Journey Post 34: Completing the Trinity—Reflections on stepping out from behind the door
“Donkey” is my African name. It’s a good Manjak (Senegal) family name—spelled differently but sounding much the same as this English word. “I knew it all the time, Walt…. It fits!” Okay, okay, but don’t laugh too much. The son of the village chief gave me his family name to signify that the Manjak welcomed our becoming part of their people; we wanted to live with them and learn their language and their ways and tell them about God.
Getting the name was an unexpected honor. Yet, the irony was not lost on me—a sort of private joke between me and God—a Christian missionary, slow to learn, stubborn, proud.
That was thirty-six years ago … but the name still fits. I own it. It’s a reminder of who I am and my need to listen to God, I mean: really. If you know the story of how I became a Christian, you may recall that I speak of my time in Vietnam and my appointment with a mortar round on June 10, 1969 as a 2×4 upside the head from God—a precursor to getting the Donkey name…. Up to that day, I had assumed I was a Christian. I had gone to church most of my life, but now, I didn’t know what I believed….
It took two years from the day that mortar round exploded right next to me until I discovered that the resurrection of Jesus had actually occurred in history. That changed everything. I knew, then, that it was all true: God is there (here), the Bible was his word, Jesus was God’s Son—not some cosmic Santa Claus; his teaching was more than good philosophy, and something called the “Holy Spirit”—or “Holy Ghost”—operated in the world, so that I was now saved, born again … or some such thing.
If you’ve read some of my blog posts, you’ll know that I like to refer to being adopted, though I was born and raised by my natural parents. I am a son of my Father; I am adopted. That’s how Paul referred to God making believers a part of his family—a son, a co-heir with Jesus. I learned that shortly after I became a believer. I knew that Jesus gave himself for my sin on the cross. But somehow, God in heaven had some kind of dark side in my thinking. He was distant, watching every step I made. He just couldn’t be very pleased. He took care of me and would take me to heaven one day—where I’d sit in the back with all the screw-ups and the children who never quite measured up to his expectations.
Jesus had said that eternal life was “knowing God.” I figured that “knowing” must be a synonym for being saved, a sort of transaction where, in return for believing in Jesus, God promised me heaven.
From 1971 until 2007, that was my operating or functional assumption (theology). I’d often puzzled over a statement by A.W. Tozer: “What comes to mind when you think of God is the most important thing about you.” I began to see that truth when two different friends told me how they viewed God.
One told me how his life and jobs kept falling apart: “Walt, I’m convinced that God is out to get me.” Another friend, who had been a closeted homosexual, related to me his view of God and his all-seeing eye that never smiled: both friends had fathers who were displeased or distant. Another 2×4: this time, times two. God, what are you trying to tell me? I was seeing a familiar pattern: my dad was distant, I was uncertain of his love, and he died when I was thirteen. My life since had been spent on a performance treadmill, always looking over my shoulder for the smile of ___, but my paltry efforts to please him surely brought disappointment. Now I felt like I was playing church with people’s lives. I cried out: “Lord, what do you really think of me? I have to know!” In a moment, a verse came to mind from Proverbs, chapter three: “My son, despise not the discipline of the Lord.” Now I was reading: “for whom the Lord loves he disciplines, as a father the son in whom he delights.” “Lord, you delight in me?” I was dumbfounded.
It was like being born again—again. I was getting to know God as my Father and his father heart. Delight? In me? Yes! Seeing his heart took nothing from his righteousness, or holiness, or majesty—it magnified it. It was like my dad was President of the United States, and I was John-John playing under his desk. You’ve seen those pictures, right? Have you seen/read Ben-Hur? A Jewish slave saves a Roman general, who makes him his son and heir. It’s a picture of our adoption. I have today a totally different view of God my Father—he’s the one Jesus taught his followers to call “Abba, Father,” (an intimate term similar to Papa or Daddy). Remember the Lord’s Prayer? To call God “Father” was radical. New light, huh? “Father” is not a title but a relationship.
Above: JFK and John-John (JFK Jr.) Below: The slave, Judah Ben-Hur, soon to be adopted son of Quintus Arrius
I am a son of my Father. That is my identity, who I am. And he told me something that my soul had longed to hear from my earthly dad before he died, but never did. My Father said, in a way similar to what he announced to the world about Jesus: “This is my beloved son; and I delight in him.” He loves my soul.
So, now I know Jesus the Son, my savior, who self-sacrificially gave himself for my sin. I know my Father, who self-sacrificially gave his Son in order to secure a relationship with me. And now … what do I say of the Spirit? I think I have all the correct “doctrine” concerning him. But these last days have been, perhaps, another 2×4 upside the head of the Donkey—this time, with a 2×4 made of nerf board.
Michelle and I spent a week in a Colorado retreat center a couple weeks ago. I was wrestling with several things: the implications of God being “relational,” (I’m more social than genuinely relational. My still present instinct is to fear letting you into my real life, to let you know me, to peer out from behind the door until I know it is safe to stand in front of it). We were thinking about the Trinity and the relationship of love that exists in that divine community, knowing that, somehow, Christians share in that—but it doesn’t always seem real. What does it mean to truly listen to the Spirit? How can I hear his direction, how can I help others who want to draw near to God do the same? I can’t really tell you what last week was all about, but, it will come out, as the witch said to Dorothy, “All in good time, my little pretty … all in good time.”
I didn’t hear anything “new” during the week, and yet everything was new: one of those uncomfortable paradigm shifts. We weren’t seeking some method for generating or conjuring up a mystical Spirit. No one controls God.
My doctrine of the Holy Spirit is very orthodox. But there is something very much not real about my relationship with God the Spirit. I don’t have far to look for reasons behind this. My Father is teaching me to be honestly relational, starting with Michelle and a few others. But most of my Christian involvement has been with churches peering from behind the door at the Spirit, churches I’ve heard characterized as holding to a “new evangelical Trinity” of Father, Son, and Holy Scripture. God certainly speaks through his book—but he is not the book.
God promised Israel that he would send his Spirit to live in their hearts (the New Covenant, or New Testament). In sending this Spirit, he would write his law in their hearts. Jesus further elaborated when he spoke of a divine “comforter” or “counselor” (Greek paraclete) who had been “with” believers and now would be “in” them as well. It was he, the Spirit, who would empower us, ensure our fellowship and communion with the godhead, remind us who and whose we are, testifying with our own spirit that God is our “Abba, Father” that we might show God to the world.
A “close encounter” in Vietnam brought me to know that Jesus was real, not a crock. Recognizing my evil view of God brought me to know the delighted love of my Father, not some intellectual construct (i.e., a crock). Now, again, he has awakened my heart to find reality, to courageously pursue him where I’ve been afraid to, not inside the door but in community, to understand and live out the kind of deep genuine relationship I’ve missed in my human relationships. Not to hear voices in the head, but to actually live by faith.