The Brush with God

When I was a student at Hendrix College in the early 1990s, a mentor of mine in the religion department, Dr. Jay McDaniel, would periodically invite his own friend and mentor, Japanese Zen Master Keido Fukushima, to campus.  Dr. McDaniel, who was and is one of the smartest people I know, was clearly in awe and wonder at Master Fukushima.  It confused me how Dr. McDaniel could so easily move from being the authority to being the disciple.  Whenever I would see Dr. McDaniel and the Zen master walking across campus, I’d stop and gawk.  Somehow, Master Fukushima glowed.  He had an aura about him that radiated joy, calm, and more than anything else, awareness.  I don’t really know how else to describe the phenomenon.  At that time, I was suspect of Buddhism, and I never mustered the nerve to attend one of Master Fukushima’s lectures.  But Keido Fukushima was also renowned for his calligraphy, and I did watch a demonstration.  He moved around the paper with a such grace that it was almost as if he levitated.  His aura seemed to flow and dance around him as he drew.

Master Keido Fukushima

Today in Exodus, Moses comes down Mount Sinai after his longest congress with God.  Much has happened.  The people of Israel have been redeemed from slavery in Egypt.  They have traveled the wilderness and been disobedient to the point of idolatry with the golden calf.  Through it all, Moses has been faithful to God and repeatedly interceded with God on behalf of the people.  In the mist above the mountain, Moses has spent more time communing with God than he has with the people.  God and Moses have become so close that God’s very presence has brushed past Moses.  And when Moses finally comes down the mountain for the last time, he glows.

The first time I studied this story from Exodus, I was immediately reminded of Master Fukushima.  So much about Fukushima and Moses is different: Different eras, different cultures, different traditions.  And yet, there is no mistaking the glow.   Exodus implies that the people are unnerved by Moses’ changed countenance, and so when Moses is with them he veils is face.  I get that.  Being in Master Fukushima’s presence was both alluring and a little bit frightening.  Though he was very present, there was also an otherness to him that seemed beyond my own experience, as if he’d been brushed by the Holy.  It unnerved me.          

Now, at age forty-nine, with almost two decades of priesthood behind me and a faith that is, God willing, stout enough to see God at work in unexpected places, I can say that Keido Fukushima and Moses are as alike as they are different.  I don’t intend to minimize the differences between Buddhism and Christianity.  They are many, and they are real.  I do intend to say that God is more real than any of those differences, and that when one brushes God—whether that be in the guise of Buddhist enlightenment or Christian epiphany—the change is indelible and often noticeable by others.

I’ve shared in the Dean’s Hour my fairly frequent experience of parishioners coming to see me in my study with an odd look that combines confusion, joy, and embarrassment.  Their first sentence is usually something like, “You’re going to think I’m crazy…” and then they share with me that something has happened.  Almost always, they fumble for words.  Almost always, they stop several times mid-explanation and blurt in frustration, “When I try to describe it, it’s gone.”  They may not quite shine like Moses.  They may not have an aura like Master Fukushima.  (Although sometimes they do.)  But I know that the person in front of me has brushed God and will never again be the same.

Mosaic rendering the glowing Moses with veiled face

Encounters with the Holy don’t fit our modern, scientific worldview.  They are sui generis, unrepeatable, each their own unique and idiosyncratic thing.  According to the scientific method, they therefore aren’t real.  Thus, the embarrassment mixed into the affect of those who come to my study. 

Encounters with the Holy don’t fit into our modern categories of explanation.  They are not irrational, but they are non-rational, and so our descriptors fail to capture them.  Thus, the confusion mixed into the affect of those who come to my study.

For some, the embarrassment and confusion ultimately prevail, and the incredible gift of a brush with God—the gift that made Keido Fukushima dance and Moses glow—is set aside as illusory, a fevered dream, and life goes on unaltered.

But for many, in the end the expression of joy overcomes the embarrassment and confusion.  It isn’t happiness; that’s superficial and fleeting, like the laughing gas at the dentist’s office.  It’s joy, the deep recognition that something has shifted, that God has brushed past, that, for a moment, the veil lifted and one gained a glimpse into the world as God sees it.

Scheduling an appointment with one’s priest is only one response to such an encounter.  In Luke today, Peter, James, and John offer another.  As with Moses, in the mist of the mountain the veil lifts, and the three disciples witness Jesus transfigured and flanked by the embodiment of God’s law and God’s prophets.  Undoubtedly, the three experience that admixture of embarrassment, confusion, and joy, and Peter—bless his heart—blurts out, “Let me make dwellings for you,” or, “Let me make booths for you.”  That interpretive distinction matters.  John Crossan argues that what Peter is proposing is something like ticket booths at the carnival or at a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum.  Peter is saying to the Incarnate God, “If this is where you show your power, let’s set up shop here.  The guys and I can broker access to you.”[i]

The Transfiguration

Peter’s proposal is not as outlandish as it might seem to us.  Throughout all time and all cultures, cultic and religious shrines—places believed to provide access to divine power—are common.  I’ve visited several; you may have, too.  Peter, James, and John are surely mistaken in what they propose—Christ will not be boxed in, domesticated, and brokered by anyone, anywhere—but that they want to respond is good and true.  They are both terrified and allured by the epiphany they’ve witnessed, and they feel a compulsion to do something in response.

That is the common question parishioners ask me at the end of our meetings: “What do I do with this?”  What does one do with the wonder and allure, the deep joy that accompanies a brush with God?  The answer to that question is as idiosyncratic as the encounter.  Moses returned to the people to lead them with stalwart grace. Keido Fukushima became the apostle of Zen to the West.  In each of these cases, and often in others, I suspect the most faithful answer is to lean into what one already does, but in a manner redeemed by the brush with God.  As I’m fond of recalling, before his conversion C.S. Lewis was a professor of English literature.  But after his conversion, he was…a professor of English literature.  In one sense, nothing changed.  But in another sense everything changed.  The question for each of us, then, is how might we do what we already do, and live as we already live, but in a manner that acknowledges the glow, the aura, the brush with God that changes everything?

It is the perfect question for today, the last Sunday of the Epiphany season, because on Wednesday of this week we begin the season of Lent.  We again enter a blessed time when we are exhorted and encouraged to examine our lives, not just the what of them but the how of them.  Where do our attitude, our outlook, our commitments, and our practice need redemption and alteration?  Where can the brush with God wipe the slates for us and transform our being in the world?  Asking and answering such questions is a bigger endeavor than giving up something for forty days or taking on a project.  Perhaps this Lent is the time to ask, “How do I cast my aura?  How to I convey my glow?  How do I shed embarrassment and express the joy of my encounter with the living God?”  How indeed. 

[i] From Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.

The Mountain or the Valley

In his autobiography, scholar and Civil Rights pioneer Howard Thurman tells the story of a goodwill visit to India with his wife Sue.  One morning, Thurman was invited to participate in a predawn, two-mile climb up Tiger Hill to see the sunrise over Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world.  He says, “It was completely dark.  I could feel the presence of other people close at hand but could see no one.  I knew that tourists from all over the world came here to witness the sunrise.  Murmurs of conversations could be heard but not decoded.  Then as dawn approached, everyone became silent.  One could just hear now and then the sound of gentle breathing.  At first, there was a just a faint finger of pink  in the sky, then suddenly the whole landscape burst into one burnished gold radiance…More than forty years have passed since that morning.  It remains for me a transcendent moment of sheer glory and beatitude, when time, space, and circumstance evaporated and when my naked spirit looked into the depths of what is forbidden for anyone to see.  I would never, never be the same again.”[i]

Cracking the Kanchenjunga code
Kanchenjunga sunrise

Interesting that Thurman uses the term “beatitude” to describe his literal mountaintop experience, because the Beatitudes themselves are, of course, conveyed by Jesus on another mountaintop, through the Sermon on the Mount.  As the nature and wonder of God are revealed to Howard Thurman in India, Jesus reveals God’s virtue and will: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness…blessed are the pure in heart…” 

On mountaintops, literal and figurative, we find ourselves drawn up into God, with profound insight the reward.  The mountaintop encounter often is, as Howard Thurman describes, transcendent and changes us forever.


On Thursday night, February 3, just across the street from the Cathedral in front of 500 Fannin, Margaret Perez froze to death.  Margaret was forty-one years old, a mother of four, and a grandmother.  She liked to crochet, dance, and write.  In high school, she’d been a cheerleader.  As recently as last Christmas, she gave her granddaughter a plush My Little Pony doll.  When she would visit her parents’ house, she’d clean incessantly to help out.  Her brother said of her, “She was a very beautiful person.  A gentle soul.  She loved very deeply.”[ii]

And, Margaret suffered from mental illness and consequent addiction.  She had lived on the streets for the past twelve years.  When the temperatures began to drop, our own Beacon staff encouraged Margaret and those around her to move inside to one of the warming centers.  The illness that put Margaret on the streets led to the paranoia that caused her to resist and ultimately, tragically forego the safety of indoors.  And while so many slept in warm and safe beds, she died from exposure, one of God’s beloved children.

Family and friends remember Margret Perez as a “gentle soul.” She died in freezing temperatures on Feb. 4.
Margaret Perez

Margaret did not know the mountaintop.  She spent her days in the valley.  She’d have had little time for Matthew’s Beatitudes, lofty in the ether, speaking of spiritualized truths.  But then again, God is not revealed only on mountains.

Today we read the Beatitudes.  But the careful listener will have noticed that they are not from Matthew’s Gospel, they are not part of the Sermon on the Mount.  Today we read from Luke, and in Luke’s version Jesus does not climb a hill to reveal God’s will and virtue.  In Luke, Jesus pointedly comes down and reveals himself in what is called the Sermon on the Plain, on that low and level place where we experience most of our days, and where some struggle mightily and often through no fault of their own just to make it day to day.  Luke’s Jesus hasn’t time to spiritualize his truth.  He does not say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  This Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor.”  He does not say, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  This Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are hungry.”

Our God—the Incarnate God—is telling us that we don’t have to look for God above the clouds, on some transcendent plane.  God is on our level, right in front of us, all the time, in the struggle of one another, in the face of one in need.  There God is: in these pews, in the lunch line at the Beacon, huddled on the sidewalk against the cold.

Howard Thurman is a sublime writer—obviously—but in his autobiography after he describes the experience atop Tiger Hill he can’t help himself and adds, “When I returned, I teased [Sue] smugly, saying, If you hadn’t chosen a cozy sleep and remained down in the valley, you would have gone up the mountain with me.”

In oblique response, Thurman’s wife Sue published a true parable in a magazine some time later.  She writes:

“Two friends were spending some days in the region of Darjeeling.  One of them had persuaded their companion-guide to go with him to the top of Tiger Hill, so that he might catch the vision of sunrise over the Himalayas…They would start climbing at early morning in order to reach the summit for the one silver instant when Kanchenjunga would be flooded with rays of shimmering light.

[But] the other friend remained in the valley.  There were visits to make: A Buddhist priest in saffron robe would be sitting near a shop in a bazaar fingering his prayer wheel.  Friendly street vendors would be peddling their wares of shining brass decorated with semi-precious turquoise.  There would be salutations to the sunrise in a thousand different languages. ‘I shall not climb Tiger Hill,’ [she says], ‘The object of my search is in the valley.’”

Sue Thurman ends her reflection by saying, “The mountain climber might return from his heights with an attitude of condescension toward the valley seeker, not perceiving that the preferences of their choosing indicated not only the variation of their goals.  Once the goal or quest of an individual is made clear, it is revealed that whether he searches mountain or valley, he finds his own ‘acre of diamonds.’”[iii]

There is nothing wrong with hoping to have a mountaintop experience, or, indeed, with occasionally climbing the mountain seeking one.  The real question—Sue Thurman’s question, I think—is where we spend most of our time, and in which direction do we orient our gaze.  The mountaintop, when too often indulged, can be an escape.  It can lend itself to the over-spiritualization of our faith and an avoidance of God’s commitments to the gritty and real in the here and now.  That’s why, I believe, Jesus comes down into the valley in Luke today: so that the very God looks directly and level into the eyes of the people and says, “I am with you; I am in you; I am you.”

The Sermon on the…? | God in the Midst of the City
Jesus comes down into the valleys of our lives.

It is an admittedly often frustrating faith that says, “blessed are the poor” and “blessed are hungry;” that strives, sometimes in vain, to convince the homeless to seek the warmth made available to them; that grieves the futility of a woman frozen to death.  But thank God it is our faith.  Thank God that God came down into the valley of our lives, to live among us and teach us to love.  Thank God this Cathedral extends its heart, its hands, and its resources to feed the hungry and remind the poor that we are all created in God’s very image.  Thank God that when we grieve; and when we laugh; and when we hurt; and when we celebrate; when you look level into my eyes, and I into yours, that we see Jesus reflected back. 

Like Sue Thurman, it is in the valley—on the plain—and not on the mountaintop that we make our daily quest.  It is here that we meet one another, and struggle, and labor sometimes futilely, and see the sunrise.  You and I live in the valley, not on the mountaintop, and thank God that Jesus is here, too. 

[i] Thurman, Howard.  With Head and Heart, pp. 127-128.


[iii] Thurman, Howard.  With Head and Heart, p. 128.