“Tina, how many gods do we worship?”
I was recently asked this question, in utter sincerity, by a bright 13-year-old in my youth group.
This young lady has been an Episcopalian since toddlerhood. She’s grown up right here in our church, attending Sunday School and Youth Group. She serves as an acolyte.
Dismayed, my initial reaction was less than graceful. “One!” I blurted. Then took a breath and followed with, “Why do you ask?”
“My friend said we worship three gods, because we say ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’”
How to explain the Trinity to a bright-but-still-concrete young teen. Without committing heresy. I know clergy who take vacation days to avoid preaching on Trinity Sunday. I’ve watched ordained adults play ‘rock, paper, scissors,’ with the loser giving the homily on Trinity Sunday. If they’re so reluctant to tackle the sacred mystery of the Holy Three-in-One, who was I to take it on unprepared?
I’ve approached the Trinity with children before, tentatively. Once a lovely grandmother showed me how to cut a mobius strip just right to create 3 interconnected rings: three rings, all attached but perceptible, from one piece of paper. I repeated that craft perfectly, once, while practicing alone, and never got it right again. I kept ending up with two interconnected rings, the third falling away, severed from the original paper. I never used it with kids.
Many Christians like the clover analogy often attributed to St Patrick. A clover is one plant; its three distinct leaves can represent the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being separate yet all a part of something larger than itself. Unfortunately, it’s actually ‘partialism,’ one of several Trinitarian heresies, because it makes each of the persons of the Trinity only part God, able to become fully God only when they’re all together.
Standing there with this youth who needed an answer from me, I remembered my favorite thing about my life as a teacher, a parent, and a Family Minister; I don’t have to know all the answers!
Finally, shooting off a quick prayer for guidance and forgiveness, I told my young friend what I understand, and what I don’t.
I think the Trinity is all about God’s infinite ability to meet us – each of us, all the time – exactly where we are, with divine understanding that we aren’t always in the same place. Our emotional needs change, not just from childhood to adulthood, but in a constant ebb and flow as life challenges and upholds us. God made us, and by God we are well loved. God’s perfect knowledge and care of us includes knowing that we require more than a single image or manifestation of God’s divine presence in our lives.
Sometimes, I need God, the Father. I need that ideal parent who loves me no matter what, who believes in my ability to be who He asks me to be, and who stands with and behind me as I walk the journey of this life. Like a good parent, God lets me make mistakes and is there for me when I regret and learn and move on from them. Young children tend to believe their parents are all-knowing and all-powerful, and they feel a sense of safety in that belief. As adults, we know different – yet our parents are often still the people we call when we need sympathy, unconditional support, and encouragement. Part of our humanity is a deep need to be lovingly parented.
Other times, I need God, the Redeemer. The Christ who was born and grew and lived a fully human life, even in his divinity, and died in pain and sorrow and suffering. Who got angry when people failed to understand how to love God and love each other. Who needed the soothing comfort of that expensive oil before going to his brutal condemnation and death. I need Christ’s humanity to remind me that my own is sacred.
Often, for me, the ethereal divinity of the Holy Spirit is the most visceral impression of God’s presence. I can feel the Holy Spirit around us when we raise our voices together in prayer and hymn. In meditative prayer I feel and see soothing light: God coming to me as Holy Spirit. In meetings I pray for the Holy Spirit to come amongst the group gathered and inspire us to be the people God calls us to be, and do the work God calls us to do.
So there’s my answer, such as it is. There is one God. That God created us and knows us, and thus comes to us as a Trinity, allowing us to meet God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – wherever we are in the moment.
(For more on Trinitarian heresies, check out this great video from Ryan Gerlach.)
How do you ponder the mystery of the Trinity?
In junior school, during RE class, I once asked the question: “Miss, what is the Trinity?”. Once the look of horror had lifted from my teachers face she dismissed me by saying “you’ll understand it when you’re dead”. Not the answer an enquiring young mind was looking for. 55 years on I’ve yet to hear or read an explanation of the Trinity that makes sense.
Amongst other books, I have read ‘The Forgotten Trinity” by James White, but remain unconvinced that acceptance of or belief in the confusing doctrine of the trinity is essential for Salvation.
Scripture simply states: If you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Rom 10:9
Now that makes sense.
This is the heresy of modalism
Cox Ferrall says
Huh? How so? And, perhaps, why?
This blog was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I’ve found something that helped me.
Hillary Nobuoka says
I was pondering this question of how to communicate the Trinity to children when we had our Sunday School lesson on the Ascension. God the Son was returning to God the Father, so that God the Holy Spirit could come and dwell among us.
For our group, explaining Christ as the fully human fully Divine Son of God is not so difficult, as each of the regulars in our class has a parent who is Japanese and a parent from a different background. While the common and non-derogatory term in Japan for children of such a background is “ha-fu,” (from “half”) my children are fully aware that they are both completely Japanese with a Japanese passport, and completely American, with an American passport, there is no mixing or division, each being one whole person. We sometimes say that there are 5 Japanese and 5 Americans in our family of 6, my husband and I being the only ones with a single nationality.
The Trinity is somewhat harder, because we are all single beings and cannot really conceive of a a single Entity with multiple Personhood. Yet we have some familiarity with our God being of a higher order in other aspects. We have presence in a single place, while He has complete presence in all places, is omnipresent. We have a certain amount of knowledge, but He has complete knowledge, is omniscient. We have some power, but He has complete power, is omnipotent. We have some love, but He is complete love. We have some moral goodness, but He is Good, holy and without fault. We have personhood that requires other persons to have relationship, but He is complete in His Personhood, and requires no other. It is a bit like something that is two dimensional not being able to conceive of something that is 3 dimensional.
Nurya Love Parish says
This is a lovely meatphor, thank you for sharing!
God as a three-headed deity is so difficult for me to grasp, but your explanation goes a long way in illuminating the mystery of the Holy Trinity. God approaches us in love as the Father and Creator of all, the Son who lived among us and laid down His life for us, and the Holy Spirit, the essence of God’s grace that binds us all together and binds us to Him.
God is complete in each of these manifestations, and we need all three of “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” What an awesome and loving God we serve!