“Dr. Eben Alexander was a highly accomplished and widely published neurosurgeon who didn’t consider himself religious. He attended church on Christmas and Easter, but his real religion was empirical science. He describes himself as a “friendly skeptic.”
In Nov. 2008, Alexander was admitted to a Lynchburg, VA hospital with “excruciating back pain,” and slipped into a coma, which lasted for 7 days.
At the end of those 7 days, he opened his eyes and thrashed around in bed. After the doctor removed his ventilator, Alexander took his first unassisted breath in a week, calmed down, and then said, ‘thank you.’ Looking around the room at his family and doctors, he smiled and said, ‘All is well. Don’t worry, all is well.’”(Dan Clendenin, Journey with Jesus, 2/3/13)
Alexander had had an extremely rare form of meningitis, and during his coma “his brain’s neocortex had shut down. He describes it as ‘inoperative.’ It wasn’t that his brain was working improperly or poorly, he says, but that it wasn’t working at all.” In a book published in 2011, Alexander describes “the profound spiritual experience he had when he was ‘completely free of the limitations of my physical brain.’” (Ibid.) Without going into the particulars of his very clear memories of that experience, it is Dr. Alexander’s conclusion that is particularly significant, which is that “whether you feel it or not, nothing can separate you from the Perfect Love that exists at the heart of the universe. [Clendenin] ‘This is the reality of realities, [he writes] the incomprehensibly glorious truth of truths that lives and breathes at the core of everything that exists or ever will exist.’” (ibid.)
For Eben Alexander, the veil which is the normal functioning of his brain, was lifted, and he got a glimpse of the Reality of realities that lies at the heart of the universe. He had an experience of transfiguration. Fortunately, one doesn’t have to have a near-death experience to catch a glimpse of what lies at the heart of the universe, but it may involve a letting go of the death grip we have on what we’re convinced is “reality.”
Jesus took Peter, James and John with him up on the mountain to pray. Moses went up on the mountain to meet with God. “Up on the mountain” is Biblical shorthand for “meeting with God.” And up on the mountain, while he was praying, Jesus’ appearance was transfigured– his face and his clothes became dazzlingly, radiantly white, and two figures appeared with him, whom the disciples took to be Moses and Elijah. “They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” It was a timeless moment, and Peter, half-asleep, or in a kind of trance himself, sought to preserve it. “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” That idea was quickly brought to a close as a cloud of “dazzling darkness,” as Barbara Brown Taylor describes it, came over them, and a voice from the cloud spoke. “This is my Son, my Chosen [or my Beloved]: listen to him.” And then the cloud and the figures were gone, leaving only Jesus. The next day they returned to the valley, where a boy possessed by a demon awaited healing by Jesus.
Jesus’ face and clothing were transfigured in dazzling radiance. Moses’ face was shining so brightly that he had to wear a veil to shield its brightness from the others. These two men, the only two people who are described in the Bible with the word “meek,” meaning not milquetoast but rather “utterly transparent” to God, both transfigured, changed, by their encounters with God, the Source of the Radiance. Abwun, Jesus addressed God. Father, Source of the Radiance, Creative Breath–all meanings of that Aramaic word, abba. Jesus went up on the mountain to pray.
Now, I don’t know about you, but my experiences of prayer are not normally accompanied by figures of light and dazzling clouds with voices. And yet, and yet, if prayer is, as one writer puts it, “a way of attuning ourselves to God” (David Lose, Working Preacher.com, 2/10/13) in those moments when I’ve let go of trying to do it “right” or been so attached to one particular outcome, when I’ve been able to let go of all the other things I think are so important and actually pointed my self in a direction that maybe, possibly, was “attuned to God,” sometimes I’ve gotten a new perspective, a new way of seeing, a new way of experiencing a situation.
It’s not easy in our society which, one novelist describes as one of “Total Noise.” (David Foster Wallace, cited in Clendenin, op cit.) To pull yourself away from the internet, turn off the television, the radio, the “shoulda-woulda-coulda” tapes that run non-stop in our brains and just try to “attune yourself to God” is no simple task. It is a practice. To set aside 5, 10, even 20 min. minutes a day, even, imagine! twice a day, to “attune ourselves” to the Perfect Love that exists at the heart of the universe, the Reality of realities, the truth of truths that lives and breathes at the core of everything that exists or ever will exist. That takes intention, practice, if you will. The upcoming season of Lent may be just the excuse we need to make a daily routine of this.
During our second “commercial interruption” in a few minutes, Ernie Lafontaine will be talking about moving from hope to reality, about “getting real” about our hopes and dreams for this congregation as we move into God’s future for us. This process cannot just be about us, not even our best thoughts and ideas and plans. It has to be attuned to God. We need to take ourselves “up on the mountain” of whatever place or state of mind helps us to “attune with God,” even to encounter God, which is an awesome, even terrifying, place to be. “Imagine an entire congregation begin transfigured,” one writer says, “into a powerful and bright witness, a beacon of light and warmth for a weary, cynical world.” (Sharron R. Blezard, Stewardship of Life, 2/6/13)
“Transfiguration is living by vision [wrote Walter Wink]: standing foursquare in the midst of a broken, tortured, oppressed, starving, dehumanizing reality, yet seeing the invisible, calling to it to come, behaving as if it is on the way, sustained by elements of it that have come already, within and among us. In those moments when people are healed, transformed, freed from addictions, obsessions, destructiveness, self worship or when groups or communities or even, rarely, whole nations glimpse the light of the transcendent in their midst, there the New Creation has come upon us. The world for one brief moment is transfigured. The beyond shines in our midst—on the way to the cross.” [Walter Wink, Interpretation, in Imaging the Word, vol. 1, p. 142)
That is a vision worth living into. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark