You may have heard of a book called The Shack by William P. Young. Published in 2007, there are now well over 10 million copies in print. At the time of publication it raised a lot of questions among Christians.
The book covers the story of Mack, who having lost his daughter from a camping site, receives an invitation from ‘Papa’ to visit the shack – a hut in the forest. From his limited religious background, Mack knows that Papa is God himself.
He decides to respond to the invitation and spends the weekend at the shack. What he encounters at the shack are the manifestations of the three persons of the Trinity. God the Father takes the form of an African American woman, who calls herself Elousia, or just ‘Papa’; the Son is a Middle-Eastern carpenter; and the Holy Spirit physically manifests itself as an Asian woman named Sarayu. In that encounter with the Trinity, Mack is helped to deal with “The Great Sadness” of the loss of his daughter, and to forgive the killer of his daughter. And in the process, Mack learns a few hard lessons about God, suffering, and life itself. His daughter is not brought back to life, but the Trinity restores life to Mack.
The reason the book caused some controversy was because of the way it portrayed the Trinity. In the book, on meeting the three figures, the African American woman, the Middle Eastern carpenter, and the Asian woman, there is a moment when Mack struggles to figure out which of the people are God – two women and one man and none of them white. He asks them which one of you is God. In unison they reply “I am”.
Now the truth is that many of the illustrations used to illuminate the Trinity have limits: three entwined circles, the Fleur de Lis, three fishes, or a tringle are all popular. Irish spirituality have used the three leaf shamrock, some have used the three sides of a precious stone, or three cricket stumps. All have their limitations.
What I like about the image in The Shack is that it invites us to experience God and his love, and that is the invitation of the feast of today. This is the invitation of the Trinity: to experience the Living God as one who creates us, seeks us out, who saves us, who loves us, and enlightens us.
Nearly all of our other special feast days commemorate events in the life of Jesus, or events in the early history of the church or the lives of special saints, but this day, this one peculiar day, we celebrate a doctrine: the Doctrine of the Trinity. It’s a day which strikes terror in the hearts of many clergy. Every year we face the same dilemma: how do we make the Doctrine of the Trinity understandable?
The key point to understanding the Trinity is the invitation to experience God. The Trinity is the way we experience God the mystery, in different dimensions. If we only focus on the academic of the theology of the Trinity, we risk losing sight of this mystery.
What The Shack is trying to do, is to invite us to be open to the varieties of ways we experience God. The Trinity is a model that captures the three ways God has been experienced in history, described in scripture, and interpreted through tradition. But that is never the whole experience.
So how do you experience a sense of the Holy, the presence of the Divine One? For some, they recognise God in the wonderful music of choirs and instruments, others will recognize God in the worn stone of an ancient church, or in the brilliantly-coloured shafts of light refracted through stained glass windows. Other people may encounter God in the wonders of nature—a powerfully thundering waterfall, or the ever expanding and velvety night sky twinkling and pulsing with innumerable stars. Others in the warm embrace of another or the touch of humanity in the mist of inhumanity. In all these scenarios, it is easy to become aware of our own smallness in the presence of the Creator of the Universe.
From all these examples what is clear is that we don’t actually understand a mystery. One experiences God; one appreciates God; one enters into relationship with God, but finite beings such as ourselves are incapable of understanding in infinite.
There is a deep mystery in the Holy Trinity which we cannot fully understand but must simply accept in reverence, knowing that God is at work among us at all time. The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.
There is a word in Greek that can mean either wind, breath, or spirit. In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus is making a play on words that gives some idea of the mystery working in God’s world. We know it by its effect, as we know the power of the mysterious wind and the breath which sustains our life, as sometime invisible but unquestionably real. In a meeting at night, in secret and concealed from others, Nicodemus came in fear, yet determined to learn more of the teaching that had already attracted him.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews. They emphasized being “separate” from the culture of the day, they thought of themselves as the purists, the loyalists and the traditionalists who kept the traditions of Moses alive. He may have been part of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body in Jerusalem, but to some extent he was trying his best within his understanding, of keeping Gods laws and being faithful. Struggling to understand who Jesus was, and as a political and religious leader of the day he would have had many friends who were plotting and instigating the death of Jesus – it would have been incredibly risky for him to come to see Jesus. Instead of being given an academic answer, he is invited to be born from above and given a glimpse of mystery which can be perceived if not fully understood.
God who is one and yet Father, Son and Holy Spirit has given us a faith by which to live and not a puzzle to solve. We shall never catch the wind by chasing after it, and we shall find more of God by devotion with the mystery, than by trying to sort out the details of the divine nature. What theologians have suggested about the Holy Trinity may indeed be helpful, but for most of us, it is enough to know that God is as close to us as our own breath.
This is the reality, that the God who comes to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is a God who is both free and loving. May we encounter God as the living God, as one who created us, who loves us, who seeks us out and saves us, and one who enlightens us so that we, without fear, may carry the message of the gospel and of God’s love to the ends of the earth.