Are you awake?
Are you awake?
March 3, 2019
I have been reading a really great book lately. It is called, “Here is Real Magic.” The book begins with a true story…
When the author, Nate Staniforth, was in grade school, he became fixated on the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. When he finished the books, he went to the library, where he believed with all his grade school heart that he would be able to check out books with magic spells that he could learn and use. He was astonished when it turned out that this was not the case. So, as a second best option, he checked out a book on magic tricks.
Over the next few months, for hours and hours, he would practice the same trick over and over again in front of the bathroom mirror: the famous disappearing coin trick. At first, he was horrible at it, dropping the coins so many times that his mother left a towel permanently out in the bathroom on the exact spot on the floor where the coin would always fall. Nate didn’t give up. He estimates that he spent 400 hours practicing the trick by himself until one day—to his utter amazement—he did the trick and it looked magical!
Now, all bets were off. He went to school. He finished playing football at recess. When it was just the right moment as everyone gathered, he held out his hand for everyone to see. They all saw the nickel. Then, with a wave of his hand, the coin was gone.
What changed Nate’s life forever was not the trick, though. What changed Nate’s life forever was the response of those kids. They all had looks of shock and amazement and awe on their faces and then they began running around the playground screaming. Nate says that the nasty teacher who must have resented being on playground duty came over to find out what was up. He held up his hand, showed her the coin and then made the coin disappear. In an instant, that otherwise perpetually grumpy lady’s face was transformed.
The magic wasn’t the trick. The real magic was the experience of awe and wonder and amazement that the tick produced for others, even for a grumpy teacher. This is what led Nate to become a magician—not the desire to trick people but the heartfelt wish to create a moment in which otherwise preoccupied, or jaded, or cynical or just distracted people were awakened for a moment. In that moment, time would be suspended and the possibility would be entertained, maybe for the first time in decades that there is more than meets the eye, that there is more to the story of life than the story that we just keep telling ourselves, over an over again.
I think I’m drawn to Nate’s story because I share his heartfelt desire. As children, all of us are capable of wonder and awe and amazement. When I was a child, one of my favorite things to do was to find the right rock and turn it over and see the whole world of creatures that lived below. Other days, I remember running full speed with my net in hand throwing myself after butterflies. Everything was new and interesting and amazing. There was so much to learn and so much of it was fascinating.
However, somewhere along the way, most of us allow that wondering, ready-to-be-amazed part of ourselves fall by the wayside. Goals and deadlines and responsibilities seem so much more important. Being amazed hardly seems to be the adult thing to do. Somewhere along the way, we get too cool for all that and something deep inside of us starts to die a slow death.
It’s not that we aren’t awakened every now and then, sometimes, even despite ourselves, to what is amazing, after all. I was flying home from Florida a few weeks ago and watching the plane’s progress on the screen in front of me when I realized that the plane had just picked up speed, going from 325 miles per hour to 425 miles per hour. And I stopped, just for a second, and thought, “Hold on…What? We are going 425 miles per hour and we are 5 miles up in the sky?” But what really amazed me was when the Chicago skyline appeared. It was so crystal clear and beautiful and that thought was there… “People made all those buildings!”
The thing for me is that I almost never fly but when I do I”m still almost never amazed by it. I suspect that most of you who fly so much more than me are so much less likely than I am to ever stop and think about what a short period of time in human history that it has been an option to do such a thing. What would completely shock 99 percent of the human beings who ever lived in history now bores us and annoys us and frustrates us. With a chance to look at the world from five miles up, we close the window and go to sleep.
What has amazed me? Meeting the love of my life. The birth of my children. The northern lights. A meteor that was a fireball across the daytime sky. The fact that a blue heron can fly. The sound that a sandhill crane makes. The Cubs actually winning the world series. How amazing snow looks when it is fresh and clinging to every branch. The things a group of people can accomplish when they care and they are ready to work. A spider web covered in morning dew can knock the wind out of me because it is so intricate in its design. The list could go on forever…and that’s just the stuff that I didn’t miss.
As a pastor, more than anything, I would love it if my legacy included the fact that I tried to point out a few amazing, wonderful things along the way, that I invited folks to see that there is always something more, something deeper, to be seen and felt. I’m not here to get you to say the “magic words” about Jesus. I’m not here to save you or to make sure you’ve got a great retirement plan for eternity. I’m here because we are up to our eyeballs together in this amazing thing called life and the biggest risk is that we are going to miss it or waste it or just take it for granted. We don’t have to run around the playground screaming every time we see it. Sometimes our reaction to the something more can be as subtle as the something more, itself. But what I want you to admit is that you miss that sense of wonder and awe, that sense of how amazing life can be just as much as me. We crave the chance to be amazed…even when cling to our jaded, most cynical selves.
The problem is that human beings get used to things as they are and take all sorts of amazing things for granted. I suspect that this was true, even for the disciples. Jesus spoke with such eloquence and taught amazing things and healed people and did some things that were too amazing to explain. However, I suspect that somewhere along the way, they took him for granted. They were people like us. Don’t we all have days that we remember that in retrospect were just unbelievable but we stopped paying attention? We only realize just how amazing they were in retrospect. What would you give for one average day with the parent or the friend who is gone? What would you give to move the way that you could move when you were in your peak physical health? Wouldn’t it be amazing to wake up pain free?
So, I suspect things with Jesus were maybe getting a bit routine for the disciples, until one day when Jesus went up a mountain with three of them. (If it helps, my refrain when I was in Florida was, “Just another crummy day in paradise!” I was joking but it’s not that hard to take 80 degrees and sunny for granted…until you come home!) Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him. While Jesus is praying, something amazing happens that takes amazing to a whole new level. Luke tells us that Jesus’ appearance changed and that his clothes became blindingly white. (At which point, those of us who have already read the ending of the story find ourselves thinking of the “dazzlingly white” appearance of those who are in the empty tomb on Easter morning.) Holy things have a tendency to dazzle and glow in the Bible. Jesus is on fire!
At the same time, two men are suddenly talking with him. Those two men turn out to be Elijah and Moses. Now, you may be wishing you paid better attention in Sunday School at this point but let me help. Elijah and Moses are a bit like having George Washington and Thomas Jefferson appear. These are foundational figures in Judaism. Moses, because he was given the Ten Commandments by God, represents the law. Elijah represents the whole prophetic tradition. As a Jew, the law and the prophets were everything. Both Elijah and Moses spent time on journeys of faith. What they are talking about with Jesus is his journey toward Jerusalem that he is on.
Imagine you are a disciple and see this! What do they do? They fall asleep! Let me repeat that…they fall asleep! And none of us should dare to make fun of them because we have slept our way through any number of amazing things in this life. We are distracted. We are just too sleepy to actually pay attention. We’re “hangry” as the Snickers commercial says. (Again, those of us who know the rest of the story should remember that the disciples, on Jesus’ last night of freedom, would fall asleep again, even though all he asked them to do was stay awake. When they finally do wake up, Peter wants to do something that is equally understandable. He wants to build memorials, some physical something that can contain what is amazing and make it last. If we’re not sleeping our way through life, we can often be found trying to hold on for dear life to what is slipping through our hands.
That’s when things get serious. Every now and then, something amazing is followed by something even more amazing. As Peter is babbling away, a cloud surrounds them on the mountain and a voice speaks, “This is my Son, the Chosen! Listen to him!” In echoes of Jesus’ baptism, God says, “Peter, I gave you two ears and one mouth…please try to listen more and talk less!”
Then the voice is gone. Then, Peter’s words are but an echo. Moses and Elijah are nothing but a memory. The disciples walk silently in the presence of Jesus which is deeper than any words could express.