On Trinity Sunday in June 2007, I went to a little church that met in a photographer’s studio above a coffee shop in a historic business district near Duke University in Durham, N.C. We sat around a circle, on couches or big cushy chairs, and a pro musician, Wade Baynham, who had built a regional following on the West Coast with his band The Basics before moving to Durham, led us in singing music from Over the Rhine and U2–songs seeking spiritual meaning in everyday human experiences.
I’d met Wade while working on a freelance story for The News & Observer in Raleigh about another local musician, “Randy” who had played on Letterman and Leno and toured Europe with an extremely successful Christian crossover band before an angry split in Nashville and his new career teaching drum lessons and preschool in Durham. I’d hung out with the two of them while Randy recorded drums for a client’s record in Wade’s home studio. Between Wade and Randy and this tiny fellowship, I’d hoped to find the real friendship I thought might save my terminally-ill marriage.
In our counseling sessions, I had seen how my wife’s need to be taken care of and my need to take care had whisked us into a toxic soup. She couldn’t help but whine, nag and sigh about all the disappointments of her life. I couldn’t help but try to fix them. She couldn’t help but be disappointed in my fixes, because what was broken was inside of her. I couldn’t help but sink into depression, a failure. She couldn’t help but pile on more complaints. I couldn’t help but explode in rage, once every couple of months or so, screaming about her humble suggestion that salt would help the water boil faster.
The answer, of course, was for her to deal with her shit and for me to deal with mine. So what if she believed in the death penalty? So what if she didn’t like compact-fluorescent lightbulbs or want to live in a Christian commune? Maybe we just spent money differently. Maybe we just thought differently about what God wanted from us — how we were supposed to treat others and the environment, what value we put on material things versus people. Maybe I’d become just another liberal fundamentalist, and she had every right to feel judged, as she said she did, by what I left unsaid.
“God’s very being is a being that’s in relationship with himself, you know, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, eternally in relationship with himself,” said Trigger, a skater-theologian, bald-headed and baggy-pantsed, one of several Duke Divinity School students at Emmaus Way.
Pastor Tim had prompted us to reflect on the Trinity.
“It’s just interesting that there’s this otherness, in a sense, within God, and it’s kind of like the way that we relate to each other in a body,” Trigger went on. “It’s engaging with the other, it’s like the Trinity itself can be a model for church relationships, human sexual relationships, all sorts of other types of relationships can be understood in a Trinitarian way of thinking.”
Eternally in relationship, yes. But how had I missed that “otherness” aspect of the Trinity and how it served as a model for marriage?
“The Trinity is difference and intimate unity,” Tim said. “The best way to get some really bad theology is to grab one of those two but not the other. Unity often means, ‘We’ll do it my way, and we’ll feel good about it.'”
“Preach it, brother.”
I didn’t really say that. Emergents don’t say that sort of thing. But I could have. Tim hit me square between the eyes.
“Unity and difference radically changes a whole philosophy of partnership,” Tim said. “Our whole philosophy should be that of embracing difference, letting different be different, and in some way fashioning intimacies in that difference.”
Yes. Yes. How had I missed that back on my wedding day? Yes, Tim said, paraphrasing C.S. Lewis, God does invite us into the Triune life, but we have limits.
“We can’t do that as human beings,” he said. “I can’t say that my life is intimately in your life. I can’t say that, because I’m not divine. We are not a Trinity. We don’t relate in the way God does.”
That Trinity Sunday was a turning point in my life, when I started to admit that I would never see the perfect image of God in myself or anyone else. I would see it only through a glass darkly. And once you admit that, you can start to give and receive grace. That is, once you stop chasing the image of God, you might find it’s not that far away.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician living in Durham, N.C.. This column is adapted from his memoir, This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World, Cascade Books, 2013. He’s releasing a series of excerpts like this one, paired with songs that help to narrate his journey with God. SALT readers can use discount code LIGHT to purchase the book at 40 percent off.