God of Many Names

Welcome to Trinity Sunday! We don’t often focus on the Trinity concept, the three-in-one divinity of God, Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit. Debates about the Trinity do not sprinkle themselves through our conversations or keep us up at night, so far as I know. And I want to frame our engagement with Trinity around a seven-part Mary Oliver poem called “At the River Clarion.” We will start with the first three sections, then consider a bit about what the three parts of the Trinity summon up for us, mix in some more poetry and more reflection, and then end with part 7 of the poem.


At the River Clarion
(Sections 1-3)


Mary Oliver begins the poem by saying, “I don’t know who God is exactly.” When you think of the “God” part of the Trinity, how do you describe that?



Beyond our understanding

Father, mother, parent, all-powerful, caretaker

Our understanding of God is too small





Omnipotent, omnipresent

God as gendered? And what difference might that make to people who have a terrible relationship with their fathers? God as father in a patriarchal society means God is not mother.

El Shaddai: God almighty, or God the breasted one. [?]

El (Daniel, Emanuel, Nathaniel)

Elohim, which is plural (make of that what you will)

Yahweh, Jehovah


God as head of the heavenly council of divine beings, such as Baal, Astarte, Asherah, etc.


Jesus Christ:

Here on earth

Friend, brother, human, incarnate, son

Atonement for our sins, Redeemer


Preacher, teacher, healer, role model

The finger pointing at the moon (Mark) and the moon (John)


Holy Spirit:

Vague, energy field between us

Ruah, breath


(At the River Clarion sections 4-5)


Our personal relationship with the God who created the solar system is miraculous. Perhaps you have seen that huge image of the universe and the one little sign, “You are here.” It’s humbling. It brings to mind Psalm 8:

When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you have established;

what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

mortals that you care for them? (verses 3-4)

There’s that sense of awe. How can the creator of all that pay any attention to any of us? Surely God is too busy. But “too busy” suggests a God who is bound by the concept of time and place. If God can be everywhere at once, it’s not a problem.


Where does Wisdom fit in? Our reading from Proverbs today is in the voice of a female Wisdom, Sophia, who was with God from the beginning, there before the creation of the mountains, a constant companion and delight to God. In the New Testament, we get some similar language around the Word, capital W. John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He [or it] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him/it, and without him/it not one thing came into being.” Notice how Word becomes something masculine, and then, as this reading continues, morphs into Jesus. So we’ve got this female Wisdom image, and a male Word/Jesus image. So many images for that divine energy.


People have been wrestling with the whole concept of God for thousands of years. The arguments have been high-stakes, sometimes life-or-death. Those who disagreed with the ones in power could be put to death or exiled. There were council meetings where the bishops met to discuss and decide theological matters. These kinds of councils met for hundreds of years, debating the divinity of Mary, whether Jesus was fully human or fully divine or somehow both at once, whether the Spirit came from God or Jesus, and many other issues. Nowadays when, say, all the bishops gather in Rome, or when our own denomination meets at General Synod, as it will later this month, the issues tend to be more about whether God loves LGBT people, or how we are to care for creation.


How we understand God matters. Paul says God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being. We are in God at all times. There’s a concept called panentheism, which suggests that everything is in God, that God is all of creation and then something more, something mysterious, something that is too great for us to wrap our heads around. We want to put God in a box, think we’ve got this divinity thing all figured out. But instead our faith journey calls us to engage with the mystery that is at the core of our faith. Can God be three beings in one? Or are those just three images, three metaphors perhaps, that help us understand facets of a God that is beyond our greatest imagining?


If God is up in the clouds somewhere, God may not notice if we dump mercury in the water or burn up all the fossil fuels and heat up the planet. But if God is the planet, is the fish, is the mercury even, then how we treat the planet and each other and ourselves is a matter of holiness. The river tells Mary Oliver that it is part of holiness. So is the rock on which she sits. So is she. So are we. So is the tick that kills her dog. It’s complicated. The river presents an image of divine presence that is flow, that is constant, always present. It’s an ongoing mystery. And our invitation is to be in relationship with that mystery every moment of every day, to rejoice in it, to ask questions, to get mad at it—whatever—but to stay engaged and do what we can, our little part.


So we finish with the last two sections of the poem. Oliver is talking again about the river.



[At the River Clarion sections 6-7: This poem was originally published in Mary Oliver’s book Evidence (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009), 51-54.]


Related Information

Prospect Blog