In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: It’s how you know to sit down, isn’t it? A cue preachers often give to say, It’s time to sit down and listen to me. But what if one Sunday, some of you refuse to sit still for it? What if some of you decide to walk out? Or what if God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit would rather have you stand up and dance all together but each in your own way? What if the Trinity is after something more complicated than everybody doing the same thing on a Sunday morning?
Three in One: One in Three. It’s no easy doctrine to explain. Makes me want to sit down, too. But, giving it a go, I notice how in the Book of Genesis, God creates all that is and has being. And how in Matthew’s Gospel, God the Son redeems his disciples from any and all despair when he says, Remember, I am with you always. And how in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, an invisible Spirit visibly sustains a particular community. I notice all this because I went looking for it yesterday.
Our readings illustrate how the Three Persons in One God each have their own distinct way of being God for you. This tells you God is complicated. God loves being complicated. Imagine the skin of Creation. Each of you wears it a little differently, yet each of you is made in the image of God. The same is true of each and every person, and will be forever. We are one in Christ, and in Christ we are different. That’s complicated.
Last week I attended a five-day workshop on Emotional Intelligence, exploring its influence on Human Resources. There were ten of us there with two supervisors. It was all-day-long-into-the-evening hard work. One morning we split into two groups and prepared silent skits to act out the development of community. The first group stood in a circle for their skit, their arms over each other’s shoulders. They began to turn like a wheeling huddle in a slow dance-like motion. Now and then one of them would try to pull away, but every time the others held on to the one. It looked like something trying to be born apart, and instead finding itself birthed into fellowship.
We pull away now and then, don’t we? We feel alone and yearn to be on our own. Sometimes we even take pride in it. But if Jesus is telling the truth, you are never alone. You are perpetually born into the fellowship of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. If you’ll remember, St. Francis experienced that fellowship so profoundly he preached to the birds and sang to the sun. As Francis would tell it, his preaching began with listening to what the birds had to say. Tradition tells us he once said, Preach the Gospel and, if necessary, use words.
What’s essential is empathy. Not words. Empathy draws on the expansive life of the Trinity. Empathy is feeling what someone else feels so thoroughly that, in the words of the wise, when one weeps, the other tastes salt.
At Honey Creek I learned that empathy isn’t the same thing as sympathy. Empathy is tasting the salt of someone else’s tears. Sympathy is tasting the salt of your own tears when someone else cries. Empathy creates communion. Sympathy (unintentionally) creates separation. The practice of empathy doesn’t ask you to tell your story. Instead it asks you to listen deeply to someone else’s story.
You can’t practice empathy by having ideas about what someone else is up to. Ideas about other people only land you in your head. The felt practice of empathy, though, lands you in your heart mysteriously bound to the heartbeat of another person. And that work is Trinitarian: one person abiding in the life of another person, and between them the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
At some point last week, one of the workshop participants needed to go the hospital. She was 31 weeks pregnant, a Baptist pastor named Anna, who’d come all the way from Chicago to Honey Creek. A blood pressure cuff indicated a rise that warranted the need to see a doctor. I offered to drive her to a hospital in Brunswick, and what I didn’t know as we set out was that I’d have to drive over a bridge. I don’t like bridges. Am prone to sudden panic when I cross them.
When I saw that high bridge up ahead, I prayed we’d pass by it. But then Maps indicated the need to cross it. So I told Anna how I was afraid, and very calmly she offered to take my place at the wheel. Without hesitation, I pulled over and she landed in the driver’s seat. She talked calmly the whole way over the bridge, and for the first time in forever, I didn’t feel an ounce of fear up high on a bridge.
Later on at the hospital, I sat in the room with Anna. The doctor had hooked her up to a heart monitor. We tuned our ears to the rhythm of her baby’s heart. It sang to us: whooh whooh, whooh. Anna is thinking of calling her Marie. We couldn’t see her, but we could hear her life, and it was beautiful. Her mother, of course, could feel her life because for now her life lives entirely in her mother’s life.
It’s our first lesson in empathy, literally inhabiting the life of our mothers. In utero, babies are distinct from their mothers and also mysteriously one with them. Marie’s heart rate rose and fell rapidly. It rose to 153, then quickly fell to 131 beats a minute.
If we did that, her mother said, we’d be in trouble. But . . . she’s not on her own yet, right?
There were kicks and punches, movements her mother felt, and the monitor registered them all. Everything checked out well and good. Nothing to worry about. Leaving the hospital I said to Anna, I feel like I’ll be okay to drive over the bridge. It didn’t seem to bother me on the way here.
When we crossed the bridge, Anna began to talk in the same calming voice she’d used on the way to the hospital. As U2 likes to put it, We carried each other.
One day Marie will be on her own. That’s true. She’ll be her own distinct person. But also true is this: she’ll never really be on her own. She’ll live and move and have her being in the life of her family and in the prayers of many. She’ll live, as we do, in the Triune life of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. And she’ll flourish there in her own way, distinctly her own true self.
Above Image of the Trinity: The Quinity of Winchester, English Manuscript, c. 1012-20.