Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘mountain’

How Do Changes Change YOU?

Matthew 17:1-9

Change.

changeFactory
Does this word scare you? Make you shiver? Excite you? Heighten your anxiety? Give you hope? Motivate you? Change. How does this word make you feel?

It is not hyperbole to say that recently, in the United States, the word change for many does not have a positive connotation. A president addicted to the bully pulpit and one who consistently uses fear to distract and separate people does not help. Not all change is good, isn’t that true? Removing protections in public places for transgender people and for transgender students is not a good change. Requiring people to carry and show IDs randomly doesn’t feel like a good change either. Forcibly removing native peoples from Standing Rock, their own land, so an oil pipeline can be installed, is not a good change. Banning the majority of the press from presidential press conferences is a bad and dangerous change. Lawmakers skipping out on town hall meetings…not a good change. Detaining people in airports, like Muhammad Ali’s son, a U.S. citizen born here in Philly, asking him about his religion—a horrific change.

Fanning the flames of ignorant prejudice and hate crimes, not a good change. Rest in peace, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, engineer and family man of 32 years, shamelessly killed in a bar in Kansas by a white man who said: “Go back to your country” before he shot Srinivas and wounded two others.

srni

So no, not all change is good.

In my view, any change motivated by fear, prejudice, manipulation, or power is not a good change.

Call it disfiguration.

Change is good when it is progress, when it leads to positive transformation. Changing positively is allowing for a new reality and then advancing towards that which makes us better people.

Call it transfiguration.

The idea of transfiguration [in a spiritual sense for Christians and Jews] is based on the Exodus story of Moses and then the Matthew story of Jesus. In Matthew of the NT, Jesus and three disciples go up on a mountaintop for 6 days. In the OT book of Exodus, the prophet Moses also went up to a mountain [Mt. Sinai] for 6 days. The 7th day, in Jewish thought, is Sabbath, rest, the recharging of batteries, recreation and reinvention of self. Both Moses and Jesus do this for 6 days and then find fulfillment on the 7th day. In Jesus’ case, on top of the mountain, he is transformed by the presence of God. There is light that visibly changes him, just like Moses’s shining face in the Exodus story. The main difference is that Jesus doesn’t wear a veil to cover the light. The three disciples then talk in their sleep—dreaming about Moses himself and the other prophet Elijah. But then more light comes [in cloud form] and wakes up the sleepy disciples, with a voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

They have trouble listening, though, and they fall to the ground, scared out of their minds. But Jesus reassures them with a simple touch [like in healing] and these words: “Get up and do not be afraid.” They look up. And then they come down from the mountain.

Day seven; the change begins.

This metaphorical story has relevance in this very moment, I think. It is not a stretch to say that our world is disfigured in so many ways. Why do we judge people by who they love, the color of their skin, their last name, their religion, where they were born or grew up, or which bathroom they choose?

This is sickness, not health.

This is disfigurement, not transformation. So those of us who actually do want to live in a world in which people are valued as they are, and diversity of all kinds is embraced, and affirmation and compassion rule the day—those of us wanting this reality, this change, we have to go up to the mountaintop.

So to speak.

We have to take the time to search ourselves, recharge our batteries, heal and rest. We have to take the time to reinvent, recreate, and transform ourselves. And then we come down from the mountain. Then we make change happen.

A big mistake I have made [and many of us] is to wish for positive change, talk about it, but then never do the necessary hard work to make it a reality. I’m done waiting for a change to come. I’m finished with wishing or hoping for all people to be treated well. I don’t want to wait for the seventh day to come so that light will break through. I want to be part of positive change now, in this moment. Today.

And so I remind myself [and I remind you] that real change is cyclic. In order to make lasting change, all of us will have to do that tedious and difficult mountaintop work of introspection, self-examination, and transformation. We will need to ask hard questions of ourselves. We will need to look in the mirror. This allows us to have the strength necessary to face the obstacles when we come down from the mountain. This gives us the wisdom to discern who we should join with and who we should part ways with.

The world is disfigured. We must face it and not ignore what is going on. But we must spend time and energy recreating and transforming as people, and then making positive changes happen. The approaching 40 days of Lent are an opportunity. How will you get to know yourself better? How will that work lead you to positive change within yourself? And then, how will that personal change lead you to make positive change happen in the world? See you on and off the mountain….

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Trans-Figuring…and We Go Beyond

Matthew 17:1-9

On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a large crowd inside a church in Memphis, Tennessee. He spoke about the history of the struggle for civil rights in the United States and the difficult days ahead. Towards the end of his sermon, King raised his voice as he was known to do, and said: “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” People applauded and cheered. The crowd knew that King was mentioning Moses, that Biblical character from the Jewish Torah. The people had heard the story of Moses and the Israelites and their ancient story of liberation. Of course, they knew about their own situation—injustice was their day to day reality and inequality was all around them. The mountaintop meant something to them.

Still today there are many who hear the story about Moses and the mountaintop and it resonates with them. People who have experienced racism or discrimination; people who have been pushed to the margins; people who are called lesser; people who suffer at the hands of evil oppressors.

mountain.jpeg

The summit of Volcán Popocatépetl
Puebla, Mexico State, and Morelos, México

Now of course not everybody can claim this story in the same way as African-Americans or others who have experienced slavery and brutal racism can. And not everyone experiences what immigrants to this country go through—the hate and mistrust and abuse. Nor has everyone felt the heavy stare of someone just because of skin color or cultural background. And how many of you can claim that your family and tribe had their land and way of life stolen from them—only to be misplaced in reservations, forgotten, and abused? And there are too many women—qualified and more than capable—who do not get jobs or are verbally abused simply because they are female. And then there are others who have been told, just because of their sexual orientation, that they do not deserve certain rights and that they cannot commit to a love partnership with someone.

Martin Luther King’s speech about the mountaintop, Moses’ story on Mt. Sinai, Jesus’ mountain tale–are about all those in the world who have indeed been pushed down and oppressed and those around the world who are still in captivity.

There are people who deserve to be free in every way and yet, they are not free because someone else doesn’t want them to be free.

In Latin America, this led to what is called liberation theology, basically the idea that the teachings of Jesus are meant to free people from unjust economic, political, or social conditions. Some call it “an interpretation of Christian faith through the suffering, struggle and hope of the marginalized; a critique of society, the church, and religion itself through the eyes of the oppressed.[1] Liberation theology spread from Brazil and Argentina to Nicaragua, Africa, and eventually the United States. It continues as a response to the Moses story, believing that all human beings have the responsibility to bring justice to those who are oppressed and to loosen any chains or bonds that are placed on people.

I say this because Biblical stories only matter when they are contextualized. But we all have different contexts. Moses’ story in Exodus 24 and Jesus’ story in Matthew have always been and will always be interpreted differently by different people in different eras and places. This should be obvious to us by now. Read these stories as a Black kid growing up in Mississippi or Alabama in the 50s and 60s; read them as a Sandinista in Nicaragua in the 1980s; or a Black South African in the 90s…well, you get the idea.

Context matters.

And these stories matter if they bring about change in you. After all, that’s what the story of Moses and the story of Jesus are all about: change.

The Exodus story of Moses and the Matthew story of Jesus go together. If we don’t get that, it won’t make sense. Jesus and three disciples go up on the mountaintop. Matthew mentions 6 days. What do you know—Moses just happened to be on Mt. Sinai for 6 days! We are transported back to the Torah story. Remember what the 7th day is all about in Judaism—Sabbath and rest. God the Creator rested on the 7th day because creation was finished and fulfilled. In these 2 parallel stories, both Moses and Jesus do the “work” of creation for 6 days and then find fulfillment on the 7th day. On top of that mountain, Jesus is transformed by the presence of God. There is light that visibly changes him, just like Moses’s shining face. But in Matthew’s story, Jesus doesn’t wear a veil to cover the light. The three disciples then talk in their sleep—dreaming about Moses himself and the other prophet Elijah. But then more light comes [in cloud form] and wakes up the sleepy disciples, with a voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

But the three guys have trouble listening and they fall to the ground, scared out of their minds. But with a simple touch [like in healing] and these words: “Get up and do not be afraid” Jesus gets them to look up. And they notice that there is no Moses or Elijah, no crazy, talking cloud—just Jesus and just them. And then they come down from the mountain.

Some call this the transfiguration but that’s not really what it is. The word transfiguration wasn’t even used until the 14th Century. The real word and concept here is metamorphosis—caterpillar into butterfly stuff. In fact, if none of this story makes sense to you still, you’re better off reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

caterpillar

Because this is not just some spiritual or religious vision that is disconnected from real life. It is a journey to a mountaintop metaphorically. It is a connection with something greater than yourself, greater than your fears, greater than your traditions, greater than your religion—it is experiencing a light that wakes you up, and shocks your system. It’s a change that inspires you to go beyond what you thought were the limits of your humanity and living. The world doesn’t look the same anymore after the change.

For some [and this may be you], who have been oppressed, the mountaintop encourages and inspires. There is healing and strength. They wake up to know that the evil oppressors out there in the world are people doing evil things. Their evil choices and actions are not God’s desire and are unacceptable. In this case, the mountaintop can inspire those who have been pushed down to stand up to claim the justice and freedom that have been taken from them.

For me, going up to the mountaintop is about enlightenment, too. But I need to wake up and become more aware of what is happening in me and in the world. I need to stop ignoring the sounds of oppressed or the sounds of nature crying out. Yes I need to change spiritually and mentally, but then that change has to lead me to do just and compassionate things.

Metamorphosis on the mountaintop should change us in such a way that I become more compassionate, more in tune with injustice, more committed to peacemaking, more eager to love. If I pray or meditate or commune with this God, I better go into it expecting to change.

It has to make me a better person and a better global citizen of this planet.

Friends, you don’t have to literally climb a mountain. But you have to journey on the path to the mountaintop, whatever that means for you, so your metamorphosis is real. Faith practice does not exist just because. It’s supposed to change you for the better. When you practice prayer or when you meditate or worship or read scripture or serve in the community—all of this should change you. If not, rethink it all. Because listen–the world is full of injustice and oppression. There are real people of all ages who experience this every day. And so any one of us who chooses to go up to the mountain must do so expecting to change—accepting the light and accepting the challenge; internalizing it and then externalizing it by compassionately moving our hands and feet to love and serve others.

Those who journey up to the mountaintop must be inspired to come down.


[1]Berryman, Phillip, Liberation Theology: essential facts about the revolutionary movement in Latin America and beyond(1987)

Fully Awake

Luke 9:28-43

PhillySo the other day I was walking down the street in University City in Philadelphia, on my way to a meeting. It was cold [of course] and so people were hurrying to class, work, or wherever they needed to go without hesitating one bit. Who could blame them? It was cold. I admit that I also hurried down the street just like everybody else—though I did have about 10-15 minutes to spare before my meeting started. Perhaps it was for that reason or because of some strange coincidence that my eyes made contact with someone else’s eyes. She was standing there, in the cold, not running to the next thing. She just stood there. As the people hurried by, she stood there. Our eyes met and before I knew it, my feet had stopped walking. And now I stood there. Whoosh. A group of students buzzed past. A delivery truck’s engine hummed as they loaded merchandise. Whoosh. A businesswoman walked in between me and the strange, standing still, eye-contact-making woman.

Can you buy me a sandwich, please? Sir? Can you buy me a sandwich?

That is all she said. My first reaction was related more to logistics than to any kind of ethical or moral decision:

Uh…Where?

Here.

She pointed to the door of a food court-type establishment full of UPenn and Drexel students and I followed her inside. It was much warmer, of course, and she asked me if it would be okay for her to buy a sandwich at a particular place, to which I nodded my head and said:

Sure.

Thank you, sir.

She ordered the sandwich, I paid [as the lady behind the counter looked at me with a strange expression] and then she shook my hand and said:

My name’s Tanya.

I’m Josh.

Thank you, Josh.

And then Tanya shook my hand for a second time [firmly], and then she was gone—sandwich and all. Out into the cold, out onto the street where the people whizzed by and the cars honked and where my meeting was now a couple of minutes away. I too walked back out into the cold and joined the hurried mess. I made my meeting; then I worked on the worship service for Sunday; I answered a bunch of emails; I made some phone calls; I continued on with my day; but I kept thinking about Tanya.

eyeNow I make no great claim of being a humanitarian. I just bought her a sandwich, after all. I didn’t change the world, I didn’t get Tanya a job, I didn’t fix the poverty and homelessness in Philadelphia and beyond; I did nothing extraordinary. I make no value judgment about what I did, because, honestly, at its core, all I did was make eye contact with someone. And the eye contact led to me buying a sandwich.

I will say, however, that we live in a world full of people. We come in contact with people every day—or, at least we should. We share sidewalks, streets, rooms, offices, schools, churches, air, ground, and the planet with other people. And I think the more we realize that every day we come into contact with another human being and have the chance to treat him/her as a human being—the more we are awake to opportunity and possibility. At our most honest moments, we recognize that the world is a difficult, sometimes-awful place. It can feel overwhelming; it can seem hopeless and therefore not worthwhile to help or to try to make a positive impact. But I wonder–if we considered that every day we come into contact with other people; if we made eye contact with them; if we treated them like human beings and not objects or clients or consumers or agendas or ethnicities or nationalities or orientations or categories—I wonder if we just might awaken to new purposes and perspectives.

butterflyTransfiguration. It means metamorphosis; a change; an enlightening; an awakening. Transfiguration is a word we use to describe this crazy story in the Gospels of the Bible. Today is even called Transfiguration Sunday. Why? Because Wednesday, February 13th is the start of the season of Lent, a 40 day period.  Most consider Lent to be the oldest Christian observance—starting out as a time for the early followers of Jesus to pray, fast, and undergo self-examination. Over time, traditions change of course, but the purpose remained the same. The reason Lent became a 40 day observance was to remember Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness for, you guessed it—prayer, fasting, and self-examination. And as I’ve mentioned before, the number 40 is incredibly symbolic. Moses was 40 days on Mt. Sinai with God; Elijah spent 40 days walking to Mt. Horeb; 40 days and nights Noah and company dealt with the flood; 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert before making it to the holy land; and Jonah, premium whale food, gave the Ninevites 40 days to shape up and honor God.

So the transfiguration story is steeped in symbolism, and not a literal tale. There are three versions of the story—in Mark, Matthew, and here in Luke. In the version we read today, Jesus just finished teaching his followers about what it would mean to be disciples. What should they expect? After this, they went up to a mountain for prayer. Right away, the symbol of a mountain should tell us that the story has shifted from down-to-earth action to metaphorical, visionary stuff. Up on the mountain, in Biblical stories, people hear and see things differently. Perspectives change. So Peter, John, James, and Jesus go up the mountain. And Jesus prays. Prayer is something that Luke’s Gospel focuses on. And in this case, it is during the act of prayer that Jesus’ face [and his clothes] brighten up. This is visual—seen. Also seen are two beloved faith heroes of old—Moses and Elijah. These two speak to Jesus about his apparent departure, but really the word better translated is exodus.

Aha! So Luke is directly connecting the exodus story of Moses and the Israelites from Egypt to Jerusalem with Jesus’ ministry. Moses led the Israelites from slavery to freedom. So Jesus would lead people from bondage to freedom. But Jesus and Moses had yet another thing in common. Moses, when he met up with God on the mountain and received commands from God—came down with a bright, radiant face. Luke doesn’t want us to miss this Jesus-Moses connection. Luke wants you and me as readers to see.

But it’s hard to see, don’t you think, if your eyes are closed? Peter and company were weighed down with sleep and we don’t know why. But really, doesn’t this scene look a lot like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? I mean, he was praying there, too, and the disciples were asleep then, too. But our storyteller Luke reminds us that up on the mountain, even with the sleepies still in their eyes, Peter and co. become fully awake. They see Jesus for who he is and Moses and Elijah. Even so, Peter is as clumsy as ever. He interrupts the transcendent, spiritual moment with:

Hey Jesus—it’s good to be here. Let’s make three tents. You can have one, and we’ll give one to Moses and Elijah, too!

Says the narrator: Peter didn’t even know what he said.

PeterSometimes I think Peter is singled out in the Gospels to represent our inability to listen or simply to call attention to our general lack of awareness.
Okay, but Peter is probably not this bad.

But even Peter’s words can’t hold back the vision of clouds and voice from up above, telling them to listen to Jesus. It is pretty clear that the whole story is meant for the disciples [and for you and I] to stop trying to figure everything out and to just listen. Just see.

The veil is lifted up and Peter, James, and John see things as they are—no facades or masks, no false pretense, no filter. This vision is raw. It’s terrifying. It’s the real world.

They come down from the mountain. Right away, the world finds them. A great crowd forms. A man shouts out:

Help my son! He’s sick—he has random seizures. It’s horrific! Your disciples, when I told them about him, couldn’t do anything. Help!

No more visions. No more floating clouds and god-like voices. No more tents for faith heroes. No more sleeping. Real life. Raw life. A sick kid. A desperate dad. A needy crowd.

And an unhappy Jesus, right? Jesus, fresh off the mountaintop experience, is ticked off! He almost cannot bear to be with humanity anymore. The world is so messed up, there is so much injustice and so many people sleepwalking through it all—he’s had it! A calm, passive Jesus petting a baby lamb? No way. He’s Jesus–the one God is actually pleased with, because he tells it like it is, sees things as they are. Yes, Jesus ends up healing the kid, but he does so almost reluctantly, because he knows that one healing won’t change the world. One healing won’t bring justice to all those oppressed by an imperialistic society. One healing is one healing. There is much more work to be done and the road ahead is difficult. And it may get ugly.

Wait—it WILL get ugly.

And we are supposed to see without a veil over our faces. We are supposed to make eye contact with the world as it is. And we are supposed to wake up—fully awaken, to be able to act. But it’s hard—isn’t it—to not lose hope or to get overwhelmed and then apathetic? It’s hard to balance the mystical, spiritual, heartwarming experiences we want to have with the raw, tangible, ugly, and difficult experiences of real life. But that’s the point. The mountain and the street corner are one and the same. The great visions co-exist with the unjust, sad, and sick lives of real people. The spiritual, God-experiences live in the same space with unanswered prayers. The voices in the clouds co-exist with the desperate cries in the street. We have no time to build tents or shrines to commemorate religious things. We have today. And if our eyes are open, we can see the spiritual co-existing with humanity.

We can see that God doesn’t stay far off in the clouds, but lives with us in our pain, our uncertainty, our fears, and our inadequacies. We can see that there is more to the world than just what our physical eyes spot or what our TVs tell us.

There is more to the world. There is more to people than the categories we give them. We are more than categories. We are loved, and gifted, and full of purpose. And so are the others around us. We just need to see. We just need to wake up. Every day is an opportunity to see someone and accept her for who she is—embracing her whole self, her full humanity. Every day is a chance to open your eyes to notice that you can do good in the world if you fully awaken.

40 days are just another 40 days if you want them to be. But Lent could be a mountaintop experience on the city street, if you are open to it. This is an opportunity to see. May our eyes be fully open and our hearts prepared to make eye contact; to listen; to embrace someone’s full humanity; to heal; to forgive; to share; to love. Amen.

 

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