Understanding God

Trinity Sunday is just ahead. Often we ( perhaps preachers especially) seem to shy away from that day because – although we might not say it aloud – we tend spontaneously to think of Trinity Sunday as a day on which we are meant to understand God and to express to the rest of the Church our understanding of God.

But I don’t think it is that at all actually. The absolutely vital thing is not to understand God. The absolutely vital thing is to rejoice in the truth that God understands us. God understands you. God understands me. And God loves us anyway. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that extraordinary? Isn’t that divine? It is!

Just resting in that understanding – that comprehension that might better be described as love – is enough. It gives freedom. It offers the end of fear. And in so doing, oddly enough – or maybe not – it opens the possibility perhaps to actually understand something of God after all! After all, God has seen fit, in astounding generosity to reveal the very life of God to us. It’s just that the light coming off that revelation is so very bright that it is hard to know what we are even seeing.

I begin to think that it takes decades of human life and thousands of mistakes – otherwise known as sins! – to begin to dare to look toward that light with the hope that the eyes of our soul might begin to adjust to the light and begin to see.

Way back in the book of Genesis, in the first chapters, at the beginning of the beginning, God decides to create us in God’s own image and likeness. What an unexpected starting point that is! And it opens the opportunity to believe that when we finally – in all honesty and truth begin to understand ourselves (as individuals and as communities and as a species even a little bit) – we can begin then as well to understand (maybe?) something of who God is. If we dare. If we are willing to sit with the desire to know God, and let it become a quest of ours, not in our spare time, but deep down in our gut as one of our most vital human callings.

Wise people who have lived long before us and followed Christ and listened to the Gospel and felt the Spirit and seen God as Father/Mother alive in the world have sat with that question. It took the Christian Church the first four centuries after the Resurrection to be able to agree on how to speak about who Jesus Christ is. And then it took another century to be able to do something of the same about the Holy Spirit. So then, way back then but only after hundreds of years of the whole Church wondering about these questions together, we came to an agreed way to speak about the Trinity, about God as one God in three Persons. And then almost right away most of us were confused again. But at least we had language to talk about the work of God in the world and the inner life of God as well.

So I am wondering if we look at that Christian understanding in the Creeds of who God is, can we receive some light about who we are and who we are meant to be in God’s eyes? In other words, to return to where I began: can looking toward God’s identity as God has shared it help you and I to see ourselves through God’s eyes – and maybe then to see something of the magnificence of God’s love for us?

Now some paraphrasing or saying things of the faith in my own little way.

Though the outward works of the Trinity are works of all 3 Persons in God, thus sayeth the faith, God the Father is spoken of as Creator. God the Father brings things that were not into being. We are made in this image and likeness. Here then is a fair question: what do we bring into being? What do we – working with the raw materials we are given in life – in some sense of the word ‘create’? Many of you have helped to make new humans. Bravo! There’s a really good example. Maybe in your chosen line of work you have brought about a new way to get something done that needs to be done? Maybe in the kitchen at home, in your own little oven, you have brought to be Toll House cookies or brownies that – in your circle of family and friends at least – are acclaimed as the best of the best? I want you to really to think about this: what do you create in your living? What do you make in your life that reflects in some degree and sense the goodness of creativity of the Creating God?

God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, the one who took on flesh in the Incarnation and lived a fully human life and died a painful human death, is named as the Savior, as the Redeemer. I could express that in these words: Jesus is the One who will not leave anything or anyone broken behind. He cradles the broken by the side of life’s road – as the Good Samaritan did in one of his best stories – and cares for them with all the tools he has until they are whole and well again. To those blinded, he reveals the sight they have. By the deaf he is heard. He stays with the mute until they find their voice. And he enters the room, or the tomb, of those who have died and he trembles with the fullness of life until they live again. So you and me: where are the places in our lives where we possess a faithfulness and a care profound enough to keep us by the side of the suffering until suffering is over? Where in our hearts is there – at least sometimes in life – the willingness to sit with those in pain as long as they need us, even when we have no idea how bad the pain really is or how to relieve it? When and where are we able to be healers even if we don’t trust ourselves to get it right? We stay simply because the others ones, the broken ones, need us – and after all, we too know what it is to be broken.

And God the Spirit, the 3rd Person, is sometimes so mysterious to us as to be rarely mentioned. But the Creed calls the Spirit ‘the Lord, the Giver of Life.’ The Spirit was there at Creation, active as the wind. And we might say that the Spirit is the One who activates us, who makes things happen that otherwise would not happen; the One who energizes us in every season of our living. That’s an incomplete description, but all three of these are only partial, as they only can be. But again it is worth asking. If those words capture something of the Holy Spirit and you and I are created in the Spirit’s image, where do we bring energy? Where do we breathe new life? Or to put it in terms of Jesus’ description of the Spirit in the Gospel of John’s sharing of the Last Supper: where do you and I remind our friends, our family and total strangers of the truths of Jesus? Where do we act as Paraclete – as comforter, counselor, advocate, friend to others – without end, with indefatigable energy? This may in some sense be the hardest question. Maybe we can only answer this one late in life. Maybe we will only know when we stand ourselves face to face, heart to heart, with God revealed and loving us forever.

How am I one who brings new things to be? How am I one who never leaves the broken lying on the ground alone? How am I one who infuses new energy into human life when it has become tired and seems unable to go on?

Considering these questions this Sunday may be a start. But carrying these questions with us on the weekdays between the Sundays from year to year may provide the Divine key to our finally being revealed as genuinely human beings. Only then might we finally understand what God sees in us and why this triune God loves us all with such mad faithful unending abandon. God understands us. And that is, as a place to begin, a beautiful thing.

Embracing Compassion

Many good folks have been asking about my taking vows this past Friday in the Franciscan Community of Compassion. So I will share a bit about that arrival point and the road there.

The Community was founded just a few years ago in the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. It is an ecumenical community, open to men and women, married and unmarried, from any branch of Christianity. The community is dispersed, that is non-residential, with vowed members living in their own homes in various locations, presently in several states.* The Community includes some ordained persons and many whose path to this commitment flows out of the grace of their baptism. (Hopefully the same is true of us members who have also been ordained).

The vows taken are the traditional ones of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Those who have learned of the life and love of Francis of Assisi at all will know that the first of these, Poverty, was of central and life-giving importance for him.

Members are clothed in a Franciscan habit, as the three of us received last Friday evening at Saint Luke’s Church at Forest Hill, Queens, New York were. This simple robing is an ongoing sign of the inner commitment made to the living of the Gospel of Jesus in the Spirit of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi and of the many many thousands of women and men who have lived the Franciscan charism (grace) since their day. I plan on letting that sign of the habit be seen and speak its word and invitation to the people of our 21st century. I wore it at Saint Matthew’s, the church which I serve, this past Sunday morning for the first time.

I have been considering in mind and heart what those three vows mean to me.

To live vowed poverty is to choose to live life with open hands, clinging to nothing and accepting all that comes as gift of God and invitation to an ever-deepening relationship with God, now in this world and in hope of the ultimate future. Poverty is absolute openness to life as it comes, firmly believing that in ways sometimes beautifully obvious and sometimes darkly hidden, all that comes my way and all that I am asked to live, at times by seemingly random circumstance, comes from the hand and heart of the God whose only motivation is God’s very essence: Love.

Chastity is to value every person whose path I cross as a reminder of God’s proven intention in Christ to be present and to be revealed in human persons, even in those where God seems (to my weak eyes) most well-disguised. Chastity is a promise not to seek to possess or to dominate another human being, anywhere, at any time, in any kind of relationship. It means to hold sacred the freedom and the uniqueness of all whom I am blessed to meet and to know. It means in valuing each of them as icons of God’s presence to find myself constantly blessed to be looking into the eyes of Christ, hearing the voice of Christ, holding the hands of Christ.

Obedience is the willingness to be a lifelong listener. Obedience is to listen with reverence to the voices of sisters and brothers, to the sounds of nature, to the music of life each day with confidence that in openness to what is heard I will be guided by the Creator and Redeemer, by the ever-present Spirit, in the way that I should go, in the next step I am called to take. In that listening, I am confident, will be found the strength to say yes to what is heard with the heart.

Am I going to mess up along the way? (Excuse me, have we met?!) Of course! But as Benedictine friends have reminded me in a manner that is a blessing: every day we begin again.

I will continue to think about all this, and to share what may seem worthwhile. Thank you for your interest, and for your moving and loving support.

Francis with the Leper.

The story of Saint Francis and the Leper:


Meeting Jesus

Today has been your typical American pastoral day, in some ways. It has been full. There were significant encounters with a few people, and passing meetings with more. There were two many minutes spent staring at a screen and communicating in a way that the Evangelists might have less-than-approved. Who knows?

Two moments stood out.

One was a conversation with the son of one of the finest priests of the diocese who has served all his priesthood here, and now lies in his home, cared for gently by hospice. He did not move or open his eyes while his son and I stood around him and spoke, but his spirit of caring love and pastoral intelligence filled the space. Big hearts do that, even when they are low.

The second was a visit to a parishioner. She is a wonderful lady in her mid-80’s who, as I told her today, is more active in these years though limited by age and illness than are many of us who are younger and more able to get around. She has just come home from a week in the hospital; a week by the way, in which she and her roommate became good friends and by the end of which the other woman was expressing a wish to join us at Saint Anselm’s. File that under true and natural evangelism/evangelization.

This morning I brought this dear lady communion at home. We heard Sunday’s Gospel, stopped to converse (!), prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and then she received Christ where he must feel very much at home. Then the most extraordinary and yet seamless thing happened.

My hostess told me that she belongs to the Order of Saint Luke the Physician and asked if I would mind if she prayed for me, laid hands on me, and anointed me? I replied that I would not mind at all. Her question grew from the fact of my ‘bum’ knee, currently awaiting the healing hand of one of Luke’s heirs in the trade.

With this, she opened her prayerbook and prayed. I leaned in and she laid hands on my head and prayed. I lifted my brow and she prayed and anointed me with a fragrant oil, apologizing then that she had applied too much. Instead, I would applaud her sacramental sense: let the sign speak!

All this from start to finish took maybe two minutes, two of the most moving minutes of 35 years of ordained ministry. I can put it this way, and then leave it there: I brought Jesus, as I am ordained to do. And lo, I found him already there, in prayer, and aching to heal.

Can I hear an Amen?

Identity: since the waters poured

Here is the second of two talks given at parish lenten retreats in the Diocese of Long Island, 2016. The are intended to form part of an eventual book.

The scriptural text on which this reflection is based follows afterward, for the reader’s convenience.

Transfiguration Icon, Theophan the Greek

[Icon of the Transfiguration, Theophan the Greek]

We have been considering the question of identity, about who you really are.  We have agreed that t\your real identity has something to do with your relationship to Jesus the Christ.  Let’s look deeper into that truth.

Jesus took three of his nearest and dearest with him up onto the mountain while he prayed.  I wonder whether he knew what was going to happen; what we call the Transfiguration.  Jesus prayed all the time according to scripture.  He was forever going aside in the night, in the early morning, any time and place he could, to spend some time with the One whom he calls ‘Abba,’ ‘Dad.’  This time he invites Peter, James, and John to come with him.  Typical of disciples – those three then and us now – they basically went to sleep while Jesus prayed.  But this prayer of his, in that time and place, like all prayer at any time and place, led to something.  And this time the something it led to was quite visible and dramatic.  Imagine if you were one of the three invited there by Jesus.  You wake up because there is the sound of voices in conversation and a bright light as you open your eyes.  And there are Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets – basically the whole message of God to God’s people – and there is Jesus as you have never seem him before, shining brighter than the sun, and recognized by the other two leaders of Israel as the One who sums up in himself both Law and Prophecy, the Word of God in the flesh and now in apparent glory as well.  How overwhelming would that be!  How many times would you blink your eyes to make sure that you were not still asleep?  But no, it is real.  And more real than any other moment of your life. 

Think about it.  Does it not have to be true that as the four friends came down from that mountain a while later that it was not only Jesus who had been transfigured?  Doesn’t it have to be true that his disciples as well have been changed, renewed, transformed?  How could anyone experience a scene like that and not be changed?  Something profound had to have happened in them.  As we have understood that event in later Christian history, it was  a moment of revelation of Jesus as he really was, the Son of the Living God.  The glory that was his always was made manifest in that moment.  But for Peter, James, and John, this was the re-creation of these three as something more than they had been before.  As all of Scripture testifies, from Moses to the Letter to the Hebrews, no one comes into the presence of the Living God and goes on living as before.  No.  Something dies.  Something new is born.  And so it had to be a new Peter, and a new James and John who descended with Jesus from that high place and back to what looked like ordinary life.

But could life ever look ‘ordinary’ again?

Actually maybe it could.  I say that maybe life could seem ordinary even after that extraordinary experience because, in a sense, all of us are doing that every day.  All of us who have been baptized have a habit of going on and living each day as if it is ordinary.  And yet, if we had a living idea of what it means that we are baptized, then we could not possibly live a single instant as if it were ordinary, mundane, nothing special.

And in a real sense, this is where the season of Lent comes in.  Lent comes in here as a visible, tangible, livable annual reminder of what the fact of our baptism means for us, yesterday, today, and always. 

The roots of this season of forty days are found in the first centuries of Christianity, among the men and women who came asking to be made a part forever of the Body of Christ.  After years of preparing to be baptized, to receive the Spirit, to partake in the Eucharist, the final forty days of that time were lived as an intense experience of spiritual retreat before the celebration of the sacraments.  Cyril of Jerusalem, archbishop of that city in the fourth century, has left us a series of the talks he gave to those preparing to be received into the church, whom they called the catechumens.  The first of those talks tradition recalls that Cyril gave off-the-cuff, spontaneously as it were, when he recognized that he was in a public place in the city in a crowd that likely included some people who were thinking of becoming Christians.  According to what those present heard, these words are a part of what Cyril said that day long ago:

“The present is the season of confession: confess what thou hast done in word or in deed, by night or by day; confess ‘in an acceptable time, and in the day of salvation’ receive the heavenly treasure.  Devote thy time to the Exorcisms: be assiduous at the Catechisings, and remember the things that shall be spoken, for they are spoken not for thine ears only, but that by faith thou mayest seal them up in the memory.  Blot out from thy mind all earthly care: for thou art running for thy soul.  Thou art utterly forsaking the things of the world: little are the things which thou art forsaking, great what the Lord is giving.  Forsake things present, and put thy trust in things to come.  Hast thou run so many circles of the years busied in vain about the world, and hast thou not forty days to be free (for prayer), for thine own soul’s sake? ‘Be still and know that I am God,’ saith the Scripture.”

Cyril of Jerusalem, #5, First Catechetical Lecture

Now there may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable words buried in there for us.  Catechisings? Exorcisms?  Fear not!  ‘Catechisings’ are just the times this group of would-be Christians would gather to be instructed together.  ‘Exorcisms’ are the prayers that were offered over them throughout the season, praying for their strength and steadiness and commitment to leave behind a way of life that did not include Christ in favor of a new life centered in and on Christ.

But my favorite words in this 1600-year old talk are these:

“Hast thou run so many circles of the years busied in vain about the world, and hast thou not forty days to be free (for prayer), for thine own soul’s sake?”

This rings so contemporaneous with our present age.  In effect he is saying, “Are you telling me that you have been able to run around like crazy people for years and decades concerned about career and investment and planning and work and all the rest, but you cannot carve out six weeks to attend in God’s sight to your own ultimate good?”  In other words, are you too busy to think beyond the present to the things that last?  That really count? 

Sixteen centuries ago these words were on the mark.  And it seems they still can hit the mark in us.

So Lent at its roots is the time to realize that time counts.  It is the season each year to allow ourselves to be reminded that every day is miraculous, that every moment is astounding, that every prayer is a revelation, that every hymn is the only song ever sung.  It is the season to know that it is we who have only just come down in the company of the Christ from the transfiguration mountain and we have been transformed and we will never be the same.

In Cyril of Jerusalem’s 3rd lecture to the folks who followed him home from the square intrigued by his first talk, the bishop points to the very moment, in our experience, when that transformation happens.  Listen!

“For thou go downest into the water, bearing thy sins, but the invocation of grace, having sealed thy soul, suffereth thee not afterwards to be swallowed by the terrible dragon.  Having gone down dead in sins, thou comest up quickened in righteousness.  For if thou has been ‘united with the likeness of the Savior’s death,’ thou shalt also be deemed worthy of His Resurrection.  For as Jesus took upon Him the sins of the world, and died, that by putting sin to death He might rise again in righteousness, so thou by going down into the water, and being in a manner buried in the waters, as He was in the rock, art raised again ‘walking in newness of life.’”

Cyril of Jerusalem, #12, Third Catechetical Lecture

What is this?  It is baptism.  The moment that the forty days pointed toward, and still point toward, is baptism.  It is there that our transformation takes place and a new life begins that does not know – ever – any ending.  Cyril’s description of baptism, if any of it sounds unfamiliar to our ears, is founded on baptism the way it was always done – and maybe should always be done – by immersion.  You stood in water.  You went down into the water.  You were under the water.  Completely.  The Trinity was invoked over you.  You came up from the water.  You died. And you rose to new life.  You went down into the darkness.  And you rose into the light.

Cyril echoes here the sixth chapter of Saint Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, when Paul wrote, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:3-4)

In this sacrament we share in Christ’s own dying and rising and are made one with him. In baptism we experience what those three disciples did on the mountain.  We are utterly changed.  Or to put it quite differently but just as truly: we are revealed to ourselves for what we are.  In Christ we too are agents of transformation for the world.  Through Christ we like him are words of God into the world.  Words of challenge and comfort and radical possibility.  We become, as the Christian tradition has said since the beginning, ‘other Christs’, anointed ones of God.  The promise made to the Samaritan woman we met last night at Jacob’s well is kept in us.

In the seventh chapter of John’s good news, we read that:

“On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”’ (John 7:37-38)

That festival was Sukkoth, the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles.  It recalls the little huts that Israel lived in for 40 years in the wilderness, 40 years when they were learning in painful ways that God always stays with them, that God is always their God, that in every time and place God is always faithful to them as his people.  Every morning of that feast the priests of the Temple processed to the pool of Siloam and came back with waters from that pool.  They circled the holy place of God, singing with joy, and offered that water back to God.

On the ‘last and greatest day of the festival’ they circled the altar with that water not once as on preceding days, but seven times.  It was at that moment, at the crescendo of joy, that Jesus cries out about the water he carries, water that lives within those who believe in him and live in him, water they too share with the world. 

We are those people.  We are those believers.  We are those water-carriers.  We are those disciples.  We are taking on the way of Jesus.

And what is that way? 

It is the way of water.  It flows downhill.  It gives itself away, natively, without thought, and always.  In the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians, in words we have heard here tonight, Saint Paul quotes an early Christian hymn that beautifully expresses this way of water which is the way of Jesus.  And in verse 5, before quoting the hymn, Paul says to us, his readers,

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

The Greek word that we translate as ‘mind’ is φρονεῖτε (phroneite).  It is rendered as attitude, as mind-set, as one’s way of understanding the world and life and our own place in all of it.  It comes originally from a word that points to the diaphragm, to the middle of the human body, to the moving parts around the heart.  Paul is saying, ‘Let your ways of thinking and feeling and breathing and moving and doing and being and living be just like Christ’s.’

That way is revealed in one word that comes just two verses later in Philippians 2, verse 7.  The word is ‘kenosis.’  It means self-emptying.  This verse is sometimes translated in this startling fashion:

“Christ Jesus made himself nothing.” 

And we, knowing him and living his life from the inside, are called to the same: to letting go of our own will in favor of allowing the will of God to be done through us.

This way makes no sense in western culture, in 21st century society.  But it is the way of Christ and the way of the Christian.  It is our way when we are our truest selves.

Have you seen the late 80’s movie, “Babette’s Feast”?  It is the story of a French woman, a famous chef, who ends up for years and years serving as the live-in unpaid cook for two sisters in Scandinavia.  Babette’s one link to her home nation is a yearly lottery ticket.  One year she wins 10,000 francs.  She prevails upon the two sisters to allow her to prepare a proper French feast in memory of their deceased father, a minister and pastor and prophet, on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

The meal is fantastic, so much so that even the preparations for it are too much for the sisters and the people of the village.  They are scandalized.  But the meal in its excellence and flavor and savor wins them over as they sit together at table and enjoy Babette’s feast. 

As she and the two sisters are cleaning up afterward, they ask her how soon she will be leaving them, now that she is rich.  “Leave?” she asks, “I am not rich.”  They inquire about the lottery winning and Babette confesses that she used all she won to buy and prepare and serve the one meal.  Everything.

It came freely and it was given freely. It flowed the way of water.  Downhill and gone, nourishing the lives of others on its way. There is the key.  God gives and we in turn are invited to give as freely and as completely.

Toward the end of the meal a retired general who is present rises and speak words that reveal what it might mean to live as Jesus does, to give as Jesus does, to love as Jesus does. 

These words might provide us an entry way, an open door into this Lent and into the rest of our lives transformed in Christ Jesus.

“‘Mercy and truth have met;

Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another,’ he begins, quoting the 10th verse of Psalm 85. And then the General continues,

“Man in his shortsightedness and foolishness believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We all know . . . fear.

“But no.  Our choice is of no importance.  The moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite.  We need only await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude.  Grace makes no conditions.  And see.  That which we have chosen is given to us, and that which we have refused is also granted us. 

“Mercy and truth have met together.  Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.” 

The identity that is ours in Christ Jesus?  The way of life that is ours in him?  Must we strive?  Must we work at it?  Must we worry and fret?  No.  “We must only await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude.”

That is the invitation of this season and of this life.

© John P. McGinty 2016


Luke 9:28-36

 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus* took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake,* they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,* one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen;* listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.