“Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain… Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” -Exodus 24: 15a, 17
“Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun…” -Matthew 17: 1-2a
It seems, in the past few years, that whenever I bump into a friend or acquaintance and ask how they are, the answer is no longer some variant of “fine, thank you” (the old, polite, brush-aside response); rather, I often hear, “okay, but I’m so busy!” Which, interestingly, does not accompany a tone of despair, or fatigue – any of the reactions to busyness that one might expect – but always sounds vaguely proud and satisfied. There is a moral value that we appear to have added, in recent years, to busyness: action has become somehow virtuous, in and of itself. Busyness means that we are important, perhaps indispensable. Busyness means that we are not, in political parlance, idle moochers, living off the busyness (goodness) of others.
But if busyness is good, what is the full implication? Do we still believe, with our grandmothers, that idle hands are the devil’s workshop? Has our Protestant work ethic come so far that we would condemn those who are not busy to the point of exhaustion, and proud of their inability to say “no”?
The virtue of busyness skews our priorities, to the point where we strive so hard simply to keep busy that when down time does arrive, we fidget. We wonder what is wrong, as we struggle against the discomfort of stillness and silence. Technology has not brought this moral value into being, but has solidified it, as we are presented with a means of keeping busy that can easily be carried in pocket or purse. We need never be alone; our work, our social communities, even vast libraries of books, are available at our fingertips 24/7.
When the busyness does begin to weigh; when we begin to feel overwhelmed, we break our routines without breaking the grip that “doing” has upon us. We all know people who have taken vacation time to work to “catch up” on everything else – which, other than not having to get showered or dressed, hardly sounds like a vacation. When we do actually get away – to “recharge our batteries” – we fill our vacations with things to see and read and do… and often neglect to turn off the notifications on our phones. Looking at someone’s vacation pictures on Facebook can be exhausting; it’s no wonder that we’re all so familiar with the phrase, “I need a vacation to recover from my vacation!”
When busyness is virtuous in and of itself, and separate from the possible virtue of the actual actions accomplished, then all that productivity stops having much meaning. The tasks that we assign ourselves simply to stay in motion become burdensome; filled as we are with actions and goals and appearances and anxiety, we often feel hollow… and so we find other chores, other actions, that ensure that we continue to be busy for the sake simply of being busy… busy enough not to wonder why we are not fulfilled.
I wonder if that’s how Peter felt. After all, there must have been a lot to do, as a disciple: beyond just having to keep up, theologically, because you never really knew when Jesus was going to throw a pop quiz, and you had to be ready to understand parables and ask wise questions that showed you were worthy of discipleship after all. There were also all the Human Resources questions that come up when a prophet, twelve disciples, their families, and a bunch of hangers-on are all tramping around the Galilean and Judean countryside for three or so years. There are details to arrange – where is everyone going to sleep? What is everyone going to eat? It’s all well and good to feed five thousand on a hillside, but that doesn’t really help in the day-to-day of several dozen people! And with that many, traveling together for so long, there are always disputes to be settled at some point during the day. And poor Peter, trying his hardest, finds that every time he turns around, there went Jesus, going off by himself again. It must have been enough to drive one to distraction.
I wonder what lists, what details, were going through Peter’s head that day, as this small group headed off for a hike up a mountain? What problems was he earnestly trying to discuss with Jesus? Finally getting Jesus nearly to himself, was he talking as fast as the strenuous hike permitted, when this moment of dazzling brilliance broke in?
It is a hard thing to disengage from all of the doing that keeps us busy, and to just be. Several years ago, my family and I were out running errands, when we looked up to see one of the most gorgeous sunsets I have ever witnessed. The bring-you-to-a-full-stop-in-a-busy-parking-lot kind – very nearly a bring-you-to-your-knees kind. We all stared for a long moment, but then, rather than just being in that moment, I reached into my pocket for my cell phone and clicked on the camera. Instead of stopping, and just watching this amazing sunset, I fiddled with white balance and lighting settings… finally getting a bad picture of the very end of the sunset, that I deleted almost immediately as worthless. In the attempt to capture the moment – to be busy and stay in motion – I had missed it all.
It’s hard to stop. Caught up in details, in life, filled as we are with worry, busyness; things we’re running towards or things we’re running from, we leave no room for light – of sunsets or fiery mountaintops or dazzling radiance. We fill our lives so full of busyness and details that there are no spaces left; no cracks where God might enter and break us open. When light does appear in our lives – when God’s presence is so palpably obvious that we are stopped in our tracks, we take those moments and try to capture them, in cameras or in dwellings, rather than simply experiencing them. We prioritize motion over being; the human virtue of busyness over the experience of God’s abundance. When we are at a place where the dazzling radiance gets pushed aside, God’s daily presence in our mundane lives goes totally unnoticed.
We talked in Bible study this week about what is needed for us to experience moments of transcendence – of God’s palpable presence in our lives. The general consensus was that solitude is required, and certainly Moses and Jesus were both emblematic in their solitary tendencies. But neither of these moments, from today’s scripture, is an entirely solitary experience. The Israelites could see the glory of the fiery, cloud-shrouded mountain. Jesus had the disciples with him – for once, he had not sought to leave them behind. So while for both Moses and Jesus, their general comfort with solitude might have helped them to stop, to simply be, and experience the divine presence, these moments are as much their ability to let go. To let a trusted brother, or colleague, or friend, run things for a bit. To stop worrying, like Peter, about the details, or the protocol, or the right theology. To set aside the things with which we fill ourselves, so God can fill us, even if that means we’ll have to break old rhythms, or change our priorities and our values; even if it means that we’ll need to empty ourselves, so we may be filled anew.
I read a wonderful blog entry recently – a Christian blogger who was reflecting on fasting. And although her scripture was not what we are looking at today, her reflections are quite relevant, as she cites Matthew 9: “neither do people put new wine in old wineskins, if they do, the skin will burst, the wine will run out, and the wineskin be ruined.” (Mt. 9: 16-17) She continues, saying:
“When I get swept up in my busy life – to distracted to get nourished properly from the Word, too intent on achieving my goal, even if it means that I get lost in the process – I become an old wineskin. I become that crinkled and cracked thing that can no longer hold new wine (new words, new ideas, new life) without spilling it all over the floor and wasting it.
“When I fast, I empty myself of the old wine. I shed a skin that can no longer perform its function of holding the new wine, and I take on the new skin that has been given to me – something capable of holding new wine, and all that is good.”
There is a reason that the lectionary exists, and it is not just to make lazy pastors like myself preach the hard texts, as well as the easy ones. There is a reason that the lectionary puts this transfiguration text in on the Sunday before Lent. We need this reminder of the power of God to break in and transform us… as well as the ease with which we, like Peter, set aside transformative presence, in the quest for action, or importance, or appearances, or simply out of habit. These are values, these are habits that we have a few weeks to try and shake, before we have the chance to be made new once again. These are the human values and the old habits that we must shed so that we may receive the new wine of new life, the light of a new day. We have a few weeks to empty ourselves of all that is crowding God out: to become aware of all that fills us without nourishing us: the things that fill our time, our hearts; that bring us momentary comfort or fleeting pleasure, but leave us feeling hollow. The things that speed us up, so that we are unable to stop and simply be present with God, that keep us clinging to the old wine, fearful of being made new.
For that new life is possible, even now; if we can let go of our self-importance, as Moses did, and leave trustworthy ppl in charge. If we can let go of the details, of the busyness, and trust in God’s abundance. If we can stop ourselves entirely, to see the dazzling glory of God in light, and beauty of this creation. If we can stop entirely when God shines brightly enough to stop us in our tracks. If we can stop, even in the midst of our routines, to see the presence that is always with us, even in muted, wintry, morning light; even in familiar surroundings, and familiar faces.
New life is possible wherever God is present, if we just make room.