“An experienced psychotherapist told me that a great deal of his work has to do with the quality of the ‘community’ that clients carry around inside them.”
David F. Ford
A dear friend recently reminded me of David Ford’s gem of a book, The Shape of Living: Spiritual Directions for Everyday Life. On the back cover, Nicholas Wolterstorff describes it beautifully: “[This book’s] spirituality is profound and reflective, yet always concrete, and never dishonest or evasive; it uses not only Scripture but literature with creative facility. Simple, yet rich. A jewel of the spiritual life in its everyday manifestations. I want to savor it with repeated readings.”
Ford traces the “multiple overwhelmings” in our lives — the forces that shake us and shape us, those with the power to wound or crush and those that are life-giving and transformative. At stake in reckoning with such tumult is the whole of our lives and our living. “How,” he asks, “in the midst of all our overwhelmings, are our lives shaped?”
Early on Ford suggests that it is helpful to think of a person as a sort of community, as one whose heart (“that dimension of our self where memory, feeling, imagination, and thinking come together”) is filled with “the faces and voices of those before whom we live.” Some in your community and mine are so much a part of our identity that they are of a piece with our own thinking and feeling. Others are a challenge, even a burden. They may be voices of discouragement or shame; they may be the faces of bereavement, estrangement, or fear.
This “community of the heart” is its own kind of overwhelming — the good and the bad, the welcome and the feared not always easily distinguishable in their deluging effects. But the life-giving faces and voices constitute our deepest mutual relationships: those few people who have “said yes to being overwhelmed by us,” whose membership in our heart’s community is born of a covenant of trust and gratitude and hope.
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Every year on the Sunday after Pentecost worshiping communities take up the doctrine of the Trinity. Inferred in Scripture rather than explicitly stated, God’s three-in-one nature poses significant challenges homiletically, liturgically. Children’s sermons on the subject often go the way of the object lesson, with shamrock show-and-tells and instructions about the three states of H2O. And adults, understandably confused by the fuzzy math of trinitarian theology and the dearth of discussion about it the rest of the year, often hang on every word.
But a better way is to remind worshipers that the doctrine of the Trinity is meant not only to tell us the truth about God but to invite us to live that truth — a truth revealed not in abstract theory but in the flesh and blood, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As Rowan Williams puts it:
Nothing is known of God the Trinity that does not come through the Word incarnate . . . Jesus is what we see in history of an infinite identity and reality, God the Word, the One who is next to the Father’s heart.
In Sunday’s gospel lesson, when Jesus invites Nicodemus to be born from above, he overwhelms him with the hospitality of God’s own heart. The learned Nicodemus is not asked to solve a puzzle (“How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”) but to have his life shaped by the overwhelming mystery of a divine love that, as the passage’s most famous verse puts it, has been poured out on all creation: “For God so loved the world . . . . “
Jesus’ life and teaching would embody that love, would scandalize the world by it, and here, early in John’s gospel, the overwhelming of Nicodemus by an incomprehensible love is also his undoing — “the overturning of his certainty” — so that he (and we) might die to self and self-righteousness and be born anew to the truth of God’s eternal life and love, here and now.
The good news of the gospel is that in the communities of our own hearts we can glimpse every day — not just on Trinity Sunday — something of God’s own inner life. In those life-giving, transformative encounters with people whose love and generosity overwhelm us, whose goodness overtakes us, we participate in — partially, fleetingly — the divine perichoresis that makes all of creation possible. Our own hearts become places of hospitality as God’s overwhelming love shapes us and reshapes us and shapes us again, expanding our capacity, enlarging our willingness to offer in return that same love, generosity, and goodness.
As the poet Micheal O’ Siadhail says with his own overwhelming beauty:
Gratutious, beyond our fathom, both binding and freeing,
this love re-invades us, shifts the boundaries of our being.