The Banana Slug, the Leaves, and the Triune God

I realize that this Sunday we celebrate the Trinity, which is a teaching we learn through Scripture and the witness of the Church. Still, I hope it’s okay if I start with something I learned from my dad. Thomas Cootsona the engineer taught me to observe the world and to see how things worked.

For example, he never liked those Coke glasses from the 1970s - you know, small at the bottom and much bigger at the top? He’d say, “Greg, those are unstable glasses. The center of gravity is too high.” The logic was unassailable. And through this, I discovered there is a beauty to knowing how things work.

Writer and Catholic priest Henri Nouwen has observed, “All that is, is sacred because all that is speaks of God’s redeeming love. Seas and winds, mountains and trees, sun, moon, and stars, and all the animals and people have become sacred windows offering us glimpses of God.”

Sometime during those early years - I think it was sixth grade - I went on Outdoor Education. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, that meant we headed to the beautiful Santa Cruz Mountains and studied how creation worked. We’d stay at a camp for several days, many of which we hiked through the moist Redwood forests. And do you know what animal I loved best? Banana slugs - those bright yellow (and thus the name “banana”) slimy slugs. They seemed to show up everywhere. In fact, the banana slug is the mascot of University of California Santa Cruz. Those banana slugs fascinated me. Perfectly adapted for their environment, they were beautiful in their own way.

I think a good deal of you are like me. If I asked you, Where is one of the places where you’d find God’s presence? I’d bet most of you would say, Nature. That’s where you meet God our Creator. As one of the top scientists in our country - and also a follower of Jesus - Francis Collins commented, “I find that studying the natural world is an opportunity to observe the majesty, the elegance, and the intricacy of God’s creation.”

Nature - that is, God’s creation - draws us by its beauty and thus to the God who is the source of all beauty.

Now, I realize I haven’t arrived at the Trinity yet, but I have something else to add before I get there.

Let me say I didn’t learn much about faith of any kind, or Christian faith particularly, from my family. Our court philosopher was Ayn Rand, the famous atheist who championed Objectivism and the “virtue of selfishness.” If that sounds like a complaint, it’s not. It’s just a fact, but it also means that Christianity wasn’t a live option for me.

I did have some vague inklings about Christianity from youth group friends in high school, a random appearance at a church service here or there. But I first really took in faith and “mere Christianity” from the book of the same name by the Oxford scholar and writer C. S. Lewis. A friend gave it to me in high school with these words, “Here’s something I think will speak to you - especially, Greg, if you think Christianity is frankly for idiots.”

Knowing my parents wouldn’t like me reading this subversive literature, I covered it in a nondescript brown shopping bag. And at night, as I read Lewis’ insights, I was struck by a wise, reasoned and reasonable faith.

That was my junior year of high school. Any incipient faith languished for a couple of years. And then I went to UC Berkeley and became a Christian - which might sound like a punchline.

I’ve told that story in other places, and so I’ll summarize here by affirming that my own faith came through studying other religions, talking with thoughtful friends on various sides of the topic, studying the life and teachings of Jesus, and what philosophers like to call “existential despair.” That sounds kind of exciting, but to me it was incredibly disturbing. I didn’t have a way of adding up my life - of making sense of my desire for friendship, love, and meaning - but meeting Jesus brought my life together in a beautiful way.

I was being drawn to God. Or better, God was drawing me in. As the ancient North African Christian thinker Augustine prayed after his own conversion:

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!

Lo, you were within,

but I outside, seeking there for you...

You called, shouted, broke through my deafness...

you touched me, and I burned for your peace.

And now I have finally arrived at the Triune God we confess in the Church as God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I found for myself that the Deity I was searching after as the Creator came first to us, because as it says in the Gospel reading, “God so loved the world,” the world that was, and still is, in rebellion. And in that first undergraduate year I became “born anew” as Jesus, God in flesh, described it to Nicodemus in John, chapter 3. And although I didn’t use the language then, I would now, I was experiencing what Paul writes in Romans 8:16-17, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” The Triune God was at work in my life. God the Creator was drawing me, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to Jesus, and I was entering into the beauty of the trinitarian life of our God.

There’s a well-tried axiom that I’ve been hinting at and that Francis Collins often uses: God speaks through the “Two Books.”

Francis Bacon, one of the pioneers of modern science, phrased this way. “God has, in fact, written two books, not just one. Of course, we are all familiar with the first book he wrote, namely Scripture. But he has written a second book called creation.” And we interpret these books in light of their content. They do not contradict one another because they have one Author.

I’ve already highlighted God’s beauty in creation and the way God spoke to me through the book of nature. In the book of Scripture, I learned how God has acted and spoken in self-revelation. In this book, we learn how the Triune God is sovereign over creation. This God indeed is glorious and beautiful in holiness. As Psalm 29:2 proclaims:

Ascribe to the LORD the glory due to the holy name;

worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.

Several years later, after my experience at UC Berkeley, I found my way into seminary and started reading the Reformed Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who taught me that “glory” includes “beauty.” Barth wrote, “If we can and must say that God is beautiful, to say this is to say how [God] enlightens and convinces and persuades... [God] acts as the One who gives pleasure, creates desire, and rewards with enjoyment.” Why, according to Barth? Because God “is pleasant, desirable, full of enjoyment.”

In that light, I hope it’s fine if I retranslate Isiah 6: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD God of Hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s beauty.” This threefold “holy” resonates with the Three-Person God.

About the time I began to study theology, I shortly thereafter learned impressive connections with science and how the beauty scientists discover in God’s book of nature sounded quite a bit like theologians talking.

Consider the words of Henri Poincaré, one of the early theorists of 20th century quantum theory. “[The scientist] studies [nature] because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing and life would not be worth living... I mean the intimate beauty which comes from the harmonious order of its parts....”

In fact, beauty lures us. As Christians, we know this: we see in the natural world the beauty of God who is Beauty itself. I learned this from scientists. I learned it from the banana slug, and in the second quarter of my first year at UC Berkeley, I found God’s beauty in the person of God the Son. As Barth writes, “The beauty of Jesus Christ is not just any beauty. It is the beauty of God. Or, more concretely, it is the beauty of what God is and does in him.”

Theologian Catherine Mowry LaCugna titles her somewhat massive 448-page study of the Trinity quite simply God for Us. She makes a very succinct point. She writes, “The doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately a practical doctrine of radical consequences for Christian life. This is the thesis of this book. The doctrine of Trinity, which is the specifically Christian way of speaking about God, summarizes what it means to participate in the life of God through Jesus Christ in theSpirit.” God is with us - that is the essence of the Trinity. And when we realize this, life is beautiful.

If you’ll let me be somewhat simplistic, realizing that our Triune God is with us might be as simple as pausing - pausing and taking in the beauty that’s around us. As Lewis once advised in observing nature, “Follow the sunbeam back to the sun.”

If I have one spiritual practice to offer from all this, it’s Let’s pay attention. Let’s pay attention to the places where God meets us in the beauty of holiness. Let’s pay attention to the times that God meets us in service, in Scripture, in social justice, and in worship. Let’s pay attention to times when God speaks to you and to me in the simplest events. Let’s pay attention and say - as one of my very favorite bands, Future of Forestry, phrased it - “I will go where beauty leads me home.”

I’d like to tell you about one of those moments where God met me before I even knew it. I mentioned that I grew up in what is now the Silicon Valley, and I went to Fremont School for kindergarten in Menlo Park, which was about a mile from my house. In those days, I used to walk home with my best friend Brad. It must have been early in the school year because the Fall had started and the leaves were coming down.

After Brad and I turned the first corner - just a block from Fremont School - we came upon what seemed to be huge trees dropping beautiful brown, yellow, and orange leaves. But it wasn’t only their colors; it was their flight pattern as they fell that was marvelous and mysterious. They would swivel and dodge as they descended and Brad and I discovered they were impossible to catch. But we tried. We tried again. We tried but we couldn’t catch a single leaf. We were mesmerized.

And while we were trying to catch these incredible, miraculous failing leaves, we saw a squirrel. And being five at the time, it was fine to talk with animals. So, Brad and I started chatting with him, “Hi, Mr. Squirrel. What are you doing, squirrel? It’s good to see you, Mr. Squirrel.”

Between the leaves, Mr. Squirrel, the Fall, the friendship, time began to pass, in what the writer Anne Lamott describes as characteristic of childhood, in “big, round hours.” So, I was surprised - but now I realized I shouldn’t have been - when my dad arrived probably an hour or two later, worried about where his son was. “Greg, what have you been doing? You should be home by now.”

You might think I was worried, but really I was still entranced by all the wonders of that autumn moment. I said, “Dad, Brad and I were just talking here to Mr. Squirrel - see him up there - and trying to catch the leaves. See, Dad, as they fall (and I demonstrated) you can’t catch them. Look.”

And here’s the proof that my dad was truly the laid-back Greek. He wasn’t just the engineer who analyzed Coke glasses with a high center of gravity, he just let us try to catch leaves. And ever after that day, he always talked about how wonderful it was that I took some time in the midst of a day to catch beautiful autumn leaves and talk to squirrels.

In fact, when I recounted this scene to my dad a few years ago before he died, he responded with one word, “Marvelous.” I hope I never forget this lesson - to pay attention. To pay attention in order to see the beauty in the world around us and the beauty of the Triune God and simply say, “Marvelous.”

Let us pray.

O beautiful Triune God, help us to pay attention - to see You, our Creator, in your beauty. We ask this, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus. Amen.