Years ago my mother was driving my young family down to Amish country one hour south of their home in Akron. A mother of six, she never gave up having a station wagon. It was just too practical. So my two young sons were in the rear-facing seat in the way back and my mom drove through those Ohio hills with confidence—and speed! After a time, conversation between the two brothers lagged. One son leaned forward to me, in the middle seat, and told me he didn’t feel “vewy good.” Well, that’s not good, is it? Before I could think of what that meant and what to do, he vomited all over the back area of the car. Poor boy. We pulled over quickly and opened the back hatch. My mother was impressed with the volume my son produced as he sat there feeling sickly and looking very uncomfortable.
What do you do when you need new pants and you’re in Amish country? We were not optimistic but he clearly needed new pants. We stripped him down to his undies, mopped things up as best we could, and went on a search of a store that would offer a change of clothes. We imagined it might have to be cotton cloth in a solid color with a safety pin as a closure. Did the Amish folks in this area only sell their own style of clothing? To our amazement, we found an A&P store that stood as a gleaming oasis of modern products in a desert mirage. It carried, among other things, cheaply made sweat pants. We grabbed his favorite color, green, and headed back to the car. He could not have been more pleased! Virtually naked and defiled, he was transformed into a happy child in a new outfit. We enjoyed an afternoon wandering through Berlin, Ohio as if nothing had happened in that back seat of the station wagon. Those became my son’s favorite pants for the next year because of what they represented: a transfiguration from soiled to dignified and a chance at new life!
If you’ve ever taken a class in public speaking you’ve probably heard the tip for how to get rid of your fears: imagine you audience is naked. I’m not sure how much that would lower my anxiety actually! But this is the stuff of our nightmares: beings exposed, unready, or vulnerable before an aggressor. The enemy might take the form of an unexpected college exam or a bear chasing us through the woods in the dark of night. Our psyche processes our fears while we sleep, dreaming us into preposterous but gripping places of vulnerability.
In a story from 2 Kings we read about two prophets: Elijah and Elisha. Elijah has been the mighty spokesperson for God but his life is nearing an end. We look in on a story of leadership succession in which everyone is primarily concerned about their own well-being. As the pair travel from one town to another, almost like a presidential motorcade, prophets from each town line the street to watch this Godly man pass by. Just as pilgrims line up for miles to be in the holy presence of the Pope, these men of God want a glimpse of Elijah and maybe a piece of his spiritual mojo. They know that Elijah is on his last journey and they don’t hesitate to say this to poor Elisha. Perhaps they line the streets, wondering if God is still in charge as the leadership changes. Elisha is learning on this final journey that being a prophet is no privileged position. David Lose writes that prophets are completely vulnerable and utterly reliant on God’s grace. To be a good prophet is to love God’s people enough to tell them the truth about their condition. If they are naked and defiled, you tell them that then you set about to improve their lot. As Elisha doggedly follows after his beloved master, we witness a repeated cycle. At each stop on the final tour, the other prophets call out the news that Elijah is surely going to die. Elisha confirms their news but asks them to be quiet. He can’t bear to hear it. The journey continues and the same verbal exchange happens at the next stop.
But the third stopping point is different. The prophets have no words because God is at work. When God shows up, our language fails. The prophets stand in reverent silence as Elisha wails his grief. Being a prophet is no easy task. Elisha is separated from his teacher and left vulnerably staring up into the heavens. I wonder why Elijah tried to dissuade Elisha? Was he testing his devotion? Did he worry that the younger servant would be unable to endure an encounter with God? As the fiery chariot carries Elijah away, Elisha tears his clothes in anguish. He is left alone with his naked faith.
Our faith is tested by how we respond to the unknown. When we are stripped down to the essence of our being, are we thinking of God, of our neighbor, or of ourselves? I read an account of a rabbi’s treatment during the holocaust. He was struggling to survive in a concentration camp. The Nazis loved to denigrate the Jewish faith so they stripped the rabbi of all his clothing and commanded him to preach naked while they beat another prisoner in front of him. He was sickened and resistant but the soldiers prodded him to keep going. The rabbi realized that he could not stop them from the murderous violence they were bent on but he could preach. He could surround the dying man with the Word of God that assured him he was loved. In that moment the scene was transfigured from a heinous murder into an altar to Almighty God. Transfiguration happens in the least likely places.
Elisha cried out to Elijah, “Father, father!” When the elder prophet asks Elisha for a final wish, he asks to inherit a double share of the holy man’s spirit. He wants to be Elijah’s heir, his spiritual son. Elijah wisely reminds the younger that he cannot grant such a wish, only God can. It is a bold request. He had witnessed the hardships the seasoned prophet had faced. He had endured times of yawning solitude and religious persecution. He knew that his only chance at continuing Elijah’s ministry was to have an even deeper faith to draw from. He knew the risks that came with the position and wanted to arm himself with the word of God. It was a bold request he made.
I wonder if we’ve considered that vulnerability is intrinsic to our Christian faith? Are we able to see hardships as reminders of our complete reliance upon God? Or do we cry out that God has wronged or abandoned us? I wonder how vulnerable we are willing to be with each other as believers, how willing we are to stand in our community with a naked faith that won’t let us fall? It is in those unexpected moments, those times of change, that we show what we are made of. Do we believe in and serve a powerful God or do we rely on our own strength? Do we allow God’s grace to transfigure the ugly moments in our lives? Do we invite God to transform our vulnerability into strength, to clothe us with dignity in our humble state? Or do we settle for our mundane lives of predictable answers and waffling faith?
I read the account of a surgeon who was in the hospital room of a patient and her husband after surgery. He had removed a tumor from the woman’s cheek and, in the delicacy of the procedure, cut one of the facial nerves. Her smile drooped on one side. Her husband was with her, sitting on the side of her bed. Quietly she asked him if it would change. The husband shook his head. The woman vulnerably looked in a mirror at her new smile. The husband told her in the quiet of that room, “I sort of like it. It’s cute.” He turned his head and planted a tender kiss on her newly shaped mouth. The surgeon felt like he was looking in on a private moment of transfiguration. A surgical error was transformed into a new expression of their marriage vows. On the day of our wedding, we stand at the altar, young and innocent. We can’t know the road we will travel as a couple. But our faith assures us that God blesses us when we dare to stand naked for the sake of our faith. God makes something beautiful of it. David Lose states that “To be a prophet is to enter deeply into the realities and relationships of the people to whom you are sent.” Transfiguration for one woman began by her choice of a seat on a creaky city bus. Rosa Parks changed the lives of her people. Who would guess that sitting down could transfigure a nation? We can’t walk the journey for others or force them to join our movement. But we can urge them to keep their eyes open and watch for God.
A couple of weeks ago two men were collecting trash on their usual route in a Louisiana neighborhood. They noticed a strange car parked out in the middle of a field. Its location aroused suspicion. One of the waste workers, Brandon, realized it looked like the car described in an Amber Alert the night before. These men acted fast, blocking the only exit from the field and calling the police. The kidnapper was apprehended and a 10-year-old girl restored to her grateful family. These men had their eyes open as they picked up folks’ trash that day. Both of them fathers, they put themselves in harm’s way to rescue someone else’s child. Merrick commented after hte girl was safe: “Thank God, man, because I got a little girl. I’m on the job doing what I got to do.” A forsaken field is transfigured into a place of redemption because two men stepped out in faith.
This was the gift the older prophet offered to Elisha and Elisha did not back away from the challenge. He made a daring request to follow in the example of Elijah at even greater cost to himself. As he stood there naked, his ripped clothing at his feet, he began to understand the source of his strength. It didn’t have to do with anything he could create or command. It had to do with obedience. His power would come from God. As he turned to make his journey home, he was a different man. The prophets who had spoken down to him on the journey in now stood back with reverence. It seems that transfiguration happens off the beaten track, by the grace of God.