This week I remembered a conversation I had a while back with someone who called the church, presumably to ask for help.
“May I speak to the Father?” the caller asked.
“Well, there is no Father here,” I replied. “But there is a priest.”
There was a moment of confused silence, then the caller said, “Isn’t this an Episcopal Church?”
“Yes, it is,” I answered.
“Then I need to speak to the Father,” she said.
“This is an Episcopal Church, and I am the priest here, but I’m not the Father,” I explained. “I’m a woman, not a man. But may I help you?”
“I need to speak to the Father,” the woman insisted.
I tried once more. “There is no Father here, but I am the priest and I’d be glad to help you.”
The phone went dead.
Somehow this conversation seems appropriate for Trinity Sunday, the day set aside on the church calendar to celebrate and give thanks for the understanding of God that is central to the Christian faith – God as Father, God as Son, and God as Holy Spirit, or as a hymn we will sing today puts it, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”
This seemingly paradoxical belief that we have one God who is three persons has baffled theologians throughout the ages.
Surely the Trinity, like all of our knowledge of God, contains mystery and can never be fully understood. But I also don’t think it needs to be as complicated as many theologians have made it out to be.
The formal doctrine of the Trinity itself is never mentioned in scripture, although the elements and seeds of it are all there. Think about how our faith would be diminished if we did not understand that the one God is revealed to us in these three different ways.
God the Father is the creator God who can do mysterious, powerful, and wonderful things; the God who only has to speak to create life. This is the transcendent God, who can sometimes seem distant, remote and difficult to approach, but who is also with us like a loving parent.
The Trinity tells us that God doesn’t stay remote in the distant heavens. The divine presence comes to be with us in person as Jesus, God’s own Son, who walked the earth as one of us, who knows firsthand the joys and sorrows, the temptations and pains of being human.
God the Son is God-with–us, in the special way of one who cares about us deeply, so deeply that he is willing to die for us. Through Christ’s teaching and life, we are shown how we are to live, and how we are to die – as beloved sons and daughters of God.
But the Trinity doesn’t stop there, leaving us with only a 2,000-year-old memory of God’s son who once walked the earth. The Trinity means that God is not just a part of our distant history.
God as Holy Spirit is with us now, present with us always, sustaining and enlightening us, giving us comfort and strength.
The Trinity tells us that the fullness of God was present at the creation of the world. The fullness of God lived, died, and rose again in the midst of the disciples. And the fullness of God is with us today.
For hundreds of years, the concept and language of the Trinity has been the central way in which Christians have expressed their experience and understanding of God. But like all words about God, the language of the Trinity has its limitations.
Anytime we talk about God we speak in analogies. We can never fully capture God in any words or images. Our language can only point us to God, can only give us a partial glimpse of what and who God is.
Any words or depictions of God are always limited, always partial. So the Church needs to make sure in its prayers and teachings that our language for God is a veritable feast of rich imagery and pregnant allusion.
And we must also recognize that a particular image of God that enlightens or speaks to us may not speak in the same way to others.
My phone caller could not even speak to a church that didn’t have “a father.” My guess is that the image of God as father is one that is powerful and positive for her, probably her primary image of the divine.
But I know many people, male and female, who are turned off by images of God that are always male – or more specifically a white, bearded male on a throne.
Like the character Celie in Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, who had suffered tremendous abuse by men, who says with a sigh, “Ain’t no way to read the Bible and not think God white. When I found out God was white, and a man, I lost interest.”
Well, Celie is right that male images of God are predominant in scripture. But they are not the only one.
In the Old Testament, God is likened to a mother eagle, a mother bear, a woman in labor, and a potter shaping a vessel.
In the New Testament, Matthew says Jesus is like a mother hen gathering her chicks, and Luke compares God to a woman searching for what she has lost.
And then there are images of God in the burning bush, the earthquake, the pillar of fire leading the people of Israel through the wilderness, and in the still, small voice that comes out of the sheer sounds of silence.
There is nothing wrong with male images of God. I would never suggest that they be tossed out or ignored. But those images of God, like all images, are incomplete. And to refuse to consider any other image of God is a form of idolatry.
It is okay to have a preference in our language about God, to acknowledge that one way speaks to us more than others, that we are more comfortable with one than another.
But when we say one particular image is the only way to God, or God’s only way to us, we have created an idol.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann notes that “our temptation is always to reduce our faith into one mode, and to live all our days and nights in one position, with one metaphor for God.”
But the truth is we all need a variety of images of God. At different times in our lives different ways of God’s presence are revealed to us, sustain us, comfort and challenge us. Both men and women need a full spectrum of divine images.
In a lecture entitled “Before the Giant/Surrounded by Mother,” Brueggemann talks about the different images of God that sustained the young David during and after his battle with the giant Goliath.
The warrior God, the God who slays giants, was the God who David needed on the battlefield that day. But at night, Brueggemann suggests, David needed another side of God, the God who was mother to Israel.
Brueggemann imagines that David, the great singer of psalms, goes to bed that night with the words of Psalm 131.
“I am calmed and quieted and comforted,” the psalm says. “I have a sense of caring coming toward me, of a valuing of me that is not generated by me,
“I am quieted like a child quieted at its mother’s breast, like a child is my life at rest.”
“What a boon to fall asleep at night, knowing that the mothering God of Israel is there and she will watch faithfully,” Brueggemann writes. “It is healing for her to be there with no agenda but to comfort and care.
“The issue is not inclusive language or proper pronouns,” he adds. “The issue is to detect and confess this mothering inclination of God.
“It is too bad that along with the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit, Paul did not write with equally imaginative metaphors about the milk of godly comfort and the bread of motherly compassion and the chicken soup of lordly tenderness.
“Surely it is important to have stories about killing giants,” Brueggemann say. “Without those stories we will have no courage for justice and peace.
“But it is equally critical to have songs sung that are not songs of conquest, but of comfort and of being cherished and of gentleness, of God as refuge, a place to hide…
“To know that the world will not stay a place of terror but will become a place of safety, that the world will not finally be settled on injustice and brutality, but that the dreams of this mothering God will finally have their way.”
And so today as we celebrate God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit we also remember the other images of God, including the one by poet James Weldon Johnson, who leaves us with an image of a creator God that maybe even Celie from The Color Purple could embrace and that my phone caller might do well to ponder.
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in her own image;
Then into it he blew the breath of life.