In Pace with Transfiguration Day

With an early Easter, we have a short Epiphany season this year in the church. This coming Sunday is its climax with the Transfiguration of the Lord. We started Epiphany with a voice from heaven affirming Jesus at his baptism, and we end with God’s voice again declaring the Lord’s special relationship with the Father. The heavenly affirmation to Jesus expresses something that everyone longs for: We are both “loved” and “chosen.” Great words to hear as we wonder who we are and why we’re here.

Remember the story of the priest who was out walking the streets of Moscow during the days of the Soviet Union. He was deep in thought while praying and pondering his calling. Absent-mindedly he wandered into a forbidden security zone near the Kremlin. A soldier startled him when, with rifle in hand, he asked, “Who are you and why are you here?” The priest then oddly asked the soldier what his monthly salary was as the soldier looked at him with a quizzical look. Finally the soldier blurted out a figure. The priest then told the soldier, “I’ll double your pay if every night you ask me the same two questions: ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Why are you here?’” The soldier agreed, and the priest’s sense of call gradually returned.

Transfiguration Day gives us the same opportunity. It allows us to be with Jesus on the sacred mountain and hear God’s call on our lives. It is a “thin place,” as the Celts beautifully described their sacred locations for interactions with God. The veil between this world and the unseen one are literally thin. We can palpably sense there is something otherworldly afoot. We can get distracted like Peter, who on that first Transfiguration wanted to get busy and do the mundane thing of building shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, or we can focus only on Christ and listen to him.

Which will it be is the choice we make every day. Do we do as the old hymn’s title says, “Take Time to be Holy,” or miss the thin place and remain thick-headed? To be sure, there are places that are more conducive than others for reflection and worship. Several guys were asking each other about their devotional practices and what worked best. One guy said that his best worship was done with his face and hands raised toward heaven. Another said that his best way to approach God was prostrate on the ground in total humility. The third man said, “Both of those sound fine, but the best worship I ever did was when I fell into a well and was praying while I was dangling upside down from the bucket.”

Sometimes, as a clergyperson, it’s hard for me to have a set worship practice that works best. My worst temptation is to turn my conversations with God into sermon fodder. This is my version of Peter’s jumping to doing something at the expense of just being still. Of course, I have devotional routines that I make myself do. Right now, I read three devotionals daily and the Bible chapters that go with them. All three are by Chris Tiegreen: God With Us, Experiencing God’s Presence, and At His Feet. It’s good stuff, not perfect, but certainly good. You might ask, “Why three?” The answer is because I’m a little dense sometimes. It takes me about halfway through them before I settle down enough to turn off my mental to-do list. Then I’m able to hear God speak.

What are your thin places? Some are easier to identify than others. Outdoors is a no-brainer choice for me. On top of Mt. Mitchell at 6,684 feet up is a glorious and sacred place. Paddling the New River with the rhythms of alternating rapids and sloughs help me get in pace with the heartbeat of God. This week it was the thin place of a new grandchild’s birth. Not only was holding little Jude a wonderfully peaceful expression of God’s presence, but I also felt the Divine while I was relegated to staying at Josh and Karen’s while Kaela (4) and Joella (2) slept.

They have a baby monitor that wirelessly connects to the girls’ room with video and sound. All night long I could hear their breathing, in and out, so wondrously peaceful, and I could see them safe and sound. It was hypnotic and special, but I could barely wait until morning to tell them they had a baby brother! Isn’t that an analogy for us? If we go through life exhaling the mundane and inhaling the sacred, all the while anticipating that God is going to show up, then God will do just that! We will be as transfigured as Kaela and Joella’s faces were when they got the news about their new brother: Jude Zechariah McClendon.

When have you felt closest to God? It doesn’t have to be a literal mountain top experience. It may have occurred when you were in the deepest darkest valley. The Lord, through the psalmist (Psalm 46:10), beckons us: “Be still and know that I am God.” To know God is to know who you are and why you’re here. I invite you to listen.

The Calm before the First Rapids – South Fork of New River

New River Rapid

Brain Surgery to Birthing a Baby

It’s a new day, a new season. I welcome Pentecost for lots of reasons this year! This morning at 6:28 a.m. a new granddaughter was born. Joella Anne McClendon was born to Josh and Karen and beautifully welcomed by her big sister Kaela. Joella is an interesting name, and it fits both Pentecost and my family. Her birth will always be connected to the Spirit’s power predicted by the prophet Joel (Joel 2:28-32) and fulfilled on the first Pentecost. As for the name’s connection to us, I can name at least 17 family members who have been named Joel. Joel/Joella is a great name that literally means, “The Lord is God!” Josh’s Hebrew classes have come in handy as he and Karen have selected names. Whenever there is an “el” in a name you can bank on God showing up because it is a shortened rendition of Elohim (God). Way to go in sharing the faith-reminders of Kaela (“Who is Like God?”) and Joella (“The Lord is God!”).

Our whole family says “Amen!” because we need faith-reminders. Who doesn’t? Narcie’s brain surgery was a scant 9 days ago. The surgeon deftly removed the tumor and margins, and slowly but surely, as predicted, Narcie’s speech and fine motor skills are returning. Please keep praying for her as she continues to improve. We have been flying the trapeze between brain surgery and birthing babies. We need a fresh outpouring of the Spirit to ride these waves from crest to trough and back to crest again. Have you ever felt like an unanchored buoy bobbing from one emotion to another? Oh, Lord, we need your Holy Spirit to give us strength. We praise you for the mighty things you have been doing in Narcie and with Joella’s birth, but please help us to catch our breath. Interesting that the Hebrew word used for the Spirit is ruach, or “breath.”

So during Pentecost we celebrate the power of God’s Spirit poured out on Jesus’ followers. Pentecost has appropriately been called the birthday of the church, and it will certainly be remembered by us as Joella’s birthday. Pentecost is very personal this year because of Narcie and the baby.  Why? The answer is the same as it must have been for Jesus’ followers on that first Pentecost. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost turned reluctant fear-ridden disciples into daring witnesses for Jesus. After Pentecost every apostle but John gladly died martyr’s deaths for the sake of Christ. The Greek word martyrios meant witness before it came to mean someone willing to die for their beliefs. Pentecost gave Jesus’ followers supernatural power that inspired them to do amazing things.

Pentecost is such a contrast to our usual experience of God. Perhaps we should let God shake us up more so that we won’t be so freaked out by life’s tidal waves. How would we react if our church buildings were shaken like what occurred on Pentecost? What would our reaction be if we saw flickering flames dancing above people’s heads while they spoke about Jesus in unknown languages? Would we be worried? I hope not, but most of our churches are afraid of a smidgeon of the Holy Spirit, much less a real dose. Pentecost is a reminder of what God can do in and through us, not what God can do for us! A God chained to our desires will always be too weak to deliver us from evil or whatever trouble comes our way.

So from one extreme to another we go, God-in-a-box to God-unleashed. Which would you rather experience? I heard of one woman whose idea of worship was decidedly focused on meeting her own personal needs. She complained to the organist one Sunday, “Your preludes are so loud, I can’t hear what my friends are saying.” True Spirit-filled worship is more in tune with what pleases God than us. After all, transformative worship correctly identifies God as the audience for everything we do in worship. The congregants are the actors, and those who serve behind the chancel rail are stage hands of sorts who direct the congregation/actors in whether or not to bow their heads, give offerings, stand up, or sit down, etc. Worship services put God first and foremost or they aren’t worship, and they aren’t relevant to people who have been on life’s trapeze without a net!

Pentecost should remind us that God can do mighty things that are out of the norm to those who truly worship. A woman was attending a meeting of Church Women United where the secretary asked what her church affiliation was. She replied, “I’m United Methodist, but my husband is nondimensional.” Surely she meant nondenominational, but being nondimensional in our faith seems to be pretty popular – shallow, predictable, with a one-sided “What’s in it for me?” attitude. Many want a domesticated God that isn’t Pentecostal. We are afraid of a multi-dimensional God because a wild God who shakes buildings might shake us up, too. Let me tell you, from what we’ve been through lately, and more truthfully our whole life, we don’t want a flat one dimensional or non-dimensional God ever! We want and need the real deal – a God of Power and Might! Come, Holy Spirit, Come! Who is like God? Nobody! The Lord is God! Amen!

Kaela & Joella
Kaela & Joella