The Nearness of God

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In a parish I served a decade or so ago we offered a series of what we called "Summer Conversations," in which we invited a parishioner each time simply to reflect about his or her life and work and how they related to their faith. Of them all the one that has continued to stay with me came from a woman who was a distinguished leader in the art community in the city. She talked about the tremendous richness of her life and her many blessings, including especially her grown children. But when it came to talking about her faith what she said shocked me.

"What I most often feel when I think of God is fear. I am so grateful for how my life has turned out, but I live in fear now that it's been too good, that God may do something to teach me a lesson, that something is going to happen to shatter all this."

I was struck by the image she carried of God as an inscrutable and jealous giver, who when the time comes, is going to want to balance things out by sending some bad along with the good. Where had that come from? I wondered. How did she end up picturing God that way -- in spite of countless Eucharists and sermons, all of which were in one way or another about God's love.

And as the evening conversation continued others talked about how distant God often seems, how prayer can often seem like talking to yourself. What struck me most was how remote, frustrating, and even frightening God sometimes seems. God's distance, or nearness -- which is it?

Today is called Trinity Sunday, the only major feast devoted explicitly to a doctrine of the church. Rectors have been widely known to hand the sermon for this day off to an able Associate and sit and watch them drown in theological concepts. Even St. Augustine, who wrote a whole book on the Trinity once said, "If you don't believe in the Trinity, you will lose your soul. But if you try to understand it, you will lose your mind."

Yes, there is a God, many might say, but God is something like the moral law, or a watchmaker who creates the world and gets it going. And Jesus was simply a great teacher.

But the Trinity is about the nearness, the involvement of God. Our lesson from the Book of Revelation gives us one visionary attempt to pierce the veil behind which God so often seems to hide, to look behind the curtain and see actually what is going on in God's life. That's what the Trinity is all about -- our discovering something of who God is in the depths of the divine mystery. And of course what we discover will be filled with paradox and wonder or we encounter the limits of words. But this morning let us attempt to pierce the veil just a little, and glimpse this God who is three in one.

But Christians had discovered in their experience that the creative mystery had come to them in a person. The Holy One had entered history, had lived out the meaning of life in a human shape. And then after his resurrection he had continued to be with his followers in the form of a tremendous energy and power for living.

And the Trinity grew out of the struggle of those early Christians to make sense of their experience that they had met the one God behind the universe in three different ways. They could no longer simply fit their experience into the one God of Judaism. They needed a new language.

The one love of God they had found coming to them in three distinct ways. It was a little like the experience a child might have in discovering the different dimensions of a parent's love. In the early years of a child, she experiences her mother as an immense and powerful figure who rules and orders her world. From the mother the child learns what she must or must not do. It is a relationship of superior to inferior. But then when she gets older the mother perhaps invites the daughter to go with her on a trip, just the two of them alone. Along the way the child begins to see a different person, someone who is a contemporary, a companion. She and her mother laugh together who comes to us in three ways.

That is where the Trinity begins. But now let us take a step deeper into the mystery of God's life. The only God Christians know is the one we see in Christ. That means God isn't the inscrutable, all-controlling deity my Chicago friend feared. God isn't sitting out there somewhere running everything, or simply watching everything, or having some plan for our lives that we keep trying to guess.

No, Christians believe in a Christ-like God. Yes, God is all-powerful, but Christ has redefined the meaning of power. Power is not the emperor's power to control everyone and everything, but rather the power we see revealed in Christ and on the cross -- the power of love, of forgiveness, of invitation, of opening up possibilities. It is a love willing to risk everything to give us freedom, a love that refuses to control, and then a love that comes to grow with us through the worst that life can bring.

No one saw that any clearer than a remarkable Anglican chaplain in the First World War, G.A. Studdert-Kennedy, who prepared for going out to the front lines by visiting casualties in hospitals. In a base hospital in France he met a bright young British officer suffering from severe wounds. As Studdert-Kennedy listened to him talk he heard the anger and despair that had come from seeing the brutality and carnage of the trench warfare. God seemed to be either inaccessibly remote or completely uncaring. The officer pressed the chaplain by asking, "What I want to know, Padre, is what is God like?"

Studdert-Kennedy didn't know what to say, but as he groped for an answer his eyes fell on a crucifix nailed to the wall beside the officer's bed. Pointing toward it Studdert-Kennedy said, "God is like that."

For awhile there was only silence. Then the broken man said, "What do you mean? ... God can't be like that. God is Almighty, Monarch of the world, King of kings. That is a battered, wounded, bleeding figure. I admire Jesus of Nazareth. I think he was splendid as my friends at the front are splendid -- in their courage, patience and unbroken spirit. But I asked you not what Jesus was like, but what God was like."

That officer knew only a God above and beyond everything. But Studdert-Kennedy's response was, "No, that is God on the cross." God is Christ-like. God suffers with us. God's compassion is poured out for us. God enters into our suffering, into our trenches, and there, with him, we find our hope and our strength. That is the God of the Trinity.

But, now let's go one step further into the mystery of God. At the heart of the universe, in God's inner life, is a dynamic flow of love. For God's life has eternally been one of giving and receiving life, pouring out, giving away life, and of receiving the gift of love, independence and vulnerability. For long before the big bang launched reality as we know it into being, God has been pouring out life and love on the universe. One implication of that is that we can experience the fullness of live as we allow ourselves to be caught up in this life of giving and receiving. That means that the gesture of care I offer a friend, the check I write in support of a cause, the struggle I go through to forgive someone, the little acts of helping someone I offer at home or at work, as well as the disciplined efforts I make to make this a better world -- all of these are not simply good acts, but are part of my participating in the life of God. When I do those things I am actually allowing myself to be gathered into the ongoing, eternal flow of God's love.

One of the most helpful ways I've found of imagining what it means to be caught up in God's life comes from C.S. Lewis' description of what is happening when you or I pray. Imagine that you are in your own home and you have decided to take a few moments to try to pray. You are seated in a chair, or kneeling, or even lying in bed, and you begin with thoughts and words to try to get in touch with God. God is the One whom you are hoping to reach to pour out your concerns, or maybe to ask for guidance. And God is also the one whom you have caught glimpses of in Christ, and you have been guided and encouraged by Christ to try to draw closer to God.

But, and here's the real surprise, your very desire to pray, your yearning to be connected to the heart of life -- that too is God. "When we cry Abba, Father," St. Paul wrote, "it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ." The simple, naked desire for life, the inarticulate, seemingly ineffectual calling out "Father" into the darkness, is itself the movement of God in us. It is God moving in us who draws us into praying toward the mystery of God, through and with the God who comes to us in Christ.

Do you see the nearness of God? the whole threefold life of God is actually going on in the little room where you are trying to pray. Right there you are being pulled into God by God. God is more in you than you are yourself.

Now maybe it makes more sense why it often seems as if no one is listening when we pray. Because the One we are praying to is already within us, and prayer becomes less a matter of our trying to carry on a dialogue than it is our allowing ourselves to be drawn into participation in the life of God.

At the end of the "Divine Comedy," Dante, having traveled through Hell and Purgatory, comes to Paradise and looks directly into the light of God. He catches a glimpse of three circles of the Trinity, but can see little more because of the brightness. The poem ends as he describes how his vision failed him, he couldn't take it in, but his desire and will were caught up in what he called "the Love that moves the sun and other stars."

To celebrate the Trinity is finally not to see it, or understand it. It is to have our desire and will caught up in that ceaseless flow of love. May we allow ourselves to be caught up in the nearness of the great Trinitarian life of God as we open our lives to the Love that moves the sun and other stars.

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