Glory Days

For more than a hundred years, the Lutheran Church in Longyearbyen, Norway has provided light and warmth to the residents of this remote Arctic village, cloaked in the polar night’s continuous darkness. The only church for miles around, it was founded in 1921 to serve the spiritual needs of the coal miners who worked there and the mining executives’ families. It grew to become a community gathering place for socializing, recreation, and entertainment, a thriving center of activity in addition to worship services, funerals, weddings, and baptisms. Now the church and community face the challenge of climate change (it’s one of the world’s fastest warming spots) and the looming close of its last coal mine, slated for 2025. [The Denver Post, January 27, 2023]

Glory days! Fat city. Those times when everything seems to be firing on all cylinders and there is not a storm cloud on the horizon. Sometimes we don’t identify them except through the rearview window. “The good old days” are sometimes recalled with fondness in contrast to the difficulties and challenges of the right-now days. Remember when. . .?

I find myself engaging in it with regard to the way things were before the pandemic. And even further back, in remembering a time when mainline Protestant Churches were bursting at the seams with full sanctuaries for worship and hundreds of children in Sunday School.

Those were the days. The glory days. Sigh.

The morning text could almost qualify as a glory day in Jesus’ life, describing one brief shining moment of illumination. Some of the disciples get to see it too, and the experience seared into their memory the divine authorization of Jesus as the Son of God sent by God to fulfill the aspirations of the Law and the Prophets. It’s a dazzling vision of a glorious reality. . . well, up until the very last verse, when Jesus reveals where the glory days are headed.

A reading from Matthew in the seventeenth chapter, verses one through nine.

Listen for God’s Word to the church.

[Matthew 17:1-9]

Have you ever wished for an unambiguous and unmistakable sign that made something absolutely clear in your life? Since I’ve never had one personally, it’s hard even to imagine it. I’d probably react as Peter did and try to preserve it, get a recording, get it in writing, even monetize it if possible. Of course it didn’t work then and probably wouldn’t now, lest the shining moment of clarity get lost in translation or grow stale by freezing it in time and space.

The thing that stands out in this text is that the whole incident was told in retrospect. Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about the vision until. . . well, until he had died and been raised. Did the disciples have any idea what he was referring to? Yet somehow, Jesus’ glory days encompass his death, and the horrific way it happened: with betrayal and suffering, public execution and scorn, and the end of expectations that he would ride triumphantly into Jerusalem to reclaim the throne of David. Glory days????

But perhaps this is the way of spiritual illumination. Not a brief shining moment of absolute clarity, but gradual transformation by learning to see in a new way. Certainly the disciples hadn’t a clue about this mountaintop experience; and wouldn’t in fact, until they had walked farther on a path that included a hill of crucifixion and a garden tomb wide open. Only later, looking back, did they come to understand the ways Jesus’ transfiguration had transformed them. Now they saw ordinary things in extraordinary ways. Now they understood the vision–though fleeting–was another step towards full recognition of Jesus as the light of the world reflecting the love of God in all its glory.

The late neurologist Oliver Sachs did extensive research on the surprising and complex neural pathways of the human mind. He wrote eloquently about how people who had been blind from birth, had sight restored surgically, and weren’t immediately cured. It took time and extensive therapy for their eyes and brain to connect reliably; for them to “see” the world reconciled with previous notions of shapes, colors and depth perception.

Friends, it takes time and practice for our eyes and soul to connect reliably, to see transcendent reality that reveals the Divine love infusing every part of the world, and every one of us. The Church’s season of Lent functions as a spiritual bootcamp, to help us exercise our spiritual sight as we move through paths that include challenge and anxiety as well as joy and confident trust. Our theme this year focuses on seeking understanding and insight as we explore some provocative questions on the hearts and minds of people in biblical times and our time. Questions that do not yield easy answers, but provide a light at least one step ahead that will keep our faith journey moving forward. By little and by little. . . we come to know that the light of God is not so hidden that we cannot see its glory in ordinary life.

The Lutherans of Longyearbyen, Norway are being transfigured even as they face uncertain survival when the coal mine is closed in 2025. Their mission of ministering to community residents remains robust though it has evolved to meet the present crisis. Now with the lights on 24/7, the church renovated its space to include a fireplace-warmed lounge with comfortable seating and a bottomless coffee pot.

“You don’t have to be very religious. . . there’s room for everybody” remarked one resident, whose daughter sings in “Polar Gospel”–aka the children’s choir. Each Sunday, the prayers include intercession for climate change and its effects on the earth, including their little part of it.  Longyearbyen’s outreach includes welcoming events for newly-arrived scientists and tourism workers seeking to integrate into the increasingly diverse community. One scientist from India–a Hindu–who attends worship regularly explained “God is God. . . we feel good, peaceful. . . [and part of life here. . .]”

As I read, it was as if the cold dark of an Arctic winter was suddenly split by a dazzling light. . . Glory days?

Jesus did not allow the disciples to remain on the mountaintop.  They descended and re-entered ordinary days full of individual and community concerns, joys and sorrows and change.  The heartbreak of their teacher’s crucifixion, as well as the stunning, life-giving news of resurrection still lay ahead.  But here’s the thing, friends.  The key to illumination–whether an epiphany or gradually–is embedded in this text. After the dazzling light, the appearance of Moses and Elijah; after Peter’s misguided attempt to capture and hold the vision, there is only one “word”: This is my Son, the beloved. . . listen to him!

Friends, let us seek first and foremost–as individuals and as this beloved community–to follow Jesus, listen to the word he proclaimed and embodied, and show God’s love to one another, our neighbors and the world. When we do, our ordinary work, our business operations and life together become extraordinary. Then the setbacks we encounter, our financial worries, the doubts we harbor, and even death itself, will be transfigured according to Divine purpose into something good. Welcome to the glory days.

Thanks be to God!