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For a crazy weekend I got to pretend that I’m great at roughing it.
My husband and I, as a relatively newly-married couple, were invited to go camping and canoeing with some friends. We both loved the outdoors, and had enjoyed camping with our families when we were kids, but neither of us knew much about how to plan a successful camping trip. And neither of us knew a thing about canoeing.
It was one of those things where we said “yes” because it sounded like so much fun, and then immediately after saying “yes” we wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. But, we forged ahead.
We packed our tent and sleeping bags, pillows, and a couple of changes of clothes (plus other necessities, of course), and headed toward our wilderness destination.
To make a long story short, it was one of the best weekends I had ever had, and it still makes my short list of my favorite adventures of all time. We connected deeply with friends, made new friends along the way, saw amazing sites, and tried new things. What’s not to love?
Even though I loved all of these things, there was something else about the weekend away that has stayed with me, something that has me thinking about the Transfiguration of Christ.
One morning on the trip, we all decided we would go hike the Sleeping Bear Dunes. I thought I was physically ready to take the hike, after all I walked a couple of miles or more every day for exercise. But, I had never experienced hiking over sand dunes, and I was in for a shock.
When you walk on sand, the sand shifts under your weight. Every step forward is accompanied by a slow slide in reverse. Each step ended up being more like a half step, and each slide back worked the muscles at the backs of our legs.
On this particular day, my husband Jeff and I both decided to wear shirts that had a Hebrew word written on the front. (Yeah, I know we’re that couple.) The sun was beating down on us, and the sand felt almost like an oven that we were standing just a little too close to. We were so hot, and the sand was working its way into our shoes. Eventually we took off our shoes, even though the sand burned a little with every step.
Every time we would reach the top of a dune, I was certain we had reached our destination, only to be let down immediately by the sight of yet another valley and another dune. Vegetation was sparse, and I suddenly understood why the desert had come to symbolize death and despair for so many.
I’m going to die right here in this valley, I thought.
Ahead in the distance, I saw a scraggly tree.
I was so excited I wanted to race up the dune, but gravity and the grains of sand had other ideas, and the journey continued to be painstaking and slow.
When we reached the top of the dune and the shade of the wily tree, we stopped to catch our breath. A man started staring at my shirt, and I felt instantly uncomfortable until he said, “I’m sorry to stare. I went to Hebrew school as a child, and I’m trying to see how much I can remember.”
We talked ancient languages and faith, and he assured us that if we just continued on, we’d see that all of this had been worth it.
We moved ahead, and he moved in the opposite direction. We all hoped he was right and that we were almost there.
Only another dune or two (really, who can keep track?) later, and the air began to feel different. There was the smell of water and a gentle breeze. After hiking to the top of one more dune, we looked out ahead of us and were overwhelmed by the stunningly blue water below.
We had made it.
And the journey up to that point disappeared.
It had all been worth it, and I would have walked that stretch a thousand times to have that moment one more time.
The Greek word for Transfiguration is the word from which we get our word metamorphosis. And every time I’ve read about Peter, James, and John on the mountain with Jesus, I’ve fixated on the metamorphosis – the change – of Jesus. He prays, and his appearance becomes otherworldly. The disciples are confused and bewildered, and Peter says whatever comes to his mind, as Peter seems to do a lot.
Jesus’ appearance changes from human to divine, and the disciples are overwhelmed.
But, as I’ve been thinking back on my journey through the Sleeping Bear Dunes, I wonder if Jesus was the only one who was transformed that day. The Greek text of Luke’s account of the Transfiguration uses an adjective (heteron) to describe the changed appearance of Jesus. The verb is implied, but absent in the text.
Literally, the verse says, “the appearance of his face, other” (Luke 9:29, my translation).
On the mountain while Jesus prayed, his appearance was transformed. The three disciples saw his glory. But, I also wonder if something about their journey had transformed the disciples and allowed them to be ready to see Jesus’ glory.
Jesus was baptized, and a voice from heaven spoke saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). And this moment of glory – where heaven and earth intersected – was followed immediately by the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, and then the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
On the mountaintop when Jesus was transformed before the disciples’ eyes, a voice spoke yet again, but this time to the disciples: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35). They came down the mountain and found themselves thrust immediately back into the brokenness of the world.
A young child needed healing, and Jesus told the disciples he would be betrayed and crucified.
Glory for a moment.
Struggle and temptation.
And somehow this was all fertile ground for the proclamation of the Gospel.
Maybe the Transfiguration of Christ is not only about the heavenly appearance of Christ, but also about how the journey helps us be ready to see.
For whatever reason, it seems like the road to the best things has the most speed bumps and hazards along the way. The journey can be grueling and leave us weary. But, sometimes the mundane – and even the struggle – has a way of transforming us so that we can see the divine.
Sometimes that happens on a mountaintop, other times at the top of a dune overlooking the clearest water.
But usually it’s along a road, or at a table, where the simplest of things – like the breaking of bread – open my eyes to the divine that’s always there, I’m just not always ready to see.