A Reflection on the lessons for Trinity Sunday by Janine Goodwin
Over the last eight months or so, I’ve done some of my best praying while looking at pictures on www.GalaxyZoo.com, a remarkable effort started by astronomers who work on images from deep space. They have discovered the best possible instrument for the task of distinguishing galaxies from other celestial phenomena, and for distinguishing spiral and elliptical galaxies from each other, is the human brain. Building on that discovery, the scientists put up a website and invited volunteers to look at galaxies. A web forum began, and a community emerged, as communities do any time there is something for people to share. There are threads where people can post especially beautiful objects and puzzle together over what the strange ones might be. There are now social scientists who are doing research on the GalaxyZoo phenomenon. When I log on to GalaxyZoo under my pseudonym, I am part of a galaxy of minds moving around a task as stars move around a galactic core. We are all connected.
I always begin a galaxy-classifying session with the opening sentence from Evening Prayer on page of the Book of Common Prayer, modified for inclusive language: “Seek the one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into morning, and darkens the day into night; who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out upon the surface of the earth.” When a particularly beautiful object flashes onto the screen, I am amazed by the glory and the immensity of the universe. I am astounded at the creativity of the one who made the Pleiades and Orion. It doesn’t surprise me that I can tell a spiral from an elliptical better than a computer can, even in fuzzy images from deep space, but it delights me. God made us both. As St. Francis might say, the galaxy is my sister. It is a joy beyond measure to remember that anything we can perceive is only a fraction of the greatness of God, the God who has become known to me, as to Paul, as a God of grace, love, and communion, a God who creates lavishly. That God is both personal and beyond my comprehension: personal because I am part of creation and thus a recipient of grace, love, and communion, and incomprehensible because the more I learn, the less I can be certain I know exactly what God is doing. I am more inclined to praise, to trust, and to listen, less inclined to insist that I can speak for the Creator. Is the spectacularly beautiful collision of two galaxies a tragedy for worlds we will never know? What is God doing? How are we connected?
In today’s readings, we find the same insistence on the connection between the cosmic and the human. The first reading is the story of creation, one of the two stories that were chosen to be passed down as authoritative in our tradition, one of the many creation stories in our world. We human beings have a talent for making such stories, just as we have a talent for identifying galaxies. Creation stories always link the cosmic and the human, and the Creator is always in touch with human creatures in these stories. It is worth remembering that our tradition has chosen to put more than one story into the anthology of God stories that we call the Bible. There may be more than one right way to tell any given story, and our tradition tells the stories of God in a wide variety of voices, in stories told more than once and with differing emphases. The Bible is not a monolith, but a conversation made up of centuries of individual and group voices, and when we read it, we join that conversation. We are connected, through time and space, with the others who have shared our faith. We must listen with respect, study with care, and beware of making those voices sound too much like our own.
The psalm puts the human and the cosmic together, asking who we are and where we belong in creation. We have been given the power to change the earth. The psalmist, living in a world that did not yet bear the scars of large-scale human destructiveness, can celebrate human dominion; we may not have that ability anymore. When we confront what our dominion has done to the earth, we are more likely to lament than to rejoice. Our increased knowledge of how the world works and of what our heedless actions have done gives us an increased responsibility to do better. Many of us are beginning to believe that the God who made us as part of a good world is calling us out of our wasteful ways and toward repentance and change of direction in the ways we deal with the earth. Our connection with the fruitful earth has not always brought forth good fruit.
The way God deals with us is the way we should deal with each other. In an early example of Trinitarian thinking, Paul invokes “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.” God contains grace, love, and communion. God is a conversation, a phrase I first found in the works of Martin Smith. God wants to include us in that holy conversation. This passage comes at the end of a tough letter, and contains words of challenge and warning. The life of faith is not easy, and the way to live it is not self-evident. It is not always easy to find the grace to show love, the way to live in communion. When we fail to see how we are connected, or when our connections become unhealthy, we begin to lose the presence of the Christ who refuses to break connection with any of us. Are we showing grace, love, and communion to each other?
Finally, there is the Gospel. Here, again, is the formula that the Church later recognized and developed as our understanding of the Trinity grew. Here, also, is the beginning of a mixed and painful history. The Gospel of Matthew ends with this charge to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This is a passage that breaks my heart because of what Christians have done with it. Too many times (and once would be one time too many), Christians have used this passage to betray the Jesus who said, “Come and see,” the Jesus who questioned and listened, the Jesus who was always willing to look outside his own group and his own tradition for evidence of the reign of God. Those who claimed to act in his name have often replaced conversation with coercion, respect with contempt, openness with violence. This is a passage that has been used by empires to justify the conquest and destruction of cultures. Jesus, who would not allow his disciples to use violence to defend him from death, has seen his name used falsely to make war seem holy; used for the destruction of lives in inquisitions and witch hunts; used to justify slavery and oppression.
Christians in history, and Christians now, have too often gone forth with the loving intention of spreading the Good News and then tried to coerce rather than to converse. Some missionaries (not all) have assumed that the culture in which they learned the Good News and the way that news was given to them is the only way that Good News can be told. They have not entered into conversation with the cultures they encountered, seeing what God has done there, but have tried to impose their ways. They have confused the medium of their particular culture with the message of Jesus, and the results of that confusion have caused tremendous destruction.
This is true in everyday life as well. We can all name instances in which “gospels” of hatred and exclusion have replaced the Good News of inclusive love. “Christian” has become a word that turns people off because they see it as synonymous with bigotry and hostility. I have friends who cannot discuss their faith with me because of the damage done to them by Christians who tried to force them to believe, or, worse, who acted abusively toward them and used faith as a tool for that abuse. I have learned to wait in silence until they ask a question, and then to answer briefly and listen to their stories. Some of them may never be able to ask and talk. I pray that God’s love will find them, and I must accept that that may happen in ways I cannot understand and might not recognize. Loving relationships cannot be forced or manipulated, and the very people who thought they were bringing others to faith have brought about distrust, anger, and fear.
The God of grace, communion, and love has been obscured by the actions of those who would dominate, and so end, the conversations of faith. Too often, evangelization has not produced disciples who follow willingly and with creative joy, but subjects of a reign that is not God’s wild and vivid creation. Once again, there is repentance and repair work to do before we can recognize our connection to each other and reach out to each other in grace, in love, and in communion. The damage runs deep; sometimes is so great that it would be easy to despair, but the God who made the Pleiades and Orion waits to bring us all back into the loving conversation that is the beginning and end of creation, the basis of all that is.
Janine Goodwin is a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader who lives with her husband, dogs, and cats. She holds a B. Mus. and an M.S. Ed. in Special Education from the University of Oregon and an M.A. in Theology from Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida. When she is not working with words, she makes jewelry and rosaries.