transcendence and tent pegs

15 02 2015

There seem to be two obvious extremes in religion. You either go rules-based and practical, clearly labelled and top-down authoritarian; or you go mystical-transcendent, about self-discovery and waftiness. With Christianity, both are clearly present, though Jesus embraces neither. But neither does he reject them.

Unlike vast swathes of the church in his name, Jesus very rarely, if ever, got caught up into either a dominant-authoritarian or a mystical-candlelight narrative. He didn’t carry a clipboard and checklist; yet neither did he waft around carrying tea-lights and pebbles. 

One of the events that holds this tension clearly for me is the transfiguration. Usually in encounters with Jesus, everything is quite earthy. There’s people, walking, eating, touching, speaking, all quite easy to visualise and translate into our present reality.  But in this event the very ordinary –  a walk up a hill with Jesus (what is it with him and hills?) – becomes extraordinary, a strange, mystical event, with brights light, clouds, voices from heaven… It isn’t something that can be easily explained, especially for rational evangelical minds.

The event could be in danger of disappearing up it’s own transcendent artiness… I can imagine the disciples talking about it and wanting to add bits, to make it even more dramatic. The arrival of Elijah and Moses could be bolder, unconventional, maybe swirling in on chariots of fire; instead of covering Jesus, the cloud could make an arrow, and as the voice speaks fireworks could burst from the centre… I mean, if you’re going to have a spiritual experience like this, why not embellish it a bit?

But they don’t. In the middle of this mystical encounter with the long-dead, Peter asks (out loud) whether he should build a shelter for them. I can imagine them re-telling this story, and wondering whether to put this bit in. It’s a bit silly. But maybe for Peter this is an authenticating moment, one that proves that as a hardened, working fisherman, he wasn’t dreaming, hallucinating; he had his wits about him, he was really there. And his brain was engaged.

Therein lies the attraction of this account for me. It balances the mystical and the practical, because both are real, both are true, but neither should dominate the other in our narrative. Our faith isn’t just about doing things, following rules, and life isn’t just about eating and feeling and seeing. But neither is faith an escape from those earthy practical moments into a incense-fuelled mystical trance of other-worldliness. Jesus takes the ordinary and infuses it with the mystical, where we can get caught up in the Spirit but not leave our brains at the door. 

Or the bottom of the hill. 

figuring the transfiguring

14 02 2010

With bright lights, voice-overs and ageing celebrities appearing in clouds of smoke, it sounds more like Strictly Come Dancing than a gospel story. The transfiguration is one of those stories that is a bit odd; it kind of stretches the rational-thinking of the brain a bit.

But this strange little story is important. For Jesus? Yes, obviously. For him it was a chance to ‘meet’ with some great men of the past, somehow and in some way. A chance for him to discuss the new exodus (the word is translated ‘departure’ for some reason in the NIV, with a footnote) with the leader of the old exodus – as Moses led the Israelites from slavery to freedom, darkness to light, so Jesus will do the same for us all. I would love to know more details about that little chat.

There’s another angle too. The disciple’s angle. They get a firm but gentle lesson during this high about how to get through the lows that will follow. The actual real solid mountain-top experience becomes a firm foundation for the valley experiences that come with following Jesus.

You see, during the shekinah-shine glory-lights, holy smoke and I-see-dead-people moment, what are the disciples doing? Falling asleep. Low point. Valley moment. When they shake themselves awake, Peter gets all excited and says let’s build a tent so we can stay here, this is great. Look! Moses and Elijah! This is more like what the Messiah should do! Less of this low-key-Messiah business and a bit more razzle-dazzle show-time!

God’s response? He envelops them in a dark shroud of anti-loud cloud, a kerfuffle muffle-shuffle. His gentle way of saying to them, be quiet and listen. No divine pointing fingers like the old lottery logo. God doesn’t do humiliation. But from the high volume of the mountain-top experience, Peter is quietly turned down.

Then comes the voice-over. The sublime one-line divine tag-line.

This is my son, who I have chosen, listen to him.

In other words, don’t talk, listen. Don’t do, listen. You are on the mountain-top, now listen!  Why? Because God knows Peter and the others will need this. When all goes belly-up they will hang on to these words. He doesn’t want them to get lost in wonder love and praise and miss the point. The teachable moment.

This is my son, who I have chosen, listen to him. Listen.

realistic contemporary art

Listen to him now because tomorrow you will fail in healing a small boy in front of a crowd (Lk 9.37ff). Low point. Listen to him now because tomorrow you will argue over who is the greatest (Lk 9.46ff). Low point. Listen to him now because soon you will want to call fire down on those who oppose you (Lk 9.51ff). Low point. Listen to him now because soon he will spell out the cost of following him (Lk 9.57ff). Low point. Listen to him now when you are up the mountain, because soon you will come crashing down and it’ll be less like Strictly Come Dancing and more like X Factor auditions.

What does all this mean for us? Well, may we be people who go up the mountain with Jesus, to be encouraged, to see amazing things… and may we be those who listen when we are there, who watch, who take note, who allow Jesus to move us, touch us, and in doing so equip us. So then, when we come down the mountain, we still hear the words:

This is my son, who I have chosen, listen to him.

So when we are swayed by difficulties and doubts, as the first apprentices were and we will be, our faith will not be based on vague memories or distant hopes, but on words we heard God speak. On truth we heard God speak. That our love for him be constant, steadfast, as his is for us, not going up and down with our mood or our feelings. This is how you grow faithful apprentices. This is how you grow faithful leaders. Broken, battered, a bit bonkers. But real.

This is one way of figuring out the transfiguring. For those, like me, who would rather speak than listen, it’s not a bad thing to hear. I can feel that cloud coming down already…


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