When I come to a passage like the account of the Transfiguration, I have to say I am somewhat at a loss. Other than the survival of an accident, I have had precious few experiences that most people would call a mountaintop experience of God’s presence. The mysticism of the accounts of the Transfiguration don’t really connect with me.
17Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Religious, but Not Spiritual
Winston Churchill said, “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”
Though I have never had that particular experience, I have had that exhilaration of escaping a close call with death. I know some of you have heard this story before, but it’s one of my best, so bear with me.
A bicycle accident left me lying on the shoulder of a state highway in Tom Bean, Texas early one summer morning in 2011 with a collapsed lung, barely able to breathe. As my chest began to fill with fluid and I began to turn blue, a series of fortunate events that could have gone wrong in a thousand different ways led to my survival. A lot of people drove on by. A few people stopped and then moved along when I told them I just knocked the breath out of me, I would be fine. The father and son plumbers on their way to work stopped and when I told them “No, nothing broken, it just knocked the breath out of me, I’ll be fine,” they didn’t believe me.
They called 911.
The paramedic with the right skills showed up, put me in the ambulance, listened to her intuition and listened to my chest again without the traffic noise. She didn’t hear what she wanted to hear, so she didn’t hesitate to do something she later told me she had never done before. What she lacked in experience she made up for in courage. She stuck a hollow dart in my chest to relieve the pressure, and called a helicopter to fly me over the morning traffic to the level 1 trauma center 40 miles south in Plano, a suburb of Dallas.
With the dart in my chest, and medication to reduce the fluid build-up, and many milligrams of pain medication, I lay in the hospital later that day with Nancy sitting right next to me, and felt, well, exhilaration. I remembered what Churchill said and understood better than before just what he meant. It is the closest I have ever come to “being shot at without result.”
When I come to a passage like the account of the Transfiguration, I have to say I am somewhat at a loss. Other than the survival of that accident, I have had precious few experiences that most people would call a mountaintop experience of God’s presence. The mysticism of the accounts of the Transfiguration don’t really connect with me. My tendency with a story like this is to grab my toolbox of interpretive devices and begin sawing it up into pieces, analyzing the parts, comparing and contrasting the different accounts, and drawing some reasonable conclusion about how the early church shaped the story a bit differently for each of their communities, and what it meant to them.
But, there is something mystical about the sudden appearance of Moses and Elijah, long dead, along with Jesus, bathed in a dazzling light, then covered in a bright cloud with the voice of God telling them to listen up.
Mysticism is not my cup of tea. I have witnessed it, I certainly respect it, and I have seen how meaningful it is to others, but it is not part of my own journey of faith, at least not yet.
I have attended worship services in the Holiness and Pentecostal tradition and seen and heard friends speak in tongues, faint and stiffen and fall down in spiritual ecstasy, what they call getting “slain in the spirit.” I have no reason to believe it is an act. It is a real spiritual experience for them.
I have seen very ill people get filled with the Spirit and enjoy an unexpected and unexplained recovery of health.
But for me personally, spiritual experiences are more cognitive and down to earth: Reading a passage of Scripture and, with the help of a commentary or a wise colleague, suddenly understanding it at a deeper level—“Oh! That’s what it means!”
Or, singing a hymn together in worship and feeling that sense of community that comes with music.
As much as I enjoy mountains and retreat centers, I am always glad to get home. I don’t have the experience some people have of going to the mountaintop and getting filled with enough spiritual strength to last me until I can get away again. I enjoy Montreat and Ghost Ranch, and I enjoy my time alone for prayer and contemplation and exercise, but after a few days, the pull of my own community of faith outweighs the novelty of the mountaintop.
So, when I read Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor in Colorado, she spoke to me. She turned around that popular saying of our age and wrote, “I am religious, but not so spiritual.”
For those of us who describe ourselves in this way, it is the community of faith where we dependably experience God breaking into the world, much more than the occasional mystical mountain-top experience. In the community of faith, we lean on the faith of others when our own is weak. We draw strength to move forward when the headwinds are strong. We draw from the deep well of tradition when we worship, and remember the great cloud of witnesses even if we don’t always feel their mystical presence.
That, ultimately, may be how those of us who are religious but not so spiritual, can internalize this story of the transfiguration. By Matthew’s account, Peter has, just six days before, been confronted with an incomprehensible truth: Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and yet he will be crucified, executed in the most shameful method available at the time.
The experience on the mountaintop gave Peter, James, and John a glimpse into a future beyond the horrifying experience they were about to pass through. Jesus had told them that after three days he would rise again, but it was as if they did not have ears to hear. With the transfiguration, they had a glimpse of resurrection that would have to sustain them through the betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion of the greatest person they had ever known.
“Tell no one about this,” Jesus tells them, “until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
The vision on the mountain gave the three disciples a lens through which they could interpret the coming events. Without being permitted to tell others about it, they would have to live differently among the other disciples, live by the strength, but without yet telling the story.
We will see that their mystical experience only carries them so far. They will all fall away and scatter on the night of Jesus’s death.
But, perhaps it was this vision that brought them back together to huddle in a room with the doors locked. Jesus had told them on the mountain, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”
But, when Jesus was executed, they wondered if they would be next. They were afraid.
And even those three disciples who had shared this vision of the dazzling brightly lit-up Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah did not believe the women who came back from an early-morning visit to Jesus’s tomb on the third day and told them they had seen Jesus alive.
And though the apostles and some other disciples would see the risen Christ with their own eyes, every generation that followed has had to depend on their testimony, on our own experience of a church that gives us life, and a few mystics among us who cross over into realms of spiritual revelation and return to tell a skeptical community.
Last year, when the surgeon interviewed me before I was cleared for surgery, she said, “tell me about your history of depression.”
I told her how, after my father’s death in March of 2000, I lived for a while on the line between normal grief and a darkness that felt more clinical. Every winter, when the days grew short, that dark cloud of grief would come back for an unwelcome visit and I couldn’t seem to shake it until after the next March 13, the anniversary of my father’s death.
I treated it every winter with a small prescription of Prozac and a huge dose of exercise and managed to keep it at bay.
After my bicycle accident in 2011, I told the surgeon, I have never had a another moment of clinical depression.
She asked, “Did you hit your head?”
I said, yes, but I wore a helmet and it did its job, I didn’t have a concussion. But maybe it knocked my head around enough to have a neurological effect, if that’s possible.
She said, “It’s possible, but that would not be a recommended treatment.”
Then she asked, “Did they give you Ketamine on the helicopter? That’s been shown to have a long-lasting effect on some people, maybe even provide permanent relief.”
For a minute, I felt like the surgeon was pulling the rug out from under my experience. It was the exhilaration of being shot at without effect (figuratively) that had such an effect on me; it raised my baseline of gratitude to relieve me of my previous seasonal affective disorder. This was my one spiritual mystical experience and she was suggesting it may have been only chemical!
I sent a message to the paramedic (we’re Facebook friends) and asked her if Ketamine would have been in her kit and administered to me, and she said No, but she didn’t know what the helicopter paramedics or the emergency room doctor would have given me when I arrived.
I thought about digging through my hospital records to see what I could find, but ultimately I decided it doesn’t matter. Whether I am where I am because of hitting my head or getting a dose of Ketamine, or the passage of time, or a mystical spiritual intervention, this new baseline of gratitude is a gift.
And while I am no mystic, I will live with this mystery.