One of the great joys of working with hospice is that I get to hear so many wonderful stories of peoples’ lives—the blessings they’ve experienced, the places they’ve seen, the love that has surrounded them. One patient I saw regularly told beautiful stories of a love-and-fun-filled childhood, growing up in the mountains of West Virginia. She was from a family of eleven, one of the older girls, and her father worked as a coal miner by day and then had a body shop nights and weekends to help keep food on the table during the Depression and the years that followed.
It sounds to me as though her parents had a gift for parenting—loving, wise, and dependable—and her siblings all got along and spent many happy hours together playing school, church, and coming up with all kinds of imaginative games. One story I love is the time mom and dad went down the mountain for a bit and left the kids on their own. They decided they felt like ice skating so they got all the powder they could find and shook it out all over the hardwood floors and then went “skating” through the house, sliding in their socks. When they knew their parents were coming home, they quickly did their best to clean it all up, but mom was on to them. Instead of ranting and carrying on or meting out punishment, though, mom said she understood they wanted to have fun and just made them go back and do a better job of cleaning up.
When our patient was old enough to marry, she and her new husband built a small house on the next mountain over so they would be close to family but with enough space of their own to begin their new life together. Looking back across almost seven decades, she could see that a big part of the love and joy in their house had to do with the idea that they looked after and cared for one another. They were a group who had to—by the sheer number of them–rely on and trust the love of the others who helped with their care. And they each did their part to help keep the family going. They found purpose and joy, identity and connection—and fun!—in their life together. Only four of those eleven are still living, but they all talk as a group by phone every Saturday, and there is lots of laughter—and good memories and good feelings—in those calls.
The idea that we exist for one another—that our lives are not just for ourselves alone—is something that mystics and healers and some religious leaders speak about, but it is not as much a part of our national consciousness as it once was. Today we find ourselves in a fractured time, where there’s not much sense of unity and safety. With so much that seems to divide us, finding a common vision, a shared experience we all value feels almost impossible
I think back to stories my uncle told me about growing up during World War II. He described sitting with his parents in the den at twilight, listening to FDR’s “Fireside Chats.” He pulled his wagon up and down the street in his neighborhood, asking people to contribute discarded cans and aluminum foil for the war effort. He talked about the Victory Garden he and his mother planted and tended to protect against a food shortage during the war and how proud he was to be part of that. I looked up some information on Victory Gardens and was surprised to discover that at one point there were more than 20 million Victory Gardens in the U.S., which meant at that time there was one garden for every seven people. And by 1944, the produce grown in victory gardens accounted for 40% of all the vegetables grown in the country. What a huge—and simple, and lovely—shared vision that was.
A big difference between then and now, you might argue, is that the threat was clear: people had a defined enemy—out there—to focus on. We could pull together in an effort to equip, defend, and encourage one another. Today the “enemy” is not clearly defined and our distrust and distance from one another has more to do with uncertainty and unsafety than it does even with the pandemic we’re currently living through. The confusion and distrust causes us to retreat and try to stay safe—wherever we feel safest—and the disconnect from one another and from a sense of greater purpose can bring hopelessness, despair, and possibly even disease.
When I was in seminary—I think I’ve mentioned this before—I spent a whole semester studying the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. It was an exegesis class, which means we looked very closely at the interpretation of the text, going back to the original Hebrew or Greek and considering the author’s purpose and the intention behind the writing. I had expected exegesis to be tedious, but it was actually fascinating. We know today’s New Testament story well: Jesus goes up the mountain and is transformed into a radiant being as he speaks with Moses and Elijah. Scripture says, “His face shone like the sun.” It was a high moment of connection with God’s purpose, God’s truth, God’s wisdom. For a mere speck of human time, Jesus could let go of the struggle he faced in this world as he worked to teach and heal the people of his day. Peter, James, and John witnessed this with their own eyes, amazingly getting a glimpse of who Jesus really was in Spirit.
Peter was so moved that he wanted to grab the experience and hold on to it, building shelters for the three Great Souls and making this a hallowed place they could always return to. But God has another thought. While Peter—poor, impetuous Peter—was still sharing his idea, God surrounded them all with a cloud and interrupted him, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love—listen to him!”
Of course at that, the disciples fell face down on the ground—some translations say they fainted—and they were certainly terrified. So often in our lives, we too keep talking when we should be listening for God’s leading, acting when we should be waiting, building structures and trying to hold on to things when we haven’t yet discovered what God might be equipping us to do. The law of God’s love is the law of extension. We keep it and know it and live it by giving it away. If we aren’t listening, if we aren’t seeking God’s wisdom, we could miss the great Love that opens the way to a better world.
To bring the disciples out of their fear and stupor, Jesus walks over to them and touches them. This divine-but-human touch calms them and brings them back to themselves. Suddenly the transcendent moment is over; they see only Jesus standing there with them. And as they walk back down the mountain together, Jesus tells them not to tell others what they have seen for now. That must have been a difficult request for the disciples to hear! It would be so hard to see something so amazing and not be able to tell someone, post it on social media, share it with family. But perhaps the experience was powerful enough that they understood the importance Jesus’ request. After all, who would want to be interrupted like that by God a second time?
There are so many things in this story that are worth studying. I’m curious about why Jesus went up the mountain to begin with—and why he chose only those three disciples. I’d like to know what Moses and Elijah talked with him about. (Actually the book of Luke says they discussed what was to come—the completion of Jesus’ time on earth.) We could explore what happened to Peter, James, and John when God spoke to them, and why it took Jesus’ touch—a literally touch, human to human—to bring them back to themselves.
But the part of the story that has been on my mind all week is the idea that this pinnacle moment—seeing Christ revealed in his glory, talking with the Fathers of Faith who have gone on before, literally hearing God’s voice—is only a tiny moment of experience. Peter wants to hold on to it, to stay there, to live there, but Jesus leads them down the mountain. What’s more, they can’t even talk about it. Wouldn’t you want to run to everyone you know and say, “It’s true! It’s all true! I saw it with my own eyes!”?
Jesus shows that these pinnacle moments are important, especially for establishing what’s true and of value in our lives, but the real work—our part of bringing God’s light and love to the world—happens when we go back down the mountain.
We Quakers believe in sacramental living, which means that all of life—lived in tune with Spirit—is holy. Washing the dishes can be holy. Tending the garden, paying bills, making a meal, smiling at your neighbor. All holy. Helping someone who needs it. Writing a check to feed the hungry. Going out of your way to check on a friend. All evidence of God’s presence in our lives. All opportunities—right in our normal, everyday experiences—to work alongside God. All holy.
George Fox knew what it was to have a mountaintop experience. There was his initial encounter with Christ when he was a young man and heard, “There is one, even Christ Jesus that can speak to thy condition.” As he cultivated his life with God there was an immediacy to his connection with the divine; in some of his writings you can hear that he felt he was living on a different plane although he was doing practical, necessary, worldly work. In his journal he wrote about a time not far into his ministry when God revealed amazing things to him and he felt he was in the “paradise of God.”
Thus the work of the Lord went forward, and many were turned from the darkness to the light, within the compass of these three years, 1646, 1647 and 1648. Diverse meetings of Friends, in several places, were then gathered to God’s teaching, by his light, Spirit, and power; for the Lord’s power broke forth more and more wonderfully.
Now I was come up in spirit through the flaming sword, into the paradise of God. All things were new; and all the creation gave unto me another smell than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness, and innocency, and righteousness; being renewed into the image of God by Christ Jesus, to the state of Adam, which he was in before he fell. The creation was opened to me; and it was showed me how all things had their names given them according to their nature and virtue.
The mountaintop experiences you and I have with God might not be as dramatic and profound as Fox’s, but we know them when we have them. A feeling of deep peace comes over us. Suddenly there is a sense that all is well. Perhaps beauty seems heightened, or circumstances seem to align in our favor. We may feel a sense of love, comfort, or ease that is hard to describe. Or perhaps it arrives as a deep and sweet rest.
However we personally experience God’s paradise—and however fleeting it may be—the story of the Transfiguration tells us that the experience is not just for us alone. If it were, we could live in that holy place and build a shelter there, staying far removed from the messiness, conflict, and confusion of our present world. But God interrupts Peter when he wants to build shelters on the top of the mountain and instead shows Peter—and us—what to do. God points to his son: Listen to him, God says. He has the touch—divinely human and humanly divine—that can bring us back to ourselves, to the better angels of our nature.
God knows how caught up we get in our own ideas and plans, how our egos often talk louder than our spirits. In our Old Testament reading, the opening chapter of the book of Isaiah reminds us that caring for others helps us open our hearts and clear away the clutter so we can listen to Christ’s voice more easily:
…cease to do evil,17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. 18 “Come now, let us reason[c] together, says the Lord:
And we will once again be drawn back, awash in God’s love, connected to God’s paradise.
As sweet as that respite is, our work is still and always to come back down the mountain and bring with us the scent of that holy experience that has changed, renewed, rested, encouraged, and strengthened us. We keep it by sharing it freely with others—perhaps more through our presence than our words.
That might look like doing what we already do each day, while praying hopefully for the world and keeping our heart centered on God. Our work may involve refusing to believe less than the best about others, doing all we can to see “that of God” in each other, watching for opportunities to be of service, to share hope and encouragement for the greater good of all.
Whatever we are led to do, let’s remember to begin with listening. Yes, the world is loud and getting louder. But when we listen for and follow the leading of the Christ within, way will open—perhaps in ways that surprise us. And best of all, we discover that our divinely human companion—shining on a mountaintop or smiling in our hearts—is a true and trusted and constant Friend.
- OT Isaiah 1: 16-18
- NT Matthew 17: 1-9
- Victory Gardens: https://classroomvictorygarden.org/classroom-facts.html
- Journal of George Fox: http://www.revival-library.org/index.php/catalogues-menu/pre-1700/autobiography-of-george-fox