Discovering what we don’t know – Mark 9:2-9 The Transfiguration

Just one of the carpets of Snowdrops in the churchyard at St. Mary's (on a dull day, sorry). Our snowdrops were one of my illustrations for my children's talk on The Transfiguration (see below).
Just one of the carpets of Snowdrops in the churchyard at St. Mary’s (on a dull day, sorry). Our snowdrops were one of my illustrations for my children’s talk on The Transfiguration (see below).

There are probably very few of us that haven’t had one of those moments when we see something amazing, and promptly say something that sounds, well, rather stupid, at least to the ears of others, even if it makes perfect sense to us.

My husband and I well remember an occasion when we welcomed a friend’s sister-in-law at Gatwick, on her first ever trip outside Zimbabwe. It was December 21st, and there were flurries of snow. Comfort, that’s her name, was incredibly excited. Excited to be in England, and excited to see snow, something she had only heard of previously, as existing in the mountains. After the excited chatter of the journey to our home, and having got her bags inside, we made her stand outside, and catch some snowflakes in her hand. “Its’ soooo coooold” she squealed, immediately shaking them from her hand. “Well of course” we said, “It’s snow; frozen water!” We tried to catch some flakes to show her the minute and amazing detail of a snowflake, but all she could repeat was “Its’ soooo cold!”

Peter, it couldn’t have been anyone else really, could it – Peter makes a similar sort of comment in our Gospel reading this morning, when he, together with James and John, is witness to something truly awe-inspiring, far more awe-inspiring than a mere snowflake. To us, with the advantage of hindsight because of course we know [sarcastic voice] so much more now than Peter did then, to us, Peter’s comments about the booths seems daft. Yet, he was simply trying to ground what he was seeing in a context he could understand, and perhaps capture the moment for posterity: if these transcendent beings, wrapped in a cloud of God’s presence, and arguably the two greatest prophets of his faith with the man that seemed to be surpassing them, where coming to commune together, they would need protection from the elements! Or else, a physical marker as to the place of their encounter, a monument to the moment.

So, we think we know so much more now than Peter did then, don’t we?!

WE KNOW that a few seconds later, Peter got possibly the biggest put down of his life, direct from God! “Hey,” says God. “This is my Son all lit up in glory here. Yes really, just like you guessed at a few days ago, but seem to have forgotten. Now if you really want to understand what you guessed at then, and are witnessing now, shut up and listen. To him.”

WE KNOW that the reason why Peter, James and John (among others), really still don’t get who Jesus is, and why he promptly swears them to secrecy, is that the ultimate breakthrough moment for the Kingdom of God to which this vision is hinting, won’t happen until Christ has died, and rises to new life, a fully transfigured life, the start of God’s new Kingdom in which Peter and the others’ will play a crucial role.

WE KNOW that some things in the Bible, simply can’t be neatly explained, because they are ‘of God’. We might not have had a vision of the Divine ourselves, but we know that others through history have had profound revelations of the nature of God, and we have learnt to trust their witness, their wisdom and the spiritual truths God has revealed to us through those encounters. For example, Julian of Norwich famously found a revelation of God’s overwhelming love and concern for all his creation, in a tiny hazel nut, such as we might find in the churchyard, if the squirrels didn’t get them first!

So if we know all these things, what then, like Peter, are we missing? I can’t see a cloud signifying God’s presence amongst us this morning! There’s no back-lit, ultra-violet induced, light show worthy of a camera-phone snapshot that I can see!  Where are the Old Testament prophets or medieval mystics in our company to point us to the divinity of Jesus, and the breaking in of God’s Kingdom in our own time?!

If we can’t see or always make sense of the significance of Jesus for our own lives, or the world at large, then firstly, I think it’s important to realise, we’re not alone. We know Peter’s been there before us, and to be honest, even if we’ve had moments of revelation that have helped our faith in Jesus before, it’s a tough ask to hold on to that faith once the moments past, as Peter would become all too aware, come cock crow on Good Friday.

But as we prepare to enter a Lenten search for a revelation of Christ’s divinity, or the presence of God’s Kingdom in world torn apart by suffering, there are, I think, two main approaches that we can take; at least two that I’m going to be contemplating this Lent.

The first is to look at the details. Peter and the others took in the detail the appearance of Jesus, Elijah and Moses, the cloud, even when it comes, God’s command. It’s a bit like a scientist looking through myriad super-computer telescope images for signs of the birth of a new star or universe, we need to look at the detailed picture presented by scripture of how Jesus was revealed as more than the ultimate in Old Testament prophets, both God and man, suffering servant and glorified Son, crucified scapegoat for religious zealots and risen Lord. What our specific focus is might vary hugely, and depend on what we’ve learnt in the past, or what we are struggling with in our personal faith journey, but looking at the detail carefully is key.

The second approach to searching for a Lenten revelation, is to simply stop looking. To stop. To stop and focus either on something else entirely, or nothing at all. When the three disciples climbed that mountain with Jesus there was nothing to suggest they were expecting what happened next. It was just a quiet moment with their teacher, and the dramatic scenery. There’s a lovely expression I encountered a few years ago which I really like, especially when I’ve had a rare opportunity to experience it – it’s the ability to “free-wheel with God”. To sit, or stand, and stare – not so much at something in particular but simply taking in the view, in a mind-emptying, spiritually calming, guilt free environment, where God can step in and fill the space in a way that only he knows we need. It might be that it needs a moment of free-flow creativity to help it happen, the gardening, a tapestry, a long walk; or it may be that a piece of writing, artwork or music might flow from it. It might be that just stopping, completely, is the key with no expectation of input or output.

The important thing, whether we’re looking at the detail of our faith in Christ, or simply stopping to experience God revealed in our own life and experiences, is to recognise what we’re seeing when we’re encountering it, and treasure it as something to come back to and reflect on again and again in the light of our future experiences. Because patently, that’s what James, John and indeed Peter did, else we wouldn’t have been drawn up short by their mountain top experiences this morning!

My children’s talk on the same reading focused on the idea of seeing the wonderful awesomeness of God in the detail of what we see, using the illustrations of salt and snowdrops. The brief outline is here: 2015-02-15 Mark 9v2-9 The Transfiguration – Kids talk

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Levels of Success – Academic Qualifications and Ordination Training

Does ordination training leave people unable to see the ministerial wood from the academic trees? (Cuddesdon, November 2013)
Does ordination training leave people unable to see the ministerial wood from the academic trees? (Cuddesdon, November 2013)

I have never given up on a project, job or academic qualification, until this winter.

As Christians we are encouraged to act with integrity. As ordination candidates and ordinands we have to be honest about our strengths and weaknesses. As a curate, I’ve been put through the Myers Briggs ringer which told me roughly what I knew already, once the ‘boarderline’ was accounted for.

So why, when candidates explain that they learn best in a particular way, know through years of experience that they won’t be suited to certain academic routes, are they pressurised into a certain route? Is an academic qualification really a good measure of what makes a decent priest?

I started ordination training on an MA track knowing it didn’t suit me, but being given no choice since I already had an FdA in Ministry awarded in 2010. A year ago (tomorrow) I explained how difficult this was proving, and downgraded to attempting to complete a PGDip. I have never progressed much further than I had then.

I quit the academic path completely just before Christmas when I broke down for the umpteenth time over a portfolio whose subject matter I was really interested in. Try as I might, I simply couldn’t retain the theological ideas to critique it long enough to do more than go round in circles of thought.

It was my supervisor who asked: did I actually need the PGDip to satisfy my Diocese or Bishop?

The answer was no, they didn’t, but no-one had suggested that before. In fact at my pre-ordination interview the Bishop had shown his concern over my lack of academic progress, and he charged me to complete the work. Yet, when asked by our Training Officer in December, it appears he happily agreed that I quit where I’d got to, so I could simply focus on my parish work and IME.

I haven’t engaged deeply in how the Common Awards are working out. I know last summer Cuddesdon were hoping that where candidates were ‘upgrading’ from previous ministerial qualifications (as I was), an alternative to the concentrated academic rigours of an MA could be offered over the 2 years part-time or (when pushed) mixed-mode that Min Div will fund. I hope so, because it’s oh so nearly broken me and knocked away what little confidence I had in being able to fullfil my calling to ordained life.

Teaching needs to be linked directly to the academic output expected (at whatever level is really appropriate to the candidate, and not simply wishful thinking on advisers part or sought for misplaced kudos), not structured in counterpoint to lecture material as I experienced. Don’t get me wrong, the lectures were largely excellent, just rarely related to to what I was reading or writing up for a particular portfolio. For those whose brains are ‘wired’ like mine, that creates an incredibly high hurdle.

Those who struggle with anything academic shouldn’t be put off, or emotionally and spiritually fractured, by either not being selected in the first place because of it (which anecdotally I fear happens), or by being placed by the system onto an inappropriate level of training that hasn’t listened to a candidates own self-knowledge of how they learn – especially in older candidates for whom the greasy pole of preferment isn’t realistic and is certainly no attraction!

My experiences have left me with several psychological hurdles to climb as I’ve started my ordained life. Thankfully important things like faith and family life have remained intact, just. I have also made good friends through college, and wouldn’t have wished to study anywhere else – Cuddesdon is a great place.

And, I’ve not quite left empty handed; 4 portfolios at M-level apparently make up a PGCert, but rather than the success I should be regarding my ‘Merit’ as, I have to say the system has made it feel far more like failure.