Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What Difference Do Epiphanies Make? (Reflections on the Transfiguration, part 3)

There are some people who actively pursue transcendent experiences; it’s almost like they’re addicted to spiritually induced highs the way others are addicted to physically induced highs. They pursue one peak experience after another. But peak experiences cannot be programmed or predicted. You can’t say, “Well, I am going to climb the mountain or withdraw to a monastery and have my own epiphany experience.” You can’t order it up off a menu. 

There is no pressing necessity for epiphanies. If we stumble upon a burning bush, fine, but it is, in my judgment, a waste of time to go looking for burning bushes. I can't find a whole lot of evidence that would suggest that such experiences actually change us.

There is no evidence in the Gospel story that the three disciples who experienced the Transfiguration were changed by that single experience. In fact, shortly afterward these three along with the other disciples get caught up in an argument over who will be the greatest in the kingdom of God. James and John, two of the disciples with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, coax their mother into asking Jesus if they can sit on Jesus’ left and right. Apparently their experience on the mountain did little to alter their ego grasping after power and position. So we have to ask, “How much impact do such transcendent experiences actually have?” Honestly, I don’t know.

But I do know that discipleship is about the journey, not the destination, and the journey leads us to the cross. Peter, on the mount, thought they had arrived. He wanted to build three dwellings so they could all hang out on the mountain. But in mid-sentence, the Divine Voice cut him off. The Divine Voice directed Peter and the others to listen to Jesus.

So what does Jesus say? Just prior to the Transfiguration, Jesus told the disciples he was going to be rejected by the Jewish leaders, that he would undergo great suffering and be killed, then be raised. After he tells them he is going to die, he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:24-25).

Another difference between Luke’s version and the accounts of Mark and Matthew is that in Luke’s telling Jesus actually discusses his imminent death with the disciples on the mount, whereas in Mark and Matthew it is mentioned as they descend the mountain. Either way, however, it is an important piece. If the brief account of the Transfiguration functions as a foreshadowing and sign of the resurrection, it takes second fiddle to the passion narrative. 

The journey of discipleship leads first to the cross (metaphorically it is all that the cross represents), which is the real crucible for transformation. The pattern is first death, then resurrection.  

The path of discipleship that leads to real conversion, real change and growth is a path that leads through death into rebirth. That’s the authentic pattern for transformation.

The call to discipleship is not a call to ascend the mount of transfiguration, it’s a call to die to our little self, our false self, the ego-driven self; it’s a call to die to our false attachments to money and greed, to honor and prestige, to power and control; it’s a call to let go of our anger and frustrations, our bitterness and resentments and petty jealousies.

This dying to the false self and its false attachments can be a painful process. The recent film Blue Jasmine is about a woman whose false attachment to affluence and prominence becomes an addiction, and when all that crumbles, she crumbles. When our false self is exposed, when we are forced to face our demons, when our world falls apart, we have a choice. We can give up, we can sink deeper into attachment and addiction, deeper into hopelessness and despair, or we can face our demons, admit our attachments, and grow and become more. Jesus says that it is in losing life that we find life. We have to die to be reborn. 

I have had so few epiphanies in my life, I can’t really assess their value. But I can tell you that my greatest insights and growth have come through my conflicts, hurts, and disappointments. I believe the valley experiences have the greater potential to transform us than the mountaintop experiences.



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