May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
Be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
What a strange little journey Elisha followed Elijah on. “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” I was curious as to what was involved in the journey so I looked up a Bible atlas.
Gilgal to Bethel was about 14 kilometres with some pretty mountainous terrain in between. Bethel to Jericho was 26 kilometres and involved the crossing of significant range of mountains. Jericho to the Jordan was mainly flat travel for about 7 or 8 kilometres.
And at the end of the journey, what was Elisha’s experience? A spectacular theophany of Elijah being taken away in a fiery chariot pulled by horses.
My curiosity was aroused by this travel that Elisha had undertaken to consider what was involved for Peter, James and John in the theophany of Jesus’ transfiguration that they experienced. The commentators are not in agreement on which mountain it was that the transfiguration occurred. Some say Mount Carmel – which is 546 metres high; some say Mount Tabor – which is 575 metres high. So both of them are just a little less high than Tamborine Mountain. I can tell you that a hike up that mountain from the bottom is no walk in the park. The most favoured spot is actually Mount Hermon – which is 2,814 metres high. That is nearly five times higher than Tamborine Mountain. Now that would be an endurance test.
But when you think about it, it is not really surprising that individuals would go through a feat of endurance before experiencing a major religious event in their lives. We sort of expect that it would be that way. We think of monks living gruelling lives of isolation and privation in the 4th century Egyptian desert in order to have profound experiences of God. The trouble with thinking this way is that we can start to border on falling for the ancient Christian heresy of Pelagianism if we press too far down this road.
Pelagianism consists basically in a failure to recognise that, with God, all is grace. Pelagians think that if they do enough and live holy enough lives under their own steam, then they will earn salvation; earn the blessing of God. Pelagians have not listened to Paul in the Letter to the Romans where he states: “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
So we do not want to think that God somehow “rewards” Elisha and Peter, James and John for their endurance and willingness to undertake an arduous path in order to share in God’s glorious presence. God’s gift of his presence to us is available at all times and it is he who makes the gift possible, and it is not just by undertaking some form of penance. That is not to say that it is not good for us to be tireless in our efforts to come to know God better.
The reality is that God is revealing Godself to us each and every moment of our lives, if we but have the eyes to see. The smallest events in our lives can be full of the loving presence of God. The most insignificant parts of his creation can reveal his greatness to us.
Let me share with you a passage from a book by an American author named Annie Dillard in which she describes with such detail the intricate beauty of a goldfish – a witness to the creative glory of God.
This Ellery cost me twenty-five cents. He is deep red-orange, darker than most goldfish. He steers short distances mainly with his slender red lateral fins; they seem to provide impetus for going backward, up, or down. It took me a few days to discover his ventral fins; they are completely transparent and all but invisible – dream fins. He also has a short anal fin, and a tail that is deeply notched and perfectly transparent at the two tapered tips. He can extend his mouth, so it looks like a length of pipe; he can shift the angle of his eyes in his head so he can look before and behind himself, instead of simply out to his side. His belly, what there is of it, is white ventrally,and a patch of this white extends up his sides – the variegated Ellery. When he opens his gill slits he shows a thin crescent of silver where the flap overlapped – as though all his brightness were sunburn.
For this creature, as I said, I paid twenty-five cents. I had never bought an animal before. It was very simple; I went to a store in Roanoke called ‘Wet Pets’; I handed the man a quarter, and he handed me a knotted plastic bag bouncing with water in which a green plant floated and the goldfish swam. This fish, two bits’ worth, has a coiled gut, a spine radiating fine bones, and a brain. Just before I sprinkle his food flakes into his bowl, I rap three times on the bowl’s edge; now he is conditioned, and swims to the surface when I rap. And, he has a heart. (quoted in Super, Natural Christians, Sallie McFague, pp.30/31)
If we can be open to the small and unassuming things in life, as Annie Dillard was to the God-given beauty of a goldfish, then we can be touched by the presence of God in a real way.
And it doesn’t even have to be in nice things. God is with us and ready to reveal Godself to us even in the moments of pain and anguish and feelings of abandonment.
The great 16th century mystic, St John of the Cross, spoke of God calling us forward to a closer relationship with him through what John called the “dark night of the soul” – a feeling of the total absence of God. God can work even through such periods of desolation in our lives.
And so this dramatic manifestation of God’s glory in Jesus which was the experience of the disciples at the Transfiguration is not the only way that humans can have powerful religious experiences. Ordinary Christians, like you and me, can do so as well if we remain open to the constant presence of God in even the most insignificant moments of our lives. To do so requires our best efforts to be mindful of God and God’s ways at all times. And the proven way to obtain such a mindset is to pray regularly throughout the day, even if it is just a simple thought of thanks to God for some small experience that has reminded us of God and his overflowing love for us.
As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus (1Thess 5.16-18)”.
Fr Allan Paulsen
Priest in Charge
St Matt’s Anglican, Holland Park