Most of us, I imagine, at some point experience the sensation of someone not being quite ‘with us’. You know what I mean; they’re physically present, but their mind is somewhere else completely.
I had a really great example of this back when I lectured in universities. I taught a statistics class to Sociology students. It was a tough gig for a couple of reasons. One is that it often comes as a surprise to Sociology students that they need study stats at all. They thought they were just going to sit around talking Marx and Feminism. I imagine quite a few thought they’d finished with Maths forever. Then I come along….
The other was that this particular class was from 4-6pm. That’s the lecturer’s equivalent of the ‘graveyard shift.’ You know they’d rather be at home watching Pointless or whatever the equivalent was in those days. Probably Neighbours. Actually the lecturer would probably prefer that too…
The class involved using spreadsheets, so it was in a computer lab Students sat in swivel chairs with no arms. In one particular class a student fell asleep. And I mean asleep. He was completely out of it. I couldn’t miss him. He was in the front row.
The top half of his body started rolling around in the chair. I was tempted to wake him up with a scare. But I was a nice tutor and didn’t really want to embarrass him. But at the same time there was a good chance that he was about to fall off the chair and hurt himself. Could he make an insurance claim for me causing injury by boring him to sleep? Eventually he woke with an enormous ‘wuhhhhh!’ which nearly gave me a heart attack!
To all intents and purposes, he was there. If you looked at the register there was a tick by his name. But he was really somewhere else entirely. As a result he missed what was one of the most wonderful pieces of lecturing ever delivered in a British University!
It’s not just in run of the mill things that this can happen. Often it’s even easier to be distracted, or not quite ‘there’ on really big occasions. Sportsmen always talk of the need to savour the big occasion, the final or whatever, because it’s a special day and you might never get the chance to experience it again. But it passes so fast and often they don’t really enjoy or savour it.
We’ve recently started a new series called Encountering God in 12 Words. You might think of them as different seasons or stages in the spiritual life. We’re asking are there practices or postures which can help us nurture our relationship with God in everyday life?
I’m not talking about big things which require lots of time, effort and willpower. Just simple things we can build into what we’re already doing. That’s what the 12 words in the circles on the screen are about.
The first word we’ve been looking at is ‘here.’
If it doesn’t sound too obvious, here is the only place we can begin because here is where we are. But we don’t need to get somewhere else, because here is where God comes to meet us.
Where we are.
In this place.
At this time.
I speak of God coming to meet us, but this is not about God ‘showing up’ like God hasn’t been there all along. It’s more about God waiting for us to show up. This is about us waking up to the presence of the God who has been with us all along.
Something you’ll hear or read a lot about today is ‘mindfulness’ and living ‘in the present moment.’ It’s often associated with Eastern religious traditions, like Buddhism. But variations of mindfulness have been part of every major religious tradition. Including Christianity. In fact, it can be traced back to Jesus himself.
When we worked through the Sermon on the Mount we reflected on what Jesus had to say about worry. Jesus spoke about ‘considering the birds and the flowers.’ That’s a classic mindfulness text about living in the present.
Mindfulness is being advocated in all sorts of other, more secular environments too, as helpful for particularly good mental health. A couple of months back Time Magazine ran a special edition entirely devoted to it.
But, of course, you might be thinking, Andrew, of course I live in the present. When else would I live? But psychologists tell us that most of us live ‘everywhen except the present moment.’ We spend a lot of our time dwelling on the present or worrying about the future.
So that I am not misunderstood, I want to make a distinction between living in the moment and living for the moment. We sometimes speak of people who are ‘happy-go-lucky’ as living for the moment. However, living for the moment can be reckless, if it means acting without thought for the consequences or who you might hurt.
Living in the moment is different. It’s about recognising life is a gift. This moment, this day will come around only once and it’ll never return. From a faith perspective it’s about being awake to the possibility of what God might have to say to us at any given moment.
It’s that idea of being attentive, about waking up to the presence of God with us, that I’m talking about when I’m thinking of the word ‘here.’
This idea of living in the moment, of noticing and appreciating what we are experiencing comes up in the readings Gill read for us this morning. Two directly describe quite significant spiritual moments. In Exodus it’s God’s appearance to Moses and the Israelites at Sinai. In Matthew it’s a mysterious moment in the life of Jesus, witnessed by 3 of the disciples, called the Transfiguration. In our third reading, Peter, one of the witnesses to the Transfiguration, looks back to that event and explains something of how he, in time, came to understand or interpret what he had seen.
This idea of being present, being here, living in this present moment occurs right at the start of the Exodus passage. In your church Bibles Exodus 24: 12 reads The Lord said to Moses, “Come up the mountain to me, and while you are here, I will give you two stone tablets which contain all the laws that I have written for the instruction of the people.”
I’m no Hebrew scholar. But I am reliably informed that’s not quite what the Hebrew says. It really reads something like this…
‘Come up to me on the mountain and be on the mountain.’
It seems an odd thing to say. If Moses goes up the mountain, of course he’ll be on the mountain. Where else would he be?
But when rabbis interpreted this passage they saw something of the body in one place, mind in another, like the student with which I began.
Last week we considered the passage at the start of Exodus when God calls Moses at the burning bush. I touched on how reluctant Moses was to accept this call. Moses had a lot of reasons why God had picked the wrong guy. Nonetheless, once he gets started Moses throws himself into the task of liberating the people.
But although his story is thousands of years old, Moses suffers from a very modern condition.
Moses had poor work/life balance. Moses is a workaholic. His mind is always on the people.
Between leaving Egypt and returning to rescue the people, Moses had married a woman called Zipporah. Moses did well. For Zipporah’s father, Jethro, also turns out to be a real blessing to him. He challenges Moses on how he’s working tells him he’s mad. If he isn’t careful he’ll burn himself into frazzle. Jethro tells Moses to wise up and delegate more of his work. (That’s my translation, not King James).
All of us probably know someone with an indispensability complex.
Actually I’m being generous. Most of us probably have an indispensability complex sometimes. We think ‘if I don’t do it, no-one will.’
Sometimes they might feel justified in thinking that way. Certainly Moses could have been forgiven for thinking that. He left Aaron and Hur with the people to go up the mountain, but by the time he returned the people were already worshipping a golden calf!
Moses is on the mountain almost a week before God invites him to approach the cloud. He’ll be up there some time. So it’s not unreasonable to assume that it would have been possible for Moses to be physically on the mountain, but his mind is back down in the valley, wondering how long this will take, what the people are up to when he’s not around, what messes he’ll have to sort out when he goes back.
The passage talks about Moses receiving the tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments on it. But actually Moses receives some very detailed instructions on constructing the tabernacle which the people will carry with them throughout the wilderness journey. So as Moses listens, I’d be surprised if he’s not wondering how he’s going to manage this job, or weighing up who be the best person for that role.
God knows Moses well enough to know that however amazing an experience this must have been, that’s how Moses’ mind works. So God says ‘Moses, come up here, and I want your full attention. I want you here, mind and body.’ There will be a time for returning to the people, and getting to work. But right now God wants him to be attentive to this moment, to what’s happening here and now. God knows Moses well enough to know he could allow this moment to pass him by and not savour it. Not learn its lessons.
The same is true of the Gospel passage. There are a lot of deliberate echoes from the Exodus passage. Moses takes Joshua, Israel’s next leader up the mountain with him. Jesus takes the first generation of his closest followers. There’s all the details: the cloud, the light, the voice. Those raised on the tradition of the wilderness wandering stories would have recognised those similarities. They knew they’d heard this kind of thing before, and knew what had followed.
This is one of the more ‘otherworldly’ parts of the Gospels. What precisely did the disciples see? How did they know it was Moses and Elijah with Jesus? We’re not told. They just did.
Often when people talk about this passage they talk of how we can’t always live on the mountaintop. We can’t make the great experience last forever. We might think Peter is living too much in the present moment.
But that’s not quite what’s going on here. Peter says ‘it’s good for us to be here. Let’s build three shelters for Moses, Elijah and Jesus.’
But Peter is not thinking about fixed, solid places. Peter is picking up the echoes from the story he’s been taught since he was a child. Peter is talking about building tents, what they’d have called tabernacles.
Remember the background to the Moses story. God gives instructions for building a… tabernacle. It wasn’t like the temple they built in Jerusalem. This was a tent which they took with them. It travelled with them. It was a place they would go the meet with God in the wilderness, when they had left Sinai behind.
That’s what Peter is hoping to recreate. Peter doesn’t hope to stay on the mountain forever. It’s more he wants to preserve the moment. We might say he wants to bottle it. He wants something to take with them wherever they go.
The life Jesus was living was inevitably leading to trouble and Jesus knows it. Just before this incident Jesus starts to make the predictions of what lies ahead when they get to Jerusalem. How he’s going to be arrested, tried and killed. Virtually every remaining scene in Matthew’s Gospel is full of misunderstanding, hostility, opposition, tension. Perhaps Peter has begun to notice this too. It’s not that Peter wants to stay there. He just wants to be able to maintain the feeling, to know the similar assurance of God’s presence when things get tough, as they inevitably do.
And who can blame him?
Do we never wish we could bottle that good feeling?
How quickly does that lovely holiday feeling disappear on the first morning back at work?
How quickly do we go back to feeling like we’ve never been away?
In a way what Peter is trying to do is like a classical equivalent of those people with a camera phone at a concert, trying to preserve the memory of seeing their favourite band. But whilst they concentrate on preserving the memory, they don’t fully experience and appreciate the 2 hours they spend at the show. Peter is trying to find a way to preserve the experience, but he’s missing the moment. He’s trying so hard to ensure he remembers being there and that he’s not actually there. His mind is somewhere else. That voice ‘this is my son, listen to him’ is designed to draw him back. Jesus never wrote a book – wanted them to live it, experience it.
Of course, it’s possible we might wonder if we can learn too much from these incidents. They’re quite far removed from what I imagine most of our experience would be.
But in a sense there is an underlying problem which we do share with Moses and Peter, which also draws on ideas like mindfulness and living in the present. It’s about our ability or inability to distinguish between two things.
The urgent and the important.
We can let life slip by and miss out on so much by confusing the two.
Urgent tasks are the demands we place on ourselves, or which others place on us, or that we even just perceive people are placing on us.
The important things are those which are ultimately valuable. Those things when we look back and say ‘I wish I’d spent more time doing….’ Often we’re so caught up in the urgent that we miss what’s important.
That was the risk Moses faced. If he allowed his attention to be distracted by the urgent stuff that being leader placed upon him, that he risked missing out on the important experience with God. Peter, distracted by what Jesus has just warned them lies ahead in Jerusalem, perhaps focussing on what lay ahead, risked failing to realise that this moment had an importance all of its own. We might be stunned to think that such a problem could arise. But both passages suggest it could.
Actually research suggests the human mind has a way of allowing an urgent task to filter out the important. Let me show you a video to show what I mean
Firstly how many had seen this or something similar before?
If you hadn’t, how many spotted the gorilla?
Did you notice the other stuff?
The guy is the gorilla outfit was blatantly obvious. But half of the people didn’t notice him because they were focussed on the urgent task of counting passes. I only found that version when I was looking for the clip in my preparation. I missed the curtain and the player, because I was focussed on seeing the gorilla.
That danger of failing to distinguish between the urgent and important can enter into our relationship with God. In his book Prayer: Does it make a difference Phillip Yancey writes ‘it occurred to me one day that though I often worry about whether or not I sense the presence of God, I give little thought to whether God senses the presence of me
How often, when I pray, is God having an ‘Andrew’s not quite there’ moment. Maybe you find the same. We’re invited into the presence of God, yet rather than truly accepting the invitation, the urgent takes over, the list of things that need done are at the forefront of my mind, and I’m not there in the present moment. My body is here, but my mind and my spirit are not where God has come to meet me. Here.
Our age sees busyness as a virtue. And ministers are amongst the worst with that. When I ask other ministers how things are going, nine times out of ten the first thing they will comment on is how they’re ‘busy’. There are times in minister’s gathering when part of me wants to respond ‘really? I’m not!’ just to see how uncomfortable the meeting would become.
But it is really easy for the busyness and urgency of life to shout loudest and crowd out those moments when God has been real, present, or when you’ve been blessed with something good in your day. We aren’t alert, or awake to the good in our lives. We aren’t here. When you do that, all you’ll ever notice is when things go wrong, when God feels distant.
Yet that suggests why being awake to those moments of closeness, being here, awake, to the presence of God is important. Because those moments can’t be bottled. They will pass. Life will not always be lived in those moments. We will go through other seasons, when other words will be more dominant in our spiritual experience. Sometimes tougher words like sorry, help, when, why, no. Words we’ll look at later in the series.
There will be tougher seasons. And as I said right at the start of this, it’s very human to want to rush through those seasons. But often it’s not how it works. God will be waiting to meet us there too. But if we don’t take time to grow aware of his presence in those moments when he feels close, they can’t sustain or strengthen us then. The purpose of those moments of closeness is to give us hope when we face the dark paths, when seeing God at work and hearing what he might be saying to us seems so much more difficult.
That’s what we get in the reading from II Peter. In years to come he would look back on that moment of closeness he experienced at the Transfiguration as a time when he caught a glimpse of just who this Jesus in whom he had placed his trust really was.
Years later he would write to a bunch of people who saw nothing but trouble, who were beginning to doubt it all and were beginning to wonder whether they had backed the wrong horse.
And in response, Peter takes them to that moment and what he had learned from experience, when he’d seen Jesus transformed. When he had caught a glimpse of the God with whom he was dealing.
Jesus told them not to talk about it until they’d seen him rise from the dead. It’s good wisdom not to speak too readily or too quickly about those moments when God has seemed close to you. Better to ponder, better to give them space to sink in, to percolate.
For truly for Peter it only made sense when he reached the end of the Gospel and experienced a somewhat different hilltop experience.
On this mountain, Peter saw Jesus revealed in glory; On that hill outside Jerusalem, Jesus was a figure of fun, displayed in shame.
On this mountain his clothes shone white; On that hill outside Jerusalem, they were stripped off, and soldiers gambled for them.
On this mountain he wass flanked by two of Israel’s greatest heroes; On that hill outside Jerusalem, he’d be flanked by two terrorists.
On this mountain a bright cloud overshadowed the scene; On that hill outside Jerusalem, darkness comes upon the land.
On this mountain Peter blurts out how wonderful it all is; by that hill outside Jerusalem, he’d be denying he even knows the man.
On this mountain God himself declares that this is my son; On that hill outside Jerusalem, the only one to declare that this was God’s son would be one of his executioners.
Somehow or other, when he saw the Risen Christ, in some way recognisable, in other ways transformed, Peter witnessed the power of God to transform those who entered the darkness trusting in him.
Those experiences took him into the path of discipleship which lay ahead, which had moments of closeness, but so much darkness too. But by starting here, by waking up to the presence of God in those moments of closeness, he was offered light to shine in the darkness of those darker seasons when other words come to the forefront of our spiritual consciousness.
It is here God wants to begin. Where we are, as we are. To show up, to allow ourselves to be in the place where we can experience him. It can’t be forced, but if we open ourselves to it, it happens in God’s own time. It can’t be bottled. We can’t take it with us in that sense that we will always feel God nearby.
Pray for those occasions, and relish them when they come. But don’t try to preserve them. For when God, in his grace, gives them, for if we start here and learn those lessons well, they can help sustain us in the journey ahead.