The Olympian Life

Epiphany season goes out with a bang every year! Its concluding Sunday is always Transfiguration Day when Jesus is transformed in front of Peter, James, and John. Epiphany is about God’s self-revelation of divine power in the world. It began on January 6 with God’s revelation to the Magi through the star, and ends this Sunday with the awe-inspiring event of Jesus on the mountaintop with his closest disciples, and the best representatives of the Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah respectively. Then next week on Ash Wednesday we begin an intentionally self-reflective journey to Holy Week that calls us to genuine repentance. Lent begins with ashes and ends in Christ’s death, literally ashes to ashes.

Some of us remember sports commentator Jim McKay’s voice-over of the iconic tune of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” as he described “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” The scene that I remember most is the one with a ski jumper crashing. Both spiritual and Winter Olympics are upon us in this up and down time between Epiphany and Lent. Like Olympic athletes who train for years, we disciples of Christ suffer exhaustion on a daily basis for the chance at overwhelming exhilaration. This is our description of the journey of faith that travels from mountaintops to valleys and up and down again. This is Jesus’ life. This is our life as Christians.

It is really the life of humans in general. Jesus shows us how to make this common occurrence into uncommon grace, to fill our up and down existence with ultimate and grand meaning. A king and savior who knows only the heights of victory isn’t one of us, but Jesus knows our every sorrow and amplifies every joy. Jesus shows us the path to redeem every experience of life, however high the mountaintop or low the valley.

Life’s ever-changing nature is a bothersome phenomenon for me. My desire for predictability and stability is a common human desire. Nobody likes volatility. Look at the stock market fluctuations of this week. Nobody likes too much risk. I’ll try something new every now and then, but I’m okay with ordering the same meal at the same restaurant time and time again. I know there won’t be unwanted surprises, but where’s the risk in that, and the sense of adventure that makes life worth living?

Jesus models the Olympian life of risk and reward throughout his ministry. This is the liturgical basis for the end of Epiphany and the beginning of Lent. To be fully human is to go from top to bottom, bottom to top, and repeat ad infinitum. It strikes me that fluctuation and volatility are examples of our being fully human, and they also reflect how we’re made in the Image of God.

Doesn’t God embrace the world’s ups and downs? God has embraced us! Our history proves that we are no better than kids with daisies saying, “I love him/her!” or “I love him/her not!” In our yearly ode to love on Valentine’s Day, appropriately on Ash Wednesday this year, God gives us the best Valentine in spite of our fickle devotion.

God gives us Jesus who in the Incarnation has chosen to ride this rollercoaster with us. He has modeled the ultimate in risk and reward by showing us that love is the utterly amazing opportunity for self-giving and yielding intimacy. Faith is our confidence that God can and will transfigure you and me. It’s the hope of young, old, and in-between love that is both treasured and perpetuated. It’s the kind of love that sustains us from the height of Epiphany to the depths of Lent, from Palm Sunday’s “Hosanna’s” to the despair of Good Friday’s “Crucify Him!” for better for worse, in sickness and in health…

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Transfiguration through Listening

Those of you who know me well are aware that Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina is one of my “thin places” where I can more easily get close to God. It’s a Canadian climate zone with plenty of balsam and Douglas firs. Their smell and the whipping wind and the swirling clouds close the distance between this world and the next. I have a -40 degree sleeping bag and a 4-season tent to get me through the weather’s bluster. The harsh elements overcome any noise that I’ve brought with me up to the mountain. Everybody needs a place to drown out the cacophony of negative voices.

In my mind as we prepare for General Conference 2012 this is a time for intense listening. We call it Holy Conferencing but it’s so hard to do. Although listening to each other is critical, it has dawned on me that it’s much more important to listen to God. With the Call to Action legislation this is even more neccesary. There are voices on various sides garnering attention. I have been one of those voices. I am willing to lay down my preconceived notions, stop talking, and listen to God. I’m also ready and willing to listen to what others are saying. We are Peter, James, and John (Wish there had been some women there!) as a denomination. We’re going to build a new structure/tabernacle for Jesus. Yes, we need this to happen, but we better listen to God first. We cannot solve a spiritual problem with a structural solution or it will flop like so many others have done before. We have to have a transfiguration as a church.

This Sunday is when we commemorate Jesus’ transfiguration. Jesus was on the mountaintop with Peter, James, and John. His clothes turned brilliantly white and his face glowed. Moses and Elijah appeared to him. Peter wanted to build three shelters, one for each of the dignitaries. Then they all heard God’s voice boom from heaven: “This is my beloved son. Listen to him!” This whole event was quite the mystery, therefore, it is appropriate that this Sunday caps the season of Epiphany that is filled with the mysterious and miraculous. It’s all down hill from here. Next week Jesus is plunged into the march toward the darkness of Passion Week.

What’s the message of the Transfiguration? Theologians and preachers have dissected the event in an attempt to make sense of it. Perhaps its greatest message is that sometimes, especially in the midst of the holy, we honor God best by saying nothing at all. By talking too much we detract from the event that we are trying so desperately to explain.

The radio station KGO in San Francisco conducted a call-in poll. The host invited listeners to express their opinion. Thirty-five percent said yes, thirty-three percent said no, and thirty-two percent were undecided. One listener, upset at the large number of undecideds, protested by saying, “It’s this sort of apathy that’s ruining America.” The only problem with all of these responses was that the radio station never posed any question. Therefore, it’s not apathy that’s getting most of us into trouble – it’s shooting our mouths off about things that we know nothing about.

Jesus’ disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration said some things out-of-turn and were rebuffed by the voice of God. There’s a time to just be quiet and surrender to the mysterious. The disciples got a glimpse of reality on the mountaintop – Jesus in his glory. Say what we will about the event the message is to hang in there. What we see and hear sometimes isn’t reality. The transfigured Jesus is! So when we feel overwhelmed, under the gun, faint of heart, the message is “Be aware, look beyond the surface stuff, be quiet and experience Christ!”

Smugly saying that we can explain something as mysterious as the Transfiguration weakens its impact. We end up sounding like snake-oil salespersons with slick grins on our faces acting chummy with God. If we over-confidently state how cozy we are with God then we may just be wrong. Our attempts to explain God’s mysteries end up sounding about as truthful as a fish story.

Two zealous and cocky fishermen met on their vacations and began swapping stories about the different places they had fished, the kind of tackle they had used, the best bait, and finally about some of the fish that they had caught. One of the guys told of a vicious battle he once had with a 300-pound catfish. The other man listened attentively. He frankly admitted he had never caught anything quite that big. He said he didn’t even know catfish could get that big. However, he went on to tell about the time his hook snagged a lantern on the bottom of a lake. When he pulled it up the lantern carried a tag proving it was lost back in 1932. The strangest thing of all was the fact that it was a waterproof lantern and the light was still lit. For a long time the first man said nothing. Then he took one long deep breath and said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll take 200-pounds off my fish, if you’ll put out the light in your lantern.”

To tell the truth, I can’t explain the Transfiguration, so I’m going to keep quiet. Maybe then I’ll be able to see past the clouds that we call reality and see Jesus for who He really is! His voice is the one calling out to me today, and I’m going to listen! I hope our church does the same as we prepare for General Conference.