Trinity Sunday

Ineffable. That’s the best word I know to try and put words to the presence or identity or relationship of God to God’s people. “Ineffable” means that words just won’t do, that what one is trying to describe is beyond words.  Ineffable seems like a strange way to define God, but all our attempts to describe Her fall utterly short of the holy mystery.  Even the name “God” is just more of a description. I like the description “Divine Other” instead: He/She is something so much bigger and “other” than us, so holy and divine, we can’t even capture it in words.

In our scripture reading, we heard Nicodemus asking in wonder how one could be “born again?” Jesus had stumped him, and didn’t offer much help as Jesus basically said, “You can’t understand the things of this world; how can you understand the Holy?”

The concept of the Holy Trinity is also just another attempt to describe God. It’s a completely  human construction that has caused divisions and arguments within the church for as long as we have attempted to find words to express our common belief in God as Christians. But every first Sunday after Pentecost, we celebrate “Holy Trinity Sunday.” It is the only Sunday of the Liturgical year that focuses on doctrine.  Because remember — the Trinity is doctrine; it isn’t a scriptural truth — it is derived from scripture. It is human’s best attempt to describe something ineffable, remember?

In my recent trip to Greece I took immense joy in studying the icons at the monasteries and Basilicas found in every city and village and upon every island we visited. On the beautiful island of Hydra, I found a little Trinity icon (see below) tucked away in a dark corner. I looked closely and noticed that it was entitled “The Hospitality of Abraham.”  Many times I’ve seen the Trinity pictured at Abraham’s table; but this was the only one I had noticed that had Abraham and Sarah in the picture.

“The Hospitality of Abraham” Icon, Ecclesiastical Museum of the Monastery of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Hydra Island, Greece

Take a close look at this icon. Do you notice that the three strangers who sought hospitality from Abraham are seated at the table, in the shape of a triangle. They are all looking to each other.  But Abe and Sarah are on the outside of that triangle, just peeking in! It’s as if they are trying to get a glimpse of this holy gathering.

As interesting as this icon is to me, I don’t expect it clears things up for you at all about the Holy Trinity (and just for your reference, every time I say “Holy Trinity” I sing it at the top of my lungs in an operatic voice; either that or I whisper it). So since we’ve agreed that God is ineffable, and that the Holy Trinity is confusing, let me put it to you this way: the Trinity is the way that humankind has tried to “sum up” all the ways that God has revealed Godself to us — the ways that we come to know and experience the “Divine Other.”

And it’s like this:

Creator/Father/YHWH — we learn about God the Creator as we interact with creation and come to understand some of the Holy Mystery through the patterns and re-creating life we see in nature. We recognize how richly God has provided for us through the cycles of the seasons. We witness inconceivable beauty from the tops of the mountains and even in the most barren places of the Great Plains. God revealed Godself as YHWH in the Hebrew Scriptures, when humankind received the law and the Torah, and learned how to be in Covenant with the Divine Other. This YHWH was powerful and awe-inspiring and the glory shekinah; distant, dangerous, and so Holy one could not even look upon God.

Redeemer/Incarnation/Jesus — we learn about the Divine Other very personally through “The Word made flesh.” Emmanuel “God with us”! Jesus was a real human, flesh and bone that we could see and listen to and touch and walk alongside and reach out to grasp the garment of. Jesus was the one whose very being was Divine and his life and teachings modeled to us the way we are to love each other. Jesus taught us that yes YHWH gave us the word, but when we live the word out it looks like a humble, loving healer, who had no earthly possessions and spent his time building relationships and reaching out to bring the outcasts back into community. And when his death was imminent he gave his students a shocking charge: I’ve redeemed you; now go and do likewise for others.”

Sustainer/Holy Spirit/Advocate— we learn about God the Holy Spirit through every movement and interaction and feeling we experience. God the Spirit is our direct link to the Divine Other, communicating for us even when we don’t have words to express our pain. Spirit is the very breath Creator breathed into us and we are reminded of it each time we take a long, deep breath and fill our lungs with the life-giving mixture of air that Creator provides. Spirit is the goosebumps and warm and cozy feelings we receive as well as the incredible sense that we are not alone. It is the Love that binds us together in unity when we are singing hymns or speaking liturgy, gathered together in prayer, sitting in silence together. God the Holy Spirit surrounds us and changes the everyday ordinary into the sacred.

The three persons of the Trinity — Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer — are how we know and relate to God. As Christians we think Jesus is the part of the trinity we understand the best, but it is the part where we fall the shortest. We are called to be the presence of God to others by modeling the love of Emmanuel. But there’s a lot of hurting and broken people out there who are just waiting for Jesus to look them in the eyes and ask, “Are you okay?” Guess what? That’s YOU who needs to be looking people in the eyes so that you can see Jesus in them and you can be Jesus to them.

Sunday was not only Holy Trinity, it was also the day before Memorial Day. In honor of this, Elder Bob Gaskins felt compelled to write about how he came to know and understand God through three special men in his life. They were, to Bob, the presence of Jesus. They lived out the charge to “Go and do likewise.” I share his words with you to remind you that it is up to us to be the resurrected Body of Christ and the very presence of the Holy in this world. Though God is ineffable, these words do a pretty good job of defining what it means to “Go and do likewise.”  Thank you so much for sharing these reflections with us, Bob:

Christian father-warrior-saints remembered on Memorial Day

The Spirit moved me to share the following testimony yesterday with Paula regarding three fathers who served their country during wartime and also had a significant impact on my life. She asked me to share this testimony with you today.

As Memorial Day approaches this coming Monday, I am so thankful for the roles which three fathers played in my evolution as a born-again Christian. For all three of these men, their Christian faith played a key role in their lives and their ability to serve their country in combat when it counted most.

The first is my father, Warden Gaskins, who was raised Methodist in North Carolina and enlisted in the submarine service the day after Pearl Harbor. He served as an officer on attack submarines in the western and northern Pacific for the entire duration of WWII, earning the bronze star for actions taken during combat patrols. Dad’s Christian faith was a bedrock in his entire life, sustaining him through the death of his father at age 12 and through the seemingly endless years of WWII. He was very involved in our local Methodist church while I was growing up, which provided the initial foundation for my own early Christian faith. This same faith sustained and nourished Dad as he cared for my mother who had Parkinson’s disease for many years later in life, and then after her passing, as he lived out the remainder of his life without her.

The second is my ex-father in law, Bill Mason, whom I grew extremely close to during my marriage to my son Billy’s mom. Bill served as a soldier in the 10th Mountain Division during WWII in Europe. He fought in the battles for Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere in early 1945 that proved pivotal to the Allied troops’ ability to defeat of Nazi Germany later that same year. Bill was one of the most modest and caring individuals whom I have every known, and his solid and unwavering Christian faith was his foundation for a life of amazing accomplishment and contribution to others. When I asked him what was most important in his ability to keep his head calm through the savagery of hand-to-hand combat in war, and through other extremely challenging life experiences, Bill’s answer was his absolute faith in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. I was so very honored and humbled to be asked to deliver one of the eulogies at Bill’s memorial service six years ago when he left us to be with Jesus.

The third is my deceased wife Joanie’s father, Paul Riley, who I never met, as he was killed in combat in Vietnam in 1967 when Joanie was 11 years old. Paul Riley grew up in extreme poverty in Texas and enlisted in the army upon graduation from high school in 1947. He served multiple combat tours in Korea and Vietnam as an infantry sergeant, and was highly decorated for battlefield bravery in both wars, earning several bronze stars, purple hearts and other commendations. Additionally, three months prior to his death during his second Vietnam deployment, he was awarded the silver star which is our country’s third highest medal for combat gallantry, for his actions in which he single-handedly destroyed enemy combatants and pulled his comrades to safety in the midst of heavy enemy fire, while totally ignoring his own safety. Paul had a very small, well-worn Bible that he always carried in his rucksack during combat missions. He was a Christian man who believed that he was serving God as a soldier by protecting his country and his family from evil. He lived by the words of Jesus inscribed in John 15:13 which are: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” At a reunion of his surviving comrades from Vietnam that we attended six years ago, they each recounted countless times when he put the words of his faith into action by saving lives on the battlefield. He was a quiet man with immense strength of character, and he was their rock and their calm in the constant storm of jungle warfare. They could clearly see and feel God’s love for them through Paul’s actions. After that reunion, I gave Joanie a pendant inscribed with the words “John 15:13” as a daily memory of her father’s everyday commitment to Christ’s words. After Paul’s death in 1967, the only thing which returned from the battlefield to his family besides his identification dog-tags was his little Bible which had somehow survived the massive land mine explosion targeted for him by the Vietcong.

I believe that all three of these men are saints in their own way and are now living in resurrected glory with Jesus. They each demonstrated Christ’s Word through their actions. In other words, they “walked the talk”. And, I am eternally thankful that each was placed in my life by God to provide guidance for my own journey to my born-again Faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.

Remembering Our Saints: Rev. Dr. Bob Bielenberg

Witness to the Resurrection

I don’t know if there is any better description of what we are gathered here to do today than “Witness to the Resurrection.” It is, of course, what our Presbyterian Book of Common Worship calls a service upon the death of a saint. Today especially, we are here to worship God as we celebrate being the witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ for a saint who lived his life as a Witness to the Resurrection.

I am sure the many other pastors here would agree with me when I say that it is an immense honor and a holy, treasured duty to serve as a “Witness to the Resurrection” for our beloved congregation members, family members, friends, and even unknown community members. I’m certain that over his over 60 years as an ordained clergy, Bob officiated lovingly at countless such services. Indeed, Donna shared this letter that Bob wrote upon his anniversary in 2012, which speaks to this holy task:

Whenever I was asked to officiate at a funeral or memorial service, I would ask if the person to be remembered had a favorite poem or verse, perhaps fastened to the refrigerator or tucked away in their Bible.  such a saved verse or quote often revealed something of the one who kept it, and gave me an insight into what was important in that person’s life and which was worth sharing in that service in which he or she was remembered by friends and family.

I have two such special momentos in my home.

One is a plaque with just a single word carved on it which was made and given to us one Christmas by a very good friend of ours many years ago.  It says simply “Faithful.”  I don’t know what our friend had in mind when he made the plaque and presented it to us, but “Faithful” is a word that has very special meaning to me, and for many years that plaque has had a prominent place in the very center of the mantel over our fireplace.

It is not as important that we be successful in life but that we be faithful.  In my life I have felt it important to be faithful to God, faithful to his plan or purpose for my life, faithful to my family, and faithful to those whom I have been called upon to serve.

Thanks to a friend, that word, that thought, has had a prominent place in our home and in my life.

The other momento is a small glass plaque that hangs in our kitchen window directly over the kitchen sink, and we see it each time we wash the dishes or get a drink of water, or look out over our beautiful view of the mountains.  And on that small plaque is engraved the words, “God has allowed us to share something beautiful together.”

I’m writing this on our 63rd Anniversary.  When Donna and I think of our lives together, truly God has allowed us to share something beautiful together.  And for this, we are both most grateful.

Even in his retirement — which I should write, “retirement,” as no true servant of Christ ever retires until the completion of their baptism at the moment of death — Bob lived out his faith in such a peaceful, joyful way, that he was still teaching and guiding as his heart stopped beating and he took his last breath. It was the first day of this new year, and I am certain I heard the earth and heavens tremble with the echo of “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

I was surprised and touched to find out that Donna and Bob had left the scripture selection to me. I thought that certainly, after so many years in the pulpit and after serving so many families at the death of loved ones , certainly Bob had chosen the scriptures to comfort his family and beloved community.

And I wrestled with this. I felt a little incompetent to choose the scriptures, and I struggled with what would best comfort all of you in your grief even as we proclaim celebration. But as I walked the ruins of Corinth a couple of weeks ago (remembering all the travels Bob and Donna ventured on) and I sat in a cave on the island of Patmos, I relinquished the struggle and began to listen.

And do you know what I heard?  Bob’s marvelous, soothing voice, telling me the stories of a life in ministry, carefully recounting the difficult years when our nation struggled with the growth pains of the Civil Rights movement, and detailing the struggle even in our own Presbyterian Church for the Ordination of Women. He always spoke of love for his people through these struggles, understanding that when the Holy Spirit is shaking things up, it can be difficult to do things in a new way.

I heard his eloquent words explaining the gift of understanding God in light of science, and remembered countless times when he was able to lift out encouraging scriptures, phrases from great theologians, and quotes from our beautiful Book of Confessions to help explain why we do things, and how we, as a people of God, have come to read and understand scripture.

And through all of it, of course his words echoed with love.

Of course! He’s still teaching!

Of course this encouraging old saint, with that glint in his eyes (that got Bud in trouble when it was time for the church to be built) and that warm and welcoming smile, was beaming as it all became clear: through all the years of his teaching and leading and counseling and encouraging, the one thing that was consistent through every age and struggle was LOVE.  Even when we look at scripture critically; even when we study and doubt and challenge the word of God, it is difficult to distill this message down to anything more than how Jesus summed it all up:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Jesus continues:

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another” (selections from John 15, NRSV).

The Rev. Dr. Bob Bielenberg was most certainly a friend of God. He lived out Jesus’ commandment through his immense love for Donna and his family, for his love and devotion to congregations across the globe, through bridging relationships with strangers in every place he traveled.

I received a gift from Donna when I returned from my recent travels to Greece. I found a stack of Bob’s sermons, with his notes scribbled in the margins and the dates on the tops of the scripts for when he had preached them. And I recognized that now, even in his death, Bob is still teaching us. So we will bear witness to the Resurrection today by sharing Bob’s words on this very subject – the resurrection, and why, despite all the little things we can quibble over about scripture and our religion, the one things we count as necessary for faith is to proclaim and live into the resurrection of Jesus.  So I leave you this morning with his own words, culled from several sermons stretching from as early as 1960 to 2016:

God has broken into human life and interrupted it in an unexpected but a glorious way. The Resurrection was the proof of it. . . That which makes life meaningful and exciting is that God constantly breaks in upon human life in his own way, which is not our way.

The important fact of the Resurrection is not that we will live forever but that God lives, and that he has not forsaken us, nor will he ever forsake us. It is of this certainty that Paul spoke in his letter to the romans:

“I am convinced,” Paul said, “That neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This is our certainty; and it is greater than the sum total of all our doubts.

Friends, Bob’s conclusion here is why we can be so assured of our task for today, which is – amidst our doubts and fears and sense of grief and loss – we are here to bear witness to the Resurrection. May it be true in our every word, thought, and deed, and may we bear this to the world in love.

Peace in Christ,

Rev. Paula