In the Episcopal Church, there are certain days on which the priest takes branches cut from the church garden, dips them in holy water, and shakes the branches over the congregations’ heads. It’s a baptism symbol that holds a reminder of our baptisms, a reminder of our identity as the people of God, a reminder that we participate in death and resurrection.
Because my church is in Seattle, our garden holds a rosemary plant. Here, rosemary grows like a beloved native weed. The plant in our garden, bordering the parking lot, is always overgrown, so its branches are always the first to be cut when it’s time to remember our baptism.
Remembering our baptism carries a particular scent: equal parts incense and rosemary.
My community hasn’t assigned any particular meaning-making to this happenstance connection between rosemary and baptism. If there is any intent in its use, it is to convey the connection between the church and our local place. Or, perhaps, a symbol of provision and abundance.
So I researched the meaning of rosemary — most plants have a symbolic connotation, even if we no longer live by what they once meant.
Rosemary is a symbol of remembrance for the dead. Mourners used to throw it into graves, the way we might today throw a rose onto the casket. (Roses, of course, are themselves symbols: red for love, yellow for friendship, white for youth.) In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia says “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.”
Because what the practice does — without any need of human intention (though it does require attention) — is it connects death and resurrection. The priest takes rosemary — a symbol of grief, mourning, and death — and uses it as the means to sprinkle the assembly with baptismal water — a symbol of joy, new life, resurrection.
Using rosemary to sprinkle holy water on the congregation connects the remembrance of my baptism more solidly to the remembrance that, in some way, the person I used to be has died.
I remember her. Remember who she was, how she behaved, how it felt to be her. Sometimes, I even miss her. I miss the height and depth at which she experienced emotion, the high degree of passion in her relationships, her quit wit and cutting tongue. She moved through life with little discernment, often finding whichever option meant less pain (bruises were so much easier to tolerate than loneliness). In many ways, it was easier and more fun to be her. Rosemary, that’s for remembrance.
And that memory, the memory of who she was and what my life as her was like, makes the droplets of cool water that much more powerful. The water connects me with my baptismal identity, my post-baptism reality. The water reminds me that I not only died but rose again with Christ.
The impact of remembering that new identity is much more powerful when remembered in contrast to what died.
As I’ve grown in my baptismal identity, I’ve gained a capacity to understand my emotions and care for myself in ways that are less destructive. I’ve developed stable and loving relationships that I can actually experience as loving. I’ve learned to tolerate pain in the present because of my hope for the future.
And then I reclaim my baptismal identity. It may have been easier and more fun to be the person I used to be. But the person I’ve become is more loving, more joyful, more compassionate.
And I think I’d rather be as someone who loves joyfully than as someone who has fun.
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When we first meet Nux, he’s resting and connected to his “blood bag” — death is imminent. And yet, hearing of betrayal, he’s energized, determined to die for the purposes of the empire and to please Immortan Joe. He refuses to stay at the Citadel and “die soft.” “If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die historic on the Fury Road.”
We see him cheer as a pierced war boy shouts “Witness!” and jumps to his death, taking out an enemy vehicle. When a war boy dies for the purposes of the Cult of the V8 (the religion of the empire), there seems to be a tradition of witnessing. Part of what makes the death worthwhile is the memory of the way in which the death occurred, the way it benefited the empire.
When Nux goes on his own kamakrazee drive, dumping gallons of gasoline into the car and riding into the apocalyptic desert storm, he shouts to Max, “Witness me, Blood Bag!” He’s thoroughly committed to the Cult, determined to “ride eternal on the highways of Valhalla” with Immortan Joe.
Nicholas Hoult, the actor who plays Nux, says, “He’s very hyped up and running on this enthusiasm and belief that he’s destined for something great.”
Despair to Hope
That enthusiasm dissipates when he fails to kill Furiosa on behalf of Joe.
Capable finds him at the back of the War Rig, hitting his head in punishment, “He [Joe] saw it all. My own blood bag driving the rig that killed her [Angharad the Splendid].” He laments that he “should be walking with the Immorta.” “I thought I was being spared for something great.”
At that point, he aligns himself with Furiosa and the wives — not because he thinks what they’re doing is right, but because he believes himself to be exiled from the empire and faith of Immortan Joe. His very survival is dependent on getting somewhere livable with the traitors.
It’s not until Max reveals the plan to take the Citadel that Nux fully recovers from his despair, acknowledging the opposite of despair: “Feels like hope.”
Eyes to See
When we first meet Nux, he’s in standard war boy makeup: blackened eyes and powder-whitened body.
By the time he claims hope, this layer has begun to fall away. The white powder has been sand-blown off; we can see that he is living flesh. The blackness around his eyes gradually clears; Nux develops clear-sightedness.
Which reminds me of another man dedicated to his religion and transformed through a shift in sight — the Apostle Paul. Saul (as he was then called) was on his own Fury Road in pursuit of traitors. The opening sentence of Acts 9 tells us that Saul was seeking permission to capture those who betrayed the religious establishment of his day. Perhaps Saul even understood himself to be anointed, shiny and chrome, for exactly the task of recovering the traitorous souls.
But Jesus appeared to Saul and struck him blind. Days later, he regains his sight, is renamed Paul, and begins championing the Christian cause. His mission began when he regained true sight.
Nux, like Paul, is an image of conversion — and, also like Paul, a martyr for the coming of the Kingdom.
They’re on the road back to the Citadel when Immortan Joe is finally defeated. Cheedo shouts back to those in the War Rig: “He’s dead! He’s dead.” For just a moment, the camera lingers in a closeup on Nux’s face. The last scales fall from his eyes.
If Immortan Joe has died, then Nux is not in exile from the true faith of the Cult of the V8. Joe will not carry him into Valhalla. Joe was not an Immorta; perhaps there are no Immorta; perhaps there is no Valhalla. The entirety of that faith is proven false, even foolish, in light of Joe’s death.
Nux is free from his religious and empirical ties, free to choose his commitments, free to act for the interest of goodness for the world rather than simply for the best interests of Joe.
Nux is free to love.
And he loves greatly. Jesus claims that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Earlier, Nux had told Capable that he thought he was being spared for “something great,” and in this moment perhaps he realizes that he was, and that the moment of greatness has arrived, greatness for a cause he could never have imagined the day before.
Nux points to Capable, his beloved, and whispers (not shouts — no, there is no need to shout for glory when the very act contains all the glory of God) “Witness me.”
For discussion: What other saints and martyrs do you notice in Mad Max: Fury Road? What do you think it means to witness to the life and death of another? What might need to die so that you are more free to love greatly? What are you willing to risk your life for, or to die for?
Mad Max: Fury Roadoffers a post-apocalyptic image of the future in order to push audiences to ask questions about our present. The film seems to center around hope and its role in these character’s lives. The various factions offer a couple different ways of understanding hope, highlighting the problems of each, before providing an ultimate resolution through offering a framework for a healthy way to hope.
Tunnels and Directions
Eschatology is the aspect of theology that concerns the “four last things:” death, judgment, heaven, and hell. The eschaton is shorthand for the place where we hope all this — all our prayers, policies, and parenting — the place that we hope everything is headed.
Sometimes when talking about eschatology, theologians use the metaphor of the light at the end of the tunnel. In the tunnel metaphor, the eschaton is the light towards which we move. In Mad Max language, we could say the eschaton is the Green Place.
The metaphor we use matters — deeply — to the way we understand the world. The metaphor we us shapes our actions in the world.
The tunnel metaphor is an enclosed line, and the confines of the tunnel mean that it’s impossible to get off track. As long as we keep moving, we’ll end up at the destination. There are only two options: (1) going back to where we first came from; in scriptural language we’d say “back to Eden,” to the garden in Genesis 2, or (2) going forward to the light at the other end of the tunnel; we might say heaven or the city described in the Book of Revelations.
What’s problematic is that the tunnel metaphor allows us to believe that absolutely anything that happens — fossil fuel consumption, nuclear weaponry, murder — is all part of a linear history that God has laid down. It’s all part of the tunnel line that will eventually bring us to the light.
The metaphor offered in Mad Max: Fury Road for the eschaton is the Green Place, and they get there by “a long night’s run, headed east.” The image retains the darkness/light metaphor of the tunnel (the Green Place will be on the other side of darkness; it is associated with the coming light of dawn), and adds greenness — the color associated with vibrant life, from vegetation.
This driving metaphor solves the issue of the linear history of the tunnel metaphor. On the drive, it’s possible to get off track — they could begin to head too far north or south and miss the Green Place. They could find themselves going the wrong direction entirely, a direction that’s neither “back to Eden” nor “ahead to the City.” The driving metaphor preserves potential for missing the mark, the potential of human error.
Where is Hope Located?
The film asks us to consider where we place our hope by juxtaposing two eschatons, two places that hope can reside.
Hoping for Death
The first form of hope we see epitomized in the War Boys, especially Nux. For the first portion of the movie, Nux represents disembodied hope, meaning that arriving at this eschaton requires the loss of one’s body. The eschaton, called Valhalla (sometimes written Walhalla), is reached only through death. Early in the film, we see Nux screaming “I live. I die. I live again!” Death is the gateway to the paradisiacal afterlife.
In this theology, the individual’s arrival will be more honorable if the death happens in combat that furthers the cause of the empire. Immortan Joe tells the war boy Nux, “Return my treasures to me and I myself will carry you to the gates of Valhalla.” He anoints Nux with chrome spray and the blessing that he will “ride eternal, shiny, and chrome.”
I’ve read some commentators who were quick to interpret Nux’s disembodied hope as a parallel for Islamic extremists. Which, sure, and those similarities don’t need yet another summary. What I haven’t read much of is the parallel that Nux also represents the disembodied hope found in many religions, including some forms of Christianity.
The belief that death is more honorable if done to further the religious cause is as much a Christian belief as an Islamic one. Many early Christians died to uphold the Christian cause; we refer to them as the martyrs. And when we tell the story of martyrs, we witness to the importance of their lives and deaths.
Both religions (the Cult of the V8 and some forms of Christianity) are headed by men believed to be immortal (Immortan Joe; Jesus) who will deliver their followers to a paradisiacal afterlife (Valhalla; Heaven). Death for the sake of the leader’s teachings will lead to glory and honor after death — it is this glorious death that Nux desperately seeks.
So what’s the alternative to hoping for life after death?
Hoping for Life
The Green Place — spoilers abound from here on
We see the alternative to the War Boys’ disembodied hope in the located hope of the protagonists, and especially of the escaped breeders/wives. The wives’ eschaton is the Green Place — a located place that they can physically access in this life.
The wives have never been to the Green Place. Their hope rests on what they have been told about the place, presumably from Furiosa. Furiosa believes on the faith of a distant memory; the wives believe without seeing. And the belief is a great comfort to them; it’s in the moments they are most stressed and uncertain that one of them will repeat, “We are going to the Green Place.”
They are willing to risk everything to reach this place — even death. They are willing to die as a result of their hope, but their hope does not necessitate their death. When we locate the eschaton in this world, it instills us with a hope so compelling that we are willing to die to get there, yet death is not required to get there. That relationship between hope and death is a far cry from the War Boys, who are willing to die because they must die in order to reach their eschaton.
This is why the War Boys cheer when they watch one of their own go to his death — early in the chase, an injured man anoints himself with chrome spray, shouts “Witness me!” and jumps to his death while taking out an enemy vehicle. The War Boys shout victoriously.
But when Angharad the Splendid falls, those present are tearful. It’s not only because they were close to her — the War Boys have also lived together; they’ve probably grown up together; they are close. Their grief is a result of their hope. They know the Green Place, no matter how good it will be, will be somehow lacking without Angharad present. They grieve because she will never get to arrive at the place she had put her hope.
What the seekers of the Green Place share with other forms of Christianity is that they follow a real, flesh-and-blood person: Furiosa for the wives; Jesus for the disciples, who had no idea, when they started following him, that he would resurrect. They both look for the already existing presence of the eschaton, with their own vocabularies: the Green Place; the Kingdom of God that is within us or among us.
When the group discovers that the Green Place has become a swamp of poisoned water, we would expect their hope to die or to shift to hope in an afterlife. And for a moment, that despairing moment when Furiosa takes off her metal hand — hands are a symbol of agency; perhaps she feels she is nothing left to be done — and she kneels in the expanse of the barren desert and she silently wails her lament — for that moment the audience and Furiosa alike are swallowed by despair. All hope is deferred.
Max tells Furiosa that “hope is a mistake.” But I think what he’s actually saying is that the headstrong hoping for something out there is a mistake. To hope that someone else has solved what their society wasn’t able to solve is a mistake.
It seems that they gather themselves in a hope-against-hope, rouse themselves to keep going east, continuing to do what they’ve been doing for the last day. Max rides after them and calls them to repent — a word that literally means to turn back.
When Max had claimed that “hope is a mistake” he added: “If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.” Which actually points the audience to a new sort of hope.
Hope that is not somewhere out there; that is the kind of hope that is a mistake. True hope relies on “fixing what’s broken,” mending what is fractured, fighting to restore goodness with what we have. Hope is in redeeming (“regaining possession”) of what has been used for evil. Hope must be found within us and among us.
When Max calls them to repentance, the response to the plan is clear: “Feels like hope.”
It’s Nux, newly converted, who names it so.
(Post concludes after image)
True Hope: The Green Place is Within You
This is the turning point of their journey and of the film’s eschatology. In this moment, Nux — previously a subscriber to disembodied hope — converts to hope in a real place. And the women — subscribers to a hope located outside of themselves — find a resilient hope that exists in and among their own selves.
Far from the despairing lament, this type of hope is stronger than any hope they had experienced before.
This is the hope that Jesus tried to instill in his followers. Jesus repeatedly proclaimed the Kingdom of God as a present reality. Jesus proclaimed that this Kingdom is “within us” and “among us.” Hope exists within an individual and among a community. Hope likely requires real work to effect changes in the way a community structures itself — fixing what’s broken will not be easy. But we must have this resilient internal hope that the broken can be mended in order to act faithfully and step into the Kingdom of God that is both already present and not yet fully manifest.
The Green Place still exists; they carry it within them. They carry it in their imaginations and their desires. They carry it into reality in the Citadel.
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is the tree of life.
In the Middle East, it’s hot. Which means decomposition sets in quick, and the stench of that rotting process is heavy in the air. So if I had been four days in a tomb, in the heat — essentially the tomb becomes a warmed oven — I think I would have been too ashamed to come out.
And on top of that, there’s the problem of the bindings. The text describes how “his hands and feet were bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.” In the burial customs of the time, strips of cloth were tightly wound around the body — they bound the jaw closed, the feet together, and the hands to the side of the body. Which means that even after the shock of finding himself alive in his tomb, Lazarus is faced with the problem of exiting the tomb. He cannot walk with his feet bound together. He cannot even crawl with his hands tied to his side. The text doesn’t describe what must have been Lazarus’s struggling exit from the tomb; we can only imagine the movements of rolling and shuffling and squirming that must have taken him from the darkness to the light.
I would have stayed in the tomb. It would be less painful to stay dead than to suffer the humiliation of exiting on my belly and the shame of exposing the community to the stench of my death.
And that’s not to mention life after the tomb. In a culture where the dead are considered unclean, untouchable — where does an undead person go? what does he do? who will be near him, eat with him, care for him?
In commanding “Lazarus, come out!” — rather than going in, gathering up Lazarus in his arms, and carrying him out like a fireman making a rescue — in commanding Lazarus to come out, Jesus is asking a lot of his beloved friend. Jesus asks for Lazarus’s struggle and his exposure. Jesus asks for him to risk living with social stigma. Jesus asks for his full participation.
I would have stayed in the tomb.
Unless, perhaps, it becomes too painful to stay in the tomb any longer. I think we all reach this point, in different ways, at various moments of our life.
Perhaps it’s physical — our body is in pain or we suffer an addiction, and we know we can no longer keep living the way we have been, that our lifestyle habits have become a kind of tomb that we must leave in order to have real life.
Perhaps it’s relational — something about the person I become when I’m with this other person has turned my home into a kind of tomb, has bound me up in some way that I no longer feel like I have agency, and I need to crawl to someone who can unbind me.
Perhaps it’s societal, living in a system that bends toward injustice and it even though it will be really difficult to get out, staying in the tomb, staying with the way things are, is just no longer an option.
Jesus did not prevent his friend from dying. Mary and the Jews have a point: If Jesus had been there, Lazarus would not have died. So it seems that Jesus did not come to rescue us from going through difficulties.
And on the other side of death, at the tomb, at this scene: Jesus does does not rush into the tomb to deliver Lazarus out like a fireman rushing into a building burning. Rather, Jesus invites Lazarus to participate in his own salvation. Having done what he could do in raising Lazarus to life, Jesus expects Lazarus to do what he could do by making his way out of the tomb.
It’s when each of us is in a place of death — of pain and suffering and stench and shame — it’s when we feel trapped and bound and unable to act — it’s in death that Jesus offers the possibility of new life. Jesus calls to us. He calls to us: Come out! He invites us: Come out! He offers us hope that there is new life waiting to be had. Come out!
Jesus looks at something dead and see it as full of potential for life. Jesus looks at a corpse in a dark tomb and invites a living body into the light. Jesus looks at his beloved one and shows that death does not have to be the end of the story.
Having done what he can do in inviting us to new life, Jesus expects us to do what we can do to in our own movement and struggle out of our tombs.
This sermon was written for St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington for the Seventh Sunday in Easter. The gospel text was John 17:6-19.
There are glasses available now that correct color blindness. People with green-red color deficiency– the most common form of colorblindness– experience the world in relatively muted tones because of what is called spectral overlap. For these people, the light spectrum that gives us green and the light spectrum that gives us red overlap, and as a result green and red overlap — have you ever blended red and green watercolors? It turns into a kind of dull, dusty gray-brown. For color blind people, to varying extents…that’s their world.
So the problem here, for the person with color deficiency, is not with the eye — the eye and optic neuron is essentially healthy, the systems function normally. The problem is the way the light is received.
So these glasses — these entirely normal-looking sunglasses — the lenses essentially put a space between the spectrums, they pull apart the overlapping spectrums, helping the eye to see that green and red are distinct colors. And by sorting out red and green as distinct colors, that dusty grayness is removed; reds are more red, greens are more green, blues are more blue — the entire color spectrum opens up once these two spectrums are seen as distinct. All by putting on a pair of glasses.
A close friend of mine, a woman who was like a mother to me, had a gift of turning a gray world into a colorful world. She was able to pull apart the aspects of a given situation that were the result of the world’s powers being at work–a result of hateful beliefs and attitudes, the ways systems privilege certain people, the ways despair and depression take hold, creepingly. She had the insight to be able to sort out those powers of the world’s system in my life from what God was doing in my life.
Through our conversations, it is as though she gifted me with color-correcting glasses. When the world feels too gray, I hear her voice and I can adopt her frames to sort out the world’s narratives and God’s narrative, both at play in my life.
I imagine the disciples felt as I feel when I heard that this friend was dying, when Jesus started speaking openly, bluntly, about his impending death. I imagine their fear of having to navigate the world’s ways and see God’s action in the midst of their situations. Their disorientation, like we’re losing a navigational point that told us who we are. I imagine them wondering: Who will name the world’s powers for what they are? Who will help us see God’s movements? Does the death of Jesus mean that the world’s powers will win out in the end? And under all of this, tied to all of these questions, is the Big Question: how can the world continue on without his love to hold it all together?
It is into this situation, this fear, that Jesus prays. “Father, the world’s systems and powers, the dominant culture of the world has hated my followers because they do not fit in the ways of the world, just as I do not fit in the ways of the world.” He reminds us that he has given us God’s care and protection as he pursue God’s truth.
He continues, “Sanctify them in your truth.” Sanctify means “to separate for purposes of God,” separate the purposes of God from the powers of the world, of the dominant culture. Our sight has the tendency to conflate the two spectrums, the world’s ways and God’s ways, Jesus reminds us that we are to be sanctified, to be able to see the two ways at work, as separate things. Jesus reminds us that he has given us new eyes to see. He reminds us that he has been the space that separates the spectrum of the world’s ways and the spectrum of God’s ways, he has pulled apart the world’s images of success/the world’s systems and ways —- from God’s movements and workings. Jesus prays that we remain able to see them, that we be sanctified.
And he continues: “Sanctify them … as you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
Jesus sends us, as he was sent. He sends us in the same manner and for the same purposes that he was sent. Our work in the world must look to Christ as the model. We read, earlier in this same gospel, about God’s sending Jesus in the oft-quoted John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” And the next verse continues the thought: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved.”
Jesus was sent into the world because of love, for the purpose of loving. In this prayer, Jesus sends his followers as he was sent — because of love, for the purpose of love. Love alone is the church’s reason for being in the world. When Jesus dies and the disciples feel so uprooted that they wonder, how can the world continue to exist without his love?, the answer is: we put on Jesus’s sight to correct our sight toward love. We adopt the way of seeing the world’s ways and God’s ways compassionately in a way that leads us to love.
He sends us as he was sent — not to condemn the world, but to lovingly interact with it, in order that the world’s ways might be saved.
A thai poet wrote that “paradise is not another world. Paradise is the ruins of this world gazed upon compassionately.” St Teresa of Avila wrote that “Christ has no body now on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the world; yours are the hands with which God is to bless people now.” Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion looks out to the ruins of this world and sees it as paradise.
I saw a video of a man putting on these glasses for the first time. It’s his birthday; the glasses are his birthday gift, wrapped in bright red tissue paper. His wife has put out a container holding variety of colorful flowers in the front yard; she’s narrating from behind the camera. Their kids are in bright winter coats. Other than that, it’s really quite a bleak day. The sky is entirely overcast; they live in an apartment park filled with gray-brown townhomes. There is no grass; they’re stand on light gray sidewalk between dark gray pavement and their own gray-brown home.
The man, head-to-toe black denim, hair slicked back — he’s remarkably nonchalant, like he doesn’t want to appear uncool for a minute. Or maybe like he doesn’t want to hope too much. He unwraps the gift, pushing the tissue paper into the hands of his school-age daughter. Opens the box. Coolly, skeptically, he examines the seemingly ordinary shades.
When he finally puts them on, the moment that follows is …. Well, the kids are kind of oblivious that anything significant is happening. They’re playing with the tissue paper, running around.
But their father, the man in the glasses — the moment he puts them on, he stops talking. He stops smiling. He doesn’t know which direction to look. His wife says to him: look at your kids eyes. He glances down at his daughter in front of him, stares for just a second, and turns away, needs to go sit down.
And a minute later, composed, he gets up, smooths out his hair, paces, and then he comes to the flowers his wife set out, and this man just crumples in the parking lot. His new sight fills him with such love for the world — the same world that he had nonchalantly moved through before, but now rightly perceived — he’s filled with such love that he is overwhelmed and seems to become, at least for a few moments, an entirely different man. His tough exterior is undone as he weeps at the beauty of a gray day in a gray parking lot surrounded by gray homes.
The world hasn’t changed, but his perception of it has been corrected; the spectrums with which he sees have been pulled apart, and he can see the world as it is, and he is changed.
Jesus sends us into the world — not to condemn it, but to lovingly interact with it in order to save it. He sends us to see it with eyes so new and grateful that the color of another’s eyes brings tears to our own, that the brightness of a flower against gray sky brings us to our knees.
This sermon was written for St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington for Transfiguration Sunday. The gospel text was Mark 9:2-9.
There’s a game my husband and I play on our commute — maybe you play as well. The game is called: Is Rainier out? It’s initiated each time we near the West Seattle Bridge; either he or I will say, “Well? Is she out?” And we’ll examine the conditions, gaze into the sky, debate about the level of visibility. Whether we estimate correctly or not, when she’s out, we both feel like we won.
Perhaps this game is part of the reason it makes sense to me that the word “cloud” shares the same root as the word “clot,” as in a blood clot. They both come from clod: a clump of earth. Clouds are clumps of sky; clots are clumps of cells. It makes sense to me that these two words, cloud and clot, share their parent: both, material, stuck together; both capable of blockage and obstruction.
In this city, we know clouds intimately. We are familiar with their presence, familiar with their comings and goings, familiar with the way they seem to shift our landscape, shift what is visible and what is hidden.
My parents recently visited from Michigan, where they know clouds well but know very little of giant clods of earth. During their visit, as we drove about, they would comment on the landscape: the water, the green, the flower buds. The rain. But it’s winter; the view of the mountains, and of course the views of Mt Rainier as well, were continuously limited by clotty clouds, blocking our sight.
I tried to explain to my parents what they were missing. “There’s a glorious mountain rightoverthere.” I showed them photos that didn’t do it justice. I pulled up a map. They said, Yes, sure, we know, we understand. But I knew they didn’t fully understand. They had the right concept — a hill but bigger, with snow on top — but they didn’t fully understand the right meaning. The clouds blocked their experience, and thus blocked their sight.
Peter, too, has the right concept but not a firm grasp on the right meaning behind it. The week before Peter sees Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop, Jesus asked him, “Who do you say I am?” Now, Jesus had triumphed over every foe: he had cured illnesses, debated critics, soothed nature, controlled spirits. And so Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.”
Peter was able to sincerely confess Jesus as the Messiah. But, like my parents relying on photos to understand the experience of a mountain, Peter was relying on insufficient images to understand who the Messiah is. He believed the Messiah to be the one who will triumph over every enemy, natural and spiritual. The one who ends all suffering and death. The Messiah has come, and Peter believes that as a result he will see an immediate end to despair, betrayal, grief, suffering, death.
In Mark’s account, the line of text after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus starts speaking of what is to come: his suffering, his rejection by all respected authority figures. Jesus tells his disciples that he will be killed. Peter is appalled and rebukes Jesus — death is a sign of defeat, failure of mission. Certainly the Messiah will not, can not be defeated. God will not abandon the Messiah in this way.
It is in the midst of this confusion that Jesus takes Peter, along with James and John, and they hike to the top of a mountain. On the mountaintop, close to heaven, Jesus appears as a brilliant, dazzling figure, and alongside him are Moses, the bearer of the Law, and Elijah, the great prophet. There can be no doubt that Peter was right in naming Jesus the Messiah. This is certainly God’s Holy, Chosen One.
And I imagine that Peter must have thought: this is it, this is the arrival of the Kingdom of God, from this moment there will be no more misery, no despair, no betrayal, no grief, no suffering, and certainly no death. He offers to make dwellings. He wants the Holy Ones to settle, to set up camp, to move into the neighborhood and build a permanent home. He wants this moment of glory to be where they stay.
A cloud comes over them all, and the voice of God speaks: “this is my Son; listen to him.”
Jesus is silent. The words we are to listen to are the ones that have already been spoken, the ones that Peter did not want to hear — Jesus telling of his upcoming shame, suffering, and death.
To Peter, who had been hopeful, even certain, that the world was done with suffering and death, this cloud might have felt clot-like. This cloud might seem to obstruct the settling of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. This cloud might be felt to obscure the immediate presence of the Kingdom of God by affirming that Jesus will, indeed, suffer and die.
I, too, was frustrated with clouds, during my parents visit. They had never been to Seattle before and I wanted them to have this image of dazzling beauty to take back home with them. I wanted the clouds to part and the sun to shine on the mountain and them to have the experience of seeing Rainier in all her glory.
But precisely because I was so focused on them seeing Rainier, I often missed the beautiful things we were able to see, the things my parents, in their enthusiasm, kept drawing my attention to: The moss growing thickly on banisters, turning a safety device into an enchanted thing. The incessant waves of water, their rhythm conveying something of the infinite. The way the clouds moved among the buildings. The clouds in all their beautiful grays. The very clouds I had been cursing have a beauty all their own.
Peter, too, wanted glory, and was slow to realize that there is beauty and glory in the grey, cloudy, clotty places; indeed, the voice of God, the blessing of God might be found precisely in the cloud that comes over us like a shadow.
In her poem Early February, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre writes:
Grace doesn’t always come as a rainbow.
Sometimes it hovers like a pewter sky
tucked in around the treetops,
bringing the landscape close to the eye.
Still, grace comes on a day like this
in odd disguises…
For the gifts of greyness let us give thanks:
cobblestones and flagstones and boulders of granite,
clapboard houses, dark-shuttered and lamplit in the afternoon,
snow on asphalt, pencil and charcoal,
the naked stretch of steel that protects us
at the bridge’s edge,
old movies from a kinder time,
the wolf and the owl — hungry and hidden —
the rabbit’s fur,
the hawk’s eye,
the dolphin’s back,
the cocoon where a caterpillar
quietly works out
Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, and Peter, John, and James — they do not get to stay on top of the mountain in the moment of dazzling and obvious glory. The Messiah will not avoid the hardships of human life. Jesus will not settle where it’s comfortable. Neither do we get to stay in shining moments for long, near heaven, on top of mountains.
The voice from the cloud comes to affirm what Jesus has told the disciples about his death, and to bless it. God comes in a cloud in a dramatic affirmation that Jesus will indeed continue to be God’s agent of redemption. Suffering is not the result of a withdrawal of heavenly favor. Death is not the result of a withdrawal of heavenly favor.
This God does not shy away from suffering. This God is not afraid of death. This God does not bypass the difficult things.
Jesus will not take the easy way, for he knows there is no shortcut to new life. And though we may look for shortcuts — the Seven Easy Steps to a Better, Fitter, Healthier, Happier, Richer, Kinder You — it should, perhaps, be unsurprising that we find ourselves with Jesus on the long, slow journey to salvation. So we go to the doctors appointments and treatments. We spend the hours in counseling. We show up again and again for the 12-step meetings. We apply for this job, and the next one, and the next. We grieve one day at a time. We come to prayer in rhythms, regular or irregular. These are our own slow, gray cocoons, in which we quietly work out our salvation.
God does not bypass the difficult things on the way to salvation, but joins us in them. The savior we know is named Emmanuel, the God who is with us. Just as God was with Jesus in his baptism, God is just as much with Jesus in his suffering and death. And God will be just as much with us through our times of suffering and, yes, death, as God was with us in our baptism.
And God is with us through our despair, and is loyal to us when we are betrayed. And God intimately knows our abandonment. And God weeps with us in grief. And God suffers alongside us.
For this God, in Christ, goes through death, and blesses it, on the way to new life.
The only time in my life I was certain I was dying was when I was eight years old.
I had been running up Maxwell Street when I tripped. Most of my weight landed on my knee, which landed on a corner of a stair – Larry’s stair, actually. And it was Larry’s towels that were wrapped around my knee as I was placed into the back seat of Pete’s car, but not before I had seen the damage. The cut went to the bone. I had never seen so much blood before; there was no question in my eight-year-old mind that this was the end of my life.
Pete drove; Karen insisted on coming along. In fact, she insisted on sitting with me in the back seat. She squeezed beside me and peeled back the towels to see my injury and said, “Well, shit,” and I knew it was serious because she didn’t apologize to me for swearing.
She had run out of the house without grabbing a thing, and as Pete drove around town trying to contact my parents, Karen searched her pockets for something to give me, and offered me the only thing she had on her: a peppermint.
When Pete managed to get my mom on the car phone, I heard her voice and started sobbing: this, I thought to myself, would the last time I heard my mother’s voice. As I sobbed, Karen patted my arm and told me how brave I am. As I shook, she told me how strong I am. My breathing slowed; we made it the hospital; I grew into a well-adjusted adult who realizes her life was never in danger.
I tell this story as a testament to Karen’s character. Crises, fortunately, don’t happen all that often, but when they do, they have a way of revealing our identity, of illuminating the best and the worst in each of us.
I tell this story because in the midst of my young crisis, Karen joined me, came beside me. There was no question, for her, that she would be in that car, and that she would be immediately beside the person in need. And this was always true of Karen: no matter what I was going through, I could be certain that she would be in it with me. I could trust that she would recognize and name a situation for the shittiness it is.
I tell this story because it illustrates Karen’s generosity. A woman who wasn’t happy until everyone in her home had a full, cold drink in hand – of course she offered me a found mint. Even at the time, I’m pretty certain I laughed through my tears at the absurdity and helplessness of her offering a mint to an injured child. But that’s who she was: offering comfort and hospitality in the most tangible ways.
I tell this story because Karen always had a gift of narrating my best self — back to me. That day, while I was still sobbing uncontrollably, she told me I was strong. While I was terrified and trembling, she told me I was brave. Karen had a gift of sight, a gift that enabled her to see beyond behavior and into the heart of the person. She saw each of us as our best self, and told us who we are, with such certainty that we believed her – and moved toward becoming our best selves in response.
It’s true she offered this narration to me on that day I fell, but was equally true each and every time I saw Karen. Every time she saw me, she told me I was more beautiful than when she had last seen me – even when I was a gangly child and an awkward adolescent. When I was yet uncomfortable in my own skin, she saw me as beautiful.
As a child I was shy, quiet; I easily went unnoticed. But Karen noticed me, and exclaimed that I was smart and bright and brilliant; when I was easily overlooked, she saw me as shiny.
I wonder how she saw each of you, gathered here, the people she loved. I wonder about the too-easily unnoticed people that, in her eyes, are surrounded by light. I wonder who you understand yourself to be and who she believed you to be, and I wonder if you can believe that you really are as strong, smart, brave, brilliant, and beautiful, as Karen told you are.
And I hope you continue to become that person, that you continue to become yourself. I hope we all continue to become as lovely as Karen told us we are.
Because that, I think, is perhaps the greatest gift of Karen’s love: When we were yet unlovable, she loved us, and in doing so made us lovely.
I am indebted to her, to some degree, for calling me to become who I am, but it is not a debt that can be repaid. Rather, it is a gift that can only be passed on. May we go into the world and see others through the borrowed vision of Karen’s eyes. Through Karen’s eyes, may we notice the scared and see their strength. Through Karen’s eyes, may we look behind brokenness and see beauty. Through Karen’s eyes, may we look past the unlovable and encounter someone truly lovely.