This Sunday is Trinity Sunday. It’s also around this time of year that many churches end their church school programs, and kids come and sit with their parents in the pews. Which means that the first sermon they hear of the summer will, quite possibly, consist of obtuse theological wool-gathering. Anytime anyone starts talking about the Trinity as if they were reciting from one of the books we read in seminary, my eyes glaze over – and I’m a paid professional. Imagine how hard it is, then, for a nine year old to grasp what the Trinity is and to bring herself to care.
Because of this, a good Trinity Sunday sermon is all about metaphor. I’ve been incredibly fortunate this week that two of my favorite podcasts, Radiolab and Bullseye with Jesse Thorn have more or less handed the metaphors to me. The most recent Radiolab starts with a story about Isaac Newton. Isaac Newton was a student at Cambridge when the Great Plague broke out in 1665, and he, along with the other students and Cambridge dons, fled to the countryside. He went home to his parents’ house in Woolsthorpe and began discovering answers to many of the great scientific questions of his time. One of the questions he considered was the question of where color comes from, whether it actually exists in the outside world or whether things just appear colored because of processes in our eyes and minds. He stuck a knife into his eye, trying to stimulate the optic nerve and see whether it would spontaneously produce color. That didn’t work, so he got a prism, pulled the blinds shut in the room, poked a hole in one of them to let in a single beam of white light, and then watched it split into a rainbow as it passed through the prism’s glass. Now, people already knew that light would do this, but they assumed that it did so because there was some flaw in the glass itself – that white light became a band of colored light when it went through the prism in the same way that white light becomes colored when it flows through stained glass. To test this idea, Newton got another prism and held it in the blue area of the rainbow, expecting the blue to split into more colors. It didn’t. He was left to conclude that white light itself consists of many colors.
This caused some controversy, because at the time people believed that white light was the purest, most heavenly thing that one could find on this earth. They believed that white light was a gift from God, that it was holy. And I still think that it is a gift from God, that it is Holy. But I also believe that the nature of God is to be many things in one. When we say “God,” we imagine one person, just as we imagine one thing when we say “white light.” But white light actually consists of many colors, all bundled along and carried in the same beam, all separate and distinct when that light shoots through a prism. In the same way, God actually consists of three persons, all bundled along and carried by grace, all separate and distinct when that grace enters the prism of our lives.
So there is my metaphor for how God can be three persons in one. But it doesn’t tell us that much about the nature of God. Is God the Father stern, and God the Son friendly, and God the Holy Spirit wispy? We know God three ways, and sometimes the prism splits God so that the Son looks a little more intense, has more importance for us, and sometimes it’s the Holy Spirit, and sometimes it’s the Father. Maybe we know God the Son best when we’re caught up in the joy and travails of our communities, and maybe we know God the Father best when we go off on our own to pray, like Jesus often did, and maybe we know God the Holy Spirit best when we’re struggling over some unresolvable problem and just need a push to help us make up our minds. To our minds, the persons of the trinity do have slightly different personalities. But the three persons of the Trinity also share a basic nature. All three persons of the Trinity are all about love. And all three persons of the Trinity know how to surrender. They have to. People have to surrender to each other if they want to prioritize love.
Which leads me to the other podcast I heard this week, Bullseye with Jesse Thorn. Jesse recently interviewed R.A. Dickey, who at the age of 38 is the only current knuckle ball pitcher in the major leagues. Dickey had a hard early life. His parents were in their late teens when he was born, and their marriage fell apart. He was sexually abused when he was eight years old, an experience that left him with no sense of trust in the world and the belief that he had to do everything for himself. He escaped from the chaos of his childhood into the order of sports. He was a very good pitcher, and the quality that set him apart was that he was a fighter, willing to work and struggle harder than anyone else. High school found him living with his father, whom he fought with most of the time. Because of this, he would frequently break into abandoned houses and sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag. He says that he very lonely at that time when he was at home, and he broke into the houses because “at least there it was a loneliness of my choosing – I could at least control that, I could control where I slept.”
He became a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes because he was looking for a sense of peace. “I always felt like I was running from something,” he said, and faith was a place where he could catch his breath. In college, he played on the U.S olympic team, and in his junior year he was picked in the first round draft to pitch for the Texas Rangers. They offered him an $800,000 a year contract. But when he showed up to take his physical, it was discovered that he was missing an ulnar collateral ligament, the ligament in your arm that keeps your elbow from popping out of joint. No one could figure out how he could throw a baseball at all, and the Rangers reduced his contract and took him only reluctantly.
He spent most of his twenties in the minor leagues. These were hard times. He was married and had a family, and he earned less than ten thousand dollars a year from playing baseball. His wife, who had been valedictorian of her class, worked retail to support the family. There were many times when Dickey wanted to give up – it was too hard to balance his responsibility to his family with his dream. But his wife wouldn’t let him quit. And all this time he was angry, still trying to control everything. He made it to the major leagues several times, but didn’t distinguish himself. As he neared thirty, it was obvious to him and everyone else that he didn’t have what it took to be a major league pitcher. But he had a great pitching coach in Oral Hershiser, and the luck to play for Buck Showalter, and Hershiser and Showalter noticed that he had a good knuckle ball that could become a real threat if he took the time to develop it. In 2005 he headed back down to the minors to work on perfecting that knuckle ball.
His marriage was falling apart at the time. He and his wife were living separately. As he describes it, he didn’t have the ability to let go of fighting and get to peace. But he sought help, from friends and from professionals. He worked on his knuckle ball and his own soul simultaneously.
The knuckle ball is a weird, spooky pitch. The pitcher digs his first two fingers into the seam of the ball and throws it slower than he would throw other pitches. He’s trying to take the spin off of the baseball. But the ball wants to spin – its seams try to right themselves as it travels through the air, but fail due to wind resistance and the humidity in the air. Because of that, the ball travels all over the place. Knuckle ballers throw many more wild pitches than anyone else. But they’re also extremely hard to hit, because neither the batter nor the pitcher can really predict where the ball is going to go. To throw a knuckle ball is to surrender control. A knuckle ball can’t be controlled – it’s a butterfly, not a bullet.
As he perfected his knuckle ball, Dickey also learned how to surrender control over his life. “There’s a lot of elements in my life that I really worked hard to control, and once I learned how to surrender, more peace started to come,” he said. And by doing this, he was living as a trinitarian Christian. God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are always surrendering to each other, always trusting each other. That’s how we have to live, too. We have to give up our own control over situations or people, so that they may come into their own and have their own life. This is something that every parent struggles with. It’s also something that every member of a church struggles with. Letting go. Letting someone else take charge. Choosing to prioritize someone else’s ideas over one’s own. But we have a model for doing this. God is our model, who, as the Son, surrendered so much that he died for us, as the Father, surrendered to Abraham’s pleading, and as the Holy Spirit surrenders by flowing into us but never trying to control us, only speaking to us as a still, small voice. Because it’s only through surrender that we can truly love, fully and selflessly. And it’s only through surrendering that we can truly be loved, because the one thing that we truly have to surrender to is grace, that beam of white light that can divide within us to show us the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.