The Trinity is not a puzzle to be explained. It is a model that enables us to talk about our experience of God. We might view the model as God above me, God beside me, God within me. And obviously those are not literal statements. We have chosen the spatial dimensions of ordinary geometry to give us metaphors for three aspects of our faith.
Many people feel like orphaned children in a scary world. If they can run to God as parent, they feel safe, loved, comforted. "I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother." (Psalm 131:2) Faith is knowing it is safe to play and explore our world. Faith then grows by learning the language of childlike faith. At first we can only cry and scream, but slowly we pick up the proper words to ask for help, define our needs, express the directions of our longings.
We were of course hearing expressions of love from the first day in our parents' arms, but understanding what they had in mind took many months of language learning. Parents were limited to a few words, and looks, and hugs, and kisses, but Trinitarian faith is discovering that God the Father above us is speaking the language of love through every one of our senses in hundreds of different ways every day.
People also talk to God as a friend beside them. We can say things to a friend which we might not share with our parents. We can trust a true friend not to condemn us. We can admit our frailties, faults, besetting sins, and even the gross betrayals which no one else could forgive. Then as we know we are still loved and accepted we have the confidence to open up the more awful hurts of our heart.
With a friend we can express praise and worship. "Look at that sun setting and those ducks moving across the sky." We can discuss with our friends questions of right and wrong, art and musical appreciation, a movie, how we feel about losing our job and people accusing us unfairly.
The word advent means coming to be with. A friend comes to you, visits you, walks with you, calls you on the telephone, which is why the Bible is full of advent language. The first advent was when the Son of God wanted to come and walk as a friend beside Adam and Eve, and they were embarrassed. We can assume he came to walk with many others in every nation of the world.
Some of his personal friends are described in the Old Testament. As he struggled to lead a rabble of slaves to their promised land Moses apparently drew aside from the day's business to be renewed by the friendship of the God beside him. "Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend." (Exodus 33:11)
The Gospels describe how for a brief thirty years the Son of God, Emmanuel (God with us), came and lived physically among us as Jesus, the friend of the ordinary people of that day. So a Trinitarian faith assumes that the God who kept coming as friend beside Adam and Eve, Abraham and Moses, Peter, James and John, Mary Magdalene, and Martha and Mary of Bethany, still wants to come alongside us and be our friend. "I have called you friends." (John 15:15)
Any kind of deep friendship among humans needs conversation. But, like learning the language of our parents, cultivating the words needed for friendship takes time. In our modern world most of us are too busy, and there are few churches able to teach us the skill of intimate conversation with the Son of God. The only way to begin is to talk to Him as we would talk to a new friend.
At first we wonder if he hears us. Then like listening a to a foreigner with another language we are not clear if we are catching what he is saying. We shouldn't let this worry us. If the God beside us really wants our friendship surely he can help us understand. He only needs an indication of our interest in hearing what he has in mind.
This emphasis on conversation with God is very different from the current interest in monistic meditation. Monism views God as something to merge with. The less conversation the better. In Hindu monism personality is an enemy to be escaped. Salvation is only when the rain drop, which has had an independent existence, merges and is lost for ever in the ocean.
In original Buddhism nirvana is the eradication of our desires which would seem to be the end of any kind of personal relationship with God and with others. In total contrast Trinitarian piety delights in sharing every desire and longing and heart feeling with each of the three persons of a very personal God.
The experience of God as Spirit giving illumination and inspiration in the deepest recesses of our being has also been common among ordinary people in every country of the world. It was an important part of North American Indian religion.
The judges of the Old Testament were very imperfect men and women who were empowered by the Holy Spirit to free their people from oppression. (Judges 3:10, 6:34, 11:29, 13:25, 14:6). The Old Testament prophets were historians, but they were not content to list battles and dates of kings. By the Spirit they struggled to grasp the moral implications of the political process.
Throughout human history many of the great artists and composers have admitted that they needed the inbreathing of inspiration to move then from being clods into creative work. The Greeks quaintly pictured the Holy Spirit as a bevy of gorgeous women, one Muse for each of the creative arts. Without their inspiration no truly great sculpture, epic or love poetry, tragedy or comedy, sacred song or dancing, or even creative history or astronomy were possible.
In the New Testament we discover that the Holy Spirit is not just interested in the arts. The Spirit is willing to inspire us in different ways for all the most typically human activities. Paul speaks of love and joy and peace and other fruits of inspiration. He even claims that without the Spirit he would be miserably incapable of functioning as a Christian. (Galatians 5:22-23, Romans 7:14-8:6) If that is true, learning the language of inspiration must be part of a Trinitarian piety. "Holy Spirit of God I feel dead and lifeless. My creative energy has dried up. I don't know how to proceed. I need your inspiration."
Having made these distinctions, it is easy to see that many more people than we imagine have spoken to God as parent, to God as friend, and to God as source of inspiration. Most of the time they would have cried out without even knowing what they were saying. In the first few months of infancy little children do not have names to distinguish parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, visitors and baby sitters. If someone listens and picks them up and feeds and comforts them that is sufficient. Similarly with God there can be a rudimentary faith without the words to express it.
Faith then begins to take shape when we begin to use the language of praise and thanksgiving. We praise the Father for the beautiful world around. We thank the Son for his forgiveness and friendship. We recognize the source of the strength and inspiration we have received.
But having used metaphors to speak of God as parent above us, God as friend beside us, and God as Spirit within us, we should not worry in case we address the wrong person. In Old Testament Hebrew the word ruakh used for the Holy Spirit or Wind or breath of God is feminine. The Holy Spirit isn't going to say we have got the wrong number if we address our prayer for inspiration to the Father or to God the Son. Each of the three persons can interpret the heart longings of any person in any language in any part of the world.
So if someone ignorantly addresses the Father as the Virgin Mary, or one of the saints, or any other name people might use for God, the Father isn't going to say "get lost, stupid, you have got my name wrong." Parents and grandparents can cope with all the strange names children use to address them.
A good model in the sciences has heuristic value, which means that by using it we will find unexpected insight and directions for new research. Our model of Trinitarian faith opens up for us all sorts of directions for spiritual growth. It also leads us into a richer concept of the meaning of the oneness that unites the three aspects, or rather persons, of our spiritual experience.
The first word for God in the Bible is Elohim, which is a plural. "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness." (Genesis 1:26) The plurality is important. Together they created us to be like them. We are still limited in our space time world, but already we find that in some sense we are in their image. We can enter into conversation with them and distinguish the persons.
That suggests that the oneness of God is not a mathematical unit. Nor is it a single object like a lump of metal or an impersonal force. Nor is it a patriarchal hierarchy of authority. Rather we picture it as the loving oneness of a perfect family. The three persons are as distinct as a father, a mother, and a child in a human family. But the difference is that in God there is an eternal distinction of functions, and the persons are held together by a force which is infinitely more powerful than the force that unites every atom of our universe.
Next we read in the New Testament that the oneness of God is defined as a oneness of loving. "God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them." (1 John 4:16) We also discover that those three eternal persons united by that awesome love have the intention and power to invite us into their family as children of God.
Soon we discover that love inevitably means we have to count the cost of loving. There are many strands of teaching, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, about sacrifice. We know from experience that anyone who loves gets hurt. Parents are hurt by their children, lovers hurt one another, and it is always dangerous to love neighbours in trouble and enemies who encounter us.
When they made us in their image the three persons of the Trinity knew that humans would fight and kick, curse and blaspheme, deny that they were loved, and treat their brothers and sisters abominably. But from the beginning they took the calculated risk that all caring parents have to take. Their love had already settled that however much they were hurt they would absorb and forgive whatever we did to them at their own cost.
And when love does that it is called sacrifice. One way of viewing the sacrifices of the Old Testament was to call them a bribe to placate an angry God. But if God is love and is willing to love to the uttermost, then it seems much more likely that the ancient sacrifices of the Jewish people and many other peoples were meant to help men and women grasp the sacrificial love of God.
When the eternal Son of God took birth among us His life was more or less uneventful for thirty years. When He was baptized the Father spoke to Him and the Spirit came upon Him. And immediately He felt the need to retire to the wilderness for forty days to face the implications of sacrificial service. Satan tempted Him every which way to take an easier less painful route. Those who love most and to the uttermost tend to get crucified, and that was the way of the cross that Jesus chose.
Some people think that the whole cost of our salvation was paid in three brief hours on the first Good Friday. It seem simpler to say that the Father and Son and Holy Spirit from the beginning of their relationship with us inevitably experienced the sacrificial cost of loving.
The Lamb had been slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8 KJV and NRSV margin), but on the cross the cost of His eternal loving was made starkly visible to the whole world. And to this day in every one of our lives the Father is hurt by our behaviour and still keeps loving us, the Son absorbs our sin and forgives us, and the Spirit feels our stubborn refusal to allow him into our hearts.
Finally, having grasped the sacrifice of any kind of loving, we can then see how Paul says "I want to know Christ and the sharing of his sufferings." He can even claim "I have been crucified with Christ." (Philippians 3:10, Galatians 2:20). That suggests how we too can take up the cross of loving our family, our neighbors, other members of our church, and even our enemies.
At first we resent the painful cost of loving, but there comes a strange confidence when we realize it is all right to be hurt in the same way as God is hurt in loving us. The crown of Trinitarian faith then becomes the habit of expecting and even welcoming the costly joy of sacrifice. It is such people who turn the world upside down.