The Trinity is something that has always confused/ inspired/ confounded/ intimidated/ embraced me depending on the day. While "The Trinity" as such is not found explicitly in the Bible, each member of the divine trio is lifted up and worshipped at various points in Holy Scripture. This mysterious treatment of the divine is something that I have learned to embrace for the sake of its mystery.
Who was Jesus?
Son of Man. Son of Mary. Son of God.
The Word of God made flesh. The flesh that gave us words to pray.
The one with the winnowing fork. The way, and the truth, and the life.
There is never any one answer. The answer is a profound and faithful "Yes!" to all these identities, names, and titles. The answer is the unnamable Truth in the paradox of life found in Jesus Christ.
And so it is with God.
Who or what is God?
Father. Mother. Creator. Destroyer. Redeemer. The one who walks in Gardens. The wind over waters. The fire that burns through bushes. The Liberator. The Justice-bearer. The one wrapped in swaddling clothes, cradled by his mother. The one who laid the earth's foundation.
The answer is inexplicable.
Our faith is one that demands that we put aside our feeble attempts to perfectly understand and requires that we live into the paradox. That we live into mystery. That we live into the way the world somehow never fits together the way we think it might or think it should. Nothing about our faith makes logical sense. While I respect the early church's efforts to philosophically explore and explain the puzzle of how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit exist as one God - my own faith pushes me to spend less energy on trying to understand and more energy on engaging the mystery for its own sake. To me, pushing away our own desire to have power over the world through understanding it entirely (which is impossible) is where the journey of faith begins. Faith means not knowing and being alright with that.
At the same time, faith does not teach us to say, "We know nothing - everything is a mystery." That, I believe, is becoming an ever more common knee-jerk reaction by those who prefer to remain as entirely agnostic about religion as they are about God. Yes, faith is paradoxical. But it is paradoxical because it is difficult to fully grasp, not because there is nothing there to reach for.
Christianity gives us some pretty explicit branches to reach for as we begin to climb our way up the tree of Life. For most of us, Jesus is that first branch. Because I was not raised a Christian, I first and foremost had a love for God, but it wasn't until I had Jesus as a figure to ponder, worship, and follow that I began to really feel myself growing and maturing in faith.
Some of the ways that the stories about Jesus have opened my heart and mind to new truths about God in recent years are as follows:
There is infinitely more to say than these eight. But these are some of the branches I have found in my own faith - ones that I am eager to share with others as a Christian and as a minister.
The Holy Spirit is another branch of faith that is at times readily accessible and at others - more elusive.
As a Christian who was raised a Unitarian Universalist, I am very open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in certain ways - and admittedly skeptical of others. I grew up signing a beautiful UU hymn written by Carolyn McDade called "Spirit of Life," which poetically called for a falling of the Spirit in this way:
Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.
This song still moves me tremendously whenever I have occasion to sing it. There is something beautifully effervescent about the Holy Spirit - the Spirit of Life - when captured in this way. And I believe this captures the calling of Spirit that our world is hungry for.
It is my opinion that both the rise in global Pentecostalism and the increase of those in America who claim to be "spiritual but not religious" are two sides of the same coin. Fundamental to each movement is a longing for experience over dogma that can be found in the image of the Holy Spirit. And if I am being honest with myself, this trend is as frightening as it is exciting to me.
On the one hand, a focus on the Holy Spirit brings freedom of spiritual movement. It brings a renewed focus on experience and creativity. It is, in some ways, the essence of God is Still Speaking... But when left unchecked, it can be co-opted by human sin and love for power. This is what I so often see in charismatic movements that have gotten out of hand making claims about our own power and using the Spirit as a manipulatable tool in order to heal, or cast out demons, or make us rich. Similarly, an overemphasis on the Spirit by those who eschew organized religion can leave us without the more tangible teachings that come from knowledge of God through Scripture, tradition, and reason. We can easily slip into spiritual narcissism when we are forever looking for a experiential high.
Thus, I believe it is always best to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit in community and in harmony with our teachings about God's other images: Father and Son. Indeed, in all matters of faith balance is essential. The Trinity itself calls us to that highest ideal!
From the earliest days, humans have gathered around fires and told stories. They have looked up to the heavens, or witnessed the birth of a child, or endured unspeakable horrors, and they have learned from these experiences. They have taught their children what they knew, embedding that wisdom in characters and plot, symbols and landscapes. And then their children taught their children, and as generations were born and generations died – understanding grew and grew. These stories evolved, took shape, were honed, and then throne back into the smelting fire again and again until what emerged was a faith so rich in Wisdom that their narratives continue to feed our souls today.
I believe this is how Judaism was shaped - their stories sparked by the Divine, and interpreted through the lens of humanity. And this tradition of storytelling and text is one that we have inherited as Christians. We are who we are because we claim and proclaim more or less the same story - the Good News.
Now, any good storyteller will half-jokingly tell you: "Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story." The message there is that literalism kills the spirit of great stories. There is a difference between Wikipedia and Faulkner. Sadly, in many religious traditions today and particularly in Christianity, we have made the mistake of reading Faulkner as if it were Wikipedia. We read our Scripture and think it is science or some log of historical data. Our religious ancestors knew not to let "the truth," or data-driven literalism, get in the way of broader Truths that only an artistically bent narrative can deliver.
Interestingly, my studies at Candler have taught me that a lot of the literalism that we make the mistake of reading into Scripture is actually a result of modern Enlightenment thinking. I found this eye-opening since I usually consider the Enlightenment as that which exposed and eradicated fundamentalism. But it was actually a blurring of the scientific method with religion that created the religious quackery and pseudo-science of Biblical literalism today. Prior to that period, there was hardly a concept of objective truth. Ancient histories were stories told by Great Historians, like Herodotus, who were more concerned with recording the gist of things than fact-checking sources or worrying over the veracity of specific details.
In our postmodern world today, we are perhaps coming back around to the mindset of the ancients. We understand that you cannot quite remove the story from the storyteller. That pure objectivity, while important to pursue, is fundamentally elusive. Truth is always embodied.
As Christians, we have a good sense of this already. We worship an embodied Truth - the Word of God made flesh. In the story of Jesus Christ, we meet God in the confluence of Story and Storyteller. We witness God's incarnation in the world.
It is with that mindset that I find myself devoted to Scripture and Tradition. Both bind us to stories that bring us closer to God in the world. When we come together in community, gathered three or more - the body of Christ - and tell those stories anew, we find God together. We are renewed by the Good News of the divine in this world. We are renewed by the story and the act of telling it. And that is what holds me in the faith.
My biggest faith struggle is that I gravitate heavily towards Martha-tasks and not Mary-work. I stay busy. I love to help organize the events, make the lists, bake the casseroles, and then volunteer to clean-up. I love church life and so I always want to...
Now, a healthy dose of Martha is wonderful - I interact with lots of church members and connect with different people by engaging in the life of the community. But too much Martha means that you never give yourself time to be Mary, patiently watching, learning, and listening for God.
Through careful discernment, I've learned that playing the part of Martha too much is actually a way to avoid the difficult work of being Mary. In church, you can easily be a "productive procrastinator" in the faith. Just sign up for one more committee. Volunteer to organize another bake sale. Decide that it is crucial for there always to be flowers at the coffee station. The possibilities are endless.
The only antidote to the busy-ness is the real work that us Marthas are actually avoiding. It's the self-reflective, critical, consciousness-raising, and worshipful exercises of the soul that spiritual growth and practice demand. It's confronting your own brokenness and still vulnerably bringing that part of yourself to others and to God. It's having faith in the process of our religious tradition.
In order to balance out my Martha-side with more Mary, I have brought intentionality to my daily and weekly routines. The concrete ways that I have committed to work spiritual exercise into my practice are:
I begin each day penning three full pages of stream-of-consciousness writing by hand. I learned this practice from taking Julia Cameron's class The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity a few years ago. It is incredibly powerful. It works as a way of clearing your mind. When you first wake up, your brain is already swirling with random thoughts and to-do list type tasks. When you write everything down, you are venting all the chaos and emerge from the practice refreshed and clear-headed. Sometimes I write beautiful things. Sometimes I find myself writing to God. But most of the time it is garbage thoughts that I never knew were even crowding my head and the practice helps me clear them out. In a way, it is a mental baptism or mikveh by pen. This opens my mind up to feel God's presence and inspiration throughout the rest of my day.
This seems like a no-brainer, but many clergy who are leading worship services often do not have an opportunity themselves to actually worship. I found when I was an intern at Kirkwood United Church of Christ that I needed to attend a worship service at my seminary, where I had absolutely no leadership responsibility, at least once a week in order to be able to really feel the Spirit and worship God.
I take aesthetics very seriously. By this I do not mean my own appearance, although I think self-care is important. But the aesthetics that I take truly seriously are those we find in nature and art. Protestants have had a rocky relationship with religion and aesthetics but our more ancient traditions teach us that there is a link between the soul and the world of beauty. I have found that I begin to feel disconnected from God when I do not build into my day a jog along the Hudson River Park, or a walk down a beautiful street with bustling shops, or a museum, a play, or a musical performance. At the simplest level, having a tidy home and visiting a good grocery store with colorful produce and delicious smells can be enough to feed my soul's longing for aesthetic order and beauty. But the experience must be tangible - not intellectual. It must stimulate my senses and remind every cell in my body at a depth deeper than words can penetrate that I am a child of God connected to creation.
I am still working to build more intentional prayer time into my daily routine, but currently I find myself praying to God throughout my day - especially when I am faithful to the above practices. I try to first and foremost pray for others. Sometimes I pray for myself or for the world as a whole, but I feel the Spirit's loving effects on my own soul most when I am mindful of the joys and sorrows of others in my life. I believe this intentional mindfulness is the primary power of prayer.
I used to be an impulse-reader only in my own for-pleasure reading life. But I have begun to cultivate my reading with intentionality in order to serve my spiritual practices more mindfully. Recently, I have begun reading the classic guide to spiritual practice, Thomas a Kempis' The Imitation of Christ. I look forward to opening myself up to this ancient wisdom from an Augustinian monk writing over 600 years ago, to see how his guidance can enrich my faith today.
These five areas are where I am currently focusing my soul work. As the years go by, I'm sure I will find others as well. Always I am grateful for the ways that Scripture and Tradition can teach me ancient wisdom, as well as the ways that our Still Speaking God can kindle my heart anew each day.
I have long felt a call towards religious leadership. But it has only been much more recently that I have discerned God's call towards ordained ministry as a Christian - and within the United Church of Christ specifically.
When I was a little girl, I remember being with my mother in the Unitarian Universalist church of my upbringing and looking up at the minister high in the pulpit wearing his black robes and speaking about something that seemed interesting to me at the time, but which I have long forgotten, and I remember thinking to myself, "That's what I want to be when I grow up." To me it seemed amazing that there was a job in the world focused entirely on helping people live more fully and think more deeply about the meaning of life. It was a real no-brainer to me at the time; who wouldn't want to have such a humbling and intellectually curious position?
But later on, in my youth and young adulthood, I grew dissatisfied with my Unitarian Universalist faith and my interest in the ministry vanished when I fell away from that particular denomination. It had inspired a fascination with religion, for which I am eternally grateful, but I never felt that I was able to move beyond intellectual fascination into a more spiritual faith without moving outside of Unitarian Universalism. In college, I made a documentary film about Unitarian Universalism, but found my classes in Hebrew Bible and Medieval Religious Debate far more intellectually - and even spiritually - engaging.
I was looking for a text to dive into, a tradition to hold onto, and a community that would hold onto me.
So it was in college that I found myself in the strange position of craving more religious structure at the same time that so many of my peers appeared to be pulling away from their own religious structures and craving a more Unitarian Universalist-looking freedom. What was I to make of this?
The answer to that question was, and is, the beginning of my true call to ministry.
I feel called to minister to all God's children - but especially to those who are not entirely sure about Jesus and God and the Bible but who are still curious or craving something spiritual that they may not have words for. They are standing on the doorsteps of our churches, peeking in, but are too hesitant to enter. They may call themselves "spiritual but not religious," "agnostic," and sometimes even "atheist." They believe in Love but aren't so sure about God. They know there is more to life than consumerism but don't know how to actually live that life. They crave the story but are scared to hear it from a teller they don't trust anymore.
I believe that my own pull towards the God I see in the story of Jesus Christ - with the freedom and openness I bring from a UU background - is one that may help others move towards the church once again. My own viewpoint and lens is one that I think could add value to the wider body of Christ and help churches reach those outsiders whose perspective is one that they may not understand.
So many churches see themselves as open-minded, progressive, non-literalistic, universalist, etc. and wonder why visitors don't immediately understand that. This is where I think I can help. My own faith journey and path to ministry has taught me that there is a critical balance we must seek between being explicitly open-minded and preserving the power and impact of the stories we tell through the cultivation of mystery. Too often churches weigh too heavily towards the explicitly open-minded side, which runs the risk of suppressing real spiritual encounter, or they weigh too heavily towards simply following tradition and telling the stories, which runs the risk of perpetuating theological misunderstanding between church insiders and outsiders.
Finding the balance is not easy to do. But I believe that as communities we must strive to find this balance in order to create a safe, nurturing, and spirit-filled environment for so many of today's wandering pilgrims - who need us to do exactly that. I pray that I can help a community that, by the grace of God, will do so. That is the heart of my call.
Whenever I bring non-religious or non-practicing friends to church, the most common comment I get afterward is, "I miss being part of a community," or "I didn't realize how much I miss interacting with elders - with people of all ages." As someone who always had religious community but needed to move to a new denomination to find spiritual fulfillment, I have had to learn from others that I cannot take community for granted.
Community is at the heart of being truly religious. You cannot practice your faith alone. Individualistic spirituality is a lie told to us by our consumer culture, which wants to sell us yoga DVDs, Christian self-help books, and subscriptions to biblical-oil-of-the-month clubs. Jesus didn't say, "Whenever you need a personal life coach, I'm your man." Matthew tells us he said, "'For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.'" (Matthew 18:20)
In community, we are best able to suppress the voice of egotism and listen to God's call upon us collectively. This is as true for ministers as it is for congregants - probably even more so. Ministers are most at risk of playing the part of the spiritual hypocrite Jesus warns us about in Matthew's gospel. He says there, "'And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.'" (Matthew 6:5). Ministers must always be mindful to practice what they preach, and community holds them responsible to the higher standards of our collective faith.
While my own call to service is clear to me in theory (I want to minister to the doubting Thomases of our spiritual-but-not-religious age), how that call translates to real-life practice in a church or community setting is something that I cannot discern alone. That is work for God's people to discern together. Not only is that more faithful, but community is often what those outside our churches crave most about religious life. I look forward to working with others who hear a similar call upon their lives as well as those whose call is entirely different, to see what good we can do in this world - not alone - but together as Christians.