I had an opportunity to speak to a World Religions class at a Brampton secondary school a few years ago. The students had sent me a number of questions to respond to. One was, Have you ever had an encounter with God? I said yes, indeed I have had many encounters with God. I described two of them. I shared my story about two of those, One marveling at the generosity of a person in the congregation toward me in a time of need and the other in those first minutes of meeting my grandson, so fresh from God, and only developed for 6 months inside his motherís womb. I wonder if the young people could imagine this story as an example of an encounter with God?
Jessica was having a dreadful day at school. It was much the same as any other day. When her lunch break came she convinced her friend Lynn to go for a drive. Jessica headed out the parking lot not knowing exactly where she was going. Twenty minutes down the road, Lynn suggested they had better be getting back. "Iím not going back," said Jessica. "I donít want to go back to school. I donít want to go back home. I donít want to go back to life." Lynn sat stunned and worried, not knowing what to say. Jessica pulled off at the side of the road where a trail led into the woods. "Come on," she said, "My Dad and I used to hike up here when I was small." "But itís starting to rain," complained Lynn. "Who cares," said Jessica as she ran up the trail. Reluctantly, Lynn followed. They said little as they began the steady climb to the lookout point. Ten minutes later they rounded a bend in the trail and found themselves at the top of the cliff. As they came out of the woods, the sun came out from behind a cloud and a bright clear rainbow shone in the sky. Both girls caught their breath. "Wow." They sat on the rocks just looking for a long time. Jessica was the first to speak. "When my Dad and I used to come here, I always loved coming around that bend and seeing the world open up before my eyes. I felt then as if I could do anything. I havenít felt like that for a long time. I wish we could just sit here forever." "It might not be so great if it starts to storm," observed Lynn. "Maybe thatís whatís happening to me now. Iím in the middle of a big storm. Mom and Dad are breaking up. Iím having to decide what to do after high school. My boyfriend, Mark is being such a dork. But storms donít last forever, do they? They may hide the sun for awhile, but the sun is still there. If you give into the storm, youíll never see the sun again." "I think Campbellís philosophy class is getting to you," chided Lynn. "Maybe, but this is important. If I can hold onto this moment, this memory of the rainbowóO look, itís fadingóbut if we can hold onto it, then we can get through the bad times." "Bad times arenít going to get better if we donít get back to school. As it is we will be late." "Yeah, but now I can handle being late. Letís go."
The great "Rabbi Abraham Heschel describes an experience of faith like this: Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement...get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal...to be spiritual is to be amazed."
Jesus took Peter, James and John up to a high mountain and he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared talking with him. A bright cloud overshadowed them and from the cloud came a voice saying, "This is my beloved son; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him."
I donít know about you, but my spiritual experiences have never been that dramatic. Dazzling light, visions of people long dead or voices from clouds are a bit beyond my imagining let alone my experience. It is easy to dismiss such stories as Ďjust stories that would never happen.í Some of you may have studied the book by Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity. Referring to biblical stories such as this one, Borg says, "It doesnít matter to me whether it happened or not, what does matter is what the story means." It is easy for us to get caught up in the Ďwhat really happened?í question which was not a question that seemed to bother the biblical writers. So today we ask, not what happened but what meaning is there in this story for us today.
Who knows exactly what happened there on that mountain, which I am told is really no more than a hill, who knows what lack of sleep, or trick of light might have contributed to the happening, who knows whether someone was dreaming or hallucinating, who knows if Moses and Elijah did appear and the voice did sound, we donít know. What is important is that in retrospect, in light of another experience to come at Easter, that moment on the mountain took on extraordinary significance. That moment, remembered, became for the disciples the first hint that Jesus was along with all his humanness also the Son of the Living God. In that moment they remembered him radiating a glory that was almost visible and invoking a voice that spoke of eternal truth.
"What is significant is not how the special effects were achieved but what the disciples who experienced it realized. This was not just another exceptional human being, great prophet or teacher, but Jesus was indeed God, the source and judge of life."
Having said that, I donít want to dismiss completely spiritual experiences, those moments in our life that canít be completely explained by our view of reality, limited as it is by time and space. People who deny the possibility of God may never experience the presence of God, but most open, sensitive people can point to some experience, perhaps in retrospect, that had an other-worldly feel to it. Some outwardly ordinary act, some fragment of conversation that just wonít leave you, some moment of clarity when you see something you had entirely missed before, when you see someone in a new light, when an inspired solution to overwhelming problem occurs to you out of the blue.
Many in our culture tend to shut themselves off from spiritual experiences or refuse to name them as such. We even tend to shut ourselves off from emotion. We would make great Stoics if we lived in ancient Greece. They believed that emotions got in the way of logic and interfered with oneís ability to make wise rational decisions. Life was best lived if one subdued emotional reactions and lived according to the laws of nature. The stoic, whether ancient or modern, protects oneself not only from the pain of lifeís valleys, but also from the joy of the mountain top.
Attendance at Good Friday services is low in our culture. We want to go from the hype of the Palm Sunday parade to the jubilation of Easterís empty tomb without thinking about the in between. This year I am hoping a play with modern dialogue on Palm Sunday will help us begin to contemplate the events after the parade. In life, it is hard to avoid the valleys even if we deny ourselves the mountain top.
My parentsí generation knew the valleys of life. They lived through depression and war but in my generation life seemed to just coast along. We graduated, got a job, got married, had kids, saved for retirement, life seemed good. We didnít worry about unemployment or debt or death. Many in my generation reached adulthood without losing anyone close to them. My daughter had been to the funeral of two friends by time she was 14. She had peers in high school that died of suicide. She graduated from university with two degrees and no job. My second daughter was sailing through her pregnancy and celebrating buying her new house when she went into labour and delivered my grandson 3 months early. "This is supposed to happen to other people, not me," she said.
When you think that there will be no valleys in life, you avoid looking for the mountain top. Stoicism becomes the only option because have no reserves to draw on. Mountain tops prepare us for the valleys.
Mountain tops are blinding light, transported to another realm experiences for some but for most of us they happen in everyday life when we make space for God. That can happen when a time of prayer or meditation or a sharing in the sacraments, calms our minds and relaxes our body or a long run leaves us exhausted but rejuvenated or when a book we are reading sparks an insight to a problem or the glistening of the sun on the snow reminds us that it is a beautiful world.
When Jesus comes down from the mountain, the disciples who have been slogging it out in the valley complain to him, "You can heal people and we tried but we couldnít? How come? " You have no faith," said Jesus, "it doesnít take much but you have no faith." The faith Jesus speaks of is not a set of doctrines to believe, not a matter of the mind, but of the heart, of the emotion. Faith is trust, confidence, that no matter what happens, God will see you through. The message of this story for us is that the God you met on the mountain is there in the valley. You canít escape sorrow, likewise you canít escape the light that God shines into it, "so get up and do not be afraid." Thanks be to God! Amen.
Acknowledging inspiration from
Maryetta Madeleine Anschutz, John Douglas Hall in Feasting on the Word and In Storytellerís Companion