Does God Take Swimming Lessons?

Does God take swimming lessons? Between my experiences of parenting and interacting with our Preschoolers, these are the kind of deep philosophical questions I find myself facing recently. This particular one came about in a way that bears repeating.

I was coming back to the church from a late lunch when I spied one of our Preschool parents leaving the playground with her daughter. When the little girl saw me, she pointed at me and said, “Look, Mom! There’s God!” A few days later, I figured out what had led to this distressing confusion. As her class prepared to enter the sanctuary for chapel, her teacher said, “OK, boys and girls. We are about to go into God’s house, so we need to be quiet.” So they entered “God’s house” to see…me. Wearing a guitar. Logical conclusion, right?

About a week later, I ran into the same family as I was leaving the Y. The mother later told me that, after I left, her daughter had run to the door. “What are you doing?” mom asked.

“I’m looking for God,” she replied, and then added thoughtfully, “Do you think he takes swimming lessons?”

Most ministers have a story like this; I guess I just didn’t expect to encounter this for another ten or fifteen years. My own image of God is shaped by childhood pastors. Harry Fifield baptized me, and he seemed so old to me that he must’ve born the same year as God. Paul Eckl confirmed me, and even though he was much younger than Harry, he had that mellifluous preacher baritone that sang with divine resonance. But I never would’ve envisioned God as a red-headed forty-something with a guitar.

How do you see God? What is it that shapes that image of God in your mind? Is there a Biblical story that gives you insight into God’s character and paints a picture for you? Is it the parable of the prodigal son, where God becomes the father who runs to welcome the wayward child home? Is it the story of the lost coin, where God is the woman who sweeps the house frantically looking for the precious item she has lost? Is it the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, where God is portrayed as vengeful, judgmental, even brutal? Or is it the image of a dying Jesus on the cross, a God willing to die for the sake of a world that somehow never saw fit to return that love? How do you see God?

Today is the one day a year that we set aside as Trinity Sunday. The whole idea of the Trinity, of a single God whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is one that arose in the earliest centuries of the church as Christians struggled to make sense of confusing Biblical imagery. Our two texts this morning touch on some of that confusion. The Creator God is divine; but so is Jesus, who is somehow both God and God’s son at the same time. And the Spirit is thrown in the mix, too, as the divine breath in Creation, the descending dove in Jesus’ baptism, and as the advocate whom the Father sends after Jesus’ resurrection. So God is three, and yet, God is one. We come up with ways to wrap our minds around this concept, like ice, water, and steam, in which one chemical compound can take three very different forms.

At the end of the day, though, I think the essence of the Trinity is this: the God we worship is a God whom we can never perfectly grasp – at least, not in the here and now. And yet, there is this paradox that God breaks into the world, giving us glimpses of perfection, moments where we begin to get a sense of what God might be up to. Each of us experiences this differently. For me, the moment almost always comes in the form of surprise, when I see something I thought I knew well and discovering that there was something lingering under the surface the whole time, an unexpected grace that jumps out and grabs me. For all I know, it could be that God does take swimming lessons, and that walking on water was just a convenient way to work around a subpar backstroke.

You see, that’s the astonishment for me in the exchanges with that Preschooler: I know myself well. I know my strengths and I know my faults. How in the world could someone ever think that I am Godly? And yet, that’s just it: the glimpses of God we get rarely come in the form of a Monty Pythonesque, sky-opening, British-accented proclamation. Instead, they come through the most mundane of interactions with the most imperfect of people. Each of us bears God’s imprint. That’s what it means to be created in the image of God. And when the light hits us just right, we reflect that image onto a world – and often when we least expect that this is what we are doing.

Have you ever had a friend thank you for advice you offered years ago as part of a conversation that you don’t remember at all? Or has someone ever marveled at you for doing something so ordinary that you’re shocked that it merited any kind of notice? Or has a colleague looked at you in wonder, saying, “How did you do that?” in a way that reminded you of your unique gifts? Each of these, in some way, is a reminder of how God works through us, and how we are rarely aware that such a miracle is even possible.

We Christians can be some pretty nervy folk. We have the temerity to suggest that God can work through us, and that the church can be a vessel for God’s actions in the world. But when we’re doing it right, we know that it’s not the individual who ought to be touted; we know that it’s not the institution’s accomplishments that we should celebrate. Instead, we know that it’s God working through, and usually in spite of, us.

Friends, I think this is what Trinity Sunday has to offer us: God does not exist in a vacuum. God is not alone. Whether it’s the presence of Jesus giving us a thorough example of God’s desires, or a Spirit sent to uphold, encourage, and challenge us, the God that we Christians worship and serve is a God who must exist in community. In isolation, God makes no sense – because the essence of God is a being that is not for its own sake, but for the sake of others. And when the church reflects that image on the world, that is when we become most fully engaged with God’s activities.

We love and serve the poor not because it makes us feel good, or because we think it will help us earn our way into heaven. And we love and serve the poor not only because Jesus tells us to, but because it is so ingrained in our beings that if we didn’t do so, we would be cutting off an authentic part of our own selves. We extend the hand of invitation to others no matter what they are like not because we see every visitor as a potential donor who can help us with our budgetary challenges, but because we ourselves have experienced that welcome and know what a gift it is. And we give of ourselves in our time and talents and treasure not because we fear the death of our beloved institution, but because we don’t understand why you would want to hoard these things in the first place. We share because it has been etched on our souls to do so!

What does God look like to you? Does it need to be stretched beyond the bounds of understanding? Do you need to be moved from your place of comfort to get a glimpse of something new, challenging, exciting, and life-giving? My prayer today, for each of us, is that it would be so.