There are some scriptures that, when we hear them read, we see them like a movie in our heads. The story of the Transfiguration is one of those scriptures.
It starts with Jesus and three of his disciples going up on a mountain. We have no trouble imagining this. Even if we haven’t climbed high mountains personally, we’ve seen the view in movies and on inspirational posters. Thanks to the way our minds work, we simply take one of those images and add a picture of Jesus into it. He probably has shoulder-length clean brown hair and a neatly trimmed beard and is wearing a white robe with possibly a blue sash. Then we add three generic disciples, who look similar, though not as appealing.
Then, according to the story, Jesus begins to glow. No problem. Thanks to Hollywood, we can imagine that. We’ve seen “Touched By An Angel” or “Ghost.” Then Moses and Elijah appear. Depending on our age, Moses may look a lot like Charlton Heston, and if not, then he carries those stone tablets around with him so he’ll be recognized. Elijah–well, we’re not as sure what he looks like, so we’ll put in a fierce-looking prophet with a white beard and move on.
Sound about right? See how easy that was? And it all happened inside our brains, with little or no effort, in nanoseconds. It’s not such an unbelievable scene–we can imagine it, no problem. It’s not even very exciting. Old hat, we might say.
But think about this story happening to you. You are going hiking with some family and friends—people you know really well. If you are no longer in hiking shape, remember a time when you were. This hike is pretty strenuous—a long climb up a windy mountain. As you climb your pulse rate increases. You start to breathe faster. You pause to wipe the sweat from your brow. You need your breath so there’s no talking, just shared journey, shared breath.
You reach the top and you rest your hands on your knees, but something catches your eye, something bright. You turn to see that one of your companions is – glowing?! Not like smiling-glowing, but actually glowing, as if a bright light is emanating from their chest. “Someone you thought you knew really well, standing there pulsing with light, leaking light everywhere. Face like a flame. Clothes dazzling white. Then, as if that weren’t enough, two other people are there, all of them standing in that same bright light. Who are they? Can’t be…. Dead men come back to life! … Now there’s a cloud coming in fast that is way more than weather, a terrifying cloud that is also alive…. Covering everything up. Smells like a lightning strike. Can’t see a thing. Then a voice from the cloud lifts the hairs on the back of your neck. Fear so fast and primitive, you’re bristling like a dog. What’s the voice saying?”
“This is my Child, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased; listen to them!”
And what little breath you had left from the hike is stolen from your chest.
This story is supposed to take your breath away, but we have heard it so often that we have domesticated it. As one famous writer says it: “The story that we have just heard defies interpretation, although that has not stopped legions of interpreters from trying…. [Most of us labor] under the illusion that our job is to figure out what the story means. I am not sure where we got this idea, but it seems to dominate the way that many of us read the Bible. Give us a passage of scripture and we will put on our thinking caps, doing our best to decipher the symbols, read between the lines and come up with the encoded message that Jesus or Luke or God has hidden in the passage for us to find. The idea seems to be that the story itself is chiefly a suitcase for conveying the meaning inside of it. Discern the content of the story and you do not have to go rummaging around inside of it every time it comes up. Instead, you can pull the meaning out of it and place it neatly folded in a drawer where you can find it the next time you need it.” The same author goes on to say that “When you read the Bible you are supposed to know what it means. You have your Christian decoder ring, now use it!”
I can decode this message. I can tell you that Moses and Elijah represented the Law and the Prophets, showing that Jesus was above them both. I have preached that sermon. It’s boring. I can tell you how the disciples wanted to build dwelling places to stay on the mountain, but we’re supposed to come down and do the work. I have preached that sermon, too.
But this morning I don’t want to decode the message. I am reminded of a poem by Billy Collins, a professor and a nationally-recognized poet. He wrote this poem called “Introduction to Poetry” about teaching poetry.
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
How often do we tie the scripture to a chair and torture a confession out of it? How often do we try to decode the scripture? I’m not saying that biblical research or what we call “exegesis” is wrong. I do a lot of it. We often need to know the original context and original language in order to know how to apply it to our lives.
But what if? What if the point isn’t to decipher the message? “What if the point is not to decode the cloud but to enter into it?” What if our primary role is not to intellectually understand it but to live it?
Whenever I think of entering that cloud, I think of this one story. A few of you have heard it—I told it in a different setting—but it bears repeating. In my first year of seminary we had a class called Contextual Education—Con Ed for short—where each first-year student was put into a ministry setting and told to sink or swim. My class was assigned to the Wesley Woods Retirement and Geriatric Facility. We weren’t given much training, just a badge that said “Chaplain,” and then we were set loose on unsuspecting residents. While some of my fellow students sat in rec rooms playing games with senior citizens, I was assigned to the long-term hospital wing of the facility. It was small, just one floor, and I was supposed to visit every room and offer my services, I was not responding to requests for a chaplain—the real chaplains got those—so this was the chaplain equivalent of cold call sales.
This was not an easy assignment for an introvert new to ministry. Walking into a stranger’s room who hadn’t asked for my presence was intimidating. I had no access to their charts so I didn’t know their names or faith traditions. One man angrily told me that women have no place being ministers and kicked me out of his room. I thought ‘If you only knew who I am, you’d have some much better reasons for kicking me out!’ It was my first time to get such a reaction. Some of the patients were non-responsive or unable to speak, so they couldn’t kick me out if they wanted to, which also made me uncomfortable. Sometimes I went week after week and wondered what in the world I was doing there, how I was supposed to connect with these people who were so different from me, when I had to guard every word and watch how much of myself I shared, or who showed no sign that they even knew I was there.
Then one day I went in, and there was a new patient–an African-American woman in her eighties, I think, who’d recently had surgery. Within two minutes of conversation she told me that she had three children, all of whom visited her regularly, that she attended church faithfully, and that she owned her own home and it was completely paid for. She was very proud of all of these things. I casually commented that she must have been a good mother, if her children were so faithful to her. She said, “I think I was a good mama, even if I didn’t have me an example to follow.” I thought her eyes were shining a bit, but being the insecure student that I was at the time, I didn’t want to push. I let the moment pass. We talked for another couple of minutes, and she gave me another chance. “I never had a mama,” she repeated. And this time her eyes definitely filled with tears.
When I asked, she explained that her mother had died when she was only three years old. “Was your father around?” I asked. “He took my brother,” she explained, “but I had to go live with my aunt, and she was mean.” She immediately tried to take back the statement. “I shouldn’t say she was mean,” she contradicted herself. “Was she mean?” I asked. “Yes.” “Well, then, you can say it.” “But she took me in, and she didn’t have to,” she said. “But she was never a mama,” I said. And her tears began to flow.
We talked about the need for a mother, about the pain of losing your mother, no matter the age. I was kneeling on the floor at her feet, and I held her hand as she cried, and as I debated what to say next. Finally I took a deep breath and thought, “Here goes. I’m going to teach progressive theology in a Methodist geriatric hospital.”
I asked her, “You know how the Bible talks about God as our father?” She nodded. “Well, the Bible also talks about God as our mother.” “It does?” Her face showed surprise but not suspicion. “Oh, yes ma’am, it does,” I assured her. I told her how Moses spoke often about “God who gave you birth.” I told her how God says, in Isaiah, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” And I reminded her of the passage where Jesus looked over the city and cried, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I have longed to gather your children together as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings.”
“So yes, God is your father,” I told her, “but God is also your mother.” As I gazed into her face, I saw the most amazing transformation. This look of sheer and perfect glory came over her, and her face literally shone as she said through her tears, “God–my mother! Oh, and she loves me!” I said, “Yes, ma’am, she does!”
I stayed in her room as long as I could that day. We sang “Amazing Grace.” We sang “It Is Well with My Soul.”
I never saw the woman again. When I returned the next time, she was gone. I don’t know where she went; I assume back home. I don’t know if the moment stayed with her as much as it has stayed with me. I don’t know if she told her pastor about our conversation, and if her pastor corrected her. And I don’t want to know. I don’t need to decode this experience. I don’t need to explain why it changed me, why, nearly twenty years later, I still feel the glow. I just treasure the memory of the glory on her face and the feeling that even in the cloud, a voice might speak.
I don’t have great knowledge or expertise or experience with mountaintop moments of glory. But I do know that, like the disciples, I tend to get them when I’m out of breath, out of words, out of my comfort zone, outside the scope of my own will and determination.
Granted, sometimes a cloud brings nothing but rain. But other times that fast-moving cloud of uncertainty is home to the voice you most need to hear. Listen. Listen.
 Barbara Brown Taylor. “The Bright Cloud of Unknowing.”