As a kid growing up in East Tennessee, there were few better ways to enjoy an oppressively sticky late summer evening than attempting to catch lightnin’ bugs.*
(*NOTE: I realize some of you may not be familiar with the colloquialism “lightnin’ bugs,” as they are occasionally known by the moniker “fireflies” in parts of our great land that have the profound misfortune of existing outside the reach of Cracker Barrel and its apple butter.)
It’s quite hard, as a pasty 9-year-old in a pair of “husky” jeans from Sears, not to get overwhelmed with the beauty and mystery of a creature who’s tail end lights up the night sky like the brake lights on an old Buick. When we remember this oddly-thick-necked 9-year-old is an American, his default setting in the face of wonder is to reach for the nearest commercial sized Mt. Olive pickle jar in which this blinking sentry of summer cookouts and languishing pool parties must immediately be corralled.*
(*NOTE: Untangling whether the compulsive need to own (and save for later) moments of truth and beauty is an inborn component of the American experience, or a behavior we all pick up over a lifetime of “Shrimpfests” at Red Lobster, is one of life’s truly great mysteries.)
Now —because you aren't a monster— upon catching said bugs, an important first step in preserving the dignity of their life over the last 15 minutes they’ll spend on Earth atop the headboard of your childhood waterbed, is to cut at least 4 air holes in the top of the pickle jar. Knowing of course, despite your best efforts to the contrary, you will wake the next morning to 3 tiny bodies lying lifelessly where dill pickles once floated in their own brine in your mother’s fridge.
What a way to go…
A few years ago some friends of mine clued me into a clearing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where you can view the synchronized flickering of millions of lightning bugs during their mating season in early June. Let me just say, after years of hype, I finally had the opportunity to witness the event in person, and National Geographic pictures don’t do the moment justice. Rather quickly, I became like that friend we all have whose seen every band live, as I interrupted cookouts and pool parties when folks began noticing a few flies flickering in the yard with, "yeah, yeah, yeah, but have you seen them play Elkmont?"
Because you just have to be there.
In the 17th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, there’s a story involving an experience Jesus and 3 of his disciples —Peter, James, and John— share together in the mountains outside Jerusalem:
“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; If you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.
While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.”
Now, before jumping to the-
“THIS IS WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE BIBLE: ALL THE FIRST CENTURY MYSTICISM! IF ONLY THEY’D HAD WEBMD AND MIDNIGHT INTERNET ACCESS, THEN THEY WOULD’VE DISCOVERED IT’S PROBABLY ONLY GAS…OR THEY’RE DYING…BUT AGAIN, PROBABLY JUST GAS”
-option, let’s sit with the oddity that is Jesus’ big reveal to his 3 friends on a nearby mountaintop.
Firstly, there is no explanation for what’s about to take place. Jesus simply grabs Peter, James and his brother John, and heads to the hills for a pow-wow with the long deceased Moses and Elijah. Not only that, but Jesus never bothers to explain what’s unfolding as it’s actually happening, leaving only Peter to venture a tentative stab:
“Uhhh…so, Jesus. Again, GREAT for us to be up here, but, uhhh, why don’t I just hammer out 3 altars while you catch up with who, if I’m not mistaken, seem to be two dead people.”
Secondly, it is only the disembodied voice of the divine leaking out from the clouds above who bothers to interrupt Peter’s nervous rambling with a reminder for the disciples to pay attention to the life and teachings of the Son of God unfolding before them. Neither Jesus, nor Moses or Elijah, explain themselves to the trembling disciples.
And thirdly, are Peter’s desires to “put up three shelters” in the face of one of the more revelatory moments of his life all that shocking? When faced with moments whose beauty leaves our hands trembling, why is the universe-wide response, both then and now, to furiously swipe at our phones until the camera finally shutters to life? As I’ve grown up, shed a few pounds, and stopped buying pickles in bulk, I’ve discovered an unavoidable reality about our shared existence on this Earth:
the jar is always smaller than the sky.
Christianity, at it’s most historically orthodox, isn’t a religion as much as it’s a posture towards the universe, enabling humanity to respond to the faint rhythms of the sacred quietly playing underneath the raucous noise of existence. It’s the practice of militant hope in the face of tired cynicism, steadfast love in the face of polarizing and crippling fear, and open-handed faith in the face of endless attempts at myopic control. We might even term it an invitation to die to all the ways we think we understand the world and what fills the spaces between us, in order to come alive to the grace and peace flickering around us even amidst the asphyxiating humidity fogging up the windows of our late model Honda Civic.
“Temples, then, and church services and worship gatherings continue to have their place and power in our lives to the degree to which moms and businesspeople and groundskeepers and lawyers and plumbers and people who stock the shelves of the grocery store and teachers and toll-booth collectors and farmers and graphic designers and taco makers all gather around a table with bread and wine on it to participate in Jesus’s ongoing life in the world as they’re reminded that all of life matters, all work is holy, all moments sacred, all encounters with others encounters with the divine.”
What repeatedly lays waste to “our” faith isn’t the presence of other jars or truths or faiths or reverential experiences or sacred texts, it’s the belief that the faith was “ours” to begin with, that it exists for us at all. The prevailing opinion that, at its core, the Christian story is one solely concerned with cornering the market on the afterlife or the White House or the corner booth at the Waffle House for the benefit of those ascribing to its core beliefs is the theological equivalent of spending the lion’s share of your time attempting to own life rather than merely living it well.
“Isn’t that the goal of any would-be religion: to return us to where we are with a renewed sense of gratitude? To simply be fully present with eyes remade for wonder…”
-Rabbi Lawrence Kushner
Even in our most authentically earnest moments, staking the efficacy of our faith on its abilities to capture, co-opt, market, or own beauty and truth and grace and peace is almost as exhaustingly disappointing as, say, swiping at lightnin’ bugs with a pickle jar all the while a synchronized light display featuring millions of them fills the night sky above us. The best way to cut off a religion’s air supply is to tirelessly work to preserve and hermetically seal off its rough edges from contamination and misinterpretation in order to keep a tight rein on the totality of its definition. If your faith doesn’t push you open-handedly into a world filled with diversity and criticism and questions and mystery and goosebumps, then it isn’t the Christian faith no matter its tax exempt status or liberal use of crucifix based architectural décor.
Because, and I’m repeating myself for effect here: the jar is always smaller than the sky.
So may we once and for all finally open the lids of our jars, our doctrines, our fears, our control, our tight-fisted ownership and our compulsion to build shelters in moments only requiring the quietly unifying orthodoxy of our awe as the hair on the back of our necks begins to rise in the face of a forest of synchronized light.
photo credit: Ryan Atkins