Each year, during the time of Lent, I like to get away for a few days of retreat. The first real retreat I ever participated in took place at the Jesuit retreat center at Eastern Point in Gloucester. This place is fantastic; it is an old mansion house that sticks out into the ocean and is surrounded by water on all three sides. Now I am not sure about you, but I love being near the water. One of the things I missed most when I was in Worcester was not being near the ocean; there is something peaceful about watching the waves.
Eastern Point is a silent retreat house except during times of worship and when you meet with your retreat guide. The silence is had to get used to when you first begin. Up to this point in my life, I had never really been in a place where the only noise was natural or beyond my control. No radio, no TV, no internet, just the sound of the ocean crashing against the rocks outside the building.
Silence gives you a lot of time to think about stuff and trusts me when I say this, all sorts of stuff come flooding into your mind. The first few days of this five-day retreat was spent just trying to quiet my mind and slow my thoughts down. Our brains run at 90 miles per hour all the time, and there are so many thoughts that always fly around, but retreat is a time to try and slow that down, and like the water crashing over the rocks outside the window, it is a time to let God wash over you with his love and his guidance.
You also tend to sleep a lot those first few days. I remember saying to my retreat guide, “all I seem to do is sleep. I try to read; I fall asleep, I try to pray, I fall asleep.” He told me that it was normal, that this is my body slowing down and that sleep is restorative so let it happen. I did, and after a day or two balance started to set in and was refreshed and ready to go.
One of the interesting parts of a silent retreat is meal time. For me, meal time has always been a time when the conversation happens. I look at Scripture, and most of Jesus ministry revolved around the table where he taught those who were with him. But at Eastern Point, there is no conversation. Soft music plays in the background, and there is this massive wall of windows. The dining hall looks directly out on the ocean. It was January, and the ocean was rather active. Everyone sat on the side of the tables looking out at the glory of nature and sat in silence, music playing in the background and the crashing waves to look at. The funniest thing was even at the evening meal when it was pitch black, we all still sat on the side of the table, looking out those massive windows, but now instead of seeing the majesty of God’s creation, we saw the mystery of the darkness.
The retreat continued, and I could feel the presence of God in a way that I had not felt before, and I wanted to stay right there forever, but, I had to leave and go back to the real world.
We see the same take place in the Scripture passage we heard read this morning. The passage focuses on the Transfiguration of Christ on the top of the mountain. Very often, Jesus would retreat by himself especially after a time of intense ministry. I think we often forget that Jesus was human like us and he needed his rest as well. So he went off with two of his apostles to the top of the mountain.
While they were there an extraordinary event happened, and Jesus face shone like the Sun, and his garments became dazzling white, he was transfigured, or he was changed. Moses and Elijah appeared to him, and they heard God’s voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him, I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Jesus was not the only one that was changed on that mountaintop, Peter and John were also transformed, and so powerful, so glorious was the event that they wanted to stay there, on that mountaintop, with Jesus forever. Peter wanted to build three dwellings, or as some translations have it three altars, but Jesus told them they could not stay there for their mission was not on top of the mountain, but down in the valley.
I understand how Peter and John felt for during that retreat I was on the mountain top and all I wanted to do was to stay right there in the warmth of God surrounded by the majesty of his creation. But, the reality is we cannot only dwell on that mountain top, we eventually have to come down.
There is no mistake that this passage comes the Sunday before we start the liturgical season of Lent. Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and is a reminder to us that we are mortal and that life is short, and we have much to do. But Lent is also a time for us to slow down just a little and settle our hearts and minds so we can begin to hear that still small voice of God. That voice that we do not always hear when our world is racing at 90 miles per hour.
I am often asked if there is anything I miss from my time serving in the Orthodox Church and I often say that I miss Lent and by that, I miss the Liturgical services that would be held during this period of the year. Like our schedule here at Bethany, we had one service each week on Sunday morning, but during Lent, we would add a midweek service to help us settle our hearts and minds. The church would be almost in complete darkness, and we would hear from the Book of Genesis and the Prophesy of Isaiah. These were mountaintop experiences that came in the middle of the week to help us get to the next one. But they were also times to slow down and listen, listen to God’s word and pray.
These moments of transfiguration, these moments of change are necessary for our lives, and we need to take every opportunity we can to have them. Sure, I understand that our lives are super busy but how much time are we spending on the things of this world and how much time are we spending on the things of the world to come? How much time do we spend in meaningless conversations that we do not care about, and how much time do we spend in conversations with God? How much time do we spend reading the latest book, or watching that television program and how much time do we spend with The Word or reading other spiritual books and publications. We have time for just about everything, except for God!
We are living in a fracture mixed up world right now, and sometimes it ‘s hard to navigate the every changing landscape. From one day to the next it seems that life is shifting and the harder we try to hold on to things the further away things get. The story of the Transfiguration of Jesus that we heard this very morning is not about Jesus face and his clothing but a reminder to us that we need to focus on what matters and who matters in our lives. It is also a reminder that no matter how much we wish to stay on that mountain top, we eventually have to come back down for this is where the mission is. I wanted to stay at Eastern Point, but I knew that my mission was not there, but it was out with God’s people. I was transfigured there, but now it was time for me to help transfigure someone else.
Just like our bodies need food and drink to keep us going; our souls need spiritual food and drink. Not all of can take a week and go to a place like Eastern Point so we have to try and find those times when we can steal a few moments, and Lent is a perfect time to begin a new habit.
It has been said that if you do something every day for thirty days, it will become a habit. Lent is forty days, so you will be left with a few days to spare. Make this time a time for reading Scripture. It does not have to be a large amount of time each day take five minutes. Every few months we put a supply of little devotional booklets out at the entrance to the church and on the table outside the Allen Parlor. These are great little books that you can carry in your pocket and pull out when you have a spare five minutes, and that is all it takes. Take one with you today and each day, pull it out and read the page for the day. If you have time, read it in the morning, and in the afternoon you will be amazed at how you start to see your life transformed.
There are many other resources available to you just ask Pastor Bill or me, and we will help you find what might work for you. The idea is that the forty days of Lent need to be different than the forty days that come before it and the forty days that will come after it.
Another aspect of my time serving in the Orthodox Church I miss the Sunday before Lent begins is called Forgiveness Sunday, and this is the day that we ask for, and grant forgiveness to those we may have hurt during the past year. In the congregation I served, we would line up and one by one we would look into each other’s eyes and ask for forgiveness. The last time I stood here I talked about how important that forgiveness is to us and others. We have all hurt people intentionally or unintentionally this past year; it is time for us all to forgive. If you can approach the person and ask for their forgiveness that is great but if you cannot, the simply ask God to help you. We also need to offer forgiveness to those who have hurt us, and this is a very good time to do it, forgiveness is transformative, and we need that change in our lives.