The air was incredibly smooth. My silvered wings slipped through the air effortlessly. It was a magical twilight and the sun burned red and orange and gold like flames behind the skyline of Atlanta. The mountain was stunningly beautiful that night. I will always remember Stone Mountain, rising up in front of the skyline of Atlanta with that great glowing ball of fire. It was a moment of transcendence. I understood the line from the poem – and I know you know the one:
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds...and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of...wheeled and soared and swung_
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up, the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor even eagle flew.
And while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space...
...put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
That night, I felt the presence of God. I could stretch out my hand and touch His face. I felt sheer glory that moment. I wanted a camera to capture it forever. That night, right after I landed, my friend Steve Ashby landed his Cherokee Six and rolled to a stop right behind me – He jumped out of his plane and asked “Did you see that?? That was the most incredible thing I think I’ve ever seen!”
On that mountain so very long ago, Jesus was revealed to James and Peter and John as God himself. It must have been a awesome and frightening moment. Darkness, the burning light – silence and then a booming voice – a visitation from the Heroes of the past and then – nothing. They didn’t know what to do. They didn’t understand what had just been revealed to them. I know that they must have turned to each other and cried out, “Did you see that?? That was the most incredible thing I think I’ve ever seen!”
Every time I do touch and go’s, I think of that moment -- I remember it. I loved Stone Mountain airport. It was a homey place – a really old fashioned airport, built in the 1920’s as a relay station for the US Mail. There were relics for days gone by, propeller hubs holding the doors open and always a warm and welcoming fire in the huge fireplace. Framed newspaper articles about the time the mailplane crashed into the side of the mountain – and how Mark Britt climbed out of that cockpit and delivered the mail by foot. The office – the FBO had been built around an ancient fireplace that was all that was left over after Sherman had marched through. There was community there – I loved to go and hanger fly with my friends. My time at that airport glows golden in my mind.
In 1996, Atlanta hosted the Olympics and the owners of the Airport sold the land to be used as a parking lot for the tennis venue. My beloved airport was changed beyond recognition. They placed telephone poles down the center of the runway – they tore down the main building, leaving only the massive old fireplace standing. I used to think of it a memorial stone, an Ebeneezer. I wanted to put a plaque on it to memorialize the memory of a golden time in my life, but as I went back just a few weeks ago – that massive old fireplace had been torn down as well.
I mourn the loss of my airport. I wanted a memorial – a gravestone so that I could remember what had been. But I was caught short when I went by and that massive old fireplace itself – older than my memory – older than the airport itself – that huge mass of stone and mortar were gone. What I have left is the memory – that remembrance of a transcendent moment.
Peter coped the only way he knew how – “Jesus! Ah, It’s a good thing for us to be here! Shall we build you and Elijah and Moses booths so that we can stay a while? So that we can remember this moment? Like a monument or something?” Busywork in a way. He’s uncomfortable and wants to “do something” and not just dwell in that moment of stark and frightening transformation.
What are the ways we build monuments to our experiences of God? Are we willing to live into the moments of transformation instead of building booths of remembrance to days gone by?
Throughout the Old Testament, the people put up what might be called "a standing stone" after a momentous interaction with God. Maybe that's why Peter wanted to set up camp and build some booths. But Jesus didn’t want that. There were more important things to do than build a nice memorial to the moment.
As I thought about this, a realized that a camera wouldn’t have helped me on that night. And it reminds me of why I don't video tape events any more. I am the cameraman in my family – I used to drag all that stuff to every event: the video camera, the digital camera, the lights. Then I realized that I couldn’t both record the moment and BE in the moment. I would get so caught up in figuring out camera angles and lighting that I would forget to just be in the present. Peter needed to be in the moment. The Transfiguration was a vision he would need to remember in the future. If he was busy building a monument, he'd miss the real event.
What endured of that moment?
Peter was in such a hurry to build a "permanent" commemoration of the holy site. What he failed to see was how temporary our human constructs really are. If we're really honest, we would say the same about our monuments – our cathedrals and buildings.
What has endured?
For me, what has endured of my transcendent moment is an abiding love of airplanes and aviation. What abides is those relationships that were built hanger flying. When Steve jumped out of the plane and asked “Did you see that?? That was the most incredible thing I think I’ve ever seen!” He experienced that moment with me. Steve remains close to me. What has endured is that relationship – Steve was with me for a few minutes every day for weeks after my mother died. I have held him dear and close – I held his son Patrick in prayer for weeks as he lay in ICU after a horrible car accident. What has endured?
Relationship – that is what will endure.
Jesus took three of his closest and dearest friends onto that mountain with him. Peter became the foundation of His Church, James was the first of the disciples to die as a martyr. John was the beloved disciple – to John Jesus entrusted his mother. The relationships were given strength on that mountaintop.
They each went on and did not build a memorial to the past – but went into the future, strengthened by the memory of Jesus in Glory. It somehow becomes a memory of the future – a peek into what will be. Just as Moses went into the wilderness afterwards, so did they – so did Jesus. Instead of a trip via the wildnerness – it was the Via Dolorosa. Years later, in the light of the glory of this moment, they could realize the glory of the cross. Jesus was transfigured on a Mountain – and then he was crucified on a Mountain. Jesus showed his glory between two heroes – two historical figures of great regard. Jesus showed his glory between two disreputable thieves. On one hand his garments made as white as snow, on the other his garments stripped from his body and gambled over. There were three witnesses on that mountain. Later, Mary and Mary and Salome watch from a distance. There was a thunderous voice from the cloud saying boldly “This is the Son of God.” Then we hear the voice of the centurion – “Could this be the Son of God?”
It took years for them to see that the glory of the Transfiguration IS the glory of the cross. That the glory of the Son of God is completed in a painful death on rough and splintered wood.
And it’s that glory that we celebrate today as we come to His table. Let us join together and confess our blindness to His glory – Let us confess our sin.
We confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have not see your Glory. We have built memorials instead of missions.
We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will,
We have broken your law,
We have rebelled against your love,
We have not loved our neighbors,
And we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray.
Free us for joyful obedience,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.