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.

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