Dean Lloyd: “Changed into His Likeness”
It was our fourth day of backpacking in the Rocky Mountains. As a newcomer to the Rockies I had been overwhelmed by the stark, craggy beauty. But nothing prepared me for the morning when we climbed up to a steep ridge high above our camp, to a place where we could see all the way up the valley to the crystal lake where the ridges came together, and then gaze back the other way at fold after fold of mountains. It had been a hard climb, but there on that high rock everything seemed to open up and flow together. Peak and meadow, tree and sky, all seemed to be singing some chorus of praise.
I hesitate to say too much about what was a passing, glancing moment, but standing there with my two companions I seemed to sense that everything I saw was somehow part of one life, that I belonged to it, and it belonged to me. It almost seemed as if I were sensing a harmony pulsing through the whole universe. We even discovered a small circle of stones neatly arranged on the ground. Had some hikers left them a few days ago, or were they some message to the ages left a thousand years before when native Americans roamed these peaks?
In those few moments, I no longer felt that I was an isolated “I” taking all this in, but was part of a “we,” an “us,” that included my companions and the mountains and stream below and the whole world beyond. I wanted to stay and not turn loose of that moment. The only word I can come up with for what I sensed was “glory.”
Later on, as we made our way down from the ridge, life seemed ordinary again, enough to make me wonder whether what I had sensed was real at all. But still, I sensed I was on to something. The Scottish poet Edwin Muir caught the dilemma in a poem called “The Transfiguration”:
Was it a delusion?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
Sole glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
I had traveled up that mountain as what you might call a tourist, out for an interesting few days with friends. But there on that mountain I became a pilgrim. I had glimpsed a glory that had left me feeling on the edge of something immense.
I don’t make any special claim for that mountaintop moment. I tell you about it not because I think it is rare but because I’m convinced it’s not. I don’t know where or when it has happened for you, but my hunch is that it has. Sometimes it is as if the veil between time and eternity draws back. It’s what overwhelms us in the middle of a Bach fugue, or when we gaze at a Turner landscape, or even walking down the street and we sense just for a moment that this is all a great dance, all these people so different, so filled with their aches and their hopes.
One day Jesus took his closest disciples, Peter, James, and John up on a mountain to pray, far away from the crush of the crowds. And there all the rush ceased, and a light from another realm shined through their Master. “He was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white,” Mark says. “This is my beloved Son;” a Voice declared, “listen to him.” And Peter overwhelmed blurted out, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here,” and then declared they should erect a tent so that they could hold on to that moment.
The disciples saw with utter amazement the hidden glory of their leader. They wanted to stay there, but they couldn’t. Instead Jesus led them back down the mountain, and down to the hard struggles that were to come, and that would lead soon to the Cross.
It is a strange, haunting story, a story, we could even say, about what happens here in this Cathedral every week. We come away from the pressures of the rest of our days to linger here, hoping that the veil will be pulled back and the curtain lifted and that we too will catch a glimpse of Christ in all his glory. Many people pour in here every week as tourists to see the sights, and many of us regulars sometimes come as tourists too, mostly interested in just being here. But then something captures us, the play of light on the arches, something said or sung, and all we know is that we have a lump in our throat, and we want to get closer. Without knowing quite when, we become pilgrims.
Nothing in our lessons is more haunting to me than what St. Paul says about this glory. “All of us,…seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Paul is saying that the glory that the disciples saw on that mountain is meant for us. We aren’t supposed to be spectators admiring Jesus Christ the Superstar. We are meant to be his friends, his companions, and we are meant to shine with his glory.
‘But how can this happen?’ we have to ask. We are busy, preoccupied people. Often what we want from religion is a little inspiration, and a little strength to make it through the day. Some mild self-improvement would be nice. We may even have a bad habit or two we could improve on—occasionally losing our temper, or carrying a grudge. But Christ is saying to us, “You aren’t ambitious enough. I will, if you let me, make of you a creature radiant with my glory. What do you say?”
But how? How can a selfish person become unselfish? How can a driven, anxious person become more at peace and more joyful, how can a cowardly person become more courageous? There are literally hundreds of self-help books on the market to tell us how to be better, more efficient, more self-assured people. But I’m afraid I can’t present you with 10 easy steps to becoming Christ-like. In fact, did you hear the verbs in St. Paul’s words? We are “being transformed,” he says. It’s in the passive voice. God is the one who will make us Christ-like, not us. It’s an inside job.
In fact, this pilgrimage to glory has two parts—one that’s up to us, and another that isn’t. The piece that is ours is that we have to actually practice the Christian faith. Some of the wisest words I know come from that wise man Garrison Keillor, who said, “You can no more become a Christian by sitting in a church, than you can become a car by sitting in a garage.”
“Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus said to his disciples just before they went up on the mountain. It’s a way of life he’s talking about and only by living it will his strange sayings make sense—sayings like “Love your enemies,” and “Blessed are the poor,” and “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
It’s an easy mistake people can make to think that if they try just a little harder they can hit a golf ball like Tiger Woods, or a tennis ball like Serena Williams, or hit a baseball like David Ortiz. They make it look so easy. Young players even try to wear their idol’s uniform, and copy the idol’s mannerisms. What they miss, of course, is the fact that these athletes are great because they have been committed for years to a daily regimen of training and diet that have made possible their brilliant performances.
The same is true of musicians, teachers, surgeons, and just about everyone else. It’s only by giving ourselves to disciplines and practices that we can shape ourselves to offer the best that we have. That’s why we pilgrims are urged to read scripture, and not miss church on Sunday, to develop a prayer life, and to protect one day a week for a real Sabbath rest.
Do you remember how remarkable it was that the Amish people in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania forgave the killer of their children and embraced the killer’s wife? There was no indication of any deep struggle in arriving at their amazing decision. They had been preparing for that act of forgiveness for a lifetime. It was built into their practice as people who forgive. It wasn’t a decision; it was who they had become.
The practices of faith are the piece of this process that is up to us. But the other piece, the most important piece, is what Christ wants to do with us. We can’t make ourselves free. We have to let go of the tight grip we have on our lives. The job of the practices is to keep us in touch enough with Christ’s love for us so that the real healing, the real change can happen. Real growth is not a thing of effort, but the result of an inward process of new life taking shape in us.
Most of our unhealthy behaviors, after all, flow out of a lifetime’s fears, wounds, and insecurities. And so the only way we can really grow freer is for us to experience a love and peace that can heal those wounds. “Make no mistake,” [Jesus] says in C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, “if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in my hands, that is what you are in for.” He will show us what needs to change, what we need to let go of, what new things he is leading us into.
This moment of the Transfiguration is the turning point in Jesus’ story, just as it is the turning point as we make our way into the season of Lent. For the next 40 days we pilgrims will follow Christ as he makes his way to Jerusalem and the cross. Part of the ancient tradition of Lent has been to take on some spiritual discipline—giving up something for Lent is an old custom, as is adding special times of prayer and study.
An old friend, Hugh Dickinson, who was Dean of Salisbury Cathedral in England, once issued a powerful invitation for Lent that I want to commend to you. It couldn’t be simpler. Buy a candle and for fifteen minutes every day between Ash Wednesday and Easter, go into a room where you can be quiet, light your candle, and sit there in silence. That’s it. You don’t have to say anything or do anything. Skip the candle if you like. But just sit in silence and wait for 15 minutes a day. If you need something to quiet your mind, say a simple prayer over and over, like “Lord Jesus, have mercy,” or “Holy God, be with me.”
If you do that, you will find yourself wrestling with all the demons Jesus faced in the wilderness. You will hear little voices telling you what a waste of time this is. You’ll think of all the important tasks you really should be doing. You’ll even hear a voice saying that this would be much more productive time spent reading a book on prayer or the Bible. And you’ll hear a clever little voice saying that you’re really a failure at this. All of that will prove that you’re in just the right place, wrestling with the demons in you and our world—of stress, pressure, and productivity. And if you sit long enough, you’ll be aware that you are being held.
So, find a way to be quiet. Then find a way to be fed—read one of the gospels slowly, a few verses at a time, or a book on the spiritual life, come to a course at the Cathedral College. And then find a way to serve. How are you going to ease the suffering of someone who needs what you can give? A way to be quiet, a way to be fed, a way to serve.
My friends, no one needs to tell you that the problems of our world are overwhelming now—war, hatred, divisions across our world and within our own nation. The answer to our world’s problems lie within the human heart. God can only heal our world one anxious, alienated heart at a time. And so today, I am inviting you to take a major stride toward peace and healing in our world.
Every now and then, if we keep our eyes peeled, we just may catch a glimpse of Christ’s glory. But some day, by the grace of God, we are meant to come in, and put on that glory for ourselves. For now, we’re pilgrims on the way.
“All of us,…seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.”