Blessed Trinity

As I write this, it’s been a week and half since Trinity Sunday.  Reflecting on the Trinity brought up a memory from my days at Nazarene Theological Seminary.

Back then, requirements for the Master of Divinity included facing an inquisition.  Officially it was labeled a, “comprehensive oral exam,” and was designed to see how well a student had assimilated and applied all that they had learned in the program.   But being subjected to a two-hour oral exam by a panel of three professors did feel a bit like an inquisition.  (In fairness, there was no actual torture or hostility from the inquisitors.)   My own oral’s panel consisted of theology professor, Dr. Staples, Dr. Finley who specialized in Biblical studies, and Prof. Whitlock from the Christian Education department.  

At some point in the middle of my exam I was challenged with something like this:

“Wilson, imagine you are out there pastoring a church and one Sunday morning you walk down the hall of the Sunday School wing and stop and stick your head into an early elementary classroom. You observe the teacher using an egg to explain the Trinity.   What is the problem with that?”

I immediately began thinking about the theology of the Trinity and started to formulate my answer.  The egg illustration talks about the shell, the white, and the yolk forming one egg.  It is said to be analogous to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being one God.   So far so good.  But then problems arise:  An individual part of the egg, like the yolk for example, is not fully an egg.  The Son, however, is fully God… 

Before I vocalized that answer, however, another thought dawned on me.  The question had not come from Dr. Staples, the theology professor.  It was a question from Prof. Whitlock, the Christian Education guru.  I smiled ever so slightly and answered something like this:

“The problem is that explaining the Trinity is not proper subject matter for young children.  The concept is too abstract.  Children’s lessons should be focused on basic Bible stories, especially stories about Jesus.  Explaining the Trinity should come later when they are more mature.”

It turns out, that was the answer he was looking for!

Years have gone by.  While I don’t think my answer was wrong, I have had to revise my opinion.  Perhaps “expand” would be a better term.   My original answer implied that the Trinity could be explained to people when they matured.  I no longer think that is the case.  Even for mature Christians the idea of the Trinity is just too abstract to truly comprehend.

We can certainly teach the truth of the Trinity. As my denomination puts it in our Articles of Faith, “We believe in one eternally existent, infinite God, …   The God who is holy love and light is Triune in essential being, revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One God, Triune in essential being!  The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God.  The Bible teaches that to be true.  The Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit are equal with each other but not equal to each other.  They are three persons but one God, not three Gods.   Jesus, the incarnate Son, is said to be,  “fully God.”  But of course Jesus is not the Father, nor is he the Holy Spirit.     But how can these things be true?  Therein lies our problem.  We want to know how, but we simply can’t.  It is beyond our understanding.  Once again, faith is the key!  Through faith we can believe these things to be true, in spite of not being able to comprehend how. 

Having said that I close with my favorite expression of the Trinity.  This expression doesn’t explain the Trinity, but it does  give us a handle to help us to think about the Trinity.  It is a relational expression that I learned from Dr. Staples, who before examining me, had taught me.

The Father can be thought of as, “God above us.”  He is the majestic, transcendent God that is up there.

The Son can be thought of as, “God with us.”  Literally the meaning of, Emmanuel.  The Son became incarnate and dwelt among us.  He was tempted in every way just as we are.  He even died for us.

The Holy Spirit can be thought of as, “God in us.”  The Holy Spirit is the empowering, comforting, guide, and teacher who lives in us. 

The Trinity–God above us, God with us, God in us!

In the words of hymnist, Reginald Heber, “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! … God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”

Remember, Don’t Honor

Benedict Arnold was a great officer—until he wasn’t!    He was a brilliant strategist who led us to victory in multiple battles and was promoted to the rank of major general and given charge of fortifications at West Point.  He then planned to clandestinely surrender West Point to the British!   His plan was disrupted and he defected to the British where he was given the rank of brigadier general and led troops against the United States. 

Do you know any Americans who attended Benedict Arnold Elementary School?  Do you know any veteran who was ever stationed at Fort Arnold?  Have you ever posed for a picture standing by a statue of Benedict Arnold?   No, to all of those questions.  (There is a statue of a boot that is said to commemorate Benedict Arnold but his name isn’t even on it.  There was also a Fort Arnold but it was renamed after his betrayal.)  Without those honors, we have never forgotten him or what he did.  The same should be true with regards to the Confederate States of America and its leaders.   

Think about the actual words of the Pledge of Allegiance:  “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

We are the “UNITED States.”  The Confederate States tried to break that unity.

We are “ONE NATION.”  The Confederate States tried to make us two.

We are “INDIVISIBLE.”  The Confederate States took up arms to divide us.

We proclaim “LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL.”  The Confederate States did what they did primarily in defense of slavery which is diametrically opposed to liberty and justice for all.

It is true that the Civil War and the Confederacy are a part of our history and should never be forgotten. That history should be commemorated in museums and on historical markers at significant locations; it should be written about in our text books and taught in our schools.  

But we must remember that while the Confederacy should never be forgotten, it should never be praised, glorified, or honored.  (It is not hyperbole to say that Confederate leaders, both civilian and military, were treasonous.  Taking up arms against the United States is the very definition of treason.)   But the truth is, we have already done so.   We’ve also placed statues in town squares and other places of honor.  We have flown their flag in front of government offices, courts, and on our military bases.  We have even honorifically named schools, parks, and military bases in their honor.  

The time has come to remedy that mistake.  Statues in places of honor (town squares, in front of public libraries, etc.) should be relocated to museums and/or proper historical sites.  Schools, military bases, parks, streets, etc., that have been named in honor of Confederate leaders should be renamed.  It’s time the southern states that formed the Confederacy recognize that the Civil War is a scar in their history, not a highlight.  It should not be seen as bragging rights, but as an embarrassment. It’s time they identify and lift up new heroes and new symbols to express their southern pride.

Jesus: Disruptive, Peaceful, Protestor

The current civil unrest has resulted in many significant and peaceful protests across the country. There have also been escalations that have turned violent and destructive. I’ve written that the underlying causes of these protests have merit and truly do call for action. I do, however, want to share my thoughts on the right and wrong way to protest. What I want to say arises directly from a Bible story. Ironically, it is a Bible story that is sometimes misunderstood and used in support of the kinds of actions that I oppose.

It is the story of Jesus taking action against injustice he saw in the temple.  All four Gospels share the story but John gives the most details.  Furthermore, John is the only one that mentions a whip, an important part of the misunderstanding.  For those reasons, I’m sharing John’s telling of the story. It’s found in John 2:14-16: :

“In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!””

Biblical and ancient world scholars shed a good deal of light on what was really going on. The Israelites came to the temple to worship, make sacrifices and also to pay the temple tax.  There were rules about the sacrifices that had to be made.  Someone who needed to sacrifice a sheep might wait until he got there then buy one.  Scholars tell us they did so at unfair prices.  Others might bring a sheep with them only to be told it wasn’t a good enough sheep.  Again with unfair prices, they could trade it up for a better, qualified sheep.  Later the sheep that had been rejected earlier would be resold to a different worshiper as a qualified sheep! It was quite the scam.  Then there were the money changers.  The temple tax had to paid with a particular coin. Worshipers could exchange their currency for the right coins, again at unfair rates of exchange.  That is why, as recorded in the other writers’ version of the story, Jesus declared, “you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

The temple was supposed to be a house of prayer but it had become a place of greed and exploitation. Worshipers were being exploited and abused.   That is why Jesus got angry!  And that’s when he lost his temper and turned violent and destructive.  Or did he?  While I’ve heard this story referenced to say that sometimes violence is called for, I think a careful review reveals a different perspective. Let’s look.

First it says, “So he made a whip out of cords…”  Think about it.  He made a whip out of cords.  That requires braiding.  Can you imagine someone “losing their temper” then braiding? That is not the action of someone who has lost their temper. Yes, Jesus was angry, but he was in control and he began working a plan.

The rest of that sentence says, “[he] drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle.”  Grammar tells us, if you analyze the sentence, that the clause, “both sheep and cattle,” modifies the earlier word, “all.”  So according to this, he made a whip and used it for stock animals, not for people.  Secondly, a word about using a whip to drive animals:  I looked it up.  When driving stock animals, whips are a tool, not a weapon.  They have one main purpose; to make noise.  Cracking a whip to move animals is not being violent.

The Scripture then says, “He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.”  This was certainly aggressive, but the action was aimed at inanimate objects, not people, so it wasn’t violent.  Having the coins scattered and tables overturned would have been very disruptive, but not destructive.   Jesus didn’t break and burn things.

Lastly, the story says, “To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’”  This was direct and firm, but not violent.  He used words, not force, to remove the offending parties from the temple courts.

Jesus saw injustice and protested it with aggressive action.  But not with violent or destructive action.  While firm and direct, he remained a peaceful protestor. 

If I had my way, everyone would follow Jesus’ model (be Christlike).  When injustice is seen, we would aggressively spring into action with firm protests. We would work to right the wrong.  We might even be loud and disruptive; Jesus was.  However, also like Jesus, we would stop short of becoming violent or destructive.  We wouldn’t hurt anyone or destroy anything. 

Condemnation of violent and destructive protests brings with it a grave responsibility: We have to pay attention to peaceful protests. We have to truly listen and work to solve the underlying problems that are precipitating the protests. When a hurting, frustrated minority rises up in protest, it behooves us listen. Dismissing the protests, denying the underlying problem, or even counter-protesting will always escalate the situation. When that happens, it doesn’t justify violence and destruction but it makes it inevitable.

Preachers and Contradictory Advice

I arrived at my first pastoral assignment and discovered that a handful of the church men were golf enthusiasts.  My previous golf experience had been limited to a handful of outings with a friend during my college years but I committed to joining in.  During one round, I was about to drive the ball when one of the men said something like, “Pastor, I’ve noticed you have a bad slice.  I think I can help you with that…”  He proceeded to instruct me with some finer points concerning my stance, grip, and swing. When he finished his coaching, one of the other men spoke up: “Pastor, forget all that.  You don’t golf often enough to perfect your game.  Since you know that you slice the ball and end up twenty yards to the right of where you want to be, just aim about twenty yards to the left.”

These were men in my church whom I loved and respected. And they loved and respected me.  They were both well-meaning but they were giving me contradictory advice. Whose advice was I to follow?   It really put me on the spot as I didn’t want to insult either of them by adopting the advice of the other! Looking back, I think the situation was the funny: There I was, completely stressed over church men relationships while playing a game people play to relax. My anxiety and discomfort in the situation was disproportionate to the significance of the situation.

But a similar thing sometimes happens to me in a much more serious context. It’s not so funny. Namely, I get contradictory advice from my colleagues, church members, family, and friends regarding my preaching (including teaching and writing). In this instance, the difference is based not on from whom the advice is coming, but on the subject matter at hand. (I am speaking from own experiences but I don’t think I’m alone in this, so please pardon me for switching to plural pronouns.)

When certain sinful behaviors are brought up, we preachers are advised to, “preach the truth!”  We’re told, “Don’t be afraid, be bold, call a spade a spade, that is, call sin sin.” Our advisors like to remind us that John the Baptist was a hero for bravely speaking out against King Herod’s illicit relationship.  That’s speaking truth to power. We preachers are urged to be like the Old Testament prophets who regularly called out the Israelites, God’s own people, when they were sinful.  It is even pointed out to us that Jesus himself often confronted the Pharisees and teachers of the law (the religious leaders) and that he went so far as to overturn the tables in the temple, therefore, we preachers should not pander to political correctness, but rather, we should, “lay it on the line,” even if it angers people.  We preachers are advised that we need to show the world that we stand for something.

But then at other times, not so much! 

When the topic of certain other sinful behaviors arise, we preachers are given the opposite advice! We are told to, “stay in our lane,” and stick to evangelism. We should stay out of these issues and not interfere.  Even though John the Baptist was a hero for confronting King Herod, when it comes to the behavior of our own government and government leaders, we are encouraged to forget John the Baptist and keep quiet because, “Preachers should stay out of politics.”   And when the behaviors in question are found in the church, we are firmly advised that we should, “Never judge or criticize other Christians (God’s people, those in the church) lest outsiders think we are divided and we lose the chance to reach them.”  We preachers are told we should be careful not to offend anyone because keeping the peace should be our priority.    Unity in the Spirit at all costs! 

This contradictory advise would truly be a dilemma if we preachers took our marching orders from our colleagues, church members, family, and friends. But we don’t. We take our marching orders from God, via the Bible and via the Holy Spirit speaking directly to our hearts and minds. 

In my (back to the singular pronoun) junior year of college, I came to believe in my heart that God was calling me to give up the career path I had finally settled upon and become a preacher.  One night I slipped off to the dorm prayer chapel and told God that I would do his will but that I didn’t want to make a mistake with something as important as my life’s work.   I prayed, pleaded really, that he would give me some kind of assurance that it was really his voice I was hearing. I was young and immature, but wise enough to know that I shouldn’t pursue a life of vocational ministry unless it was truly a calling.   After praying, I flipped open the Bible and began to read.  It had not been part of my strategic plan, I just did it. It happened to be the following passage.  I read it and said, “Yes,” to God and never looked back:

2 Timothy 4:1-5. “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

That passage became the Scriptural basis for my life’s path.  I changed majors to Religion and Philosophy, then went to Seminary for a Masters of Divinity, and have served as a pastor since 1988. This passage also continues to guide my preaching.

Clearly, the phrase, “do the work of an evangelist,” (v. 5) directs me to work to reach the lost for Christ and preach evangelistically. However, that’s not all that Paul had said. I interpret phrases like, “correct, rebuke, and encourage,” (v. 2) to be aimed at facilitating the spiritual health and growth of believers (the Church, those who are already Christians).  Apparently, it was assumed that even within the Church, correcting and rebuking would be needed at times. History has born it out to be true.

Furthermore, I believe that phrases like, “people will not put up with sound doctrine,” (v. 3) and they will, “turn their ears away from the truth,” (v. 4) are not referring to lost sinners; they never had their ears turned towards the truth in the first place. Rather, it refers to believers.  There is always the danger of Christians turning away. When that happens, if they are not corrected, they may eventually fall away completely. 

The passage also includes encouraging, (v. 2) so my preaching must include that as well.

All of these elements of preaching began with, “Preach the Word!” (v. 2) Sometimes it’s evangelistic, sometimes it’s correction and rebuke, sometimes it’s encouragement, but it must always be the Word! I try to find balance among these things. I can’t, however, pick and choose based on the advice I get from well-meaning advisors who would prefer I hit hard on some topics while remaining silent on others.

So I have some favors I’d like to ask on behalf of we preachers (back to plural).

First favor: Please understand that our messages originate from God through the Scripture and his Spirit. If you truly wonder about something, ask and the topic may show up in a sermon. However, understand, and I say this with all due respect, the topics we cover are not for you to choose.

Second favor: When you don’t like what we say, prayerfully ask yourself why you don’t like it. I want to suggest three main possibilities. 1) Make sure it is not honest guilt making you feel that way. If it is, repent. 2) Perhaps it’s a morally neutral issue and it is just a matter of a difference of opinion. If that’s the case, please understand that we preachers have the right to our opinions, too, and show us some grace. We can agree to disagree and we can do so agreeably. After all, we are commanded to love one another and bear with one another. 3) I hate even the thought of this one… Iif you are unhappy with our message because it goes against Biblical teaching, then call us out on it! Go ahead and confront us. Be angry. If we are preaching against the Bible, you ought to be angry. (But remember, as Paul taught, even in your anger, do not sin. There are right ways and wrong ways to deal with justified anger.)