Why do you come to this progressive spiritual community on a Sunday morning? Some of you have traveled distances, past many mainstream churches, to be here. So what is the draw? You have a denominational smorgasbord to choose from, not to mention the Episcopal church have just installed vibrating pews. So why are you here?
I imagine among other things it’s because you want to feel that you are part of something larger than yourself, that you are not alone in your spiritual journey and that this is a place you can contribute to a movement of love and healing. I imagine you like the freedom to explore the real issues of life, and to question the aspects of the religious traditions that no longer make sense to you. One of those religious ideas that many of us find mostly irrelevant is the doctrine of the trinity. Today I want to offer a reinterpretation of the ancient doctrine of the trinity in the context of intimacy and relationships. Just because we are looking at a hoary old chestnut like trinity doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun. Does it?
The Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit were planning a holiday. As is true in many families, they were having trouble agreeing on what to do and where to go. The Spirit, being the artsy member of the divine threesome, suggested, “Let’s go to San Francisco. We can eat vegan food, go clothes shopping and get some new body piercings.”
”No, no, no,” said the Father, “They’re all so liberated in San Francisco, they’ll spend the whole time calling me ‘Earth Mother’ and it will just drive me crazy.”
So the Spirit sat back and thought. “I know, what about Jerusalem?” She said. “It’s beautiful and there’s so much history and culture.”
”No way!” the Son declared. “After what happened there last time, I’m never going back!”
At this point, the Spirit got annoyed and went off in a huff. Sometime later she returned and found that the Father and Son had had an idea they both thought was excellent:
”Why don’t we go to New York? We can go to Central Park and visit Wall Street” said the Son.
“Perfect!” cried the Holy Spirit. “I’ve never been to Wall Street before!”
I mention Wall Street intentionally. Obviously I could have substituted many places and the joke would have the same meaning. I mention Wall Street because it has come to symbolize what is so sadly lacking in our world. Wall Street is a stark reminder of days gone by, when life was extravagant. People got ahead relatively easily and we existed in a bubble of affluence. Recently, many people have come to realize that the extravagance was an illusion; here one minute and gone the next in a puff of smoke. We realized we wanted more out of life than the rat race of 1000 point stock market exhilaration followed by 800 point corrections.
It seems that many people around the world have simultaneously awakened to the realization that life is short, and this is the time to cherish essential things. Our desires ran ahead of our ability to know why we wanted things. Our ability to create wealth outstretched our will to use wealth in meaningful ways. Wall Street has become the symbol of the illusion.
I heard an interview with the actor Michael Douglas in the middle of the Global Financial Crisis. Douglas played the character of Gordon Gecko in the 1980s movie Wall Street. He made famous the line, “greed is good.” Douglas was being interviewed about one of his latest projects, unrelated to the economic crisis. The interviewer called him, “Gordon” and asked for his comments on the economy. Douglas replied, “My name is not Gordon. He is a character I played in a movie 20 years ago.” Gordon Gecko was a mask that Michael Douglas wore for the purpose of making a movie. In fact part of the point of the movie is how hard it is to retain a sense of reality in the ever changing world of Wall Street finance.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with masks. Masks are important. They’re the faces you put on to fit the need of the moment. You have lots of faces that you put on; a brave face even when you feel like crumbling, a subdued face even when you feel elated. You can play the clown to lighten a situation and you can play the quiet listener to let a friend know they are not alone. You face whatever life brings to you and respond accordingly. If you can remind yourself that it’s just a face you are putting on, and its not the unchanging essence of who you are, you can save a whole lot of pain and suffering,
There’s also nothing wrong with Wall Street per say. My sister lives literally on Wall Street and I’ve spent a lot of time there and experienced the many faces of Wall Street. On Wall Street you can visit Trinity church with its Gothic face, and Federal Hall with its ancient Greek façade. Not far from Wall Street is Ground Zero where you are reminded of how fragile this life is. When you look at The Stock Exchange building from my sister’s apartment, you are greeted by a 20 foot statue called Integrity. Now there’s an irony. I have an uncle who works on Wall Street. He used to have a corner on the market. Now he has a market on the corner.
There’s nothing wrong with the stock market. It serves a valuable function. The problem is when we forget that it’s constantly changing and not nearly as dependable as we want to believe.
Now here’s the connection with the traditional doctrine of the trinity.
Trinity- From Wall Street to Ancient Greece
Maybe you grew up in a church that sang, “God in three persons, blessed trinity.” Not three people mind you, but three persons. What a painful hymn! It always made me smile listening to adults singing this melodic hymn. I don’t know how they kept a straight face.
The way I was taught about the trinity didn’t make sense to me as a child and it didn’t make any more sense as an adult. I was told that there was Jesus, the man. Then Jesus was also fully God. Then there was the Holy Spirit as well. It was like me, myself and Irene on Steroids. It all seemed pretty absurd to me. Brazilian eco-feminist Ivone Gebara described the usual understanding of the trinity with tongue firmly in check, as “an older man, a younger man and a bird.”
People have puzzled over the trinity. When I was in Seminary, I was even taught that there is a hierarchy of authority within the trinity. That seems strange and quite dysfunctional. It reminds me of the awesome new television series The United States of Tara, about a woman with multiple personalities. One of Tara’s alter egos “Buck”, a Vietnam vet and the only male in the group, rules the other alters with an iron fist.
Most recently, people have attempted to understand the trinity without the hierarchy and without the unchanging sense of a male father, a male son and a bird like spirit. In his book “The Shack”, William Young has all three aspects of the trinity in one location at one time. He portrays God as a large African-American woman named “Papa.” Jesus is pictured as being a Middle Eastern carpenter. And the Holy Spirit, named Sarayu, is a woman of Asian decent dressed in blue jeans and a brightly colored blouse. This is a liberating possibility; that you can understand the trinity without the male focus.
There is another way to think of the trinity that doesn’t even involve separate beings. The word “persons” seems to be a mistranslation of the ancient Greek word for “masks”. So the trinity is really about the idea that God wore different masks. As Marcus Borg wrote, “To speak of one God and three persons is to say that God is known to us wearing three different ‘masks’… in three different roles”. Like many ancient cultures, the Greeks and Romans of Jesus day wore masks and danced to celebrate the ever changing mystery of life in their theatres and celebrations. The masks were also a way of connecting with the gods, by reflecting the image of the gods.
We tend to think of a person as an individual, a separate being. It wasn’t like this for the ancient Greeks. When they said “person” they intended something far more relational. Another word that is often associated with the doctrine of the trinity is perichoresis. It’s a technical word that basically means to dance together. We get our words “choreography” and “chorus” from this word. So God wears different masks, and they aren’t all separate. They dance with each other, never completely separate but also never the same.
What do you think of when you think of masks? I think of Halloween, and Mardi Gras, when we dress up as people and things that seem far away, but we bring them close with masks, take the fear out of them. I think of 9/11, people running helter skelter through the streets of lower Manhattan with their masks protecting them from the dust and ash. I think of people at airports, protecting themselves from the swine and bird flues. Masks are useful for so many purposes. They protect you. Just remember that masks are useful for a time, and not real in any permanent sense.
Trinity- Dancing with Masks in Relationship
So the trinity really seems to be about God holding out a lover’s hand to the world, uttering the words that you long to hear, “May I have this dance.” The grumpy German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “I would believe only in a God that knows how to dance.”
Even if you are all elbows and left feet, you hold your breath, reach out your hand and follow the lead of the Holy.
Now apply the same thought to your relationships; whether it’s a romantic relationship, a dear friend or a colleague. When you are at your best, it’s like a dance where you match each other, step for step, pulsing and swaying with grace and style.
Wear your masks boldly and know that it’s important, but they don’t define you. You can be the strong one for now, knowing that it won’t always be this way. You can be the extrovert who opens doors to new friendships, but being an extrovert doesn’t fully define you. It’s just a mask you wear for a time and purpose. You can be the naughty nurse or the sultry pool boy to spice up your love life, but you know that when the lights come on, it’s just you.
When you think about the trinity, don’t be distracted by the number three. Three represents any number higher than two. Any quality or persona that you wear has its opposite. You may be an extrovert, but you have a hidden introvert in you as well. Its not that you are one or the other. You wear the mask you need to wear at the time. And you find third and fourth manifestations of extrovert and introvert. Twenty years ago, I took a personality test and the results came back that I was on the border between an introvert and extrovert. The facilitator said that if I did the test again a few years later, it could come back with quite different results. These things change over time. You can be an introverted extrovert in one situation and an extroverted introvert in another. You are a delightful contradiction, and an ever changing spiritual being on a human journey. You dance with your various traits until you find the necessary mask to match the occasion.
You do the same thing in your relationships, and rightly so. Do you ever find yourself stuck in a relationship? One person needs space. The other person needs connection. It feels like you’re at cross purposes, in a stale mate. So you dance in the relationship, until you find the third and fourth options, creatively combining space and connection as your choreograph your relationship.
Letting the Masks Slip
You dance in relationship most gracefully when you know how to dance between the various aspects of who you are. The more familiar you are with your own masks and personas, the more you realize how temporary and changeable they are. Every now and again, you remove the masks covering your essence and allow yourself just to be. The peace is transcendent.
Maybe you have moments when you bring that to your relationships. You let the masks slip and let someone see the real you behind all the personas. Whether in love making, or friendship, these are the precious moments of life, when you are stripped naked before each other and completely safe. In that moment you become one.
Maybe that’s why we speak of one God. It’s not because there is a single being out there in the way we think of beings. It’s because there are moments beyond masks where there is just the pure and radiant mystery of being. In those moments, God is the merging of two people as one.
Kahlil Gibran tells a beautiful parable about life without masks-
You ask me how I became a madman. It happened thus: One day, long before many gods were born, I woke from a deep sleep and found all my masks were stolen,—the seven masks I have fashioned and worn in seven lives,—I ran maskless through the crowded streets shouting, “Thieves, thieves, the cursed thieves.”
Men and women laughed at me and some ran to their houses in fear of me.
And when I reached the market place, a youth standing on a house-top cried, “He is a madman.” I looked up to behold him; the sun kissed my own naked face for the first time. For the first time the sun kissed my own naked face and my soul was inflamed with love for the sun, and I wanted my masks no more. And as if in a trance I cried, “Blessed, blessed are the thieves who stole my masks.”
You know what he’s describing, because you have had moments like this. You drop your egoic attachment to your cherished ideas of what make you unique and separate and dance in the oneness of life. What initially feels like a loss proves to be a blessing. You are in love with life.
Loving Many Things
One last thought about the trinity. Vincent van Gogh said, “The best way to know God is to love many things”. Maybe the trinity is a metaphor for loving many different things.
Maybe you have special love for one person, but you also love many things. Listen to the way the poet Mary Oliver describes it-
I have been in love more times than one, thank the Lord.
Sometimes it was lasting whether active or not.
Sometimes it was all but ephemeral, maybe only an afternoon, but not less real for that.
They stay in my mind, these beautiful people, or anyway people beautiful to me, of which
there are so many. You, and you, and you, whom I had the fortune to meet, or maybe
missed. Love, love, love, it was the core of my life, from which, of course, comes
the word for the heart.
And, oh, have I mentioned that some of them were men and some were women
and some– now carry my revelation with you– were trees.
Or places. Or music flying above the names of their makers.
Or clouds, or the sun which was the first, and the best, the most loyal for certain, who looked so faithfully into my eyes, every morning.
So I imagine such love of the world– its fervency, its shining, its innocence and hunger to give of itself–
I imagine this is how it began.
– Mary Oliver, On Love
walkThis is how it works for me. I love my wife, Meg, with a tender love that I feel for no other person. I love my kids with a fierce love that I feel for no other children. I have another love and it includes many people and things. It includes groups, small and large, even stretching to include facebook friends I have never physically met. Yet I can honestly say that I love you, and we have magical moments when we are dancing together as one. I’m not teaching you, and you aren’t learning from me.
We are dancing together in the mystery of human relationship.
This I know is real, and essential. I offer it to you now. Namaste.
For Further Reflection-
What does the trinity mean to you?
What other ways do you experience God that you would include in your trinity? (eg lover, friend)
In what ways do you manifest different masks?
How have you experienced moments where you let the masks slip?