Pastor Kaye's Blog

Death by Familiarity

That something is familiar seems like it should be a good thing. We’re more comfortable in familiar surroundings with familiar people. We can relax. We know what to expect. But John O’Donohue, in his book Anam Cara, suggests that maybe being familiar with something isn’t always the best thing. He asserts, “When we are familiar with something, we lose the energy, edge, and excitement of it… Familiarity enables us to tame, control, and ultimately forget the mystery.”

Sad, but I think, true.

(For the full audio version, click here.)

When I was in churches with buildings, I remember that some of the advice about making sure visitors felt welcome was to either put yourself in the place of the visitor and try to see things with new eyes. Or better yet, have someone you knew and trusted, but who had not been to your church, visit one Sunday, walk through the building and report back. You see, we got so used to seeing the same space every day or every week, that we didn’t see it anymore. Did things look worn out? We didn’t notice it. Were there outdated notices on the bulletin board? Were there piles of crap around – lost hats and mittens that had been sitting there for 6 months? We didn’t even see them anymore.

When you start a new job you notice all sorts of things that you think could be improved. You mention them, but no one else sees the problem, or the opportunity. They are fine with everything just the way it is, while you are questioning, “Why do we do this and why do we do that?” You may be able to make some changes before you succumb to the familiarity of the place. But eventually you are sucked in as you become more and more familiar with the place, and then you don’t see the need for change either. It’s like a drug that wears off the excitement and the edge.

The same thing happens with relationships. At the beginning you are excited to learn everything you can about another person. You ask lots of questions, have great conversations. But then once you become familiar, your conversations become maintenance and maybe even superficial. How’s it going? How are your kids? How’s work?

And when it comes to a partnership relationship, it can be even worse. You can get to a point where you don’t even need to talk because you believe you know how the other will respond in any given circumstance. You know their history, you’ve been with them 30-40-50 years, what is there to talk about? But the big question is: do we really know them anymore? What are they thinking? What are they worried about? Who are they at their core.

O’Donohue says we lose the wildness and mystery about the person. We’ve reduced them to what we see and what we know, believing that we know it all.

It makes sense to be that we are apt do the same thing with God.

Let me tell you how I got here.

In the Christian calendar, there is one Sunday that is designated “Trinity Sunday.” So, there are churches all over the place reading passages like the one we read yesterday which lift up the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Our Inclusive Bible is a little different and says, “Abba God, and of the Only Begotten, and of the Holy Spirit.”

I have never preached on the Trinity, because the traditional concept of the Trinity simply frustrates me. trinity 2I was looking for images of the Trinity on the internet for our Facebook Cover photo, and you know what I found? Pictures of an old white man with a beard (God the Father), a young white guy with a beard (Jesus, the Son) and a dove (Holy Spirit). Or it was a picture of three men (never-mind that the Spirit was feminine).The word Trinity is not in the Bible, but the concept developed throughout the years. Matthew is in step with late first-century Syrian Christianity that is developing these rudiments into liturgical formulas. Trinitarian doctrine states that there is only one God, but these three persons, or substances exist consubstantially. They are co-equal and co-eternal.

As my theology has moved further and further from being theistic to being non-theistic, I’ve had an even harder time with the Trinity.

Then last week, one of Richard Rohr’s (priest, theologian and contemplative) daily email messages was on the Trinity. After reading his reflection, I realized that I’d become so familiar with the Trinity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that I’d stopped seeing the more expansive understanding. I’d taken the wildness and the mystery out of the concept… with the help of the church and tradition.

Rohr talks about how the Eastern church saw the Trinity as an Infinite Dynamic Flow (I love that), while the western church had a more static view, which he said may have been “theologically ‘correct’ but largely irrelevant for real life, more a mathematical conundrum than invitation to new consciousness.”

Western theology has tried to rationalize the Trinity, to cement the doctrine into place. And they’ve succeeded. They’ve made the Trinity thoroughly familiar and, in my opinion thoroughly irrelevant and not understandable. Who exactly is God the Father? Who is Jesus now that he’s elevated to one person of the Trinity? And most confusing and least talked about… what or who, really, is the Holy Spirit?

If we do what Rohr suggests and look creatively at the Trinity, if we see it with new eyes as metaphorical of how God works in the world. In Rohr’s words, “Trinity invites us to interactively experience God as transpersonal (“Father”), personal (“Christ”), and impersonal (“Holy Spirit”)–all being true in different stages of life.”

I’d take this even one step further, because some of us need to look at this even broader and in a less theistic way, and suggest that the Trinity relates to us the mysterious way that the Divine is transcendent, yet personal, yet immanent all at the same time. In other words, God is bigger, greater than and beyond all things, yet personal, yet is also present within and around us every moment.

In this, for me, the Trinity now becomes more relevant. We’ve moved beyond static names to concepts, to mystery. This takes us back to the edge where things are not set in concrete, but speak inherently of flow, of being, of movement and presence.

I’ve focused on the Trinity, but there are many other ways that God is in danger of dying by familiarity. Whenever one believes they no longer need to learn, grow and ask questions about God, we become stagnant and stuck. If we believe we know all that we need to know about the Divine, our relationship with God will experience a death by familiarity.

Still, let me emphasize that the message for today is over-arching… yes, it is about God, but it is about everything that has become too familiar that we don’t really see it anymore.

Look into the eyes of those you love and see them again as if for the first time. Sense the deep mystery of their soul that lies within… don’t assume to know it all, but set out to learn, to explore, to not take for granted.

Look around at your house, your yard, your workplace… what has become so familiar that you don’t see it anymore?

Live life with curiosity, with the sense that what we see is just the tip of the iceberg. Recover the edge, the excitement and the energy of life. Find the wildness and the mystery in your relationships with yourself, with God and with one another.

Love & Light,

Kaye