Lent isn’t quite over. For some of us, it feels like Ash Wednesday was only yesterday. Yet, for others, Lent may seem like the most protracted liturgical slog in history. We want it to be over. When will Holy Week be here? I’m calling for patience. A Holy Lent can still be found, even in these waning days. If we stop, take stock, find the energy for one more deep breath, and look around, we might realize how far we’ve come and the potential for changing our lives in Holy Week. We cannot take these last few days of Lent for granted. How do we make the most of the time remaining? Instead of practicing further acts of self-denial, we can make an act of pilgrimage. We can resolve to live more like Jesus. We can follow in Jesus’ footsteps as we round the dusty corners toward the Mount of Olives and prepare for Lent’s conclusion. We can be more like Jesus.
Find and confront your local Pharisees. Do your best to challenge the religious status quo. Start using parables and rabbinic wisdom like John Wick wields Japanese jujitsu to knock down the religiously inspired hypocrisy, bigotry, racism, misogyny, and homophobia.
Spend time with sinners. Seek them out wherever you can find them. Share the expansive love of God with people the church would prefer to exclude.
Bring God outside the Temple (Church). Whether you’re in the checkout line, the gas station, on a walk, or anywhere other than the church: bring God, a smile, and a willingness to listen to others with you. That’s what Jesus did.
Have your character and conduct attacked by other religious people. Jesus was always on someone’s poop roster.
Know the value of a small group, Christian community, friendship, and fellowship. When the chips are down, those people are going to be the ones who pull you through.
I thought of writing a thank you note to Franklin Roosevelt. Watching the coverage of the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, I am grateful for the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in the first weeks of his first term in 1933. His foresight is still making America a better country. This isn’t 2008, but people are nervous. Our financial system is only more interconnected now than it was then. It’s easy to see a contagion spreading across small to mid-size banks nationwide. I become nervous when I hear financial reporters use the “it’s wonderful life” analogy to explain what’s occurring with bank failure.
Why am I talking about a run on a bank that funded technology start-ups in Silicon Valley and spooked investors worldwide? It reminds me of the disaffiliation process. Think of our churches as branches of small to medium-sized banks. We’re not the most extensive operation in the world, but we’ve branches in small towns across America, Africa, the Philippines, Russia, and elsewhere. Over the past two years (at least), we’ve experienced a faith run on our congregations. In countless congregations, particularly across the south, our parishioners have rushed to withdraw their faith in and from the local churches. Unlike the federal government, there is no FDIC or Department of the Treasury to stop the run or guarantee the deposits of the account holders. When there is a run on the faith of a local congregation, no one is made whole. Everyone loses something. We all come away diminished and broke.
Some annual conferences have taken FDIC-like actions, virtually shutting down the disaffiliation process in their respective jurisdictions. In my annual conference, the disaffiliation process is proceeding at pace. These actions (in conferences limiting disaffiliations) do not, as in the fears of a banking crisis, do not stop churches and Christians from withdrawing their faith in the church, each other, the denomination, God, Jesus, family, friends, or other things. Disaffiliation is still spreading like a financial contagion. At first glance, faith appears to be hemorrhaging. Faith can be removed, lost, and taken at any time. I see this happening every day.
On the other hand, we can grow our faith and deposit mustard seeds, day or night. Jesus’ bank never closes. We can halt the massive faith sell-off with a single mustard seed. Our mustard seed is insured. Our FDIC is the empty tomb. If you’ve lost yours, go to Jesus. He will make you whole, give you another or help you find the one you’ve misplaced. Despite the demands and stresses of this process, you do not have to lose faith. Jesus is still Jesus. God is still God. Hold on to your faith in God. Our faith in God and God’s love for all humanity matters more than any legal process or the value of our church property.
So, what if we take denying ourselves (for Lent) literally? We deny ourselves because we realize we can’t make it alone. We need someone else to help us carry the cross. Self-denial as the most basic Christian means of asking for help.
Usually, we deny our personhood because it challenges the idea of a relationship. We encourage our autonomy because it rejects the concept of community. We underscore our individualism because it also rejects intimacy. Self-denial creates a safe space for us to hide if we so choose. Lent, by design, isn’t the best season for sharing. It’s that way by design. Lent makes us quiet, private, and shy. This is what happens when we deny ourselves. I’m not so sure it should.
To “deny yourself and take up your cross” invites us into what the cross really means — not just death and suffering, but God choosing human relationships. The cross represents God’s commitment to humanity. The cross represents what we do when we are not in a relationship with the other and think only for ourselves. Because to be ourselves is to be sure of our connectedness. If we reject the cross, we leave each other.
I think that’s what Jesus is saying.
Because Lent cannot be just about ourselves and our sacrifices, somehow, we must define our identity as connected to Christ and a community of believers. We don’t do Lent alone. Lent is a radical communal experience in many ways. People are willing to wear crosses on their foreheads when buying groceries. People are eager to talk about their Lenten disciplines — out loud, even to strangers.
Why? Because we realize Lent is not just about us. Lent is a denial of the self in the best way, not the reclusive self that denies the need for Christian community or the self that thinks it can survive on its own. The solitary self that rejects the most profound challenge of humanity — belonging.
Jesus’ charge is not a demand to deny your true self. Instead, it’s an invitation to realize we need other people. Desperately. Intimately. Because this is what being human is all about — intimacy. Belonging. Relationship. Attention. To what extent do we barely know ourselves without all of the above in our lives, without others acknowledging who we are? We can’t be ourselves on our own. And when we do, it is a self-absorbed existence. It is to become narcissistic in its purest form, where those around us are only pawns to placate our self-perceived power and importance.
Let’s face it. This is easy to do. And this is where many of us go astray. The self-talk of autonomous importance, self-sustained life, and power-driven ideals. And where does this end up? Broken communities and congregations. And for what? Our sense of authority? Perhaps this is one aspect of “denying yourself.” The feeling that our power trumps that of our people, the Scripture, and our God.
So here is our chance. To deny the impulses that demand reliance on us alone and seek the help of others. To curb the expectations that suggest ministry is a singular existence that works out of some skewed assertions that we have all the answers. Finally, to reject the temptations that try desperately to convince us of our worth without the call of God we initially heard.
The denial of self? It’s embracing the truth that we can’t live in this world alone. We need Jesus. We can’t live our lives without being in a relationship with others.
What does it mean to be transfigured? That’s part of being human. We want to describe the indescribable. It is the word Matthew chooses for double duty: to describe an indescribable experience and to capture the importance of this theological moment on the mountain. Transfiguration is a two-way process, especially in this text. Jesus is transformed, and the disciples are transformed by what they witness. Everyone is changed by what happens on the mountain in one way or another. No one will ever be the same. Jesus is different; his purpose is set wholly toward the events that will lead to his death. The three disciples now see Jesus, no pun intended, in a different light. It’s more than they comprehend. They can’t grasp the whole picture but realize there is so much more to Jesus than they ever thought possible. They can’t put it into words. As the passage says, Jesus doesn’t even want them to try. Keep this quiet, he says. It’s more than most people can bear on a good day. Jesus indicates that the meaning of the transfiguration (what occurred on that mountain) won’t be fully understood until after the events of Easter.
So where do we plug in? Are we playing a semantics game? If we return to my first question, what’s the difference between transfiguration and transformation? Why does the Bible use the word transfiguration? How do we, on one end of the transfiguration process, understand what happens when we come to terms with who Jesus is, what he’s all about, and what’s expected of us when we’re let in on the big plan? How does that change us and our level of commitment to the team?
First of all, transformation is transfiguration light. Transformation is more of a surface-level change. You can transform by simply getting a haircut and changing clothes. Transformation is ephemeral. Transformation might involve learning a new language. Finally, transformations are more temporary or can be undone. Transformations, in short, are not permanent.
Transfigurations, on the other hand, indicate systemic change. When you alter something at a root level, you are transfigured. If you’ve been transfigured, it is not easily undone, redone, or able to return to whatever status quo you inhabited before the transfiguration. Transfiguration is not surface-level change. Instead of a haircut and a shoe shine, you are working on your heart and soul. Fundamentally, your perspective and identity are altered, and you come away looking at the world in a different light. So this is not an exercise in semantic hair-splitting. Transfiguration is a big deal for all involved. Jesus wants us with him to see what he sees, to be on the same page that he’s on, as up to speed as he is, and understand as much as we can know about God’s plan for humanity. In short, Jesus wants us to be transfigured by his actions.
Jesus places us in the most critical place and time of our lives. We’re not aware of it, but this is it. This is the most important moment in our lives. Up to this point in our lives (what happens in Holy Week will be more important, but up until now, this is it), nothing we’ve done matches this moment. This is the highlight of our lives. Jesus has placed us in a position and place to have our lives transfigured by God in a way we’ve never thought possible. Short of being resurrected from the dead like Lazarus (or Jesus), we’re about to be a part of the next best thing. We don’t know this, of course. We’re blindly following Jesus up the mountain and doing what he says. Here’s where the rubber meets the road:
Do we trust Jesus enough to follow him up the mountain? (Jesus, you want me to go up a mountain? I’m out of shape. Can’t you get transfigured somewhere accessible, where it’s flat and requires less physical exertion and spiritual commitment from me?)
Do we want to be transfigured? As I said a moment ago, that’s a serious, systemic, profound change. We probably like how we are and are comfortable with our lifestyles and expectations for the world around us. We are set in our ways and like things the way they are. Being transfigured sounds frightening. We heard one of the passages throw around the words “fear and trembling” a moment ago. Isn’t it our instinct to say, “No, thank you, Jesus, I’m cool just as I am? I’ll reserve the right to be transformed on my time and schedule. But I’ll treat being transfigured like I treat a colonoscopy. Something I would rather not do, and I’ll schedule later.”
Jesus is in no mood to negotiate. We didn’t even realize this was a negotiation. Jesus says, “You want to be transfigured. You need to be transfigured. You’re going up the mountain. Grab your climbing sandals; this isn’t optional.”
“But I need to go by the outdoor store and pick up hiking boots, a new Columbia jacket, a backpack, and a fancy sleeping bag,” we say. Jesus says, “Nope.” “We go as we are with our sandals and robes. Trust me.”
This is one of the reasons I remain optimistic about the future of the United Methodist Church. Transfiguration, change, hope, and everything being worked out, in the end, do not depend on us. So Jesus tells these three disciples. If Jesus makes a promise, Jesus keeps his word. Jesus will ensure you get home if he takes you on a trip. If Jesus takes you up the mountain, you will come back alive. We may be climbing up the mountain now, and I trust Jesus is changing us in ways I may not understand now, but he will bring us back down in one piece. Jesus has never let me down yet.
Everyone wants to take their mountain-top experience home. The three disciples wished to hold onto the experience. They knew it was special. If you’ve ever been that close to God, one of those thin moments where heaven and earth come so close you can feel the presence of God, you know how they felt.
What could they do? These were practical, hard-working men. Let’s build these guys a shelter. We’re up on a mountain, it’s the middle of the night, and we’re all going to need something to sleep in. It makes sense, right? You can see the logic of their thinking. However, God is not a noun (a person, place, or thing in the conventional sense.) You can’t hold onto God the way you grab your Bible. It works the other way around. God holds on to you. Our greatest spiritual frustrations come from trying to hold on to God, tame God, and make God fit into boxes (shelters) of our creations. Sometimes we do this out of the best intentions, and sometimes because we’re control freaks. But this is not how God works. God holds on to us. We can’t grab the intangible cosmic reality and the reality at the heart of the cosmos and start giving God orders. We are the ones who fall on our knees and pray, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”
When we understand this, we realize what it means to be transfigured by Jesus Christ.
I know I sound like a pessimist. However, I like to think of myself as a pragmatist and a realist; especially when it comes to matters of the church. I know where we are. I know the decisions my congregation are wrestling with and how they fit into the more considerable upheaval rippling across Methodism. If you’re sitting safe and secure now, wondering what all the fuss is over, don’t worry. Someday soon, disaffiliation will come knocking at your door. It will no longer matter how we got here and what should have occurred at annual and general conferences long ago. The most critical issue will be that the members of your congregation will want to decide if they will remain members of the United Methodist Church, today. Their reasons for wanting to leave or stay will vary from place to place and person to person. A word of warning, it will be challenging to be in ministry during this process.
Despite this reality, I am optimistic. There are reasons for optimism. I sense, see, and feel a degree of optimism in defiance of the grievance-based assault on United Methodism and mainline Christianity. Why? How? From where does my optimism arise? It may sound simple, but so is the Gospel. I am optimistic because I believe in a simple hope delivered by an optimistic rabbi from Galilee who had a vision of everything working out. I am optimistic because Jesus was optimistic. After all, scripture paints a vivid picture of a world where sorrow ends, justice is restored, equality is guaranteed, and heaven meets earth. I am optimistic because it all works out in the end, not because of anything I do but because of everything Jesus has done.
I am optimistic because we are still here. The church still stands. Our buildings are not empty. While discerning a path forward, my congregation and others welcome new members. Methodism is not a lost cause. Even United Methodism in the Southeast Jurisdiction is still thriving. Despite crummy weather, COVID, death, a land war in Europe, and mass shootings across America, ordinary Methodists are coming to church to sing, pray, and hear the word of God. If they are angry about the issues of human sexuality tearing us apart, I do not see it from my pulpit. Remember when people checked their politics at the door? It still happens! I hear heartfelt prayers about life, love, loss, healing, new birth, and salvation. I see people on different sides of the political spectrum turn to one another and say, “may the peace of Christ be with you.” I am optimistic because we are here. We are talking to each other. We are laughing, hugging, and crying. We are alive. I am optimistic because we are still alive.
I am optimistic because I see God whittling away at our spiritual narcissism. We know churches split, secede, and divide. This is a constant in both religious and human history. God knows the folly of our quest to achieve holiness through our own efforts. Christianity’s presumptions about doctrine, Biblical interpretations, and theology are ours alone. I am optimistic because I know we can give these matters to God and still be led by the Holy Spirit, not individuals with specific religious agendas. I am optimistic because I know others are still listening for the still, gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit.
I am optimistic because there will always be another Sunday. On Sunday, the doors are open. It is already built and they are coming, to paraphrase “Field of Dreams.” It is the church. They are the people. Welcome them with optimism and hope. If it’s all we have, then that’s good enough.
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