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Prayer and Transfiguration
Have you ever had the experience of prearranging a meeting with someone and arriving only to find that they are nowhere around. But then you realize that there is an upstairs to the restaurant and upon going up a set of stairs, there they are waiting for you on the upper level.
You might look at each other as if you’ve seen a ghost. But then realize what must have happened. It never occurred to you, that while one was downstairs, the other was waiting upstairs.
Maybe that describes what the gospels call transfiguration. Half way through the gospel story, the disciples know Jesus does plenty of amazing and wonderful things, but they still assume he’s just one of them. But then a couple of them go up on a mountain with him and it’s like the veil slips and they’re invited in to a whole other world. All the time they thought there was just a downstairs and then suddenly, they see there’s an upstairs too, and Jesus is completely at home in it, even when the God’s voice thunders from above.
What’s even more remarkable is that there’s a place for them in it, hanging out with the likes of Moses and Elijah. They’ve been given a glimpse of glory. It’s a glory that’s faithful to the story of Israel, a glory with Jesus at the center, a glory that has God speaking words of love, a glory that has a place for them in it, and finally a glory in which Jesus touches them tenderly in their fear.
That’s about all we need to know about glory, and they find it all out, in a matter of seconds. I wonder if this experience, this glimpse of glory, shapes the way we pray by giving our prayers some extra dimension.
Let me explain. Let’s start with a conversation over coffee after church. You say haven’t talked for a while, how are you, what’s up, and you catch up on this or that. And then your friend holds your forearm, where their tone changes and is more serious, and they say ‘Say a prayer for my dad, he’s not himself, the dementia’s really kicking in now, and I feel like he’s losing his identity.’
And you look into your friend’s eyes, and in them you see the cost of what it’s taken just to put that pain into words, and you say, ‘I’m sorry. This must be such a bewildering time for you. Of course I’ll pray for your dad. And I’ll pray for you too.’
But then you’ve made a promise. A promise you have to keep. How exactly do you pray for a person in such a situation? What words can you find to wrap around this kind of long, slow-burning tragedy, in which lives and souls unravel and there’s no sign of the dawn?
There’s two conventional ways to pray for your friend and their dad. I’m going to call the first way resurrection. It’s a call for a miracle. You just say, ‘God, by the power with which you raised Jesus from the dead, restore this man in mind and body, make him himself again. Also bring my friend the joy of companionship and the hope of a long and fruitful family life together.’
There’s a big part of you that wants to pray this prayer. You love your friend. You see how watching their dad disintegrate before their eyes is breaking their heart. You want God to show some compassion, some change, some action.
But In the back of your head you maybe have a sense of some other Christians, who seem to pray for resurrection all the time. You wonder if you should have more faith and expect God to do amazing things every day. But you’ve also seen hopes dashed, you’ve seen Alzheimer’s only end one way, and a part of you can’t even say the word ‘heal’ because it seems to be asking for something that just isn’t going to happen. That’s the prayer of resurrection.
You know it’s what your friend most longs for, but sometimes you just find it too hard to say. But that’s not the only kind of prayer.
The other conventional kind of prayer is the prayer of incarnation. It’s a call for God to be with your friend and their father. It’s a recognition that Jesus was broken, desolate, alone, on the brink of death, and that this is all part of being a human being, all part of the deal you sign onto the day you’re born.
Our bodies and minds are fragile, frail, and sometimes feeble. There’s no guarantee life will be easy, comfortable, fun, or happy. The prayer of incarnation says, ‘God, in Jesus you shared our pain, our foolishness, and our sheer bad luck; you took on our flesh with all its needs and clumsiness and weakness. Visit my friend and her father now: grant them patience to endure what lies ahead, hope to get through every trying day, and companions to show them your love.’
The irony about this prayer is that the resurrection prayer expects God to do all the work, whereas this prayer invites us to do all the work. If we say ‘send them companions to show them your love,’ we’ve got to be wondering if there’s anyone better placed to be such a companion than we ourselves.
Deep down our friend is well aware that the prospects for their father are pretty bleak. Maybe what they’re really asking for when they nervously put their hand out to clasp your forearm is, ‘Help me trust that I’m not alone in all of this.’ Chances are, you can help them with that.
But in the midst of it all, you’d hardly be human if you didn’t feel powerless and inadequate in the face of all they were going through. I want to suggest that resurrection and incarnation aren’t the only kinds of prayer.
I’m sure they’re the most common, and in many circumstances they say pretty much all we want or need or ought to say. But go back to my experience example of waiting for a friend in a restaurant. Even more let’s go to what the disciples saw on the mountain. This is a third kind of prayer – a prayer of transfiguration. Here you discovered there was a whole reality going on that was part of your reality and affected you, but about which you were unaware.
On the mountain the disciples discovered that Christ was part of a conversation with Israel and God and was dwelling in glory in a way that they could hardly grasp, and yet it put their lives on a different plane. That’s an invitation to a third kind of prayer.
‘God, in your son’s transfiguration we see a whole reality within and beneath and beyond what we thought we understood; in their bewilderment and confusion, show this person yourself and her father your glory, that they may find a deeper truth to their life than they ever knew. May they discover reasons for living beyond what they’d ever imagined, and be folded into your grace like never before.’
This is a different kind of a prayer. The prayer of resurrection has a certain defiance about it – in the face of what seem to be all the known facts, it calls on God to produce the goods and turn the situation round. It has courage and hope, but there’s always
that fear that it has a bit of fantasy as well.
The prayer of incarnation is honest and unflinching about the present and the future, but you could say it’s a little too much swathed in tragedy. It’s so concerned to face the reality of being downstairs that there’s always that fear that it’s never going to discover anything else.
To work out the ingredients of the prayer of transfiguration, let’s go back to the transfiguration story we read together just now. There’s glory – the glory of the Lord in the face of Christ. There’s the pattern of God’s story in Israel and the church, a story that finds its most poignant moments in the midst of suffering and exile. There’s the loving, tender, presence and voice of God – a voice that for the only time in their lives, the disciples hear and understand. And there’s the extraordinary realization that, even though all this could have gone on without them, the disciples have been caught up in the life of the Trinity, the mystery of salvation, the unfolding of God’s heart, the beauty of holiness.
Maybe that’s your real prayer for your friend and their father. Maybe that’s your real prayer for yourself, in the midst of whatever it is you’re wrestling with today. Not so much, ‘Fix this and take it off my desk!’ Nor even, ‘Be with me and share in my struggle, now and always.’ But something more like, ‘make this trial and tragedy, this problem and pain, offer a deeper glimpse of your glory, a window into your world, when I can sense the mystery in all things, and walk forward. Bring me closer to you in this crisis than I ever have been in calmer times. Make this a moment of truth, and when I cower in fear, touch me, and make me alive like never before.’
And just maybe, in that truth, you begin to dance.
Sunday, February 26, 2017