What Changes

Clouds - I, John cover

Transfiguration | Mark 9:2-29

Lectionary Project

What Changes

Maybe it never happened. According to Mark, at the top of a mountain three men saw Jesus changed, transfigured, wearing dazzling white clothes and talking to supernatural visitors.

We don’t know what they saw.

Maybe it never happened, and the entire passage is metaphorical. Maybe it happened just as the story says. Either way, it could be true.

At the mountaintop, everything is bright, breathtaking, amazing, and while Peter, James and John don’t understand what they are seeing, they have no trouble believing they are experiencing it. Afterward, at the bottom of the mountain, nothing is bright or clear. A boy is thrashing on the ground in some sort of fit, and faith is hard to come by.

Mountaintops and dust.Mountains with Grass

Our lives are like that, mountaintops and dust, and so of course the story is a metaphor. That has nothing to do with whether any of it really happened. Some of the truest stories never happened, and plenty of things that happen are pretty thin on truth.

What do we read the Bible for anyway, I ask you, we who claim or try to be people of faith? Is it to find out what happened? If so, we’re reading the wrong books. We’d do better to find some good histories or to read an archaeological journal.

I think we start reading the Bible because someone told us it was true. It’s just that most of the time they don’t go on to tell us what that means, to be ‘true’, and so we wander off or begin to argue about what it says.

I think that what we are really looking for is something to improve our lives. That’s the kind of truth we need. If we’re walking down in the low dark places, feet covered in dust, or if like the boy in the story we are lying on the ground like a corpse, we need to believe that something can happen, that our life can change, that somewhere there is an end to the valley and that somewhere the sun shines so brightly that we could not bear to look at it. Or, if we cannot manage to believe that we ourselves can make it to the mountaintop, we need to believe that someone will come down and take us by the hand, show some compassion, help us up from the dirt and the dust.

We have always been fascinated by the idea of change. Look at the stories that our ancestors cherished. The Greeks told stories of gods who changed into bulls, horses that spread their wings and flew. Metamorphosis. Butterflies amaze us when they emerge, and so do people. Good men who become taciturn, bitter, resentful old geezers. Self centered, manipulative youths who grow into responsible, caring people. Cells that metastasize. Stars that explode. Mr Hyde and Superman. Old grievances that do not matter any more.

That is what we want from this story. Change. We want it to change us, like every great and true story does. Why do we think telling such stories is the single most human thing we do? From firelight on cave walls to movies on widescreen televisions, we keep doing the same thing — listening to stories. And while we want to be entertained, we keep looking for the same thing — truth, the kind that matters, the kind that tells us that we are not alone, that others have been here before us, and that life can be better, or if it does get worse, that we can bear it.

Mountains with Blowing RockMaybe Jesus on that mountain was just a symbol, a metaphor. That is fine, we need our symbols, and we need our stories to help us understand our lives. Maybe it all really happened, and Moses and Elijah stepped through some wall that separates us from all that we cannot touch in this world. Maybe we are always surrounded by light and voices, angels and demons, and it is just that we do not have the eyes to see them.

None of that matters, not really. What matters is what truth we manage to take in, to carry away with us.

When we are up there in the light, it matters that we remember the folks who are lying in the dust. When we’re the ones who have been knocked in the dirt, it matters that there is light up on the mountain. And sometimes we just need to hear the stories, because stories hold more truth than rules ever could.

Below is an excerpt from my novel I,John. The story from Mark’s Gospel is retold from the points of view of two characters: Adriel, an angel, and John, one of the three disciples invited up onto the mountain. Sometimes just hearing a story told in a different way helps us to hear something new. I hope you enjoy it.


There are four of them and they are climbing a mountain. It has nothing at the top but a view of the bottom, so I think that what they are doing is odd. Perhaps they are more like us, doing unlikely things for the pleasure it brings.
The one named Peter is the strongest, but he gives little thought to his path. Along the way he has to stop, baffled by rock, and turn back to the path behind Jesus. I sit on an outcropping watching them pass. Jesus is the only one who seems to know I am there. When he glances over at me, the one named John follows his eyes and pauses, staring at my rock perch though I do not believe he can sense me. James only wipes at the sweat on his forehead. Peter mumbles curses.
A cloud is moving across the peaks, hiding the long fall to the valley. Their group has scuffled their way to the top. Peter collapses, his back on the mountain, and stretches out as to sleep. I move past them when I feel the change. It is like waking from a dream when you did not know you were sleeping. Sunlight strengthens, but the shadows are cast away from the figure of Jesus, light coming from him and now from the others who are with him. They are not the three who made the climb, now lying face down on the hard rock. These are two more, men I think, though even I am not sure.
Jesus turns and tells the three to rise.
“These you know,” he says. “Here are Elijah and Moses. Do you not recognize them?”
I do not understand how this has come to pass. Neither, it seems, do these three men. James and John are standing. Peter drops back to his knees.
“Good! It is good, Lord!” Peter’s eyes move from one to the other, his arms stretched out wide. The other men say nothing at all. “We shall make a camp for you!”
He is babbling.
Jesus continues talking with the other beings for a while, not remarking on Peter’s plan. The light begins to increase and the wind makes the men’s robes ripple and slap against them. There are voices and more beings, a wall sliding away. I hear a great voice speaking, and I know I hear it also long ago in my memory, but I do not know the words. I cannot tell whether the sound begins from above us or comes from inside us, and I am lost. The three men are flat on the rock of the mountain, none of them looking up. I see many figures streaming through the light, then one light as though somehow the sun is within the cloud, and the energy of it sounds like static, so loud, it hums every frequency at once, and then everything stops.
The clouds are gone, as is the light. Now there is ordinary sunlight, no longer appearing so bright on the top of the mountain. Jesus is gazing down into the valley, and it seems to me that he has been standing there the whole time, only looking, that nothing has happened.
Gravel shifts and I realize the three men are still there, Peter beginning to stand, John and James helping one another to move. They are looking around them as though just now waking.
None of us speak. None of us moves.
Jesus turns and looks at the three. Saying nothing, he starts back down the mountain just as they had come. They follow, as do I.
Part of the way down is a rock shelf, high and wide enough for all of them to stand together. Jesus is again watching the valley. When the others catch up to him and stand there waiting, he turns to them.
“Tell nobody what you have seen.” He watches them for a moment. “One day you may understand it, and then you may speak of it. Until then, keep it within you.”
He does not turn to leave but waits, looking at them. Peter is staring, mouth open. James is little better, looking from his brother and Peter back to Jesus. It is John who managed to speak.
“Lord.” A pause. “That was Moses? And Elijah?”
Jesus’s face softens.
“Yes, in a way.” He turns to look back down into the valley. “Such things are hard to explain to you now, but one day you will understand. Elijah was here. Moses was here.”
No one speaks. Jesus keeps watching the valley, the small figures gathering at the bottom of the mountain. There is a village in the valley, and the other followers of Jesus are there waiting.
Jesus turns, and they begin the slow climb down.


I barely saw the rocks. I only remember the feel of them under my feet and in my hands, hard and flinting away into flakes and sand as we made our way down that mountain. What had we seen?
Maybe there was no air, our minds taking leave of us at the top, but we had all seen it. Peter had talked about making a camp. The light had been so bright that everything else still seemed to be in shadow, even in the afternoon sunlight.
I did not know what voice I had heard, and the more that I thought about it, the more I think about it now, the more I seem to have heard. That voice was saying things that I would not hear until time had passed. I still hear them. The right time comes and the meaning becomes as clear as though Jesus had simply turned and spoken himself. There was nobody on that mountain but us, and there was a complete world without sky and without form. Perhaps it was God speaking, I do not know. It was not a voice like anything else that I have ever heard. It spoke that day, but it spoke outside of time, and the meaning cannot be heard until its purpose has come.
Perhaps God says everything at once, and it is the hearing of the words that require time. The meaning is already there, carried within us, and suddenly we understand it when the time comes. That it why we cannot make out what the voice is saying. It is all the words we will ever hear but spoken at once, and it is time that translates them to our being.
I stumbled on a stone at the bottom of the mountain. James caught my arm, and then when I had recovered he nodded for me to look ahead. Jesus was walking toward the other disciples, all of them standing together with a crowd circling, voices raised. Some of the crowd saw Jesus approaching and turned to run toward him. Their faces were a strange mix, some glad and some with the look of men watching the spectacle of a circus.
Jesus kept walking toward the center, the crowd falling back to let him pass. A boy was lying on the ground, his body stiff and thrashing on the ground. I had never seen such a thing, yet I was sure Jesus would touch him and stop whatever was wrong.
He did not touch the boy, though, but stood a few feet from him and watched. The boy’s father came and took hold of Jesus’s sleeve, then knelt in front of him.
“How long has he been like that?” asked Jesus. The boy was thrashing on the ground, clearly about to hurt himself, and Jesus was asking questions as though he were a tourist attraction.
“Since he was a child,” said the father. “We do not know what to do to help him, but we keep him from rolling into the fire or hurting himself.”
The father paused and looked back at his son. He was ignoring the crowd.
“Can you help him? Your followers have been able to do nothing. Are you able to help him?”
Jesus looked across at the other disciples. All of them looked down at the ground or away.
“All things are possible,” he said. “Do you believe this?”
I was not sure whether he was speaking to us or to the boy’s father. It was the father who answered.
“I believe, yet I do not believe. That is the truth of it, and I would not lie to you.” The man looked at his son, then back at Jesus once more. “Still, can you help him?”
Jesus reached out and put his hand on the father’s shoulder. More people were hurrying up the path from the village, all of them holding their heads up to see over the crowd already gathered there.
He spoke to the boy, or to something. I could not remember his words. The father turned to see, and the boy stopped moving and lay still. The father crawled across the dust to him and lifted him.
“He is dead.” It was someone in the crowd saying so. Peter looked across the faces, and I knew that it was good he could not tell which of them had said such a thing out loud.
“No,” the father said. “He is not dead.”
We heard the boy gasp for air, and his father turned to look up at Jesus.
“He is alive, my boy is alive.”
In his father’s arms the boy was limp, breathing as though he had run a race, but he was not thrashing anymore.
“You had faith enough,” Jesus said. “If you had told me you had no doubt, then you would have failed me.”
He turned and walked away from the boy and his father as though the crowd were not even there.

I, John cover image

Save 30% on Amazon – today only!


Save 30% on Amazon – today only!

I, John

30% off at Amazon! I just learned that for the rest of today (Sunday, November 30) you can save 30% on I,John in hardback or paperback. (It doesn’t work on the Kindle version.) Just use the promo code HOLIDAY30 at checkout.

Of course, you could use that code to buy any book that Amazon offers, but with I,John available, why would you…?

Here’s the link–



Holy Cross  |  John 3:13-17, Numbers 21:4-9


Snake Under GlassThe story of the bronze snake comes from the exodus journey of the Israelites. Poisonous snakes (literally ‘fiery serpents’) in the wilderness were biting people. Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole where it could be seen. When any of the Israelites were bitten by snakes, they were saved by looking up at this bronze serpent on a pole.

Like the story of Moses’ staff turning into a snake to impress the Egyptians, it was magic.

The ancient texts do not explain how this system worked. The stories simply demonstrate the presence of God among a chosen people. These are stories of power, showing how God intervened in the normal working of the world to deliver people out of their troubles.

We like these stories. A powerful God acts to save people with miracles. Yet, we feel removed from them, sensing that this is not how God works any more. We see no parting of the seas, no water from the rock, no manna from heaven, and we have no magic bronze serpents to heal us. Even by the time of Jesus, these stories were remote, part of a distant past.

Then John pulls out this old image of a serpent on a pole and applies it to the life and death of Jesus, as though this literary artifact were a prophetic image of the messiah. What are we to make of it?

We might offer many explanations, one as good as the next. We may be more honest and say that we do not know.

We do not know. That is something we should admit more often. If we believe we understand a thing, we stop thinking about it. Libraries are full of explanations of what Jesus did, of what his life meant, of what happened when he was lifted up on the cross for everyone to see. Yet, the Gospel simply says that this is how God worked—again, there is no explanation, or very little. Most of the explanations have been supplied by later writers, not by scripture.

We look too much at our explanations and too little at Jesus.

We think we understand, and so we stop paying attention. The third chapter of John is a perfect example. We explain serpents as symbols of evil and of temptation. Yet of all the many symbols available, John pointed to the bronze serpent on a pole as an image of Jesus on the cross. How does that fit within our popular soteriology?

Explanation is not faith. Explain less, and look to God.

Here is a chapter from I, John, a new novel just released. As it happens, the serpent imagery of John’s Gospel plays a part:


I saw him coming along the street with a lamp in his hand. Even though the sun had gone down and there was little light, I could tell he was well dressed, well made sandals on his feet. He had been at the temple, had been with the Pharisee group who were talking amongst themselves. He had looked up and seen us, and while the others seemed unimpressed with us, this man had met our eyes and acknowledged us with a simple nod of his head.

Nicodemus was his name, and he came asking to speak with Jesus. Actually, he came asking to speak with the Master, an odd approach given Nicodemus’ age and his own position of respect. Jesus received him without comment, neither demurring from the title of rabbi nor appearing flattered.

The old man began with a bow, and said to Jesus that he and others like him knew that Jesus was from God, that he acted and spoke from God.

“We know that no one can do these things unless he has been sent by God,” said Nicodemus. “These are the signs of a prophet.”

This was more like it, we thought. Finally, Jesus was getting the sort of recognition that he deserved, though it was not in the temple. Still, if such a one as this man would come and speak to Jesus this way, then surely the others would follow?

We understood so little, so badly.

Jesus sat staring at the fire, not even acknowledging the old man. Nicodemus began to look at one and then another of us for an indication of what to do. None of us knew. Then Jesus turned his back on the old man and walked to the window. He stood there staring out at the stars.

“Truly, I tell you, Nicodemus, that no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born into the kingdom of God. If you would see God, you must be born of God.”

Nicodemus looked around at us for some idea, but we didn’t know what to make of it either. Finally, the old man walked over to Jesus.

“How is it that a man may be born of God?” Nicodemus asked. “I have no mother left to me, and I am old.”

I also hoped for some explanation.

“You must be born of water and of the Spirit,” Jesus said. “What is born of the flesh is only flesh, and what is born of the water has been made clean, and what is born of the Spirit indeed is spirit. If you would see God, then you must be born of the flesh and of the water and of the Spirit.”

Jesus looked at Nicodemus as though he should know these things. I was thinking that nobody knew these things, because they were crazy.

Then came the weirdest part of all.

“If you would know that which is above then you must be born of that which is above. You are born of the flesh, and you see the things of the flesh. The wind blows, and you hear the sound of it, and so there is hope for you. Yet you do not know from where the wind comes or to where it is going.”

No one was eating or drinking now. All of us were quiet, trying to find some way to make sense of what we were hearing. This was an audience with one of the leaders of the temple, and Jesus was saying such things as to make himself sound crazy.

“Are you amazed at these things?” Jesus asked. “These things are nothing to what you will see. I tell you things about the flesh and you do not understand. How will you understand if I tell you things about that which is above? If you cannot look at the flesh and see what is within, how shall you look upon the faces of those in heaven and understand what you see there? No one has entered into the heavenly realm except those who are of the heavenly realm, but the son of man is also the son of God.”

Jesus paused a moment and looked around at us. Nicodemus was quiet, his brow wrinkled in thought.

“And how will you understand when you see the son of man lifted up, as Moses lifted up a serpent in the wilderness for the children of Israel to see? Just as those who looked upon the serpent and believed were saved, so also shall all those who look upon the son of man, for though he were dead, yet shall they live. Like the serpent in the garden, so also the son of man comes to give knowledge to all who would be the children of God.”

No one spoke, least of all Nicodemus. I was clueless, and from his expression so was he. Even we who followed Jesus wondered whether something we had just heard might not offend the teachers of the temple, and we knew nothing compared to this man. He seemed amazed by what he had heard.

Jesus looked around first at one of us then at another, until I thought that he must have gazed into the eyes of all who were there.

“God loves you all. Did you not understand? For God loves you and has given you the son so that you might know that the Father loves you. If you have faith in the son, then you walk in the eternal life. Just as those who looked upon the serpent and believed were saved, so also shall all those who look upon the son and believe be saved. Those who do not seek my voice are already lost, for even as they have not heard and do not listen, so also they shall not enter into life, for they have not heard the words of life. My words that I give to you, these are truth and life, and those who believe them shall never be condemned. For this is the judgment of God, that light has come into the world, and people love darkness rather than the light, for they know their own deeds. Those who come into the light are of the light. Those who come in darkness are yet of the darkness.”

Jesus stopped speaking, and suddenly it seemed as though he was pointing at Nicodemus, though he was not. He was not even looking at the old man, but all of us were looking at him and at the lamp that he held in his hand. He had come in the darkness, truly enough, but surely he came to find the truth?

“I will think on your words,” said Nicodemus. “I confess that I do not understand them, but I feel that there is truth in them.”

“I am truth,” said Jesus. “And I am the way that you have come to seek.”

Nicodemus seemed as though dazed by this answer. He took a step back and opened his mouth to speak, but he said nothing. He turned and walked slowly away.

After the old man left, I sat by the fire and wondered what it could mean. I could not get the image out of my mind, Moses standing there with a snake on a pole, holding it up for the people to see. I never understood the story, not even when the Rabbis tried to explain it, and I did not understand why Jesus had started talking about it.

Later, most of the others had gone to sleep. Jesus was still standing by the open window, looking up at the stars. I could not sleep and sat staring at the embers burning themselves down. Suddenly I realized that Jesus was standing beside me. He was watching the fire, then looked down at me.

“You are puzzled about the image of the snake,” he said. It was not a question. I nodded.

“One day, you will see me lifted up so that all the people can see me. That day, you will understand what I meant,” he said. He went walking outside after that. He often would go for walks by himself, sometimes in the night, as a way to have time alone, away from the crowds, away from all of us.

That day came, and I did see him lifted up above the crowd, hanging on a cross. I saw them stick a spear in his side, saw them taunt him, and I saw him die. And he was right that I remembered he had spoken about being lifted up, and he was right that I remembered about Moses and the snake, but he was wrong about my understanding any of it.

The snake was evil. Everyone knew that. There was a snake in the garden. It was the story we learned from childhood. The snake had lied and brought evil into Eden, or else it knew where to look for it once it got near enough. But Moses’ staff also turned into a great snake, like the Egyptian magic. And the Lord told Moses to lift up an image—an image of all things—of a snake to save the people from snake bites. Like pagans. And Jesus laid claim to the same image, a snake on a pole, as though it were a good thing.

One day I realized that he might have been right. Maybe the snake wasn’t evil. Maybe the snake was simply wise, if there ever had been a snake. Maybe it recognized that a moment of realization had come along for the humans in the garden, if there ever had been a garden. What if the snake in the story whispered that first revelation, the moment when humans embraced their mortality and their self-awareness? And so it helped them to make the next step, to understand the consequences of choice. What if there was no curse? What if there was no sin, no original fault, no first cause of our mortality? What if they simply left the garden of ignorance and walked out to embrace their new knowledge, to embrace the blessings of work and of children, the only two things that live beyond us?

That left me standing, weeping, staring at him on that cross, lifted up for the sake of others. It was a moment of revelation, God dying on a cross, hanging on a tree made by men. The good and wise snake had once again come to pull humans along, to raise us to a new understanding. When Jesus died, it was finished, this work of the old snake, opening the eyes that could bear to see something new—God himself hanging dead on a pole at the hands of humans—and all that I could do was weep.

It was Nicodemus who came to take him down from the cross. He brought burial clothes, brought permission from the Romans to take the body down to wrap it before sundown, brought a donkey to carry him once again along the streets. I held Jesus while the old man wrapped the clean cloth around him, holding Mary back from his body long enough to cover him, to clothe him in death. We brought the body to Nicodemus’ tomb, newly carved no doubt for the old man himself, but he had not foreseen this day when he bought it. None of us knew what God had foreseen, had planned, in the carving of this tomb, if anything. We carried the body inside the darkening vault, and we laid him on the stone bed carved into the rock. We stood there for a moment, mindful of the setting sun, mindful that we should seal the tomb and go to our homes. Why we cared about the start of the Sabbath was beyond me. Here in this tomb, it no longer mattered what day came with the setting of the sun. We had buried God.


Find I, John on NetGalley

Clouds - I, John cover

Jacket_PerfectBound_Rev1Find I, John on NetGalley

Want to review a copy of I, John on NetGalley? Ever heard of NetGalley.com? Ever heard of (or been) a “professional reader”?

If you are a professional reader, such as a bookseller or reviewer (or you would like to become one,) here’s a link to the NetGalley posting of I, John:



If you’re wondering, NetGalley.com is a place where authors and publishers let folks who are willing to post reviews (or who are in a position to stock a book in a library or store) obtain access to a free digital copy to read. Authors and publishers get reviews to use in advertising, and the readers get free access to the work to see what they think of it. Here’s a summary from the NetGalley webpage:

NetGalley is an innovative, easy-to-use website that provides digital galleys free of charge to reviewers, bloggers, media, librarians, booksellers and educators. NetGalley helps reduce our environmental impact while also giving you faster access to our titles!

Register now at www.NetGalley.com and search the catalog to view our available galleys. Then just hit the “Request” button for the title(s) you want.

Once you request the title, you’ll just need to wait until we approve your request, and then the galley will appear on your NetGalley homepage (under “New on My Shelf”). You will receive an email notification once your request is approved, so that you’ll know to login to view the galley.

You’ll have the option to download the galley to your computer or read it on a variety of devices. You can find step-by-step instructions for each here.

Be sure that you download Adobe Digital Editions (the program you’ll need to view our galley) first – it’s quick and free: http://www.adobe.com/products/digitaleditions/

I, John Giveaway on Goodreads

I, John Giveaway on Goodreads


Right now you have the chance to win a free copy of I, John – just head over to Goodreads and enter: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22942159-i-john



Hurry! The Giveaway ends on October 1, with 10 people winning perfectly free, signed copies of I, John.  (US, Canada, Great Britain and Australia for this Giveaway. Sorry, everyone else – we’ll try to get  you included next time!)

If you’ve already read it, please take a moment to add a review on  Goodreads site, or wherever you bought your copy. You can even post right on the new C R Taylor Facebook page (it is lonely and would love to be liked…)