Ministers do it all the time.

Try to find some easy image to explain some complex truth.

It never works.

I try to encourage trainee ministers to avoid it.


It’s trite, inaccurate and patronising:

 “You know, boys and girls, God’s a bit like a lettuce! !”

Or an onion, or a tennis racquet!



No he isn’t!! He isn’t like anything….He always escapes the clutches of our definitions…

slips through our fingers

as well he should…who are we kidding…


Going back to Divinity College as I did for a period of study leave a few years ago…,

I found myself sitting in tutorials at New College

exploring the inexplicable…

speaking about the ineffable…

pitting our tiny intellects against

the mystery of a mysterious God

who created and holds everything…

Optimistic or what? Ambitious or what…?

Doomed or what…


Yet, just as the mystery and majesty of love transcends our attempts to describe it, still less contain it in language….

we go on trying….we persist with the folly…

and in poetry and symbol and idea and song…

we try oh so pathetically to gather its grandeur up

in our tiny hands…

as if we were attempting to cup an ocean….

 talk, and sing we do…

and we hope perhaps to catch a glimpse of the majestic truth….

perhaps sense a tremor of the truth..


So we also talk of God.

But we should talk in whispers.

We should allow humility to shape our attitude

And the last thing we should be is certain.

The worst thing we can be…if it’s the truth we’re after…

is be dogmatic.

As if we could ever achieve our aim

As if we could define God.

Sum up the infinity of his being in a few theological phrases….

the idea is a nonsense…


And yet for some those tentative quarter truths men have been prepared to die…

and worse…make other people …

who espouse different quarter truths…

or even different ways of speaking the same truth…

make them die…in the name of our truth!

Careless talk about God, historically, has cost lives…

brought shame…

been an embarrassment to the Church…

which dared to presume it had the right words

and only it had the right words

to describe the indescribable…

We won’t go there, will we?

A little bit of perspective here won’t go amiss!





So, let’s be clear: there are a lot of things we don’t understand.


In fact, I could say that three of the most important things in my life – the most influential factors in my life…

 I don’t really understand


I certainly don’t fully understand. 

This doesn’t stop them being profoundly significant: even though they lie out there, somewhere just beyond the reach of intellect.


First of all, I don’t understand the process of falling in love – how it all gelled and worked and became so fundamental and crucial.  I know with all my heart that it happened, and that it matters – but the convoluted dynamics of it are out with my grasp. Some tell me it’s just electrical impulses and I really had nothing to do with it….I beg to differ.

But explain it I cannot


I also don’t really understand what being called to the ministry was all about – where the conviction came from, how it grew and would not let go. How I just knew with a certainty it was a summons that had to be followed – or I would be on the wrong track, living the wrong life for me. I recall the squirming and the struggling and the final surrender – but when you ask about how the feeling grew into something about which I was so certain – yet about which I could say so little – I am at a loss to explain it –rationalise it! All I know is, it was real for me – and it made all the difference in the world to my life. I can’t analyse it under a microscope – but I can’t deny its reality either – the fact that I am here today, doing this, is evidence enough of its reality and its significance. This intangible reality changed my life…in a profound and crucial way. But understand  it…not me!



So, here is an intelligent, educated, rational person – someone who, by the way, places great store by disciplined logical thinking and coherent argument – building his whole life and happiness on two “ things” - about which he can explain very little – two decisions for which he can give hardly any fully reasoned justification – yet which seem to him – and to others looking on, to be the most reasonable things in the world.



And the third huge reality in my life – about which I can only speak in mysteries and enigmas - sighs and murmurs– is the reality of God – the God whom the church speaks of as Father Son and Holy Spirit.


I know what is meant!  

·        I honour Our Father who is in heaven. I have that picture clear in my mind…

·        I have learned to love the Son who died for me and rose again.

·        I treasure the guidance, inspiration and inconvenient prompting of the Holy Spirit who shares the journey = whose inner voice in my soul stirs emotion, firms up faith, calls to hard often inconvenient commitments…

… all these experiences of “God”– all realities encountered in some sense along the pilgrim way –

But ask me to explain it all rationally, and I’m pretty much up a gum tree.



The ancient Fathers of the Church, in all the heady optimism of their times, thought they could clarify and explain the mystery.


Tertullian of Carthage – describes the doctrine of God thus:

"We define that there are two, the Father and the Son, and three with the Holy Spirit, and this number is made by the pattern of salvation...[which] brings about unity in trinity, interrelating the three, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are three, not in dignity, but in degree, not in substance but in form, not in power but in kind. They are of one substance and power, because there is one God from whom these degrees, forms and kinds devolve in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit." (Adv. Prax. 23; PL 2.156-7).


Ok! Whatever!! Not too illuminating! Not that helpful, really…



Maybe this difficulty should not surprise us very much – given that God is God and therefore, mega beyond imaginable meganess – and we are who we are  – fallen human creatures – not able to look at the Sun still less grasp its majesty –

It might, perhaps it should, seem pretty optimistic of us to think that our formulae and creeds and statements of faith could be anything more than frantic scrabblings after truth – the most approximate approximations . 

Little us trying to describe God!  I don’t think so!

Who are we trying to kid!  A bit of humility here, please!!



But even if we talk softly - talk we must!

Just as we must acknowledge the reality of love… and talk about love – even though our best trembling poetry and most evocative songs can only hint at its sweep and wonder. 

Similarly, if we ever begin to think that our faltering religious vocabulary has any final claim on a monopoly of truth – we are most seriously lacking in a proper humility.




We are helped in some degree towards insight into the divine nature by the initiative that God takes in revealing himself to us…otherwise we might be stumbling even more chaotically in the dark! 



This is where we are – the people blessed with God’s revelation – certainly in Creation – where order and purpose are easily found and identified – and direction and development can be traced. 



But God has not left us merely to filter knowledge of his being from the raw material of a sometimes ambiguous natural world.

 Instead, remarkably and rather shockingly, through his people Israel – his tumultuous love affair with Israel – full of pain and betrayal, dashed hopes and wonderful forgiveness – through the channel of that disobedient and faithless people – God reaches into our human story to give us glimpses of his nature…to share his vision and his justice, his devotion and his demand, with us. And to demonstrate his tender love…



And, in the searing challenge of the prophets, who assure us with all the fire that burns in their hearts that they have a word from the Lord –God approaches his children with the promises and the rebukes that leave us in no doubt as to the character and nature of this God who loves his children – and abhors their sometimes shallow, selfish life-styles.



So the darkness of human search for divine light is illumined with an uncomfortable brightness as the relentless word of God comes to us through the people and the word of the Old Testament.



Until – when all else fails, God’s Son brings the final complete and ultimate revelation.

Now we know. 




What is the heart of God like? Look to the compassion of Christ! 




What is God’s attitude to hypocrisy?  See the tables crash to the ground as Jesus barges through the Temple courtyard on fire for God’s holy purposes.



What does God think of children? See Christ rebuke his disciples for presuming to turn the children away.


Now perhaps the picture is clearing – and God’s initiative is opening things up for us. We can understand more clearly the heart of God – and we begin to sense that the summons which comes from Christ… is none other than the call of God: the word of forgiveness Christ offers, is none other than the root and branch forgiveness of God – the only forgiveness that matters, that works.



And the salvation hammered out on Calvary is indeed salvation for the whole world.  God, in the dark and frightening mystery that is Calvary, wrenching salvation for the world from the defeats and failures that make up the human story.



Nor does it stop there – that self-revelation of the nature of God:  for the Spirit of God bursts upon the young church – and Jesus keeps his promise and we find it is true…

·        That, somehow – where two or three are gathered in his name – he is there in the midst.  We know how that feels in the Spirit

·        That he will be with his people, always, till the end of time. We know that he is with us…wherever we are…

·        That when they are brought before the rulers and the courts, those who follow him will be given the words to say.  We know the courage beyond our own tremblings that enable us to speak when we would left to ourselves probably keep silent…

·        That when they need courage to face certain death – he will be with them for his Spirit will be in them. That has been the experience of the church across the pages of history…






And there it is – the search in one sense is over – for the reality of God emerges through the Biblical account – the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit.

One God – Three in One.  The reality that meets us – the mystery that baffles us.




People have tried to find all sorts of illustrations to simplify that vision – always a mistake you might think – for it is all too easy to trivialise the mystery rather than actually to explain it.

But, nonetheless…



Patrick uses his shamrock illustration – each leaf perfect and special – yet all three needed to make the complete shamrock. Father Son and Holy Spirit – each truly God – each separate and yet one. Essential to a full and proper grasp of the character and nature of God.

And there’s -




The electric fire illustration – with the power -source – the light and the heat – all literally elements in the one reality. None meaningful without the others.


Or your could consider –


The liquid - ice - and steam illustration. Each is H2O of its essence – each is water of water – nothing less than water, nothing more than water– yet we encounter each as a different reality –

Which brings us back to the


The three legged stool illustration – each leg needed to allow the stool to be a stool – each leg different – yet none by itself the stool. And all needed to get balance.

Blah blah blah..



And so on and so on. But in a sense, why bother…

Why think for a minute that some trite illustration will encapsulate the reality of God…approximations that can generate distortions…and may change mystery to banality?



How do you talk about the ineffable? The ineffable… which means “that which you cannot describe or talk about?”

You can only stutter and mutter.



The majesty, complexity and divinity of God is not susceptible to our little definitions – we are mad to think otherwise.  What can the ant know about the workings of Einstein’s brain, or Shakespeare’s genius? No offence to the ant – but be serious!!



So a little bit of humility never goes amiss on Trinity Sunday.

From ministers and from congregations.



This is not to duck the issue.

We do talk about God and it is natural that we should.

And we are “on alert” to identify and dismiss talk of God that requires some kind of excruciating intellectual contortions – we stay on alert in order to detect shoddy thinking and those who would demand of us some kind of suicide of the mind.


But that does not mean that we cannot admit to the limits of our human capacities to grasp define and circumscribe God.



For let’s face it – a God we could grasp would surely be too small.




So this Trinity Sunday we gratefully accept any illustrations that might draw us closer to the heart of the mystery that is the God revealed in the Bible and discovered by the Church – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – but we never allow ourselves to be deluded into thinking that now we have him – labelled, packaged, contained. That we certainly do not have.



In his influential book

The Early Church,” Henry Chadwick…writes all about the first turbulent four centuries of the Church’s existence…




And what optimism was there among the thinkers and theologians, and with what assurance they identified how many angels could dance on the head of a pin and with what bravado, they distilled, defined and described the essence of God…confidence abounded - and there was little reserve about boldly assuming as final, their account of the characteristics and nature of God.




Nowadays, we are a little more circumspect, and rightly so…we maybe do well to content ourselves with

·        honouring our Father in heaven…

·        pledging our allegiance to his precious Son our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and

·        resting on the strength and sustaining power of the Spirit of God, blowing restless through the church, wakening up the sleepy and giving heart to the hesitant.


As far as knowing God goes, that will do for me.