesleyan and Judeo-Christian heritage as bearers of the Image of God. If we can reflect God in doing good, not harm, and remember that we need each other in Christian community then we have a hopeful future. However pained many are in the aftermath of General Conference 2012 there is a way forward. Trinity Sunday is a superb reminder if we will ponder it!

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The Goodly Fere and Adventure

In the aftermath of General Conference 2012 I cannot help but reflect on the tendency I see in struggling local churches or denominations that prefer to look back toward the “good old days” rather than to the future. It’s an understandable desire to go back to the Garden of Eden when churches were packed and finances were good. However, if the good old days were that good then why are we in the mess we’re in now? Easter People are supposed to be headed to the New Jerusalem anyway. It’s a risky thought to stake your hope on the future, but looking backwards makes for crooked furrows whether in plowing or being a church.

It’s no accident that God put cherubim with flaming swords to guard the entrance to Eden after Adam and Eve’s exit. If we could have gotten back there after having eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and then get another chance to partake of the Tree of Life, too, then we would be doomed forever to know both good and evil. The Gospel takes us to a better place, a New Jerusalem, where we can live forever in Christ knowing only good. We need to press past halcyon memories of yesteryear, celebrate the good of our history, but keep as our primary objective the risky but Christ-like adventure of the future.

Playing things safe is a natural tendency for most of us. Taking risks has bitten us more often than not. Armchair quarterbacking has been replaced by the safer second-guessing that comes from the sofa. “It’s too dangerous!” is a good thing to say to precocious children, but, if we’re not careful, we may oversell fear to the point that children, or any of us, aren’t given the permission to risk and fail. Risking failure is at the heart of maturity. Wisdom comes from experience, and the only way to get experience is in trying something. General Conference 2012 was a more than a bit deficient in attempting a new thing or anything. So much for making history!

Risk-taking for growth is so counter-intuitive. It goes so much against the grain of our “Be Safe!” society. One of my most frightening experiences was extremely counter-intuitive. I was in a seminary course called, “Wilderness Experience for Christian Maturity.” I should have gathered from the title what I might be in for, but naively I went along hoping for a nice camping trip in upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains.

Everything was fine with the hiking. It was cold, but not unbearable. Even as this was in the middle of May, there was chest deep snow as we followed the trail through some of the passes. After a week of hiking and camaraderie we had our first stretching experience. Each of us was given a piece of plastic for a shelter and then led off into the woods where we would be alone for three days. I didn’t know where I was. No one was allowed any food so that we had to fast. I did have a water bottle that was surreptitiously refilled each night by someone I never saw or heard.

The first half day was okay with my mind focused on settling in, setting up my tarp, unrolling my gear, etc. That night was a little scarier. We weren’t allowed flashlights, and it was literally pitch-black. The stars were amazing, but the rustling sounds of wildlife kept me on guard. During the night some animal came barreling through my open-ended shelter. It was probably one of the many tiny chipmunks that inhabited the area, but, in my mind, it sounded like it was the size of a wild boar, something impossible in the Adirondacks.

The next day was spent reading the Bible and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little book, Life Together. What was constantly on my mind frankly wasn’t what I was reading. I kept thinking about food and wondering what time it was. The group leaders confiscated my watch before leading me out into the wilderness. The food issue also possessed my thoughts. I tore through my backpack hoping that a stray M&M had escaped from my gorp bag before it had been absconded. There was nothing to be found. That day lasted forever, it seemed. I was frustrated in every way: bored, grumpy, and totally out of sorts.

The next day was more of the same until mid-day, at least my best guess of mid-day. Finally I gave up on hunger. I quit thinking about time. My notions of time and space were pierced by the extreme beauty of nature and God’s own quiet closeness. The sounds and the silence of the forest became relaxing and exhilarating friends. My reading of the Bible and Bonhoeffer was suddenly charged with a clarity that I had never known before. When darkness came I slept with a rare contentment.

Three days of solitude and fasting ended the next morning as I was led back to the group gathering area. All of us were treated to lentil soup and hot tang to reacquaint our stomachs to food. Everyone seemed cleansed, purified, and peaceful. It was great and it was needed. The risk was worth its reward, and it was good preparation for the unforeseen adventures that lay ahead.

I share this in the aftermath of GC 2012 to say that I know we had better days in terms of metrics years ago, but we worship a risen Lord who wants to take us into an uncharted future. It is not an unknown future, however. It ends in the New Jerusalem. Therefore, we need to lay aside our fears and our tight grip on institutional preservation. If Jesus is Lord then the future is where we need to be. We have Jesus with us and He’s no wimp. My favorite poem describes Jesus as a risk-taker better than I. It’s by Ezra Pound and called the “Ballad of the Goodly Fere.” It helps to understand the poem if you know that “fere” is Old English for “friend” or “companion” and the poem’s perspective is from one of Jesus’ original followers:

Ballad of the Goodly Fere

Ha’ we lost the goodliest fere o’ all
For the priests and the gallows tree?
Aye lover he was of brawny men,
O’ ships and the open sea.

When they came wi’ a host to take Our Man
His smile was good to see,
“First let these go!” quo’ our Goodly Fere,
“Or I’ll see ye damned,” says he.

Aye he sent us out through the crossed high spears
And the scorn of his laugh rang free,
“Why took ye not me when I walked about
Alone in the town?” says he.

Oh we drank his “Hale” in the good red wine
When we last made company,
No capon priest was the Goodly Fere
But a man o’ men was he.

I ha’ seen him drive a hundred men
Wi’ a bundle o’ cords swung free,
That they took the high and holy house
For their pawn and treasury.

They’ll no’ get him a’ in a book I think
Though they write it cunningly;
No mouse of the scrolls was the Goodly Fere
But aye loved the open sea.

If they think they ha’ snared our Goodly Fere
They are fools to the last degree.
“I’ll go to the feast,” quo’ our Goodly Fere,
“Though I go to the gallows tree.”

“Ye ha’ seen me heal the lame and blind,
And wake the dead,” says he,
“Ye shall see one thing to master all:
‘Tis how a brave man dies on the tree.”

A son of God was the Goodly Fere
That bade us his brothers be.
I ha’ seen him cow a thousand men.
I have seen him upon the tree.

He cried no cry when they drave the nails
And the blood gushed hot and free,
The hounds of the crimson sky gave tongue
But never a cry cried he.

I ha’ seen him cow a thousand men
On the hills o’ Galilee,
They whined as he walked out calm between,
Wi’ his eyes like the grey o’ the sea,

Like the sea that brooks no voyaging
With the winds unleashed and free,
Like the sea that he cowed at Genseret
Wi’ twey words spoke’ suddently.

A master of men was the Goodly Fere,
A mate of the wind and sea,
If they think they ha’ slain our Goodly Fere
They are fools eternally.

I ha’ seen him eat o’ the honey-comb
Sin’ they nailed him to the tree.

O Goodly Fere, Thank you for inviting us to be a part of your grand adventure. We will leave behind Eden for the New Jerusalem!

Transfiguration through Listening

Those of you who know me well are aware that Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina is one of my “thin places” where I can more easily get close to God. It’s a Canadian climate zone with plenty of balsam and Douglas firs. Their smell and the whipping wind and the swirling clouds close the distance between this world and the next. I have a -40 degree sleeping bag and a 4-season tent to get me through the weather’s bluster. The harsh elements overcome any noise that I’ve brought with me up to the mountain. Everybody needs a place to drown out the cacophony of negative voices.

In my mind as we prepare for General Conference 2012 this is a time for intense listening. We call it Holy Conferencing but it’s so hard to do. Although listening to each other is critical, it has dawned on me that it’s much more important to listen to God. With the Call to Action legislation this is even more neccesary. There are voices on various sides garnering attention. I have been one of those voices. I am willing to lay down my preconceived notions, stop talking, and listen to God. I’m also ready and willing to listen to what others are saying. We are Peter, James, and John (Wish there had been some women there!) as a denomination. We’re going to build a new structure/tabernacle for Jesus. Yes, we need this to happen, but we better listen to God first. We cannot solve a spiritual problem with a structural solution or it will flop like so many others have done before. We have to have a transfiguration as a church.

This Sunday is when we commemorate Jesus’ transfiguration. Jesus was on the mountaintop with Peter, James, and John. His clothes turned brilliantly white and his face glowed. Moses and Elijah appeared to him. Peter wanted to build three shelters, one for each of the dignitaries. Then they all heard God’s voice boom from heaven: “This is my beloved son. Listen to him!” This whole event was quite the mystery, therefore, it is appropriate that this Sunday caps the season of Epiphany that is filled with the mysterious and miraculous. It’s all down hill from here. Next week Jesus is plunged into the march toward the darkness of Passion Week.

What’s the message of the Transfiguration? Theologians and preachers have dissected the event in an attempt to make sense of it. Perhaps its greatest message is that sometimes, especially in the midst of the holy, we honor God best by saying nothing at all. By talking too much we detract from the event that we are trying so desperately to explain.

The radio station KGO in San Francisco conducted a call-in poll. The host invited listeners to express their opinion. Thirty-five percent said yes, thirty-three percent said no, and thirty-two percent were undecided. One listener, upset at the large number of undecideds, protested by saying, “It’s this sort of apathy that’s ruining America.” The only problem with all of these responses was that the radio station never posed any question. Therefore, it’s not apathy that’s getting most of us into trouble – it’s shooting our mouths off about things that we know nothing about.

Jesus’ disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration said some things out-of-turn and were rebuffed by the voice of God. There’s a time to just be quiet and surrender to the mysterious. The disciples got a glimpse of reality on the mountaintop – Jesus in his glory. Say what we will about the event the message is to hang in there. What we see and hear sometimes isn’t reality. The transfigured Jesus is! So when we feel overwhelmed, under the gun, faint of heart, the message is “Be aware, look beyond the surface stuff, be quiet and experience Christ!”

Smugly saying that we can explain something as mysterious as the Transfiguration weakens its impact. We end up sounding like snake-oil salespersons with slick grins on our faces acting chummy with God. If we over-confidently state how cozy we are with God then we may just be wrong. Our attempts to explain God’s mysteries end up sounding about as truthful as a fish story.

Two zealous and cocky fishermen met on their vacations and began swapping stories about the different places they had fished, the kind of tackle they had used, the best bait, and finally about some of the fish that they had caught. One of the guys told of a vicious battle he once had with a 300-pound catfish. The other man listened attentively. He frankly admitted he had never caught anything quite that big. He said he didn’t even know catfish could get that big. However, he went on to tell about the time his hook snagged a lantern on the bottom of a lake. When he pulled it up the lantern carried a tag proving it was lost back in 1932. The strangest thing of all was the fact that it was a waterproof lantern and the light was still lit. For a long time the first man said nothing. Then he took one long deep breath and said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll take 200-pounds off my fish, if you’ll put out the light in your lantern.”

To tell the truth, I can’t explain the Transfiguration, so I’m going to keep quiet. Maybe then I’ll be able to see past the clouds that we call reality and see Jesus for who He really is! His voice is the one calling out to me today, and I’m going to listen! I hope our church does the same as we prepare for General Conference.