By Rev. Heather Blais, Rector
Growing up, we spent many of our weekends visiting family in the western foothills of Maine. It took about an hour of driving along back roads to get there. This time of year always offered the worst driving. Whatever snow still remained on the ground was filled with dirt and mud. Since it was too soon to repair the damage done to the roads, MaineDOT would post signs that said, “BUMP” or “FROST HEAVE”, which were more like launching pads than anything else. Sometime when the road was particularly broken up, there would be signs warning of potholes, massive parts of the tar having been chewed up during the rough winter. The roads were so bumpy from frost heaves and potholes, that sometimes you would see cars having gone off onto the side of the road or stuck in a hole with a busted tire.
Oddly enough, I have found the same thing can happen to us in our spiritual lives if we are not mindful of how we are driving. Instead of getting stuck in an actual hole, we get stuck in a spiritual pothole, unable to move forward or backward, simply stuck. We generally don’t get stuck on purpose, it somehow sneaks up on us unexpectedly. We see the beginnings of it in today’s gospel lesson.
Nearly a week after Jesus foretells his death and resurrection, he takes Peter, James, and John for a hike up a high mountain. At the summit, Jesus was transfigured. His outer appearance was transformed to reflect his innermost self. “...his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Matthew 17:2). Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared, and began talking to Jesus. For nearly three years the disciples had walked alongside Jesus, travelling from village to village, praying for those with heavy hearts, healing the broken and dying, teaching the good news as they went along.In this moment all of their intuition came bursting forth...this was the Son of God himself.
Peter was so deeply affected by this mountain top experience, that he volunteered to build three dwellings so they could remain there forever. He explained to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here…” (Matthew 17:4).Yet God interrupted Peter, proclaiming: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5). Upon hearing God’s voice, the disciples fell to the ground, only to be brought back to attention by Jesus touching them, and instructing them to get up and not to be afraid.
Peter was inches away from parking his vehicle in a spiritual pothole. It was so good to be on that mountaintop with Elijah, Moses, Jesus, and his two fellow disciples...it was so good that they should stay there permanently. After all, it was the only way to make sure he would continue to have this feeling of closeness with God, right? Once we have experienced the Holy in such a thin space, we must follow the formula again. We must contain the experience, box it in as best possible, hence the three dwelling places. We must repeat our actions, exactly as we did the first time, over and over again so we can keep having that experience.
Except, that’s not how a relationship with God works. God cannot be contained and there is not one perfect way to be in relationship with God. When we attempt to contain our relationship with God, or access God by repeating an action over and over again, we are relying too heavily on the road that brought us to this point. This is not to say the road that brought us this far isn’t good. It is good. It is the road that brought us closer to God than we have ever been before. It is our mountaintop experience. But it is one mountain in an entire mountain range, and there are many roads throughout that mountain range that are open for us to drive on if we want to go deeper in our relationship with God. And God so deeply longs for that from each of us.
Just like the universe keeps expanding, the ways in which we can go deeper in our relationship with God keeps expanding. There is not only one way to pray to God, or one way to worship God, or one way to be with God. The way we have come to pray or worship or be with God is a perfectly fine way, but it is not the only way, and God does not want to see us stuck in a spiritual pothole. There is such a danger in it.
C.S. Lewis in his satirical book, The Screwtape Letters, creates an exchange between an uncle and nephew, both working as tempters of Lucifer. Uncle Screwtape offers words of wisdom to his nephew about prayer, as the nephew tries to prevent the patient he is charged with tempting from drawing any closer to the Enemy (also known to us as God).
“I have known cases where what the patient called his "God" was actually located—up and to the left at the corner of the bedroom ceiling, or inside his own head, or in a crucifix on the wall. But whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it—to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him. You may even encourage him to attach great importance to the correction and improvement of his composite object, and to keeping it steadily before his imagination during the whole prayer. For if he ever comes to make the distinction, if ever he consciously directs his prayers "Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be", our situation is, for the moment, desperate” (IV).
As we prepare to begin the holy season of Lent this Ash Wednesday, I would invite each of you to consider whether your relationship with God feels fresh, alive, and better than ever or whether you may have unknowingly been stuck in a spiritual pothole. If you find that you are stuck, what might you shake lose this Lent? In shaking ourselves loose, we are opening ourselves to going deeper with God in new and unexpected ways. Where might this new road take us with God? Amen.
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