From Exile to Hope: We all need to be seen

From Exile to Hope: We all need to be seen

February 15, 2023

A matter of perspective

By: Nate Mason

Happy Transfiguration Sunday!

It’s that time of year again, where liturgical preachers look at their calendar and say “Why is this a thing?”  Of all the non-Christmas and non-Easter holy days, this one stands out as the most puzzling.  We get Ash Wednesday.  Perhaps it’s the visual/tactile aspect that helps us connect.  We get Pentecost.  Fire, wind, speaking in tongues.  Perhaps we like a spectacle.  But this one tends to be a head scratcher.  
Six days later Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John the brother of James, and led them privately up a high mountain. And he was transfigured before them.  Matthew 17:1

To recap the story, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain, then Jesus briefly entered into his Ziggy Stardust phase and sparkled before them.  Moses and Elijah appeared, Peter offered to make them tents or shrines.  God’s voice descends from the clouds reiterating the baptism line of “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased,” but adds the directive “Listen to him!”  Then the light show ends, Moses and Elijah disappear, and Jesus tells Peter, James and John to keep it all on the DL.  All in all, a weird scene.  

Some commentaries will say that this was a brief glimpse at Jesus in his purely divine form.  Peter, James, and John witnessed a miracle, a sight of the heaven to come.  The authors of those commentaries are much more educated than myself on the subject, so please read and listen to them, but I think that this was a moment where we see Jesus at his most human.  

We all need to be seen

Can you imagine how frustrating and isolating it would have been to be Jesus?  Spending thirty years on Earth, with no one recognizing who you were except your parents and random crazy people yelling about you at the Temple, it had to have been hard.  Even beyond that, Jesus got no respect as a Rabbi and scholar of the law.  “Isn’t that the (BIG AIR QUOTES) carpenter’s son?”  Whenever Jesus would share something divine or profound, his neighbors had to come at him with a “Yo Mama” joke.  I think it is a miracle of self-restraint that Jesus only ever smote a few money changers and a fig tree during his time on Earth.  It is a human and validating thing to be seen for who you really are. 

I have a new favorite TV show: Shrinking.  Show Runner Bill Lawrence (head writer for Ted Lasso and Scrubs) teams up with Jason Seagal (How I Met Your Mother, The Muppets, and my old school favorite Freaks and Geeks) to tell the story of a therapist, Jimmy, who is in the midst of grieving the passing of his wife.  Jimmy has a sixteen year old daughter, and his neighbor, Liz played by Christa Miller, over steps healthy boundaries to provide the primary care for the daughter while the father fails to cope with his grief.  At one point Jimmy’s therapist co-worker, Gaby played by Jessica Williams, steps in to help establish boundaries.  Though well intended, the conversation quickly becomes heated and personal leading to this exchange:

Liz: I overheard you talking to Tia, you called me a “mom.”
Gaby: Yeah, so? You are a mom.
Liz: You didn’t mean it as a compliment.
Liz was hurt because Gaby only saw her as a single role, one part of who she is, and a role that she was forced into playing due to Jimmy’s inability to grieve while being a healthy parent.  Not being seen as a person hurts.  Being seen only as one role is limiting.  

I think every male pastor’s wife can stand up and witness to this truth, especially when they have kids in the home.  The pastor’s wife suddenly becomes the conscripted daycare provider or Sunday school teacher.  They are rarely seen as full completely people.  Heck, their pseudo-official title “pastor’s wife” doesn’t even allow them their own identity but label’s them as attached to their husband! My wife, Krissa, is an Assistant Attorney General, she was formerly the Vice President for Regulatory Affairs and Legal for the Iowa Healthcare Association, but on Sunday’s she’s only seen as a “mom.”  If she’s in the children’s area with our kids, other parents will just drop their kids in Krissa’s metaphorical lap.[i]

Church life is full of these limiting roles, and pastors are just as guilty as anyone else.  When I see one of my trustees, my mind immediately goes to all the things I need to have them do in our facilities.  The finance chair becomes a walking talking stewardship campaign update in my eyes.  People become cogs in a great machine, then the feel unappreciated, unseen.

This becomes a hurdle to our evangelical efforts, especially in the small church.  We are so desperate for more people to work the noodle dinner, volunteer for VBS, to tithe, oh Lord do we need more givers!  New people aren’t new people, they are new committee members!  Several years ago when I was working for the Conference, Krissa and I were shopping around the area for a good United Methodist Church.  One congregation we visited, within five minutes of being greeted, they were asking us to stay later for the Ad Council Meeting and wondered if we’d like to sit on any committees.  We did not go back.  

Sometimes in church life, we need to remember that God is the God of abundance.  They will provide what we need (not necessarily what we want).  It is our job to see the people who come to us, to love them for who they are and not what they can bring to the table.  To witness the true fullness of anyone is a miracle, to see Christ in his full glory is definitely something to celebrate every year. 

The commandment to “Listen to Him(Jesus)” seems unneeded doesn’t it?  Here are three disciples, one of which already proclaimed Jesus the Messiah, witnessing God coming down in a flashy cloud proclaiming Jesus as his beloved son, you would think that listening to him would be a given.  Unfortunately, this commandment was very much needed, and very much unheeded.  Consider the story just before the transfiguration in Matthew.  Peter recognized Jesus as the Messiah, but the very next verse Peter starts second guessing Jesus.  Come on Peter!  Even if you were talking about the militaristic, earthly concept of a Davidic Messiah, you should still defer to his judgment!  Cutting someone’s legs out from under them in a big moment like that has to hurt.  Calling Peter Satan was an appropriate and proportional response in my book.   

There are few things more frustrating than having your expertise discounted like Peter did to Jesus, but we see it all the time in church life.  Church is hard.  Church is weird.  It is unlike any other institution that exists.  We’re not a business.  We’re not a non-profit. We are more than just a worship venue, much more than a social club.  In order to do church well, every leader in the church has to spend time learning, reading, and researching the best ways to execute effective ministry within our setting.  Of course, these leaders are all volunteers with their own jobs and lives that leave them very little time to invest in these tasks.  Often, leaders are completely unaware of the vast resources available to them to help them grow in their roles within the church.  

Here’s a sad fact for you: every time a Methodist says “There’s no instruction book for this kind of ministry!” a Cokesbury representative faints.  It’s true.  We have books on Ad Council, SPPRC, Trustees, several books on One Board Model if you don’t want to read a book on each of those individually.  No matter what committee/program/ministry we are talking about, Cokesbury has us covered.  Of course, the challenge is getting busy volunteers with busy lives to take the time to dive into the available wisdom.  In the past I have had a few blessed saintly leaders take the time to read up on their roles, or go to workshops and trainings.  They get excited about what they’ve learned, but when they get back to their church committee, they get shot down.  “We’ve never done it like that,” “I don’t know if that’s true,”  “That doesn’t sound right to me.”  This kills the spirit of passionate leaders.  It shows them that personal growth is unappreciated and they wasted their time learning more.  There are dozens of reasons, some of them valid, as to why a committee would reject this new insight, but in the end, if somebody goes through the effort of doing the reading and you haven’t, LISTEN.TO.THEM.  

Beyond the world of church life, the inability to listen to the experience of others has some serious consequences.  For example, the US has the worst maternal mortality rate in the developed world[ii] because we do not listen to women when they seek treatment.  I find this fact particularly terrifying right now!  I’ve seen this firsthand.  During our last pregnancy, my wife suffered crippling pelvic girdle pain.   By Krissa’s account, this pain exceeded the labor pains of her first pregnancy.  Time and again, the doctors would listen to her, nod, look at her chart, and say “Well, there’s nothing to be done about that,” and send us on our way.  Due to the severity of the pain and the lack of support from our doctors, we planned to stop having children.  This is a sadly common experience.  Women’s pain is not taken seriously in the medical world.  Pain is often disregarded as not that severe, or psychological in nature.  One study showed that a woman was more likely to be prescribed a sedative than prescription pain killers for chronic pain.[iii]  This isn’t just about discomfort; this has deadly results.  Women suffering a heart attack are seven times more likely than men to be sent home from the ER because their pain isn’t taken seriously.  It gets much worse for black women.  In a 2016 study, half of all medical students and residents falsely believed that black people were more pain tolerant than white people.[iv] IN 2016!!!  Not 1950, or 1840, but seven short years ago half of all those people who are now doctors thought something fundamentally wrong and fundamentally racist.  This is part of the reason black women have a maternal mortality rate 2.5x higher than white women.[v]  

Luckily, we are terrible at planning.  This pregnancy has gone much smoother than the last one.  We switched practices, we were aggressive about pain management, and the doctors were responsive.  We are a highly educated family, who have studied and learned how to advocate for our wellbeing, these things work in our favor, and that’s part of the privilege society grants us.  Sadly, not everyone receives this privilege.  A black woman with a college education is 60% more likely to die during childbirth than a white woman without a high school diploma.  

I want to close by mentioning the need to see and to listen to the LGBTQ community.  I have written on the subject before, but I came back to it again today because the Iowa legislature is passing some harmful legislation.  Even worse, my home state of South Dakota is going to ban all forms of gender affirming care for minors.  I am hurt and I am angry.  It shouldn’t take a miracle for us to truly see these beloved children of God, we shouldn’t need to voice of God to command us to listen to them.  These bills are put forward with good intentions: to protect kids, but they fail to listen to kids.  They fail to listen to medical experts who have specialized in the field of gender affirming care.  The thing about gender affirming care is that it requires doctors, parents, and kids to work together.  It’s not like a minor can just walk themselves to the hospital and demand treatment, this is a comprehensive process that requires hundreds of hours of deliberation.  Regardless of what harms you might think gender affirming care might present, the harms of denying care are much, much greater.  To understand this, I encourage you to read my friend Emily St. James’s article “What's so scary about a transgender child?,”  We’ve spoken with Emily before.  She’s a much better writer than I am.  In fact, she was nominated for a Writers’ Guild Award for this article!  (I am proud of my friends and will brag about them at every opportunity) 

May you go forth and see the truth of Christ in others and listen to the witness of all of God’s beloved children.  Happy Transfiguration Sunday.  

[i] At 37 weeks of pregnancy there isn’t much room for anything in her literal lap.  
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