It’s Trinity Sunday, which is the one Sunday in the church year that the calendar instructs us to focus on a doctrine of the Church—The Trinity, God in Three Persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit; Creator, Christ, Holy Ghost), each “person” distinct but also all coequal, coeternal, and consubstantial. It is a distinctive Christian doctrine (no other religion has anything quite like it). For that reason, perhaps, it is also sometimes confusing to people—it has certainly been fought over! And it is also beautiful, if you just let yourself take in the view that the Trinity presents to us. It’s a beautiful thing. And I think it reflects to us something true and beautiful about who we are as people created in the image and likeness of God.
We have at home a very active 20-month-old little boy, Romey, and we don’t let him watch a lot of TV, but when we do it’s often dance videos on YouTube. I’m not much of a dancer, myself, but Romey loves to dance, and we’ve got to keep him moving to burn calories and get some sleep. I don’t have to be too self-conscious about my dancing in front of a toddler, and he’s actually taught me one thing that the dance videos couldn’t teach me and that’s the key is really to just keep moving. We’ve got to keep moving.
And we see this in children: We were made to keep moving, to keep learning, to keep drawing the world into ourselves so that we can become a meaningful part of the world. Sometimes we rush through life, we overschedule ourselves, we never stop to smell the roses, and we burn ourselves out. That’s not what we’re talking about here, we’re talking about dancing—about moving toward the heart of the party, jumping in with both feet, a sort of celebratory commitment. Dancing is not about living frantically; it’s about living joyfully. We’ve got to keep moving with joy. We don’t want to get stuck without it.
There’s an old Greek word for this, perichoresis, which literally means “to dance around.” And the word was used in the early Church to describe the Trinity. You can see this picture in your head, if you try, right? God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in twirling, dancing relationship to one another. In the dance, each “person” of the Trinity is fully related to and in no way separated from the other two. It’s one dance they’re dancing. But it’s not a melting pot. It doesn’t eat up the individuality of the dance partners. Instead, the perichoresis is a living relationship between the Parent, the Christ, and the Spirit forever moving and dancing with one another, fully interconnected, yet individually intact. When take in this beautiful view of the Trinity, we see that in the very nature of God, stuckness is nowhere to be found. Joylessness is an impossibility. Dancing and jubilation and activity are at the very heart of God’s existence.
Let’s keep this view in mind as we turn to Isaiah and Nicodemus this morning. Both Isaiah and Nicodemus are at the beginning of something. And I’m interested in this because, I think, so are we. Again, right? Here we are—again—confronting a new reality—we’re now reopening our sanctuary to the public for worship on July 11 and we’re contemplating the best ways for us to do ministry in this new moment we’re now in. The question I have for us is “Where might we be stuck? And what is moving us forward with joy?” And with both Nicodemus and Isaiah we see this in their beginnings—a mixture of hesitation and recommitment.
When we begin something new, we begin from what 20th Century comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell calls “The Ordinary World.” We know what that is. It’s the world we live in when we’re not on an adventure doing something new. Isaiah was living in the ordinary world of Judah during the reign of King Uzziah. Times were difficult, and he saw no path to becoming a person who could make a difference. He was stuck. Nicodemus was a respected pharisee, teacher, and member of the Sanhedrin council who dedicated himself to a particular way of life and to keeping a particular order to the world. He was not a man of doubts. He was comfortable, assured set in his ways. Young or old, privileged or oppressed, paradise or dystopia, we all know what it feels like to start somewhere—the place we are before God speaks or before God strikes, as the case may be.
Into the everyday life of the ordinary world comes the Call. Isaiah is suddenly caught up in a vision of God almighty upon a throne. God’s voice calls out, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Nicodemus for the first time in years finds himself unable to sleep, restless, bothered—bothered by that wild rabbi, Jesus, and his teachings. He goes to see Jesus at night. He wants, I think, to settle himself down, to stop the questions and the turmoil in his heart. He wants to go back to sleep! But that’s not what Jesus offers him, instead Jesus invites him, an old man, to be born anew.
The call wasn’t easy for either Isaiah or Nicodemus. That’s because God doesn’t have to call us to do easy things or to commit ourselves to no brainers. Every call is a call to adventure and a call to loss. So much so that even tragic news can turn out to be a call. My mom’s cancer diagnosis in 2019 turned out to be the call to complete her life. And it was hard, and there was meaning and purpose in. The call is always a call into a spiritually bigger kind of life, a life in which we push at the boundaries of the Ordinary World, push our vocations, push our families, push our comfort, push our diagnoses, in which we scramble up the DNA of the Ordinary World to try to make a new world, a better world for ourselves and for others.
And that is always hard. And so before we can accept the Call, here comes what I think is the most important part of a new adventure. It’s the place where we get stuck. After the magic or excitement or horror of that initial call has worn off, we can get stuck in between the ordinary world and the world of new possibilities. Joseph Campbell calls that stuckness “The Refusal of the Call.” Refusal. Well, that sounds a little judgey, doesn’t it? Because, I mean, aren’t there sometimes outside forces—forces that we have no control over—that hold us back?
What Campbell understands is that a necessary component of answering a call is a time of doubt where, perhaps overcome by obstacles, we say NO. In other words, doubt and the acceptance of doubt are built into the very beginning of every spiritual journey.
Why do we refuse the call? Well, we start out with practical excuses. We can’t leave the farm before the harvest. We have fields and commitments, family, responsibility. The journey is too long, too difficult, too expensive, too dangerous. And when we’ve finally burned through every external excuse for not moving forward, we come down eventually to the real, fundamental, core issue: “I’m just not good enough.” Our initial doubts may be external, but our final doubts—the doubts that really must be contended with—are internal.
In a wonderful line that’s always stuck with me, Harry Potter says, “I can’t be a wizard; I’m just Harry.” Isaiah says, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Nicodemus says, “How can anyone be born again after having grown old?” I don’t have what it takes to start God’s adventure again. I’m just not good enough.
In Joseph Campbell’s writings he talks about how in the myths of the Hero’s Journey the hero is judged based upon their heroic return to the ordinary world to give back to the people what they have stolen from the gods or whatever. You’re not a hero because you receive the call. You receive the call precisely because something is lacking. God calls those who are missing something to be the ones who find what is missing.
So, the Refusal of the Call is a necessary part of the journey because after all the other excuses are cleared away, we are left standing in the presence of God, looking into the mirror and realizing, “There’s something missing!” The person who doesn’t have that experience, might think that they were chosen because they’re perfect and that they’re expected to be perfect in everything they do. The person who doesn’t have that experience might go out into the world thinking that are being called to win, when actually God is calling us to grow.
That’s how God works. She gives important work to imperfect people. Sometimes certain people realize that if they just keep messing things up, eventually people will stop asking them to do things. We’ve all known somebody like this. But our Triune God never gets stuck, she just keeps on moving. Even when we want nothing more than to be left alone, God doesn’t ever give up on us.
You are not perfect. I am not perfect. Neither is our church. No matter. A change is coming, a call to a new adventure, to the world’s next great need, and God is wondering who to send. Beloved, if there was ever a time to do things differently, if there was ever a time to let go of the things that may have been slipping away already, if there was ever a time to lean into new opportunities, events, and ministries, now is the time. The world is wounded, our neighbors are seeking, we are called, and God is dancing, dancing all around—dancing, dancing, dancing.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations