A family has lunch at a restaurant. The parents and their teenaged children are gathered around one table, but hardly a word is exchanged among them. It is not because their mouths are full; it is because their eyes are glued to palm-sized screens and their fingers are busy tapping away.
The scene above is not that hard to imagine because it is becoming too common a phenomenon. A term has even been coined for it – phubbing, phone use that causes snubbing. Our phones are supposed to help link us together. While our phones are able to bridge us virtually with people far away, they have also become walls that separate us from those we are physically with. Because of our communication devices, we have become out of touch with those who are close enough to touch.
The tragic irony is that phubbing happens because we want to connect with people. Many studies though have been published that show our online connections are often not as deep as the connections we can develop with people we actually meet every day. We forego the possibility of lasting friendships for the quick gratification of passing acquaintances.
Today, Trinity Sunday, is an opportune time to ask: How are our relationships? What is the quality of the connections we make?
Why is Trinity Sunday a good day to reflect on our relationships? The One God Jesus Christ revealed is the Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit. Father and Son are relational words – a father is a father because he has a son or daughter; a son is a son because he has a father. Spirit does not seem to be a relational word. Here we can be helped by how St. Augustine conceptualized the Trinity as Lover (the Father), Beloved (the Son), and the Love between them (the Spirit). The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and the Spirit is the love binding them – but this is not a closed circle. God’s love is not just for God. God’s love draws us into God’s self. This is why the Father sent the Son to us – to draw us into their love. This is why the Spirit was sent to us on Pentecost, the feast we celebrated last Sunday – to draw us into the love of God. At the core of God is a relationship of love that desires to draw all of us in.
This can be quite a head-y discussion, but at its heart is a central truth about the God we say we believe in: A big part of what makes God God is relationship. If humans are created in the image and likeness of God, a big part of what makes humans human must also be relationship.
So how are your relationships – with God, with others, and with yourself?
When we finally meet God, God will not ask us how much money we earned, what grades we had in school, or what countries we were able to tour. Scripture tells us that God will only ask, “When I was hungry, did you give me something to eat? When I was sick or in prison, did you visit me?” (See Matthew 25:31-40.) Another way of asking these questions is, “How were your relationships with the people I sent into your life?” We cannot really relate with the God we cannot see here in this world if we do not relate with the people God put us with in this world.
It is also in relating with others that we mature and know more about ourselves. We may think we are kind people who are in control of our feelings and actions. Our daily interactions with people can be a cold splash of water that can awaken us to who we really are – sometimes impatient, somewhat self-centered, still unfinished projects of God. When we engage with others in the messiness of the everyday, we take a step towards relating more truthfully with ourselves.
Many poets and artists have given us a multitude of images about what hell must be like. Some have painted hell as filled with fire. But some have envisioned hell as an icy cave, freezing cold because of loneliness. If relationships are so much a part of our being human and our being like God, hell must be a place where there are no relationships. If we do not want to end up in this hell, then we must start building relationships while we are here on earth. And if we invest more of ourselves in our relationships, we can start experiencing heaven in this world.
One of the most challenging yet also most blessed opportunities I have ever been given is to work with refugees in South Sudan. In their efforts to flee from violence, refugees from the Blue Nile region have gathered in the thousands in the remote area of Maban. If war and fighting have been slow in following them to Maban, it is because there are very few resources in Maban.
Food, medicine, and other supplies we take for granted have to be flown in by the United Nations refugee agency, and so the relief workers I have been working with do not have much to give relief to the refugees. These relief workers received some physical therapy training last year, and since physical therapy constitutes the bulk of what they can offer, this is what they do.
I was with a relief worker named Boulis one day when the normally stoic Boulis suddenly shouted and ran excitedly towards a child who was also excitedly tottering towards him. Boulis picked the child up, and they danced with the joy of people who had experienced a miracle. Boulis would later tell me that they just did.
The week before, the child had not been able to walk, and this week, Boulis saw him take his first steps. As I expected, Boulis harped on and on about the physical therapy he gave the child. But I wanted to tell him, “It was not just the physical therapy. It was you visiting him every week, you giving him your time, you showing him he was important, you building a relationship with him.” Maban, with its 40+ degree days, with its despair, and with its destitution, can sometimes be like hell on earth. But when people build relationships of care in Maban, it can give you a glimpse of the dancing that must fill heaven.