The Invisible Mysteries of Joy
Lucinda, member at St. Luke’s, has a Facebook meme that she shares every year this week that cracks me up every time. It shows Boromir from Lord of the Rings leaning on a sword facing into the wind, looking very dramatic. And it says, “Brace yourselves. Sermons attempting to explain the Holy Trinity are coming.”
It’s true. The sermon this week is always a borderline futile effort.
It’s Trinity Sunday, and how do we talk about the Holy Trinity without immediately getting bogged down in trite clichés and unsatisfying mathematical analogies?
Well, we’re going to skip over all those vain attempts at explanation and go straight to the futility, because it is actually that very futility that I want to talk about.
Now, part of the reason I love St. Luke’s/St. Thomas is because you are perfectly comfortable with your priest standing in the pulpit and saying, “I have no idea what I’m talking about.”
You allow me that honesty, and echo it with honesty of your own.
Because I would far rather be with you in our common lack of understanding of the mystery of God, than by myself up here with some kind of high-and-mighty fancy theological explanation that is really a cover for my own ignorance and fear.
And that gets us to the heart of the problem, doesn’t it?
We as human beings are addicted to certainty.
We will tolerate almost any kind of nonsense as long as we get to say to someone else, “I know the truth,” or even better, “I’m right and you’re wrong.”.
We live to say that to ourselves in the smug privacy of our own hearts, even though we don’t often say it that bluntly to others. (Unless we’re a presidential candidate. Ha!)
Because what does certainty bring us?
It brings us power.
It gives us power to squash down and hide our own fear.
It gives us power over other people who don’t have the “truth.”
And it gives us group cohesion, often at the expense of independent critical thought.
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here to make this generalization: every single time religion and violence have been blended together through a large group of people, those people and their leaders have been unified by the knowledge they were “right.”
From the from the madness of the Salem Witch Trials to the Ku Klux Klan still active in our country, from the medieval Christian crusades all the way to ISIS today, when we refuse to accept mystery and ambiguity, our comfort in our certainty is really a blindness to our besetting sin.
We turn our fear of uncertainty into fear of anyone different from ourselves, and that is a short road to violence and oppression.
We cannot break our addiction to being right.
Or can we?
If we have any hope, it is in the Holy Spirit being active in our midst.
Last week was Pentecost, and the Holy Spirit descended to lead us into all truth, as Jesus says.
But that first Pentecost was two thousand years ago, and we don’t seem to have arrived at “all truth” yet, if we define “all truth” as growing up into the full stature of Christ, making the earth into the Kingdom of God, the place of peace and forgiveness and healing.
Apparently, this is a really slow process!
Yes. It is.
Living with and living into uncertainty and mystery is the very path of being led into all truth.
And it is slow, patient, unglamorous work.
But mystery, as we know with the incomprehensible doctrine of the Trinity, is the very nature of God!
If we want a relationship with God, we need a relationship with mystery.
What does that look like in real life?
Well, like everything else in the life of faith, it has a side to it that places us at the Cross, and a side to it that places us in Resurrection at the empty tomb.
Living with mystery at the Cross is the spiritual discipline of living with the lack of explanations for the pain in our lives, and not trying to escape that awful space with comfortable explanations or denials.
One comforting spiritual cliché I hear over and over again is, “Everything happens for a reason.”
People say that because it’s so hard to deal with the fact that terrible things happen sometimes without any good explanation.
Making meaning out of tough times and seeing how God can lead us through them and help us grow and change out of them—that is very helpful.
But papering over grief and anger by saying “Everything happens for a reason,” dismisses this very struggle with mystery we’re trying to get in touch with.
There is no good reason for childhood sexual abuse, for starvation, for natural disasters, for murder and rape and war, and God does not will those things for our learning or our testing.
In order to grow spiritually, we have to carry the Cross of the mystery of suffering.
We have to realize that sometimes there is no comprehensible reason why bad things happen to good people, and stay in that uncomfortable and scary place with one another, praying and clinging to Jesus.
It could be random chance, it could be the influence of evil, it could be simple human sin, but the truth is that we will never know for sure.
But until we learn to say to ourselves and to one another, “I don’t know why this terrible thing happened. I can’t explain it,” we will be trapped in a childish pie-in-the-sky spirituality that wants simply to deny reality.
So that’s the hard part. That’s the Cross part.
What about the resurrection part?
We’ve seen how the mystery of suffering is a painful but necessary place to go in order to follow Jesus on the Way of the Cross.
But there is another mystery awaiting us: the mystery of joy.
The strange thing I realized is that we are equally committed to denying this mystery as well.
It’s not just suffering we try to hold at bay with explanations and rationales, it’s happiness as well, it’s joy and resurrection.
If we don’t know why it happened, if we can’t pin it down scientifically, and most frequently of all, if we can’t take credit for it ourselves, we don’t enter into it fully.
The other interesting bit is that many mysteries of joy are invisible.
The side street we didn’t take, unknowingly avoiding a car accident.
The relationship we stayed in during the hard times, avoiding losing the partner of our hearts.
The church we visited one day, not knowing how important it would be in our lives for many years in the future.
These are the unseen mysteries of joy.
And of course there are the visible mysteries of joy as well.
The cancer that went into remission even after the doctors gave up.
The new baby born to parents told they would never conceive.
The fellowship of a church full of people who should not get along but have found a deep love for one another that is life-giving and sustaining.
As we learn to live into mystery, a great deal of joy opens up in our lives, and we’re no longer burdened by having to explain it.
We can recognize it more readily, finding it in the smallest of everyday moments, and simply give thanks for it.
That is the gift of the mystery of joy, and what else is the Trinity but a mystery of joy?
What conditions enable us to grow into mystery?
Two things are required: vulnerability and patience.
I ran across a remarkably vivid illustration of these necessities spoken by Nikos Kazantzakis in Zorba the Greek, related by Parker Palmer in A Hidden Wholeness. This story describes why vulnerability to and patience with mystery is so incredibly important:
“One morning, I discovered a cocoon in the bark of the tree, just as the butterfly was making a hole in the case preparing to come out. I waited a while, but it was too long appearing and I was impatient. I bent over it and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it as quickly as I could and the miracle begin to happen before my eyes, faster than life. The case opened, the butterfly started slowly crawling out and I shall never forget my horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled; the wretched butterfly tried with its whole body to unfold them. Bending over it I tried to help it with my breath. In vain.
It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings should be a gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to appear all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later, died in the palm of my hand.
That little body is, I do believe, the greatest weight I have on my conscience. For I realize today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.”
The eternal rhythm is the dance between the mystery of suffering and the mystery of joy that makes up our earthly life.
The circumstances of our broken world bring us the mystery of suffering, and God giving us Godself as the Holy Trinity is the gift of the mystery of joy.
Living within the mystery is the task of our spiritual lives, and it requires patience and vulnerability, a willingness to give up the power of being right.
And when we do break that addiction to certainty, what freedom we experience!
No longer having to be right, the ability to accept uncertainty, is the liberation that comes with our walk with through the Cross to the Resurrection of the empty tomb.
Today, on Trinity Sunday, I have not explained the Trinity to you.
Instead I’ve tried to explain why we shouldn’t try to explain it.
Let the butterfly be born, in its own time.
This is the birth of grace in our lives, the birth of peace, the birth of our abiding relationship with mystery, which is to say, our abiding relationship with God.
It requires patience and humility, but you, the butterfly who accepts the mystery of suffering, will become yourself a mystery of joy, beautiful in your flight, delighting the heart of God.
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