God's Three-Ring Circus

When I was down in Tennessee recently, I attended the Otey Memorial Parish Church, an Episcopalian church in Sewanee, and there I heard a truly wonderful sermon by Rev. Francis X. Walter. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect at a church down south. I haven’t been an Episcopalian for all that long (only five years), and I’m still feeling my way around the landscape. I became an Episcopalian because for some time I had felt the resonance of Christian symbolism and felt an obligation to investigate. It was a highly inconvenient sensation, as I’ve written about in another blog.

Still, after five years I sometimes wonder what on earth I’m doing as a member of any church, since the truth is that I rarely feel a sense of something holy in the services themselves. Oh, I like the sermons well enough, and the people are lovely, but truly, I feel closer to The Ineffable sitting by the North Atlantic on a deserted beach in Newfoundland than in the nave on a Sunday morning. Still… as Princeton scholar Elaine Pagels (who is also a member of my church) once said, I keep going because, “in the symbols of Christianity I sense the glimmer and possibility of spirit.”

The embarrassing truth, however, is that when I hear the words “Christian” and “Tennessee” put together I fear the sort of thing President Jimmy Carter crashed into with the Baptist Southern Convention. However, as so frequently happens when I let my prejudices get the better of me, what I heard in the Otley church proved me happily wrong.

The occasion of my attendance was the celebration of the Trinity, and a very difficult concept that is. Fr. Walter very kindly gave me a copy of his sermon so that I might quote from it directly, so, since I couldn’t say it better myself — here goes. He begins with a discussion of doctrine:

“By creating doctrine, those Christians then — and we today — are trying to make sense of the experience of God by the first three generations of Christians — those who wrote the New Testament. They experienced the one God in three ways, ways they simply could not deny. Their record in the New Testament doesn’t get metaphysical about God, but records experiences and conclusions about God, letting the chips fall where they may. Let others pick the chips up later and arrange them into doctrine.

An example — The Gospels tell the story of Jesus stilling the stormy waters of the Sea of Galilee. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus commands the sea, “Quiet now! Be calm!” Mark tells us the disciples in the boat with him were, “overcome with awe and said to one another, ‘who can this be? Even the winds and the sea obey him.’ Now, every pious Jew hearing this story would know that behind this simple tale was an old, old story, first of a creator God conquering in battle the demonic waters of chaos to make a world. Genesis reshapes the story: God creates; he banishes darkness and the formless waters of chaos, inserting the habitable world in between the upper and lower waters – now docile. No fighting! God speaks and it is so. We don’t tell the story of Jesus stilling the waters in the Nicene Creed, but the story is telling us the disciples saw God in their fully human rabbi. “

Father Walter went on to talk about the ways we experience “The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit” and began by telling us that “The Mother” or “The Parent” is just as acceptable. He said that when we use Father/Mother we are experiencing God in prayer, thought and action as a loving parent. He told the following story:

My friend, Billy, met a Roman Catholic priest making a long retreat at a Benedictine monastery. The priest was making his way back from some horrible loss of faith. He told Billy he could only pray one prayer but that it was enough. The one prayer was the word: “Father.”

I get that. That, too, has been one of the ways in which I experience the Ineffable, as a Presence – caring, guiding, supportive.

He then went on to talk about the Holy Spirit — that essence of change, that Big Wind that comes in and blows everything topsy-turvy in our lives. I recall how my First Nations friends talk about The Trickster, Nanabush… crashing into our ordered days and shaking everything up. Fr. Walter said:

“Individually and as a church we are always adapting to change. The Holy Spirit can make for a messy, unpredictable and driven life, but where would we and the world be without such lives?”
And then he talked about St. Francis of Assisi, who, it is said, in the church of San Damiano one day, seemed to hear Christ saying to him, “Francis, repair my falling house.” He took the words literally, and sold a bale of silk from his father’s warehouse to pay for repairs to the church of San Damiano. His father, a textile merchant, was outraged, and there was a public confrontation at which his father disinherited and disowned him, and he in turn renounced his father’s wealth — one account says that he not only handed his father his purse, but also took off his expensive clothes, laid them at his father’s feet, and walked away naked. That’s the experience of the Holy Spirit. Whammo! Fr. Walter said we turn to The Spirit when we need to find a new way forward.

And then, of course, for Christians, there’s Christ, The Son. Concerning this way of experiencing God, Fr. Walter said it is here we experience God-in-the-other, those in need, the hungry, the suffering, the lonely, the frightened, in our neighbors, our relatives, friends, in those closest to us and the stranger both. “Jesus,” he said, “ever draws us out of ourselves toward Him in other.”

And, perhaps my favorite moment of the sermon was the closing:

“Reminds me of the old Barnum and Bailey Three Ring Circus. You can only pay attention to one ring at a time, yet you are aware of the activity of all three.

Lovely. God’s Three Ring Circus.

It’s true that sometimes I question whether or not I should stay a member of a church, any church, but when I hear something like this, something that gives me one of those glimpses into the possibility of spirit, I think, oh, just one more day… and like so many other things in my life, I’ve learned it’s best to take it one day at a time.

Thanks very much, Fr. Walter. Well done. You can read another of Fr. Walter’s excellent sermons, “Working on the Meaning of the Sacred in Relationships,” this one for the Southeast Integrity conference, 1999, here.


  1. red-handed on July 30, 2009 at 9:54 am

    Well, you can always say that about the church — it spins gold out of thin air, and then makes us marvel at the vanishing strands. The illusion of impossible riches that one only needs to believe in … who can't make poetry out of that?

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