When We Don't Know What to Do
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
This morning’s reading from the Gospel of Mark is one of the more perplexing passages in the Gospels. First of all, it’s full of supernatural elements—Jesus transfigured into dazzling white garments, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, and a booming voice from heaven. Then there is Peter’s almost inexplicable reaction to the event—blurting out that they should make dwellings there on the mountaintop— as if maybe he wanted them all to stay up there forever. Finally, there is Jesus’ strange admonition at the end of the passage that the disciples shouldn’t tell anyone about what they’ve seen. Why would Jesus bring the disciples with him to experience such an extraordinary vision if he didn’t want them to talk about it? There are so many elements of this passage which can leave us scratching our heads and wondering, what are we to make of this story? How can it possibly hold any relevance for our lives?
Well, if it’s relevance we are seeking, perhaps the best place to start is with Peter—an infinitely relatable character, even if he did live over 2000 years ago. Now admittedly, his behavior in this passage seems somewhat strange, but upon closer examination, his reaction to such an incredible event is maybe not quite as perplexing as it at first may appear. Preacher Mary Ann McKibben Dana makes the observation that when we don’t know what to do, we do what we know. When we are faced with extreme circumstances, or when we experience something totally unfamiliar, we tend to respond by doing what is most familiar to us. So for Peter, a first century Jew, the impulse to build a dwelling— or as another translation puts it— a tent—was actually something very familiar. One of the major Jewish festivals of the time was something called the festival of sukkot— sukkot being the Hebrew word for dwelling, or tent. The festival of sukkot was in remembrance of the Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness, when they lived in fragile, tent-like dwellings as they made their way through the desert to the promised land. Every year, during the festival of sukkot, Jews would built their own tent-like dwellings outside their homes, and stay in them for seven days. It was an act of remembrance of who they were and where they came from. It was a way to preserve an experience that was utterly formative in the history of the Jewish people. So you see, Peter’s impulse to build dwellings up on the mountaintop was not so strange after all. In the face of something utterly strange and unfamiliar, Peter was moved to do what was familiar for him. When we don’t know what to do, we do what we know.
And so as it turns out, our point of entry for this text may not be so difficult to find after all. This may indeed be a passage full of confusing, supernatural elements, but the idea that “when we don’t know what to do, we do what we know” is, I would argue, definitely relatable. When things happen in our lives that defy explanation or expectation and when we don’t know what to do in the face of them don’t we often respond by reverting to what we know best? When we are faced with great change or disruption in our lives, do we not cling with an even greater ferocity to what is comfortable and familiar?
Now sometimes, this can be a positive thing. In 2001, for example, when the planes hit the world trade center, one of the first things that people did was find their local church, or synagogue, or mosque, to be with others and to pray. Millions of people went to church the Sunday after 9/11— seeking answers to the inexplicable events of that day in ancient but familiar spaces. This was, in large part, positive, because it brought people together and helped people feel less alone in the face of an earth-shattering event. When we don’t know what to do, we do what we know, and sometimes that helps us keep our bearings in the midst of painful or traumatic experiences.
On the other side of that same coin, however, are the times when our old familiar responses are not always so positive or constructive. There are places in the world, for example, that are stuck in endless cycles of violence and war because what they know to do in the face of a violent act is to retaliate and escalate. When we don’t know what to do, we do what we know. Looking a little closer to home, perhaps the current state of affairs in our politics is an example of how the familiar responses of political posturing and demonization of the opponent is just not working. Or perhaps our deep desire to "get back to normal,” in the midst of the pandemic, even though we know that “normal” was unacceptable for millions of people in our country alone, is yet another example of yearning to do what we know when we don’t know what to do.
But here’s the thing— the Gospel calls us to move forward, not to stay stuck in place. This is a story about transformation, after all, and the Gospel calls us to be transformed, not to remain the same forever and ever. And so, perhaps when we don’t know what to do, sometimes, rather than plowing ahead by doing what we think we know, we could remain in a place of uncertainty, taking time for discernment and letting the Holy Spirit do it’s work upon us. If we barrel ahead with always doing what we know, we leave no room for transformation to occur. But if we pause, just for a moment, and allow ourselves to remain in a liminal space, open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, we may just find a new path forward that we didn’t see before.
Author Susan Beaumont talks about this in her book, “How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going.” Beaumont makes the argument that God works best in the liminal spaces, writing that “through liminal experiences human beings are transformed and brought into deeper relationship with God.” Liminal seasons, like the one I would argue we are in right now, are thin spaces, she says, “where the presence of the divine is palpable. They are ripe opportunities for people and communities of faith to deepen their practices of discernment, and to watch for the movement of God.” The disciples were in a liminal space, up there on that mountaintop. Indeed, the presence of the divine was palpable. And in the midst of that divine presence, the disciples were called, not to take some kind of action, but rather, simply, “to listen.” They were called into a posture of discernment, listening for the voice of the divine in their midst. We are called to do the same in our own extraordinary, liminal moments.
And so, as we find ourselves in the midst of what is definitely an extraordinary moment in history—with a global pandemic still raging and political upheaval still feeling like a heavy weight on our society—it is possible that instead of reverting back to what we know, instead of wanting to get back to normal as quickly as possible, that we could take some time for discernment and consider taking the road less traveled? Is it possible that God is calling us towards transformation rather than so called “normality”? I think the way to find out is to discern. And when it comes to how to do that, it’s pretty simple, really, if not always so easy. First, we let go of our assumptions, understanding that our old biases and prejudices about how things ought to be may actually be a liability when it comes to our potential transformation. Next, we cultivate stillness, learning to rest in God without immediately wanting to move on to the next item on our agenda. And finally, in that stillness that we have cultivated, we listen—waiting for Holy Spirit wisdom to manifest. This is how we break free from old patterns and open ourselves up to transformation and new beginnings— two things that I think our nation, and our world, not to mention us, really need right now.
And so as we approach the season of Lent this coming Ash Wednesday, perhaps it is in fact the perfect time for us to shed our biases, let go of our assumptions about how things ought to be, cultivate quietness and stillness in our lives, and listen for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. And in doing so, may we, ourselves, be transfigured and transformed— ready to strike out on a new path and ready to transform our world. May it ever be so, Amen.