Introduction to Scripture
The transfiguration makes me think of a Japanese art form called kintsugi. Kintsugi artists work with broken pottery, something most of us would throw in the trash. And that’s actually the key to the art—the pottery must be broken. Then, the artists create a lacquer of gold and use it as a glue to rejoin the shards of clay. The end product is a clay pot held together by a web of golden seams. It’s still a broken pot, but it’s bound with beauty.
God is a master kintsugi artist. Our lives are broken, in pieces, but there are these moments, and these people, who have come sealed our scars with gold. It’s a Christian philosophy of suffering—your life will get cracks and chips. A tragedy will make your life look fundamentally different, but it can still be a container for beauty. Today, we’re thinking about how one of the most important prayer is transfiguration: God, take the shards and make it beautiful.
Two years ago my favorite teaching assistant, now a full professor at Duke University, found out that she had stage IV colon cancer. She was 35 years old. Married. A young boy. One of her first thoughts was also “Oh, God, this is ironic.” She recently wrote a book called “Blessed,” because she’s an expert on the prosperity gospel, which is the idea that ‘God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith’ (That’s Bowler’s definition). Right now, she’s in an earthly purgatory—the cancer isn’t curable, but it also isn’t growing. She lives in three month intervals; she goes in for routine scans and she prays that the doctors declare her stable. Then she waits another three months. Shameless plug: she just released a book called, “Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved.”
Last week, in the New York Times, she wrote this, “A tragedy is like a fault line. A life is split into a before and an after, and most of the time, the before was better.” Something happens to us and our lives are forever changed. The doctor comes into the room, the phone rings, whatever. We wish we could go back, but we have to go forward. How do we do that? She goes on, “Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.” How do we go forward and still say those words, “life is so beautiful”?
The best way that I know how to describe that is transfiguration. Now, transfiguration is a word not used much outside of Harry Potter novels. In the Harry Potter novels, the children have to take a course called “transfiguration” at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. They learn to transfigure teacups into rats, or flowers into candles. Scriptural transfiguration is different, though it could very well belong in a children novel. Can we admit that this is an odd story? There’s darkness and dazzling light, fear and joy, ghosts and new life.
They’re hiking up a mountain—just Peter, James, John, and Jesus. Mount Tabor is a pretty big mountain. Today, it’s the hottest spot in all of Israel for hang gliding. Weird, right? It almost feels sacrilegious. Like when people go water skiing on the Sea of Galilee. We’ve finally figured out how to run on water. That’s a bad joke. The hike wouldn’t be easy. Imagine winding trails, the hot Middle East sun, maybe scarce with water along the way. There’s heavy breathing and sweat-saturated robes. The disciples’ legs feel rubbery, like jelly, and each time their feet pound the ground their knees start to shake.
What’s worse is that Jesus has just told them about his impending death, which is completely unexpected. This idea of a suffering messiah, or a suffering savior, is confounding to them. It’s foolishness. This guy is supposed to establish God’s reign on earth and that’s a bit difficult to do when you’re dead. What’s the point of following Jesus if he’s just going to die? Peter gets mad and says, “God, forbid it.” Jesus rebukes him, turns to his disciples and tells them the road ahead is full of speed bumps and and danger zones. Life is going to get really difficult. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” You know, maybe this is the perfect time to go for a walk. Life has thrown us too many curveballs. Let’s get back to neutral, rekindle our friendship with the wild oaks.
Hours later they’ve reached the peak. From the top of Mount Tabor you can see down toward Samaria and up toward Galilee. With a good pair of binoculars you could see Jesus’s hometown of Nazareth to the east. And picture this strange scene: they look over at Jesus and he is shining like the sun, his clothes are brilliant white. ‘Are we so dehydrated that we’ve started to hallucinate? Or, is Jesus glowing?’ If that’s not wild enough, two ghosts appear beside him—Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets. The dead are alive. ‘On second thought, maybe their was some funky bacteria in that water.’ The symbolism is that Jesus is the fulfillment of all that has come before. And a voice cries from the heavens, “This is my chosen Son: listen to him!” Those words ought to sound familiar; they’re the same ones spoken at his baptism. Peter, James and John get a glimpse into the inner life of the Trinity—Father, Son and Spirit.
It’s a moment of kintsugi. A flash appears and their fragmented lives are glued together in gold. The eternal is fused together with the temporal. Heaven and earth are intertwined. And for a brief moment everything is transfigured; nothing else mattered but the presence of God and the beauty of the moment. Peter says, “Wait. Let’s hang out a bit. Can we set up some tents?”
I wonder if you’ve had a moment so beautiful that nothing else mattered and you wish you could stop time. A moment on top of a mountain; a song; worship service; dinner party; deep conversation; the day a child was born. A transfiguration. In a literal way, I’ve been there with the disciples. I’ve hiked long miles up jagged rocks, through hard rain. There’s no way I’d see a thing at the top; the clouds are so thick that I can barely see my own hands. But I reach the peak, and the sun breaches the clouds and banishes the darkness. And just for a brief moment, I’m reminded that the world is as light as it is dark. I wished, like Peter, that I could set up a tent and dwell in the moment for an eternity. It’s good to be here.
I’ve been there in a metaphorical way: you’ve not showered in two days. Your two year old is throwing a tantrum because you’ve taken away her Goldfish crackers. Then, for some reason she holds back her tears, smiles, and says “Dadda.” The moment is immediately transformed. Or, it’s been a long day at work and you get home. The house is a wreck. The laundry is spilling over. Is that mold growing in the bottom of that cup? The dog left a surprise for you in the middle of the room. But then, you see that dinner is on the table. She’s there. He’s there. And everyone is smiling. The house is still messy, but for now this moment has changed—it’s become holy.
Those are trite, I know, but even our darkest moments can be transfigured. I’ve sat at bedsides and watched loved ones open their eyes and hold a short conversation before slipping into unconsciousness. For a moment, however brief, anxiety and dread give way to peace. There’s the funeral that brings together feuding siblings, the national disaster that transforms a town into a center for community care, the prisoner and victim reconciled into a relationship that was never possible. Moments are changed all the time.
So I wonder, have you climbed that kind of mountain? You’re tired, your knees are weak, and your mouth is so dry that your tongue sticks to the roof of your mouth. But suddenly the clouds roll away and the sun beams down. You can feel the warmth of the rays against your skin. God takes your pain and then transforms it into something more beautiful and peaceful. It’s a moment that gives us the courage to take a step forward, even when we’re not sure that we can see the path.
We’ve been thinking about prayer over the last few weeks. I want to suggest that one of the most powerful prayers you can offer, especially in times of tragedy, is one for transfiguration. Our knee-jerk reaction is to plead with God for a miracle. This can’t be happening. God help it to disappear. Make life go back to normal. That’s a prayer for resurrection. But oftentimes, there is no cure. There is no rewind. Life is fundamentally different. A second type of reaction is resignation; it’s the stoic strength to seek acceptance. And this makes sense because we’ve only seen Alzheimer’s end one way. And once hospice enters the room, then the trajectory of her life is fundamentally moving in one direction. So you ask for incarnation. And you ask Jesus to offer presence, patience, and strength through the fight and pain.
But there’s a last option, and oftentimes it’s the best prayer: transfiguration. It’s an acknowledgment that our darkest moments can be grist for the mill, waiting to be ground into flour that is able to provide life and nourishment. With God, the darkness is both dark and light. Or maybe, the way that the Psalmist puts it is helpful: If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
In God’s Scriptures, the most transformative moments take place in the dark. Moses ascended Mount Sinai when it was enshrouded in darkness, Jonah is transformed in the dark pit of a whale’s stomach, The Israelites wandered for 40 years with no direction, Jesus hung on the cross as the sky turned black. That’s our story. Our story is not that life is easy. Our story is that despite the brokenness, in the brokenness, God makes something new. Before the disciples descend down the mountain, Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Name your worst fears, and deepest struggle, and do not be afraid. Your life might change, but you have nothing to fear.
Sam Wells, a theologian I admire, says this and it’s become one of my life mottos: “If it can’t be happy, then make it beautiful.” Maybe that’s your prayer today—it’s not so much a prayer of incarnation, “be with me and walk along side of me.” And it’s not really a prayer of resurrection, “give me a miracle.” But it’s a prayer that asks God to take this problem, or suffering, and transfigure it into an opportunity to see God’s face shine. There is something that is simply heart wrenching and what you need is to see the face of God. If it can’t be happy, then make it beautiful. Let me dwell in your presence high on this mountaintop. If that’s your prayer, then come and dwell on the mountain. Lay down your pain and receive God’s transfiguration.