Stopping Isn’t Changing

Transfiguration | Luke 9:28-45

Stopping Isn’t Changing

Transfiguration—according to the Oxford Dictionary, the word means “a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state”.

A complete change. How often do we see that happen? How often do we experience it?

A few creatures manage it. Caterpillars, perhaps locusts. Among people, transfigurations are rare. Our changes are usually less apparent, and most of the time we are only pretending. We say that we are going to change, when we mean that we are going to stop something—stop drinking, stop the drugs, stop lying to ourselves, stop wasting time.

Icon of Transfiguration, Novgorod School, 15th century.
Icon of Transfiguration, Novgorod School, 15th century.

Stopping is not the same as changing.

We stop the drinking or drugs or whatever else we have been doing, and we pretend that by being sober we are changed.

Stopping is not changing — it is standing still. A changed person goes on to become something else, begins doing something new. A man who simply stops has not changed: he is just waiting for the opportunity to begin again. Ask anyone who has lived with an alcoholic who thought the goal was just to stop drinking.

Stopping is only the first step. Then you have to start climbing the mountain.

That is one way that changing is like writing. If you are going to write a novel, you may start with an idea, and you may have some notion of where you are going, but the only way to finish is to just keep putting one word after another. You keep taking one more step up the mountainside.

It’s that easy. It’s that hard.¹

When you finish, getting to the top of the mountain gives you the chance to see what you have done, how far you came, but doing the work got you there.

If you stop, you will never climb the mountain. You will never get where you are going, and you will never change. You will never be able to look back and see where you were when you started, because you never left.

Mountaintops are small places. There is more space in the valley below, and the valleys are all around. When you have climbed one mountain, all that is left is to come back down and choose whether to stay in the valley or to pick another hillside.

The view changes, and so do we — doing the work changes us.Icon_of_transfiguration_(Spaso-Preobrazhensky_Monastery,_Yaroslavl)

We can stop the drinking, stop the drugs, stop wasting time, stop whatever it is that is keeping us bound up in ourselves, but it is still there. We are still there. When Jesus came down from the mountain, he found a boy who was seized by a demon. We could argue the literal or metaphorical understanding of the story, but we all have our demons. Whether we make our own demons or they were already there is of little importance. What matters is getting free.

Getting free means more than stopping. It means doing the work, taking the next steps, one mountain after another, one valley after another.


 

Again, a story told differently sometimes helps us to hear it. Here’s an excerpt from my novel I,John telling the transfiguration story from different points of view, that of an angel named Adriel and that of the disciple named John. I wrote it one word after another.

Adriel

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.

John

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.

You can read a longer free excerpt in the new online Kindle Preview. It opens a book view of I,John in your browser window–just click here.


¹ “It’s that easy, and that hard.” – That is the way Neil Gaiman famously put it, when explaining how to finish a story. You can find his answer here on Neil Gaiman’s Journal.


Transfiguration by Raphael, c. 1520

Bread and Stone

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost  |  John 6:51-58

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Bread and Stone

Mt Mitchell 5I wrote this post while visiting the mountains of North Carolina with my daughter. Twice we hiked along trails on Mt Mitchell, the tallest peak east of the Mississippi. The first day was cold, and the mountain was covered in clouds, making the trails quiet and secretive. The second day was warmer, sunlight streaming through the forest, so that the same stones and trees were sometimes hard to recognize as the ones we had found the day before.

Mt Mitchell 2Along the trails I thought about the way Jesus used bread as a metaphor for life. The stones rising around us and the forest growing from them began to take on the same meaning.

The mountains of Appalachia are old. These mountains are not as tall as the Rockies or the Himalayas, and there is none of the astonishing grandeur of those jagged peaks. The Appalachians have been worn down by time, covered by trees and moss, until like Grandfather mountain and Graybeard and Mitchell, one is left gazing at a chain of old men and women, moss ridden, home to birds and squirrels and bears.

Hiking through these hills, there is also the constant reminder of the stone beneath one’s feet. The landscape may be softened by trees, moss and mushrooms, but the stone is always there, just beneath, supporting the life above. These mountains were here when the plants came into being. These stones rose up long before the dinosaur ancestors of ravens clawed and squawked across the rocks.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes the peculiar claim that he is living bread, come down from heaven. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” he tells his neighbors in Capernaum.

They are appalled. Why wouldn’t they be?

Mt Mitchell 3A man they have known for years tells them that eating his flesh and drinking his blood is life itself, and they are supposed to understand that he is anything but insane? They were not a people given to metaphor.

We might restate the idea for them, and for us, something like this–God is in the bread we eat, the stones beneath our feet, the stars across our sky. God is in all that sustains our lives.

There is a popular notion that rational people should reject everything that cannot be expressed or explained in scientific terms. According to this way of thinking, anyone supposing the existence of God is at best ignorant, at worst delusional.

God is not the only such idea. We cannot explain a great deal.

Why do we love? Why do we mourn? Perhaps the long developmental period of humans and apes provides a basis for our devotion to our children. Lizards, in contrast, lay the eggs and walk away from their young, or perhaps eat them. Even granting the power of evolutionary forces to explain our initial bond, how does that explain love?

Anyone not knowing that love is more than biological compulsion and obligation is missing a great deal. No, he is missing everything worth knowing.

Mt MItchell 4Science is wonderful. Through science our lives are better, our scope of thought is widened, our pursuit of our potential is less limited. Science can explain attraction and the biological basis of our compulsions. It has not quite explained our minds, as differing from our brains. And it has failed altogether to explain love, that which the ancients called agape.

Faith is not delusion, nor is it in antipathy to science. The idea that one must either accept science or faith is a false dichotomy. It is the task and joy of science to explain how things are. It is the joy and the task of faith to explore what may be. I suspect that faith and science are a double spiral that one day will join in a point of understanding, transcending our ideas and ways of thinking.

Meanwhile, we have metaphor instead of explanation.

Eat the bread, drink the water. We may find God in the stones beneath our feet.

MtMitchell_Gazing

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, with dazzling white clothes and 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 is 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 world. 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.


 

Adriel

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.
John

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

Some Doubt

Trinity Sunday  |  Matthew 28:16-20

And having seen they worshiped him; but some doubted.

Mal lying down 027Eleven people went up a mountain in Galilee to meet Jesus. This was after he had died, of course, and after the resurrection. It does not say that some worshiped Jesus and some doubted. It says that they worshiped, and some doubted.

To make it plainer, some of the ones worshiping were also the ones doubting. That may be one of the most reassuring ideas in all of scripture.

The word that we are hearing is ἐδίστασαν, from διστάζω, not a particularly helpful fact if we do not know the Greek of the first century. It is a word that means something like “to stand in two places.” That is a more elegant expression of doubt, and one way that we can try to understand what happened—they worshiped while they doubted, trying to stand in two places at once.

It is understandable, their being of two minds about Jesus. After all, they watched the man die, and now here he was standing in front of them. It is hard to deal with that sort of dissonance when the universe dishes it up.

Most Christians today took an easier path. We began with the idea of an already resurrected Jesus. That way the death of Jesus becomes just part of the story, the background to this already living person. Doubt or wonder, or both, creep in when we try to put together the details of the resurrection story. Then we find that we, like those followers on the mountain, have one foot in faith and one in mystery.

The resurrection is simple compared to the Trinity. This man Jesus died, and then he was alive again. Fine, we might say. At least it is a story that moves in a straight line, life to death to life again, and who doesn’t want to hope for life on the other side of death? This was the God-man, you say? At once God and human? Fine, we can accept that too.

God is one God and three persons at the same time, you say? There is God who is entirely Other, and there is an aspect of God who becomes this Jesus person, and there is the aspect of God who is in all places and times at once? This is where most of us have to get off the train. We cannot imagine it.

On the other hand, I am a father, and I am a son, and I am myself. It is true that at some moments I appear to be more one than the others, but I am always all three. A star is comprised of the material within it, an impressive fusion reaction, and the energy that flows out from it as light. My dog has many aspects. He is guardian and watcher, hater of crows, lover of ice cream, bane of cats, fearless behind me, white fur blurring in chase or restful in sleep, his own person, my companion. He is all of those things, yet he remains dog, and I love him for all of his aspects.

The idea of the Triune God comes from scripture, but we have added a great deal over the centuries by way of explanation and illustration. For that matter, we’ve added a great deal of explanation and illustration to everything having to do with God. From the three rings of a pretzel to a bookshelf straining under the theology of Karl Barth, we keep trying to explain it. Here is how God created the universe, we say, never mind that the scriptural point was simply that God did rather than how God did. It is a God-thing. This is how the whole crucifixion thing works, we say—here’s what was paid, or ransomed, or fulfilled. Never mind that Jesus simply said to love one another as he loved us and left off the explanations.

Forget about explanations for a moment. If they mean so much, God would likely have provided a clearer manual for us to read, something with summaries and a nice index. Forget about the rules, who is right and who is wrong, especially who is wrong. Instead of explanations, we have stories, from creation to Jesus on a mountain. That might be a clue as to what is important, what matters.

The stories say that God is not like us, but that we are a little like God. The stories say that God has walked among humans. The stories say that God is love and light and that God loves each of us, though we don’t find any compelling reason for God to do so—quite the opposite. And the stories say that God is everywhere.

All of that leaves us with faith pushing against doubt, reason pulling against acceptance. It is like walking: we only manage to stand because of the tension in our muscles and bones. If you think too much about walking, you won’t be able to do it.

If God is everywhere, let’s expect God everywhere: in the rain, in strangers, in dogs and in starlight. Everything we find reveals part of God, and every revelation of God is all of God. We can worship while we doubt, and it is fine to doubt while we worship. It is part of our story of God, and God loves us for it.

Faith Takes Practice

Clouds - I, John cover

Ascension  |  Luke 24:44-53

Clouds Process 012In John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, the title character says, “Faith takes practice.” At that moment, Owen is talking about a man of his extremely small stature making a slam dunk on the basketball court. He is also talking about a view of life.

On Sunday the Christian world celebrates the Ascension of the Lord. Well, those Christians who pay attention to the liturgical calendar will. Most Baptists, for example, will not even know why they are hearing the passages from Luke and Acts describing Jesus being taken up into heaven on a cloud.

It may be just as well. The story is good and meaningful, but have you ever stopped to listen to church folk talking about it?

To a first century audience it was wonderful imagery, powerful and full of hope. We get the symbolism of it today, but there are some problems if we are going to offer the gospel to a modern world.

Here’s one: do we really think that heaven is in the sky? Do we really mean to say that heaven is “up there” just beyond the clouds, somewhere that jet airplanes and satellites and NASA scientists seem not to find? Do we really mean to say that Jesus rode a cloud into the sky?

Maybe not, but go take a seat in almost any church this Sunday where people are talking about this passage, and listen for a while. Odds are good you’ll walk out thinking Christians believe heaven is ‘up’ and that Jesus rode a cloud into the sky.

Consider another example. Most of the people in that first century audience had vague ideas about the shape of the earth. Some of them knew that the world was a sphere, but others still held onto the comforting notion that it was flat. All of them could hear the creation stories of Genesis and understand them. They understood that these are God-stories. Science deals with things that are true, God-stories deal with truth about God.

There is a difference.

I could count the paper money in my wallet and tell you how much I have. (It would not take long.) What I told you would be true, but it would not be truth, the kind that lasts and that has meaning for our lives. The dollar amount I count would be a fact; that these paper dollars have any actual trade value in the marketplace is more of a matter of faith.

Did Jesus ride up into the sky in a cloud? Maybe. I don’t know. That is what the story says, but it could be simply trying to convey the truth that Jesus went away, in a way that made it a God-thing. Mysterious. Hard to grasp. Passing all around us. Like a cloud.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how Jesus left. It doesn’t even matter where he went. The gospel message is that, in some God-way, God is always present in the world. Up or down, in or out, seen or unseen.

Maybe heaven is a time instead of a place—heaven is when we get there. And it won’t matter where ‘there’ is. What will matter is what we have become.

Faith is participating in that journey to somewhere. Practice is how we get there. If faith is a bicycle made by God, the pedals are called practice.