I can still remember coming in from school, walking home from Crieve Hall Elementary, stepping through the back door to see that a remarkable transformation had occurred since that morning. In our back den, the hub and hive of all things in our family, all the furniture had been moved out, and replaced by a great wooden frame—a couple of saw horses and long side beams that must have been five or six feet long. White fabric ws stretched across the frame, a sandwich, really—one layer of linen, and another, separated by a padding of cotton—it was a quilting rack, of course.
I can still remember the way my pulse would quicken because if there was a quilting rack set up in the den, that meant my grandmother’s sisters were there too. Memie, that was my grandmother, she lived to be 104 and a week; her older sister was Nanny, my favorite, elegant and funny; and Cokie, the youngest, who looked and acted the oldest, sour expression, grunting with her every step. Cokie—we sometimes called her Pokey because she moved so slowly—she made the best jam cakes in the history of the world.
You ever had a jam cake? Blackberry jam. And it would come out of the oven and she would put some kind of sugary icing on it and there was nothing pokey about the way we went for our forks and dug in, sometimes without even slicing it first. Just ate it whole right off the cake plate. Nanny and Memie tried to duplicate the recipe. Mom tried to duplicate the recipe. Cokie gave them the recipe—she said—but it was never the same. The sisters and nieces think Cokie held out on them, for some reason, did not include a crucial ingredient or something, took the secret to her grave.
Whatever intrigue characterized the kitchen, there was none of that at the quilting rack. And I loved to watch them, all three of them, sitting here or there, stitching a while, intricate and delicate and amazing hand work, sometimes talking amongst themselves, sometimes silent except for Cokie’s grunting, and then one of them, or two of them, or all three as if on cue would move their chairs to start working somewhere else. I could never tell exactly what they were doing, of course, and sometimes it looked like they were stitching in the same places over and over again. Day after day I would come in from school to find them at their work, check their progress, and for the longest time it looked like random stuff, haphazard patterns.
But there came a day, there always came a day, when I would come in after school and see that it all made sense, that it all worked, that the random and the haphazard were not that at all but were part of a plan and design that my elementary-age eyes simply could not recognize.
Theirs was a craft beyond me. They knew what they were doing. I was only watching. They crafted a quilt that would keep me warm on a cold winter’s night, and into that quilt they poured their years of experience and skill and love… sometimes when they were working they would poke themselves with a needle, and on one or two of those quilts, if you know where to look, you can still see the tiniest trace of blood, evidence of their love and work. And then, the work would be finished and the quilt rack put away till next time—if there was one. They worked on each quilt as if it were their last one, and then they went home and I would miss them till the next time when I would see the quilt rack and smell the jam cake and know that something wondrous was going on.
Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost, is when we Christians proclaim the fullness of God, the inner life, the inner relationship of God, as it has gradually been revealed to us: Father, Son, Holy Spirit: eternally one and eternally distinct, one God in three persons, three ways of knowing and experiencing the One eternal God.
It is a mystery, this doctrine of ours: and a mystery, as Augustine said it, a true mystery, is something that one cannot know unless it is revealed to you, and even after you know it, after it is revealed to you, you cannot explain it.
The Trinity—Father, Son, Holy Spirit—is a mystery to us in just that way, but it is revealed to us through Creation, through Salvation, through abiding presence.
In the beginning, when there was nothing but darkness and chaos and void, God spoke, said “Let there be light,” and there was light.
Only later did we realize that the Word by which God created the world was the eternal Word, the Word that would become flesh and dwell among us. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God; all things were created by that Word and apart from that Word nothing was made that has been made. That Word came among us, full of grace and truth, took on our flesh, lived our life, died our death, sanctified all our beginnings and endings. Before every birth: God. After every death: God. In every life and moment: God(Credo, William Sloane Coffin).
Only later did we realize that in creation, as the Word was being spoken, God’s Spirit was moving on the face of the deep, that God’s Spirit came upon the prophets that they might proclaim God’s will, that God’s spirit came upon a virgin who conceived and bore a Son who was the Word made flesh.
Our elementary eyes have only gradually come to see what God has been doing all along, Only gradually have our eyes come to see WHO God has been all along.
I can’t explain it, I can only point to it. I can tell you the story of my grandmother and her two sisters, and it is not a perfect analogy by any means, but it pleases me—it pleases me--to think of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, each of them and all of them together fussing over our world, working here and there, sewing, stitching, unstitching, hurting themselves now and then so that if we know where to look we see the blood stains that prove their once and future love.
There is a cake in the oven, too, and no ingredients are missing and soon enough all of us will dig in and wolf-down that delicious eternal confection, but until then we get up and we go to work and we go to school and we come home again to see that there seems to be something going on but we cannot quite yet tell what it is… just a random pattern, it seems, a haphazard attention, but One Day we will see that they knew what they were doing all along.
I cannot explain it; all the explanations are inadequate and even idolatrous: water, ice, steam; apple, peel, core; father, husband, brother. None of that is helpful, not very. But we know it. We can feel it—which is to say that when it is explained to us it rings eternally true: there is more going on in the world than we can domesticate; there is more to God than we can ever imagine or manage; there is more to God’s way in the world than we can see or understand or recognize right now, our eyes being as young and inexperienced as they are. Day by day we see just little parts of it.
But day by day they keep working. Here, there. Sometimes silently, sometimes not. And soon, one day soon, there will be a world that will keep us all warm and fed and blessed and at peace. They know what they are doing; I believe that. They are crafting something wondrous, pouring their years of experience and skill and love into the world, for us.
Leslie Newbigin tells of visiting the Fountain Abbey, ruined home to the Cistercian or White Monks, and how there was this placque in the chancel noting that the Monks offered silent praise and adoration, instead of sermons, on Trinity Sunday, “owing to the difficulty of the topic.”
And yes, in one way, it is difficult. Very difficult. A mystery.
n another way, though, as Eugene Peterson says, it is the most practical doctrine of all, and the simplest: the doctrine of the Trinity, this gradually revealed awareness of the fullness of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, tell us that there is always more of God than we know, always more of God than we can explain, always more of God than we can show. Trinity says God is not in a box, is bigger than we imagine, is more powerful than we sometimes want to believe or remember.
Do you remember the text from Isaiah 6? How, in the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw God high and lifted up, and the hem of God's robe filling the Temple? Do you remember Isaiah's reaction?
The German philosopher Goethe said that when we humans are overmatched—as Isaiah was in the Temple—when we are faced with and experience a reality that is clearly superior to us, our only defense is love. Love of God is worship.
The truth of the Trinity leaves us with one option: to worship. To look and celebrate. To smell the cake and sing. To know we are in over our heads, and that is a good thing.
The Trinity reminds us that God is not at our disposal, we are at God's. That “God” is not a word we tack onto the end of our speeches, but rather the Word who grafts us into God's purposes. That God is moving even now on the face of the chaos and war, the hunger and homelessness, the confusion and hatred—even now stitching and restitching sense and light and purpose into the fabric of our world.
I hope that there are times you have known you were in over your head. That this God we worship is no trifling reality, but Lord of the Universe, blessed be he. I hope that you have been worried about God's anger, amazed by God's grace, befuddled by God's abiding presence (and seeming absence), humbled by God's might. If you have, you know something of the Trinity.
Before every birth: God. After every death: God. In every life and moment: God. You can’t explain it, it is a mystery; but you can look around, point to it: even now the furniture is being rearranged and there is a smell of feasting in the air.
God’s making something wonderful, something lasting, just for us.