Three Essential Prayers: Wow
Luke 9: 28-36
I didn’t intend to end our Three Essential Prayers series on Transfiguration Sunday but it was fortuitous when things turned out that way. There aren’t many better examples in scripture of the perfect moment for a “wow” prayer.
Today’s the day in the Christian calendar we call Transfiguration Sunday, named for the story we read tonight from Luke’s gospel. For most Protestants it’s always the last Sunday before Lent begins, the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday. And on this Sunday we catch a shining, blazing glimpse of Jesus right before we walk the long dusty road through the desert of Lent. In some ways it’s the vision we can carry with us to sustain us during the temptations of the wilderness.
Jesus takes his inner circle of disciples – Peter, James, and John – high up on a mountain and undergoes a sort of metamorphoses. Right before their eyes his appearance changes, his face begins to shine like the sun, and his clothes turn a bright, dazzling, impossible white. As if that weren’t enough, suddenly Moses and Elijah appear and start talking with Jesus. Never mind that, as my friend Jason points out, this was in the time before photographs: the disciples recognize the key players immediately.
In fact, Peter recognizes that there is a certain significance to this event and quickly pipes up with an idea for capturing the moment. Right over top of the conversation Jesus and the prophets are having, Peter blurts out, This is a great place to be. I can make three huts, one for each of you. I picture him warming up here. He’s about to be on a roll, with many more anxious, quick-thinking plans to be revealed in rapid succession. But before he gets further along and before even Jesus or the prophets have a chance to respond, God intervenes.
A brightly-lit cloud overshadows the mountaintop scene and God says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9: 35). After that, the disciples look up at Jesus and suddenly he looks normal again; Moses and Elijah are gone.
The heart of this encounter for me is the babbling Peter overflows with once he sets eyes on this strange scene. Overcome with emotion and dazzling light and fear, he just starts coming up with ideas of how to contain it all, tame it. If he can just keep talking maybe the scene will sparkle less. If he can hatch the perfect plan maybe he can encapsulate this event in a veneer that keeps the transfiguration over there where it belongs – and away from him and the other disciples. You’ve probably heard other sermons about Peter trying to capture the moment, trying to hold onto it and stay with the mountaintop experience rather than going back “down” into normal life after it’s over. I’ve probably preached some of those, too, but that’s not how I’m thinking of it today. Today I’m thinking of it this way: he’s trying to contain this experience the way an oyster contains an irritating grain of sand by covering it over in layers of pearl. So he won’t feel it anymore, so it won’t be so noticeable and irritating.
I think the disciples would have been better off if they had said, simply, “Wow!”
Anne Lamott describes “wow” like this (Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Lamott, 2012, p. 73):
…Wow, because you are almost speechless, but not quite.
You can manage, barely, this one syllable.
When we are stunned to the place beyond words, we’re finally starting to get somewhere. It is so much more comfortable to think that we know what it all means, what to expect and how it all hangs together. When we are stunned to the place beyond words, when an aspect of life takes us away from being able to chip away at something until it’s down to a manageable size and then to file it nicely away, when all we can say in response is “Wow,” that’s a prayer.
See what I mean? It’s like she’s describing poor Peter. If only he’d said “wow” and then stopped and stared.
But hasn’t this happened to you – with or without the urge to build huts?
When I was newly in love with Woody and on vacation, I spent a whole Wow day, driving through Montana to meet up with a friend for camping at Glacier National Park. My whole life I’ve had pictures in my mind of what Montana looks like. I always dreamed that the Big Sky state would feel spacious and open, with huge clouds, and breathtaking. It was just as I’d always pictured it, even better. I drove for about 6 hours that day, windows open, radio playing, thinking about my sweetheart, smiling, and drinking it all in.
I realized at one point that I was talking to myself.
Every time I’d round another curve, there in front of me would be another magnificent and breathtaking view. With each new gift of a view I was spontaneously exclaiming, “Great God!” It arose without conscious thought, and came out sounding like awe and praise. Great God! After a couple of minutes wondering if I should come up with another phrase somehow more suitable, I realized I had stumbled onto the exact perfect exclamation. I was simply, reflexively, wholeheartedly giving thanks to God and expressing my astonishment. The day, the landscape, being in love, and the glory of it all created in me an eruption of praise to the One who created and gave it all. It was the most apt and reasonable response I could have come up with – what a great God this is! Thank you! Wow! (I don’t think it’s all that easy to separate out help, thanks, and wow. In my experience, they bleed into one another on almost all occasions.)
Anne Lamott calls poetry “the official palace language of Wow” (Help Thanks Wow, Lamott, p. 79). When I think of that day driving through Montana and when I think of poetry as the language of wow, I am reminded of the poem by ee cummings, called “I thank You God for most this amazing” (listen to ee cummings recite his poem here). Listen (from E.E. Cummings: Complete Poems 1904-1962, by e. e. cummings, as credited 2/10/13 at http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/C/cummingsee/ithankYouGod.htm):
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
Wow sounds right in an unusual way, like cummings choosing “most this amazing day” – not the way we’d normally say it. But somehow better than “this most amazing day,” as if the off kilter cadence is yet another thing keeping us oysters in touch with that strange little grain of sand instead of working ourselves up to a pearl. “Most this amazing day.” Fitting. Right. Wow.
Here’s the thing about Wow and the Transfiguration. To be transfigured means to change shape or form. Jesus looked like normal Jesus and then he was dazzling white and shining like the sun. I think what happened on that mountain was more about how the disciples suddenly saw what was there all along. They caught a glimpse of the glory – the wowness – of Jesus, the human-and-divine all in one “package,” shining, brilliant, breathtaking, awe-inspiring. I don’t think Jesus put on an elaborate magic trick show for them up there; I think the “eyes of [their] eyes were opened,” as ee cummings would say.
For us, it seems that paying attention is our best, more successful avenue to Wow. Even in order to see what is right in front of our eyes, we have to do more than walk around with our eyes open. We have to be observe, really look, and be willing to see and receive what’s there. We have to be present where we are. We have to be willing to be wowed.
Anne Lamott again (Help Thanks Wow, Lamott, p. 85):
Gorgeous, amazing things come into our lives when we are paying attention: mangoes, grandnieces, Bach, ponds. This happens more often when we have as little expectation as possible. If you say, “Well, that’s pretty much what I thought I’d see,” you are in trouble. At that point, you have to ask yourself why you are even here. And if I were you, I would pray “Help.” (See earlier chapter.) Astonishing material and revelation appear in our lives all the time. Let it be. Unto us, so much is given. We just have to be open for business.”
Lent is a great time to practice Wow. Or, at least, to practice paying attention, with a spirit that’s “open for business.” Through the open door created by our spiritual practices this season, God works on us to change the shape of our lives and spirits, to transform us. When we let go of our standard routines and clear space for God, we make room to see and hear and feel and notice and be wowed by God. With less cluttering our vision, in the room we create or the longing we feel for what we have taken away this season, we find ourselves in the presence of the God who transforms us and who, from time to time, shines through our everyday to give a glimpse of the eternal.
Head down from this mountain into the season ahead with the full knowledge that what you saw is the real deal. Make peace – or at least room – for that irritating and confusing speck of sand; resist the temptation to safely encapsulate it in the prettiest pearly substance you can find. Look up and look deep, and see the dazzling display God has for you instead. Know that the most and the least you can say in response to God’s continual revelation is Wow – and that it’s enough.
Thanks be to God!
© 2013 Deborah E. Lewis