Nicene Creed

the divine dance

The forms of water: ice, liquid, vapor.  A self-description (for me, anyway): son, brother, husband.  And does anyone know about 3-in-1 oil?

These are some of the ways the Holy Trinity has been described.  To be honest, they aren’t really helpful, and in my humble opinion, they’re actually quite boring.  They don’t present the Trinity in a way that is living, vital, and exciting.  As our call to worship puts it, “The Trinity is not a definition of God but a cry of faith from the heart of the Christian experience.”

1 pr 8Please don’t misunderstand me.  I believe theology is vitally important.  For example, you might have your suspicions if I were to say the barking of my dog is a prophetic message from God.  I would dare say that’s not very good theology.  If dogs do indeed hear from God, they would likely be giving each other the message.

Too often, when Trinity Sunday rolls around, we have descriptions that sound like they’ve come from a dry, dusty, tedious textbook.  Here’s an example: the Trinity can be explained as holding that, while God is one, God is also three Persons (or hypostases, to use the Greek).  The Persons are distinct, yet one in essence or nature.

There is also the question regarding the Holy Spirit.  Does the Spirit proceed from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son?  Both options appear in the Nicene Creed.  There have been debates about that down through the centuries.

“God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!”  (It does sound good when we sing it.)

Trinity Sunday need not be a time of arcane philosophical argument.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  Trinity Sunday is a time for celebration!

We see a bit of celebration in the Old Testament reading in Proverbs 8.  The book of Proverbs is concerned with wisdom.  There are many chapters containing aphorisms, words of wisdom: that is, proverbs!  The first nine chapters consist of speeches which celebrate wisdom.

Wisdom is not portrayed as just some worthy ideal; wisdom is personified.  Wisdom is personified as female.[1]  She’s commonly referred to as Lady Wisdom.  Here are a couple quick examples.  In chapter 1, we see that “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice” (v. 20).  In chapter 3, we hear this parental advice: “My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments…  Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.  She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her” (vv.1, 13-15).

(I imagine the women present might say, “Well, I could have told you that.”)

And so we come to chapter 8, where Lady Wisdom speaks for herself.  Here’s how she’s introduced: “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?  On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: ‘To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live’” (vv. 1-4).

She’s overlooking the city and roaming through it, extending her invitation.  This invitation is not just to individuals, but by traveling through the public square, she is addressing society at large.  Conduct your affairs and carry out political policy that is indeed wise and compassionate.

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It’s at this point I need to stop and deliver some bad news.  It’s not only Lady Wisdom proclaiming her message; she has a counterpart.  She also is a woman, but she’s like her evil twin.  Let me share some quotes from chapter 9 to illustrate.

“Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars…  She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, ‘You that are simple, turn in here!’  To those without sense she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.  Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight’” (vv. 1, 3-6).  So speaks Lady Wisdom.

However, here is the one known as Dame (or Madam) Folly.  Can we see any parallels?  “She sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the high places of the town, calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way, ‘You who are simple, turn in here!’  And to those without sense she says, ‘Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.’  But they do not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol” [that is, the grave] (vv. 14-18).

They both have prominent positions, and they both call out to the simple.  Their advice has a marked difference.  Lady Wisdom inspires; Dame Folly seduces.  As we see, wisdom—prudence—is life.  Folly (imprudence)—foolishness—is death.  It can be quite easy to confuse the two.  I’ve pointed this out because we will hear from these two later on.

The second half of the chapter deals with Lady Wisdom’s role in creation.  Is it possible to see a similarity to the mother who gives birth?

She says, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.  Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth” (vv. 22-23).  Lady Wisdom talks about the various elements in creation.  I won’t go through all of them.

Of special interest are verses 30 and 31.  Wisdom, like the Holy Trinity, is not something dry and tedious.  Wisdom is an absolute delight!  Remember: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

3 pr 8When we lived in Nebraska, Banu and I got our first dog from parishioners who raised Shetland Sheepdogs.  His name was Duncan.  Banu had spoken of her love for ballroom dancing.  One time when I was playing with Duncan, inspiration struck.  It was time to dance!  I stood him up on his hind legs and started walking him back and forth.  I praised his choreographic ability, singing, “You dance divinely.”  It turns out he was not interested in dancing, but he was interested in breaking free.  (Maybe he simply wasn’t interested in dancing with me!)

In later years, I invited our next dog, Aidan, to the delightful exercise.  He also was uninterested.  Our current dog, Ronan (the one whose barking I doubted is a message from God), is bigger and stronger than our Shelties were.  I haven’t had much luck in dancing with him either.

Why bring up this business of dancing?

At the time of creation, Lady Wisdom says, “I was beside [God], like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always” (v. 30).  There is a pure joy in creation.  It is woven into its very fabric.  Most of us only have glimpses of it now and then.

There’s a lovely word that draws our attention.  It’s the one translated as “master worker” or “architect.”[2]  It has also been translated as “little child.”  We’re back to “all work and no play.”  (Maybe we can borrow a tune from Snow White, “Whistle While You Work.”)  Maybe that fits better with her being the Lord’s delight, with rejoicing before him.  Maybe rejoicing in creation, delighting in the human race, means the unguarded, cheerful play of children.  There is the euphoria of the divine dance!

At this point, you might wonder, “What does this have to do with the Holy Trinity?”  Please bear with me; I’m going to mention one more fancy word, and it’s from the Greek: perichoresis.  It comes from two words that, as Danielle Shroyer puts it, “means to make space around…[referring] to the way in which someone or something makes space around itself for others.”[3]

Applying that to God, perichoresis describes “the divine dance of the three Persons of the Trinity.  Father, Son and Holy Spirit make room for each other, move in and through one another, dance with one another.”

They make room for each other.  They don’t presume.  They don’t insist on being noticed.  They aren’t concerned with self-promotion.  They don’t get offended.  They celebrate the gift that is each other.  All of this takes place in a never-ending circle of joy.

Look at how the chapter ends.  Here’s where we get back to Lady Wisdom and her evil twin!  Lady Wisdom says, “whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord; but those who miss me [and choose Dame Folly] injure themselves; all who hate me love death” (vv. 35-36).  Death comes in many different ways.

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[A bride-to-be who doesn't care about photographic appearance.]

It can come in the death of relationships.  Remember the very spirit of the Trinity.  We have the perfect model, the very definition, of giving of self.  We have the perfect picture of self-effacement.  We have the perfect example of not caring how one’s photograph looks!  I’ve commented to Banu that no one posts photos of themselves on Facebook which portray them in an unflattering way.  (At least, I haven’t seen one yet.)

Last Monday at the PERC, there was a workshop on poverty.  At one point, the presenter asked the pastors in attendance, “What would you like your church to do?”  One person gave an answer regarding the call of the gospel to address societal injustice.  I’m not unsympathetic with that.  It’s hard to read the gospels and miss Jesus’ burning concern for peace and justice.  He is unrelenting, and that goes to the very heart of the good news.

In retrospect, that answer reminds me of something I said earlier about Trinity Sunday.  It felt more like a definition than a cry of faith from the heart of the Christian experience.  “What would you like your church to do?” was the question.  What immediately came to mind was, “Come alive with the fire of the Spirit.”

I think I owe all of you an apology.  I thought about it, but I didn’t say it.  I wonder what would have happened if I had tossed that into the discussion.  I’ve done stuff like that in the past, that is, bringing the Spirit into the mix, and it didn’t seem like anything came of it.  Still, as Jesus says in John 3, “The wind [the spirit] blows where it chooses” (v. 8).  It’s not up to me!

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Regardless of my foolishness, if and when we come alive with the fire of the Spirit, we will be heeding Lady Wisdom when she says, “Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors” (v. 34).

We are given the invitation by Lady Wisdom and our Lord.  Enter into the divine dance.


[1] חָכְמָה (chokmah), grammatically female

[2] אָמוֹן (’amon)


church as frenemy

We’ve all heard the saying, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”  Actually, some people fuse those two words together and come up with “frenemies.”  We can have a love/hate relationship.  Unfortunately, the church is not immune to that.

Of course, we see in the news the scandals of sexual and financial misconduct in the church.  It seems to be an almost routine story, whether it’s something fishy going on in the local congregation, or at the hierarchical level.  I’ll admit to becoming somewhat desensitized to it.

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Henri Nouwen, a beloved spiritual leader who died in 1996, had many thoughts on this very issue.[1]

“When we have been wounded by the Church,” he says, “our temptation is to reject it.  But when we reject the Church it becomes very hard for us to keep in touch with the living Christ.  When we say, ‘I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,’ we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too.”  There’s the temptation to throw the baby out with the bath water.

He goes on, “The challenge is to forgive the Church.  This challenge is especially great because the Church seldom asks us for forgiveness.”

I definitely agree with him on that.  And worse than that, far from asking our forgiveness, sometimes the church reprimands those who point out its errors.  Often it does it in ways using intimidation, shame, and even physical violence.  It must leave Jesus weeping tears of sorrow.

So we don’t have to look very far to find our own frenemy.  I’m sure we can easily find those who think of us that way!

We find such characters in our gospel reading.  In Mark 12, Jesus is teaching in the temple, and not everyone is happy with what they’re hearing.

Jesus turns his attention to the scribes.  These were people who were primarily teachers of the law.  When reading the New Testament, we might get the impression they all were a bunch of bad guys.  That isn’t the case.  It’s true many of them did question Jesus about what he was doing and teaching, but they all didn’t have the same motivations.

Like the fellow in verse 34, who sees the wisdom in what Jesus is saying, some of the scribes do their job with sincerity.  Then we have the scribes we meet in today’s reading.  There are always some who give the rest a bad name.  That’s often true, no matter what group we think of.

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Henri Nouwen: “The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the Church seldom asks us for forgiveness.”

Jesus says, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” (vv. 38-39).

Please note: the focus is not on the actions themselves, but on the fact they like displaying themselves while they do them.  It’s not about walking around in long robes, but being a show off.  It’s not about being greeted with respect in public, but the sense of entitlement that gives them a feeling of being better than others.

Listening to Jesus, what expressions are on the people’s faces?  Are they shocked?  Are they thinking, “What has he done now?”  Or are they smiling?  Are they laughing?  Does Jesus act out “walking around in long robes” and “being greeted with respect”?  In the verse right before this, Mark has just told us “the large crowd was listening to him with delight” (v. 37).

Whatever the case, in verse 40, things really do get serious.  Jesus says of the scribes, “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation.”  If those boys don’t shape up, they’re going to be in a world of hurt!

We don’t know precisely what that bit about “devouring widows’ houses” is about.[2]  Some say he’s talking about a function of the scribes in which they serve as trustees of widow’s estates.  (The idea being widows can’t be trusted with their dearly departed husband’s property!)  For their service, the scribes get a percentage of the assets.  And surprise, surprise—embezzlement often occurs.

Other people say Jesus is addressing the religious system itself.  Funding for the temple is an economic drain on the widows—and on all of the poor.  Nothing gets Jesus quite as ticked off as robbery disguised as piety.

After this, the story we hear about the poor widow is the perfect illustration of the system sticking it to the helpless.

But what really tops it off for Jesus is “for the sake of appearance [they] say long prayers.”  In the previous chapter, Jesus exposes the greed behind the system of sacrifices when he goes into the temple.  He tosses out the moneychangers (who rip people off with unfair exchange rates); he knocks over their tables.  That’s the point of his protest.  It’s not because they’re selling things; it’s because they’re cheating people.

But I like the way he specifies “for the sake of appearance [saying] long prayers.”  In Matthew 6, right before what we call the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus warns against “[heaping] up empty phrases” with “many words” (v. 7).  Actually, any prayer done for the sake of appearance is messed up.

Still, that emphasis on long prayers can be quite liberating.  God is far less interested in any eloquence we might think we have than what comes from the heart.  And incidentally, the mere fact that I’m a minister doesn’t mean God cares about my prayers any more than anybody else’s.  (Including being called on to pray at public events!)

One of the primary documents of Christian monasticism is the Rule of Benedict.  Written in the sixth century, it includes this about prayer: “We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words.  Prayer should therefore be short and pure, unless perhaps it is prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace.  In community, however, prayer should always be brief.”[3]  Notice it says, “in community.”  If you’re all by yourself, pray as long as you like.  In those moments, you’re not performing for anybody; it’s just you and God.

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Those warnings about prayer help to keep us from using faith as a cover for less honorable motives.

So, to that point, who has been hurt by the church?  I began by talking about sexual and financial misconduct.  There are other ways: being ignored, disregarded, being the object of gossip.  Pope Francis spoke about “the terrorism of gossip.”[4]  He half-jokingly added, “which is even worse than an occasional physical confrontation.”  All of these things corrode our relationships as the body of Christ.

And yet, as Henri Nouwen reminds us, we are called to believe in the church.[5]  He says, “The Church is an object of faith.  In the Apostles’ Creed, we pray: ‘I believe in [among other things] the holy Catholic Church.”  (The Nicene Creed says, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.”)

The creeds do not “say that the Church is an organization that helps us to believe in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  No, we are called to believe in the Church with the same faith we believe in God.

“Often it seems harder to believe in the Church than to believe in God.  But whenever we separate our belief in God from our belief in the Church, we become unbelievers.  God has given us the Church as the place where God becomes God-with-us.”

I won’t deny believing in the church, loving the church, forgiving the church, can be a really tall order!  Especially for those who’ve been hurt by the church, that can sound like a slap in the face.  And to be honest, I’m not sure I agree with everything our friend Henri says about this.

I remember when Banu and I were at our first church; this was in Nebraska.  We met a group of people who were part of the Baha’i faith.  (By the way, I agree with much of what they teach.)  Some of them had had bad experiences with the church.  A couple of them referred to “churchianity.”  They found in the Baha’i faith the acceptance and spiritual connection they did not find in the Christian church.

4 frenemyOf course, the terrible, bitter irony is that the church is the creation of Jesus Christ.  The church is the body of Christ now in the world.

As we are the church in this place and in this time, what are some ways in which we can check ourselves?  What are some ways in which we can act—and not for the sake of appearance?  Where are we on that strange continuum of “frenemy”?  No doubt, sometimes we’re more “friend,” and other times, we’re more “enemy.”

As those who Jesus calls friends, may we be there for others who have been hurt by the church.  Let us be a living example of God’s love, grace, and peace.




[3] from Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict:  Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 90.