Interstate Reflections on a Relational God
The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield
Somewhere East of Santa Fe and before Amarillo, the car fell into a quiet lull — the girls in the back occupied with reading and coloring books, the on again off again DVD player; Emily beside me writing in her journal. I drove, watching the roadside, noting the birds among the sagebrush. My mind wandered, rambling across the landscape so strange and beautiful and sparse to my Mid-South imagination.
In these quiet moments on the road I can become philosophical. And since I’d been thinking about the Trinity, trying to write a sermon for this strange Sunday, my mind turned there. In Santa Fe we’d visited our friends’ Eastern Orthodox Church. It was an alien service for my West formed worship, but there was something beautiful about the space—a dome of icons, images everywhere reminding us of the Incarnation and our lives caught up in the mystical reality of God.
It was the Eastern Church that helped give us the Trinity. Their early theologians, animated by the contemplative imagination, saw the whole cosmos drawn into a communion of being. To be, for them, was to be relational. And this relationality both reflected who God is and the call of any human life. As the Orthodox poet Scott Cairns puts it, “Since our trope of the Trinity figures God as a relational being, it follows that the Image-bearing human person is also necessarily a relational being, so much so that for the Orthodox—as for all Christians, back in the day—an individual is not the same thing as a person; genuine personhood stipulates the communion of one with another.”
Out the window, billboards flickered, marring the views of mesas and mountains. I thought of the Southwestern writer Edward Abbey’s character in The Monkey Wrench Gang, Doc Sarvis, who carries a chainsaw in his trunk so that he can cut down billboards at night. No Doc Sarvis had been around recently so I was forced to read the messages. There was one with the image of an unhappy child and a slogan that read: “New Mexico, No. 1 in Nuclear Weapons, Dead Last in Child Welfare.” Another called for an end to domestic violence with a 1-800 number for those threatened by it. Then for several miles we we saw billboards of a woman with a finger to her lips in a hush, inviting us to the adult superstore off an exit by a truck stop.
If we are called to be relational beings, image bearers of the Trinitarian life, we are doing a poor job. Our challenge, perhaps the fundamental challenge of every aspect of human life, is that of right relationship. If we cannot rightly relate to God, one another, and the whole of creation then we are doomed.
What do we do about our broken personhood? Our misplaced love? How is it that we can live into that ancient call of both Torah and Jesus, to love God and neighbor?
Maybe it was a question like this one that led Nicodemus to visit Jesus one night, under the cover of darkness, hoping no one would see. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs a whole new life, a conversion from the compromised religion of which he was an official. But Nicodemus had lost his imagination for renewal. He misunderstood Jesus’ call for a new life of relationship with God and neighbor; the change of heart and life so radical it was like being born again. What Nicodemus needed, Jesus tells him, is the Spirit and no temple can contain it.
It is the Spirit, the wild and breath-giving reality of God, that moves in us and around us—drawing us into the conspiracy of God’s reign. It is the Spirit, as Paul writes to the Romans, that joins us to the family of God. It is by the Spirit’s life that we find ourselves alongside Jesus, our brother and our model. Jesus is that person of God who, as the Egyptian bishop Athanasius put it, “became human so that humans can become God.” We are called to be heirs with him, joined by the spirit of adoption—that’s the glory we’re called to, even in our groaning world.
We enter Texas, spotting pronghorns here and there as sage brush gives way to grass. Huge windmills spread across the horizon, spinning generators to make the power for our device dependent world. West of Amarillo the wind brings with it the stench of manure and urine, assaulting us even behind sealed doors. We soon see the source, thousands of Black Angus steers crowded into pens, mired in the muck of their own waste. “That is a feedlot,” I tell my daughters. “That is what our world does to animals so that we can have cheap beef.” Down the road, here and there, we see cattle spread out, grazing on lush grass. A better way, a more humane choice.
Humane—again its that question of right relationship. Somehow in our language we’ve held on to this idea that to be fully human is to be merciful and kind, to live in communion rather than exploitation. The rupture with that call is painful, down to our being. In Romans 8, in the same long reflection from which our Epistle reading today is taken, Paul writes that “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” Creation is waiting, in other words, for humans to be human again.
We pass under a bridge and spray painted across the steel beams in sloppy large letters is John 3:16. The graffiti joins with a wide array of roadside religion we’ve passed. Crosses in pastures topped with American flags, huge replica tablets of the ten commandments. I always find it strange how people choose to express their faith along highways. I suppose those who spray paint John 3:16 on overpasses do so because they see its message as one that will “save” people through the incantation of some sinner’s prayer. But as I think about John 3:16, passing feedlots and windmills, adult store ads and the ugly clusters of fast food restaurants, I hear a salvation that is something more.
“For God so loved the world,” the verse begins. It’s agape love here, the kind of sacrificial love that is willing to put everything on the line for the sake of another. And yet there is also a tone of desire in this love. God wants us, God wants to be in union with us, and so God is willing to even enter our broken world, our suffering lives.
For this reason, God who lives in the communion of the Trinity, came in the person of the Son to show us how we too can be human bearers of God’s light and love. And God moved again in person of the Spirit, the Holy Breath, empowering us with the life to live that love—joining us to the Father’s family, joining us to one another, drawing us into the membership of all creation.
We took a detour South of Amarillo to look at a canyon cut by a river, revealing the colored ribbons of strata beneath the surface of the Earth. We descended into the canyon, hiking along the river, where the girls had a mud fight as a storm brewed on the horizon. On our way back to the interstate, we spotted a rainbow as the sky was split between gray and blue, and Western Meadowlarks sang from the barbed wire. We pulled over to see the rainbow and soon after a man in a truck stopped to make sure we were alright. We were, for in this one moment that included the beauty of light and rain, the neighborliness of checking in, the gift of life connected, we felt the communion to which we are called, the life of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
By the time we entered Arkansas the next day, I hadn’t made much progress in understanding the Trinity. But with the rambles of my roadside reflections, I felt as though somehow, I’d entered into its truth. I’d seen brokenness and I’d seen beauty, and I understood that all of it is being joined into God’s life, all of it is being healed and made whole in the communion of God’s love. And we too are called to join in that healing just as we are called to participate in that communion. The challenge for us is to quiet down enough to live into relationship with the God who makes all relationship possible. It takes time, it takes silence, it takes attention and defenseless waiting. But we can do it for we were made for it, we were made to live in connection. And God, who is communion and all love sent the Son to show us the way of that connection and the Spirit to empower us for relationship. Our call is follow in that way, live in that Spirit, so that we may join in the ecstatic life of the one we bow before and say, Holy, Holy, Holy.