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Dear Gulf Coast Leaders,
March 6, 2011 – Transfiguration of Our Lord
Exodus 24:12-18 – Moses goes up the mountain (Sinai) for 40 days and 40 nights. The glory of the Lord appears as a devouring fire on the mountain.
Psalm 2 – I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill. I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.
Psalm 99 – Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also was among those who called on his name. They cried to the Lord, and he answered them. He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud; they kept his decrees, and the statutes that he gave them… Extol the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy.
2 Peter 1:16-21 – For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 18We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
Matthew 17:1-9 – Peter, James and John go up the mountain where they see Jesus transfigured, with Moses and Elijah.
I was impressed with Marcus Borg, who spoke at our Theological Conference last month. He gave us a lot to think about. None of us agreed with everything, but all of us were poked and prodded and pushed to see how much of what we call “traditional” is simply a byproduct of the last 150 years of post-industrial society grappling with modernity.
What struck me most, though, was his spirituality. I expected a pithy, edgy critique of Christian patriarchal elitism. I did not expect his Joan Chittister-style spirituality. His comments on both Jesus and Paul being mystics were right along the lines of what I have been wrestling with. I don’t have space in this post to lay all that out, but consider that Paul’s theology, life and ministry are based on a personal encounter with the post-Easter Jesus so profound he was unable to see Straight. Consider Paul’s own account of his mystical out-of-body experience (told in the third person):
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven-whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person-whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows- was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. (2 Corinthians 12)
So when Borg fielded someone’s question about his own personal experience of the post-Easter Jesus, and his personal mystical experiences, I was genuinely touched. I wish I had taken notes, but I was caught up trying to imagine his description and match it to my own mystical experiences. He said the whole world seemed the same, but translucent, alive, filled with light. One might say, “Transfigured.”
While we’ve not all had ecstatic experiences, I’ll bet just about everyone has experienced those magical moments when we see the world with new eyes. We are all, at times, lifted to see the world as it truly is, or at least from higher plain than our usual low-ceilinged cosmology. We are filled with a profound sense of awe and wonder, where everything seems sacred. And we wish we could see things this way always, but then the phone rings, or someone tells us it’s time to take out the garbage, and the bubble bursts.
We don’t talk about our mystical experiences enough. I think positivistic empiricism has led us to be embarrassed by “weird,” mystical experiences. When I’ve asked people, though, in safe, often private settings, I’ve been astonished at how many have had them. Pastors know this. Not everyone has them, but many, many. People hold these things quietly in their hearts their whole lives, often telling no one. They bring tears to the eyes, but they simply cannot be conveyed with words. How do you describe a mystical experience? It just sounds goofy. Its like trying to describe a dream, or what it feels like to be in love. You had to be there.
A police officer in my last parish was called to the scene of a tragedy. A woman had fallen to her death from a balcony several stories high. While investigating, this officer tells me, the dead woman appeared for only an instant and told the officer she had been pushed, that it was not a suicide. Gulp. Now what the heck do you do with that?
A woman in my first parish had been grieving the untimely death of her husband. The death of her sense of security. The death of all their dreams. Retirement. Travel. Someone to love, and to love her. She was stuck in grief. Couldn’t move on. It seemed to those of us who cared about her that she couldn’t claim life. Then, one morning she came into my office visibly shaken.
“My husband visited me last night.”
“In your dreams you mean,” I replied, forgetting everything I had been taught in CPE.
“N-no. It was real.”
“Okay,” I said.
“He stood at the end of my bed as clear as day and said, ‘Honey, it’s time to get on with your life.'”
It’s been twenty years, so my memory is sketchy, but her words were something to that effect. As I skeptically listened to her describe her experience I wondered if she was losing it. As a young pastor I didn’t know what to do with all of this. What’s my job here? Should I get her into therapy? Call 911? In the end I took a wait-and-see approach. I asked with her what she was going to do with this, prayed with her, and resolved to check in with her in a week or so.
Long story short, this was a turning point for her. She had a breakthrough. She moved into the acceptance stage of grief and embraced life. She looked better, smiled more and started talking about her future.
Was it real?
Define real. I mean, if someone else had been in the room, would they have seen her dead husband? I don’t know. Probably not. Does it matter? It was real to her, and it changed her life. “Real,” may mean more than mutually observable phenomena. You may recall that John Tietjen got fired as president of Concordia Seminary St. Louis for saying something similar about the resurrection appearances of Jesus – that perhaps they were personal theophanies for the beloved inner circle of disciples. Mystical experiences.
I don’t think the woman in my first parish told many people about her experience. I could be wrong. Most people don’t talk about their God experiences. If you talk to God they call it prayer. If God talks to you they call it psychosis.
So this year as I read the Transfiguration story I’m dwelling on it as a best-effort attempt to use words to describe an indescribable mystical experience. Oh, I’m aware of all the profound symbolism. I’ve preached Bultmanian demythologizing sermons that try to strip the language of myth to reveal the theological principles. But maybe the languae of myth and story are the only ways to convey the indescribable. I get that Moses is the Law and Elijah the Prophets. I get that both Moses and Elijah had mountaintop experiences of the divine in light and smoke. I get the “six days.” I get that this may have circulated as a post-Easter Jesus appearance before Matthew appropriated it here as a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. I get that Jesus’ face shines like Moses’, like a city on a hill, or a lamp that sheds light on the whole house. I’ve preached on the three “booths” or “tabernacles” and Sukkoth, and on mountaintop experiences in life, and on how we can’t stay there, but must descend into the valley where ministry happens. And I’ve sung “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” too many times. (I even remember a time, in the late 80’s when she song worked on me.) But I digress…
This year I’m letting the story wash over me as a mystical theophany. Has anyone read Jürgen Molmann? I’m going to revisit him this week. His “Experiences of God” and “Theology of Hope” firmly ground theology in human experiences of the divine. Moltmann was a secular German soldier in WWII, taken captive by the Allies, he watched people lose hope in the POW camp. A chaplain gave him a Bible, which he read out of boredom. He was captivated by the imagination. In time he had his own experiences of the God of hope, and converted, later to study at Göttingen and become one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century.
Our religion is not a cold, lock-step religion of keeping laws, nor is it an intellectual philosophy of religious ideas. Our faith is based on an encounter with the risen Christ, a real-time relationship with the living God. It is a religion of hope based not just on old words, but on the viva vox evangelii, the living voice of the gospel, and a God who is alive an well in the world today.
If Peter, James and John had not shared their experience on the mountain, Mark would not know it, Matthew would not have recounted it, and we would not know it today. If Paul had not told his story, we would not know it today. These experiences are interesting, but they point us to our own experiences of God. What have your personal experiences of God been like? How can you describe them? Are you willing to be vulnerable and honest with your brothers and sisters in Christ, and share your stories as did those disciples, so that you can point to the living God who shines brightly in this day and age?