I can see the T-shirt now: “I wanted a religious experience and all I got was a stupid tent (and this shirt).” Where can I order one? Isn’t that the essence of many people’s encounter with church, Christianity, or organized religion? People want God and we give them stuff. People want to be changed and we offer trinkets, Bible covers, and bracelets. The church has been known to provide a dressing room (a tent, one might say) and sometimes nothing more.
For all the resplendent glory and metaphysical light surrounding the Transfiguration; there is more to the Transfiguration than a Jesus sanctioned ghost story and an opportunity to bemoan Peter’s “just not getting it” once again. If we focus on the Las Vegas style magic show we miss the message and meaning behind Jesus’ smoke and mirrors. What are we doing? Does the church provide an opportunity for a real world encounter with the divine? Where does the Old Testament fit into our collective worship and individual lives? What do we do when God scares us and we don’t know how to respond? Where does our need for stability and predictability end? Is it possible to ever have a well manicured, covered, managed, fill in the blanks relationship with God that we attempt to control? No, it’s not.
The Transfiguration challenges our need to control God. Peter’s actions seem benevolent. They are motivated by fear and kindness. Peter doesn’t know what else to do. Don’t ancients like Moses and Elijah (not to mention the Holy Spirit) need shelter, especially on the rugged terrain of a mountain?
If we don’t understand someone (or something), we try to control what we don’t know or dislike.We create new creeds, statements of faith, dictates, and realign dogma. Even when our actions appear motivated by virtue (or the right reading of Augustine, Aquinas or Wesley), it is easier to make our image of God fit inside our tent (something we built, can move, and reassemble at will) than embrace God’s expansive vision of the world around us. In the tent we’ve built, whether built out of love or a desire for power, God is ours to control and wield. So we think. When you pull up the stakes and pack up your tent only to pitch it again at the bottom of the mountain to show the world the “God Show” you captured at the top of the mountain, God’s not there. The tent is empty. God’s not there. God was never in your tent.
God isn’t left behind on the mountain. I still believe and quote Paul Tillich as often as I can: “God is the ground of all being”. Our greatest fear at encountering God, like Peter and his colleagues on the mountain, comes from realizing we cannot control God. We can put words in God’s mouth, attribute actions to God, blame God, and do countless other things. But that’s not God. That’s us playing God. See the difference?