|2 Kings 2:1-12
|2 Corinthians 4:3-6
By Bruce G. Epperly
“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man [sic.] as it is, infinite. For man [sic.] has closed himself up, till he [sic.] sees all things through narrow chinks of his [sic.] cavern.” So says William Blake in his Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Today’s readings push the limits of our imaginations and sense of possibility. These words open us to a multivalent reality as they join theophany and epiphany! Are they the poetics of ancient world view, whose testimony is untrustworthy to postmodern people? Or do they represent deeper dimensions of reality? Do they point to the presence of “thin places,” places of transformation and resurrection that emerge in both extraordinary and ordinary moments?
The Pew Center reports that 50% of mainstream Christians claim to have experienced moments of self-transcendence, characteristic of mystical experiences. Although our sense of the mystical is often domesticated in seminary, a good many pastors entered seminary as a result of an uncanny sense of call, a lingering whisper, a feeling of Christ’s nearness, or a call in the night, reminiscent of young Samuel’s. Moreover, when they let down their let down their guard, many of our congregants admit to having near death experiences, encounters with deceased loved ones, or what appears to them to be miraculous recoveries from illness or synchronous deliverances from accident and death.
Today’s readings invite a dialogue on the mystical element in Christianity. They challenge congregations to take spirituality seriously and to awaken to surprising moments of grace and transfiguration. I recall a conversation with the lay leadership team of a large progressive congregation. They were doing all the right things: they welcomed people of every sexual orientation, they were active in the community, and took seriously their global responsibility. But, they couldn’t find a way to join activism and contemplation. Their predicament is characteristic of much progressive and mainline congregational life.
The stories of Elijah’s ascension and Jesus’ transfiguration deserve little or no attention if we perceive them merely as ancient fairy tales, metaphors, or invitations to authentic spiritual existence. They need to be seen as something more than fantasy or subjectivity if we are to take them seriously at any level. While we don’t need to see them as literal descriptions of the events that transpired, we can recognize that they point to dramatic experiences of God’s transforming and transfiguring presence. The veil is lifted and we see the world for what it is – lively, transformative, energetic, and spiritually-charged. Could it be that there is subtle divine movement, quietly moving in every cell, emerging in every nanosecond, and providing guidance and possibility in a multi-causal world? Could it be that these “sighs too deep for words” come forth through both our spiritual practices and surprising divine initiatives to change people’s lives at pivotal times?
Elisha’s persistence in following Elijah to the edges of this lifetime reminds me of a song by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “I Won’t Back Down” – “you can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.” Elisha goes to the edges of the known world out of fidelity to his teacher. His persistence is rewarded by evoking his teacher’s fidelity to him. “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you,” offers Elijah. To which the student replies, “Let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” In other words, let me experience first-hand your power and authority as an emissary of God.
Jesus’ transfiguration points to his unique relationship with God. Dazzling to all who behold him, Jesus’ mystical quantum identity is revealed. Who knows what the disciples actually experienced? But, for a moment, they may have seen the lively energy in the depths of reality, shining forth from Jesus. The energy of the big bang – the liveliness of the creative word of John’s gospel, enlightening all things – encompasses them. They are overwhelmed and speechless and want to hold onto their transfiguring experiences. However, their path leads back to the plains and valleys: to healing an epileptic child and journeying toward the violence and betrayal of Jerusalem. Transfiguration can occur even in such heart-rending and chaotic moments. We can discover God in suffering, dying, and disappointment. Emptiness can be a void but it can also be an invitation to an open future.
Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians remind us that we can, as the father in the recent film “Tree of Life,” dishonor God by not seeing God’s glory. Transfiguring experiences are for those who have eyes to see. While they are graceful and come to the faithful and lost alike, we must not only expect transfiguration, but accept it when it occurs. As a child of the sixties, I recall hearing people saying that an experience “blew their minds.” In other words, it stretched their imaginations and opened up new perceptions of the world. That is precisely what today’s readings call us to: cleanse the doors of perception, look for wonder and beauty, and, as our local PBS station says, “Live Inspired.”
We would do well to make our congregations places of imagination and possibility. We might have as our motto not only the words of William Blake, but the spirit of Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes. The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.” Then, in our own ecstatic prayer and worship we might be able to provide both the spiritual nurture we need for our mission in the world and the soul food so desperately sought by young people, seekers, and the spiritual but not religious community. Right now we need to pray for a “double portion” of divinity to enliven us and give light to those to whom we minister.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He is available for lectures, workshops, and retreats.