Living in the Valley
Exodus 34:29-35 Luke 9:28-36
I heard a piece on VPR the other day about the fact that as we get older, we have the sense that time passes faster and faster. The story documented studies in which they proved that after the age of 50 or so, people experience time differently than folks in their 20’s and 30’s. An experiment was done in which people were asked to let the interviewer know when they felt a minute had passed. Younger folks tended to be pretty close to the correct time, but older people often thought that a minute took longer than it actually did. Their estimates of a minute were actually much closer to 90 seconds - a minute and a half! Scientists feel that a large part of the reason for this wide discrepancy is that when we are younger, most things that happen are new to us, and so while we are experiencing them our minds are busy taking in many, many details. As we get older, we have experienced most things before, and so our minds are less involved in the activities, and therefore fewer memories are built up. Think back to your birthdays - chances are you have stronger memories of birthdays when you were a child than you do of ones celebrated as a teenager or an adult. This is because there are so many new and exciting things going on at a birthday party for a child, whereas as we get older, we have seen it all, in a sense, and no longer create strong memory files of the celebrations.
This morning we read two very intriguing stories from the Bible - one from the Hebrew scriptures or Old Testament and one from the Christian or New Testament. In the first and older story, Moses is just coming down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. The scripture says that he was talking with God up there on the mountaintop, and so his face shone. The people were pretty scared, seeing his face shining like that, but he told them to come around and listen to what he had to say, and they did. Afterward, it seems that he took pity on them and put a veil on his face so they wouldn’t have to see the unearthly glow. But we hear that he did take the veil off any time he went to speak with God. And in the Christian story, Jesus is up praying on the mountain, and he must have been doing some pretty intense praying, because the account says that the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white. Not only that, but Moses and Elijah were seen to be there on the mountaintop alongside Jesus in the midst of that prayer, talking to him about the future.
I would venture to guess that these two events are ones that stayed in the minds of the people who witnessed them for quite a long time. If you asked them, even many years later, what events in their lives stood out for them, they would most likely speak of these events. These were experiences from which it is safe to suggest we get our definition of a “mountaintop experience” - an experience that happens up above the fray of normal valley life in both physical and metaphorical terms. When things happen in our lives that lift us up above our normal routines, they have the potential of changing us, or at the very least, changing the way we think about things. The difficulty usually creeps in, however, when we attempt to interpret such an event in the context of the rest of our lives. We, like Peter, want to stay on the mountaintop forever. We don’t want to go down into Jerusalem or whatever city lies in wait for us. We don’t want to get on with our normal everyday lives down in the valley because it seems so much more exhilarating to stay on the top of the mountain and keep basking in the glow of special experience.
How do we get on with our lives after we have experienced something so very real and meaningful? How do we walk away from something that makes us feel so alive? How do we motivate ourselves to even come down from the mountain? - after all, it is pretty nice up there. In order to move on, Moses felt he needed to put a veil on his face so as not to frighten the rest of his people. Jesus, on the other hand, seemed not to give much regard at all to the tender feelings of his companions. When they came down off the mountain, there were problems waiting for him and he wasted no time launching into a lecture about the disciples’ lack of faith being the root of their inability to heal a young man of his ailments.
If we, any of us - Moses’ people, Jesus’ followers or those of us here today - could figure out how to integrate the highlights of our lives into our everyday experiences, we would have it made. We could carry that rare and special wisdom with us from on high so that it might bring order to the chaos of the world. If we could figure out how to keep that mountaintop glow shining down in the valley, then we might approach our lives in such a way that we would feel fully alive no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in. There are people who do this quite well. We have all run into them every now and then - people who have a sense of well-being about them that is impossible to shake. When you interact with them, you know that there is something anchoring them, holding them fast, so that they do not get blown over by every wind that comes along. At the center of their lives, there is something that is more powerful than anything else they come into contact with, and that “something” allows them to approach life with equanimity. For both Moses and Jesus, that “something” was God. Their relationships with God were so powerful, that nothing else even came close. And even when they were not in the special set-apart place where they communed with God, they still felt the closeness. They still felt connected and protected, and so they were able to carry out the work they needed to do, even though it was not always easy. Being sustained by their relationship with God, they were each able to most fully be themselves. They did not rely on being in a special place, a mountaintop, to be in touch with God; and so, even though those special places where the invisible became visible existed and fed them spiritually, it was not necessary to them that they stay there all the time. They carried the essence of that relationship and of that special place, deep in their own hearts. There is irony in the account of Jesus’ transfiguration, that Peter’s suggestion of building shelters to protect Jesus, Moses and Elijah, is drowned out by nothing less than God speaking, actually speaking so that everyone present could hear. God’s message is that Peter ought to listen to Jesus, and so here is this amazing moment of connection for Peter, and he is being chastised for wanting to make a monument to it.
We sometimes try to make monuments to special events in our lives. We take pictures to put on display, we hold the events in a special place in our memories, we may even speak of them in hushed tones. But what we have trouble doing, is bringing them to bear on our everyday lives. It is so much easier to build a monument to these highlights than it is to figure out how to live differently because of their influence. And yet, this is what is being called of us - to live as if we have been to the mountain and seen a vision of what might be, what could be, what is possible. The mountaintops give us the ability to see with some perspective so that we might live our lives down in the valley with some sense of vision. But we do have to come down in order to get on with the actual living. We have to come down and integrate the mountaintop into our lives as best we can, and then we have to get on with living in the moment, each moment as it comes.
God, will you be with us, not only in the high times, but also in our everyday living. Will you help us live with the glow of knowing you inside us, burning with beauty and strength, giving us courage to keep on keeping on. Amen.