Where we cannot understand, we can only experience

The Roman Catholic priest Richard Rohr writes this about the Trinity: “Trinity leads us into the world of mystery and humility where we cannot understand, we can only experience”  “Where we cannot understand, we can only experience.”

But how exactly do we experience Trinity?  For me it has been in experiencing God’s love flowing through people who choose to live with “hearts burning with love,” which Saint Thérèse of Lisieux wrote is the true vocation of every Christian.  But that isn’t where my experience began; what I first learned about God had very little, if anything, to do with love.

I grew up in Colorado Springs, CO home of Focus on the Family, founded by a man named James Dobson, a branch of the Christian Coalition started by Pat Robertson and a conservative evangelical mega-church named, the New Life Church, pastored by a man named Ted Haggard.  If you don’t know of these organizations or these men, then you can bask in the blessed joy of being Canadian; you all don’t seem to have so many Christian fundamentalists as we do in the US.  To give you an idea of their thinking, Pat Robertson is famous for idealizing Saudi Arabia, where, as he explains it, husbands still have the God-given right to beat their wives when they deserve it.

Here is what I learned from them about God. God made women as lesser beings who need to be controlled by the men in their lives. God really enjoys reigning down fiery judgment on people, and God lives in the most exclusive country club imaginable, a place called heaven where everyone should want to go but very few will be admitted.  Jesus came to save us from our desirous, messy, material bodies and his primary concern is our sexual purity.  And they were God’s righteous ones through whom the Holy Spirit spoke so that they might help non-conforming misfits and queers like myself by enlightening us to the fact that we were headed straight for hell unless we became more like them.  I didn’t believe what they taught, but sadly they left me fairly convinced that Christians were by-and-large, a rather judgmental, hateful, spite-filled bunch.  The God they proclaimed may have been Trinitarian, but it was a Trinitarian God who was one-dimensional and rather mean. The God they described was not a God capable of innovation and complexity, but a God who established unchangeable categories and rigid laws, a God whose only delight was in orderliness and punishment.   Surprisingly, despite it all, I always felt deep in my heart a strong pull to Jesus. Eventually I found my home in the Episcopal Church and I did what a lot of misfits and punks and queers did, I moved to San Francisco.

After a few years there I found myself working at San Francisco General Hospital, which is famous because it was the first hospital that had a dedicated unit to care for people with AIDS.  It is there that I really experienced the Triune God.  Despite the fact that in North America, HIV/AIDS has mostly become a treatable chronic illness, the experience of the AIDs epidemic continues to have a profound effect on that hospital and still influences the way hospital staff relate to, care for and learn from their patients.

And here is what happened on that 1st AIDS unit, people learned what it was to have absolutely nothing to offer but tenderness and compassion, they overcame fear with love, and they refused to give up hope.  Doctors and nurses and other medical specialists who were used to having pills to prescribe and treatments to offer found themselves offering an old, but to them, a new kind of medicine: sitting on patient’s beds, smoothing back hair from emaciated foreheads, holding patient’s hands and whispering, I love you, I won’t forget you, I promise we’ll keep fighting.   Fairly soon the usual rules of hospital units were renounced as being inhumane, and the unit became known as the “ward without walls.”  Instead of strict visiting hours and insistence that only blood relatives could visit, patients themselves decided who would visit, when, and for how long.  Patients themselves decided who would be with them when they died.  Grass roots services born in San Francisco’s large gay community began bringing love in all forms, from counseling, to Sunday brunch, to drag shows with show tunes, to slippers and robes and expensive hand creams, because as one man who volunteered on the unit said, “no gay man in his right mind would let someone see him dressed in one of those hospital gowns.”  It was campy, and it was chaotic and it was warm and tender, and sometimes achingly sad and sometimes filled with laughter. One survivor of the epidemic said of the gay community’s involvement: “people thought we only knew how to have a good time, but we showed them and ourselves that we knew how to love friends and strangers fiercely, even when it seemed the whole world was against us.”

The organization I later came to work for, Sojourn Chaplaincy, was begun in 1982; it’s initial mission was “to bring the love of God in the form of a non-judgmental presence to people dying of AIDS”.  One of the chaplaincy volunteers who was there in those early years said this to me,  “I didn’t know before then that something could be terrible and beautiful at the same time; I didn’t know until then what it was to be in awe of love.”  “I don’t mean this as an offense,” she said “but I’m not really a church person – churches seem to mostly care about maintaining their own power,” “but I remember thinking to myself “this must be what God wants church to be like.”  To this day, the hospital’s core identity is in serving outsiders and outcasts with love and respect.  I witnessed staff care lovingly and respectfully for people struggling with addiction, and people weighed down by poverty, guys who returned again and again with infections from intravenous drug use, young pregnant women who showed up at the emergency room in labor and high on drugs, the chronically psychotic who circled in out again and again, and the large population of people who having no home to go to, simply lived in the hospital during the day, using the public bathrooms, scrounging food in the cafeteria, and sleeping in the hospital chapel, which we welcomed them into.  For a long time the wall bore a sign that said “Welcome.  May you find peace here.  Please respect everyone’s right to safety and quiet – no drugs, no booze, no yelling, thank you . Bless you.”   A gentleman who often rested on one of the pews in the chapel used to knock on my door when he noticed someone in distress, “chaplain Elizabeth, there’s a woman crying, maybe she needs you,” he would say. We never had enough resources, we were under constant strain from being continually in the presence of tragedies we could not fix or undo or control, but there was love, always there was love.

In my experience, loving is not neat and orderly – neither God’s love for us nor our love of God and one another.   It is messy and raw and heartbreaking and beautiful and hopeful and sometimes bloody.

In San Francisco in a span of around 15 years in the 80’s and 90’s, close to 20,000 people died of AIDS, primarily, though not exclusively, young gay men in their 20s and 30s. In the early years of the epidemic there were calls to quarantine those with HIV, to force them to wear an identifying patch on their clothing, to have them forcibly tattooed, and even to have all gay men be restricted to certain areas.

Loving was not just being present to the dying, loving meant fighting the government and many religious leaders who initially ignored the AIDS epidemic or worse rejoiced in it saying “it is what those queers deserve.”   We have effective pharmaceutical treatments today not because the powers that be did what needed to be done, not because people quietly waited in line to be treated like human beings, not because they politely asked for the pharmaceutical companies and the government to make AIDS research a priority.   But because the gay community broke through police lines to converge on the US Federal Drug Administration and drape it with banners reading “Silence = Death”, because they chained themselves together in the hallways of pharmaceutical companies and refused to leave, and because the lovers and parents and friends of those who died, marched to the white house with the ashes of their loved ones and dumped them on the front lawn while screaming through their tears “we are bringing the dead to your door until you act.  We are bringing the dead to your door until you act.”

This is what I thought of when I read Paul’s words to the Church in Rome, “. . . we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  Paul is not writing about just any suffering, he is writing about suffering for the sake of the gospel, suffering for the sake of love.

Here is the Triune God I have begun to glimpse through experience, most especially my experience at San Francisco General.  I believe in the Creator God, the Father and Mother of us all, who made humankind in the divine image, and who delights in the evolution of humankind to be born in so many diverse shapes and sizes and colors and genders and sexualities, and with so many different gifts for bringing God’s love more fully into this world.  I believe in the Creator God who blesses the fruitfulness of human curiosity and imagination.  I believe in the Creator God who for joy made a great variety of animals, some of them delightfully grotesque, and some of them beautifully ethereal, a creeping, crawling, sprinting, swimming, leaping crowd of beings.  I believe in Jesus, the begotten One, God in human flesh, who ate with outcasts and sinners, who healed not just men, but women and girls.  I believe in Jesus who redeems us when we fail in love.  I believe in Jesus who in the end gave up almost everything, even his dignity, even the clothes off his back, I believe in Jesus who kept only one thing, a heart burning with love and forgiveness.  I believe in the Holy Spirit who has and is breathing  the ongoing revelation of Divine love into the world in new and surprising ways.  I believe in the Holy Spirit who empowers us to love even when it hurts, even when it requires that we take off our masks and be fully seen.  I believe in the Holy Spirit, who is wisdom, standing at the Crossroads, at the City gates, in the center of the public square, calling us to account when we choose security and comfort over justice and love.

Listen, is there some part of you that you think God cannot possibly embrace?  Some difference, some weakness, some frailty, some unattractiveness that you feel you must hide?  God Created you in love and loves you as you are, just as you are.

Listen, is there some way you’ve missed the mark, failed in love, withheld forgiveness, clung to resentment, have you done some wrong you think cannot be forgiven?  Is there some shame you bear that has you hiding in the darkness?  You can lay it on Jesus, I promise you, he will forgive you, he will anoint you and remind you of your holiness; he will set you free.

Listen, are you fearful of the future?  Do you wonder where in the world God’s Spirit might be?  Does hopelessness sometimes get the better of you?  Listen, the Holy Spirit is still speaking.  Sometimes in a whisper, sometimes with a shout, sometimes politely, and sometimes with a fiery anger.  The Holy Spirit is drawing us out of our comfortable seats to be a church without walls, to be a church that has given up everything except a heart burning with love.

I’m sure that the gentleman I mentioned at the beginning would say I’m sinful and mistaken and that I’ve abandoned Christian values. But here’s the thing, it’s my experience that loving and being loved by this Triune God, the One who embraces the murkiness and the muckiness and the pleasure and the sorrow and the confusing blurred edges of life, is so much more demanding than focusing our lives on trying to be pure enough to get into heaven.

I’m far from perfect. I can be a self-righteous pain in the rear which is probably obvious from this sermon, I can never seem to keep on top of everything I’m supposed to be doing or do it as well as I would like, I am not always polite, and I’m more than a little suspect of all institutions, including the Church which I have given my life to.   But if this Trinity, this God of many loves is big enough to embrace me, than this God is big enough to embrace you too.  But, let us not deceive ourselves, when we give ourselves to this God, we will be called into a love that demands nearly everything we have to give.   May God, Creative Love, Rescuing Love and Indwelling, all-pervading Love surround us and transform us and empower us to live with hearts burning with love and strengthen us in the hope that never disappoints.

Rev. Elizabeth Welch

May 22nd 2016, Trinity Sunday


  1. Reply
    Randy Hicks says:

    Dear Elizabeth,
    My sister, Julie Masoian, forwarded this on to me. Julie is and was a friend of your mother’s when growing up. I was three years ahead of them in school and was gay. I thought the only gay person in the world. I have also been HIV since 1989. I am one of the lucky ones. I am crying now. Your wonderful sermon reminded me of what it was like. I did not live in San Francisco then. I moved here in 1995. I was in West Hollywood and so the times were different. There was not the concentration of death and dying. I am not certain I could have stood those days in this city I love so much. But I still I lost the most important people of my life at that time. And now at age 73 I am opening up my heart and trying to undo some old scars and feeling more alive than I have felt in a long time.
    I am so glad my sister sent this on to me. It took awhile for me to read it but thank you for what you said.
    Randy Hicks

  2. Reply
    Daniel F von Kanel says:

    Wonderful sermon, right on. Greetings from St. George the martyr Cadboro Bay, Victoria. Looking forward to hearing such blessings being preached every Sunday, God willing. My wife and I will pray for your family for a safe journey and arrival in Victoria.
    Yours in Christ,
    Daniel von Kanel

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