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Three Faces, One God

 Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Deuteronomy 6:4 (NIV)

The Trinity – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit – is a foundational pillar of Christianity, even though the term does not appear in the Bible. Furthermore, if we removed all references to the Trinity from Christian thought, the practice of most Christians would not change at all. This is a testament to how difficult the concept is to grasp in a tangible way. It is humbling to attempt writing about a mystery that so defies expression in words. Yet, this series of essays on The Faces of God will not be complete without at least a cursory nod to the Trinity. Indeed, the faces of God expressed throughout the Bible and throughout human experience are manifestations of the persons of the Trinity.

One reason the Trinity is so difficult to understand is our misunderstanding of the nature and being of God. Many of us grew up with the image of God as an old, angry, white male with long, white hair and an unkempt beard. That is a very limiting image, and to the extent that is our picture and understanding of God, to that same extent do we miss the immensity, the love, the relational nature, and the personal intimacy of God. The concept of the Trinity begins to crack that old image by presenting God as three persons. One God, but one God manifesting in different ways. A less than perfect example that helps me is to recognize that I am one person serving many distinct roles. I act as a husband, father, brother, son, uncle, nephew, friend, co-worker – sometimes all in the span of a few hours. I relate and appear differently to others in my different roles, but I am one being. If someone only knows me as an employer, he or she may not experience the love and tenderness I express in other roles. When we limit our understanding of God to a single expression, we miss the infinite diversity and endless possibilities of the one we call God. We all wear many faces, so why would the God who formed us be any different? Three persons, three faces, three roles – one God.

In the coming weeks, I will express my limited understanding of the three persons of the Trinity as individuals, but understand up front – they are all 100% God, and they are one God. The three faces of God are no more separate from each other than my various roles are from my essence – they are simply different expressions of it. What differs in the persons of God is how we experience God. In his devotional, A Spring Within Us, Father Richard Rohr summarizes the Trinity in this way (p. 258): “God for us, we call you Father. God alongside us, we call you Jesus. God within us, we call you Holy Spirit.”

Besides the multiplicity of the expressions of God, I hope to convey a sense of God as constant motion or flow, ever moving, ever changing, and always inviting us to join in the dance of life. As we enter that flow, we experience life as good and natural; our yoke becomes easy. To the extent we try to hold onto our lives as they are, resisting growth and change, to that same extent do we separate ourselves from the security of this loving flow, the ever-evolving beauty, and our participation in the intimate relationship awaiting us from inside this mysterious, Trinitarian God. When our image of God restructures as a relational interaction of three or more persons, we recognize our personal invitation to participate in mutual giving and receiving, in shared evolutionary movement. We experience together the joys and pains, the beauty and barrenness, the on-going birth, growth, death, and resurrection of all that is and ever will be. We are co-creators and co-experiencers with God. Until we begin to understand God’s true nature – God’s relational nature –we will mistakenly experience God as separate, aloof, limited, and unpredictable.

Our lives manifest in ways similar to the changing seasons. Winter contains within it spring, summer, and fall, and we contain all that we are from before the moment of our first breath. Life is an awakening to possibilities that have existed since the dawn of creation, a divine dance with the God in whom we live and move and have our being. The Trinity invites us into a dynamic relationship as participants in this eternal celebration of life.

Note: this is the 29th in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.

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The Three Visitors

 The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. Genesis 18:1-2

Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is relaxing outside of his tent on a hot afternoon when the Lord appears to him as three men. Remember, the names given to God in Genesis are plural nouns. The name translated as Lord is Adonai, which is not only plural, but also has feminine connotations. Regardless, the Lord appears to Abraham as three men in this story. Abraham offers the visitors a place to rest, water to drink, and food to eat, which they accept.

As they converse, one of the visitors says, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son” (Genesis 18:10). As was noted in last week’s Life Note, Abraham and Sarah were already advanced in years and had no children. Sarah laughed at the thought, and one visitor responded, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (v. 14). The visitors – one God manifest in three persons – talk among themselves and include Abraham in their conversation. The three discuss the rampant evil in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and their plans to destroy both cities. Abraham asked why the Lord would slay the righteous with the wicked. The Lord agreed to preserve the cities if even ten righteous people could be found there.

My primary reason for considering the story of the three visitors, however, is because it is the first biblical evidence of God manifesting as three unique persons – what will later be referred to by theologians as the Trinity. While I will consider the Trinity in greater detail later in this series, the significance of the story of the three visitors in Genesis is worthy of consideration on its own. So many encounters with God in the Bible seem to imply meetings with a single being, notwithstanding the plurality of the names used.

The picture above is a recreation of an icon produced by the monk Andrei Rublev in the fifteenth century. It provides a visual reference to the plural God of Genesis presented in Genesis 18.  Although Abraham labels the three as “Lord,” there is no explanation as to how he knew their divine nature, except perhaps from the content of their conversation. Their discussion with Abraham about the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah was clearly a two-way conversation, meaning that Abraham seemed to be included as an equal participant. When he questions whether everyone in the towns needs to be destroyed, they go into something of a negotiation over who, if anyone, is righteous enough to warrant saving.

Here is what I find so interesting about this story. The God presented in Genesis 18 is a relational and personable God, consulting and communing with humans. The three visitors invite Abraham into their discussion and consider his point of view in shaping their decision-making. Not only is God presented as a relationship of persons, but there is also give and take both within and without this God-circle. This God is not a distant and dictatorial ruler sitting on a throne high above us, but a God that is here with us, wrestling with how best to handle the issues of the day. The story also refutes any fatalistic notions of God, that God has the future mapped out in advance and nothing we can do will change it. The God of Genesis includes us as co-creators of and co-participants in our daily reality, just as God included Abraham in the determination of what to do about Sodom and Gomorrah.

The Trinity – one God in three persons – is a difficult concept to grasp. The story of the three visitors, however, refutes the traditional image we hold of God as being distant and aloof. Instead, God invites us into the divine relationship that is God and that is the foundation of our being. We cannot hope consciously to experience more of God’s presence in our lives without first eliminating our limiting misconceptions of God.

One of the faces of God is that of three visitors. One God; three persons. Hmmm…

Note: this is the eighth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

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