As a kid growing up in East Tennessee, there were few better ways to enjoy an oppressively sticky late summer evening, than attempting to catch lightnin’ bugs*.
(*NOTE: I realize some of you may not be familiar with the colloquialism “lightnin’ bugs,” as they are occasionally known by the moniker “fireflies” in parts of our great land that have the profound misfortune of existing outside the reach of Cracker Barrel and its apple butter.)
It’s quite hard, as a pasty 9-year-old in a pair of “husky” jeans from Sears, not to get overwhelmed with the beauty and mystery of a creature who’s tail end lights up the night sky like the brake lights on old Buick. And, remembering that this oddly-thick-necked 9-year-old is an American, his default setting in the face of wonder is to reach for the nearest commercial sized Del Monte pickle jar in which this blinking sentry of summer cookouts and languishing pool parties must immediately be corralled.
Untangling whether the compulsive need to own (and save for later) moments of truth and beauty is an inborn component of the American experience, or a behavior we all pick up over a lifetime of “Shrimpfests” at Red Lobster, is one of life’s truly great mysteries.
But, all philosophizing aside, once ya got 3 o’ dem lightnin’ bugs in ya jar, it’s time to call it a night.
(thanks for calling us in for the evening, haltingly contrived caricature of a Southern mom.)
Now, because you are a gracious and magnanimous deity, upon catching said bugs, an important first step in preserving the dignity of their life over the last 15 minutes they’ll spend on Earth atop the headboard of your elementary school waterbed, is to cut at least 4 air holes in the top of the pickle jar.
However, despite your best efforts to the contrary, you soon wake the next morning only to discover 3 tiny black bodies lying lifelessly where dill pickles once floated in their own brine in your mother’s fridge.
What a way to go…
A few years ago some friends of mine clued me into a clearing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where you can view the synchronized flickering of millions of lightning bugs during their mating season in early June. Sadly, I’ve never had the chance to witness the event in person, but as those who have attest, the pictures, even in their stark and haunting beauty, don’t do the moment justice.
you just have to be there.
As I’ve grown up, shed a few pounds, and stopped buying pickles in bulk, I’ve discovered an unavoidable reality about our shared existence on this Earth:
the jar is always smaller than the sky.
In the 17th chapter of Matthew’s gospel there’s this odd little story involving an experience Jesus and 3 of his disciples, Peter, James and John, share together in the mountains:
“After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.
Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters-one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.”
Now before jumping to the-“THIS IS WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE BIBLE: ALL THE DRY-ICE, LASERS, AND FIRST CENTURY MYSTICISM! IF ONLY THEY’D HAD WEBMD AND MIDNIGHT INTERNET ACCESS, THEN THEY WOULD’VE DISCOVERED IT’S PROBABLY ONLY GAS…OR THEY’RE DYING…BUT AGAIN, PROBABLY JUST GAS”-option,
let’s sit with the oddity that is Jesus’ big reveal to his 3 friends on a nearby mountaintop:
Firstly, there is no explanation for what’s about to take place. Jesus simply grabs Peter, James and his brother John, and heads to the hills for a pow-wow with the long deceased Moses and Elijah. Not only that, but Jesus never bothers to explain what’s unfolding AS IT’S ACTUALLY HAPPENING, leaving only Peter to venture a stab:
“Uhhh…so, Jesus. Again, GREAT for us to be up here, but, uhhh, why don’t I just hammer out 3 altars while you catch up with who, if I’m not mistaken, seem to be dead people.”
It is only the disembodied voice of the divine leaking out from the clouds above who bothers to interrupt Peter’s nervous rambling with a reminder for the disciples to pay attention to the life and teachings unfolding before them.
Secondly, are Peter’s desires to “put up three shelters” in the face of one of the more revelatory moments of his life, all that shocking? When faced with moments who’s beauty leave our hands trembling, why is the universe-wide response to furiously swipe at our phones until the camera finally shutters to life?
generally speaking, of course.
Every weekday morning I have the distinct pleasure of passing the local mega-church, who, as of a few months ago, opened a “north campus” in the hallowed out carcass of an abandoned CVS 300 yards from the mothership. Naturally, as a way of drawing attention to an exciting opportunity for folks in the area to come sing along with Hillsong United in the tampon aisle at either 9:00 or 11:00am on Sundays, the advertising firm of said mega-church ingeniously filled the blank spaces of the adjacent billboards with the following phrase:
“There are 168 hours in a week, we’re only asking for 1.”
(runs car headfirst into ditch, limps away from crash)
I’d like to argue, this response is the fundamental flaw at the heart of my religious tradition. Rather than open-handedly providing opportunities and practices for individuals to uncover the eyes, hearts and heads necessary to pay attention and respond to moments of sheer revelatory terror and truth filling the whole of their existences, we have instead decided to pool our resources in order to build an impressive shelter for the divine as a way of powerfully (and efficiently) displaying our God weekly for the community to look upon with awestruck wonder
…as the band plays.
For the record, as someone who happens to get paid by a Christian institution, I’d like to issue a quiet reminder to everyone on my commute:
despite the best efforts of the professional Christians you pay to navigate the religious life for you, the sacred hum of the universe liberating all things in bondage cannot be mystically conjured by the whims of a poorly-played keyboard, the tireless cajoling of a sweaty choirmaster, or a sermon with 3 points elucidated by a delightfully bland (if not usually fictitious) illustration. Oh, and while I’ve got you, if you’re still under the impression that a literal interpretation of the Bible will render “take up your cross and follow me” as “I missed you last Sunday at the 9:00am service, did you happen to go at 11:00am?” then I think it’s safe to assume we don’t ALWAYS opt for a “plain reading of the text.”
Because, as I’ve come to discover, the jar is always smaller than the sky.
Even in our most authentically earnest moments, staking the efficacy of our faith on it’s abilities to capture, co-opt, market, or own beauty and truth and grace and peace is almost as exhaustingly disappointing as, say, swiping at lightnin’ bugs with a pickle jar all the while a synchronized light display featuring millions of them
fills the night sky above us.
Christianity, at it’s most historically orthodox, isn’t a religion as much as it’s a posture towards the universe, enabling humanity to respond to the faint rhythms of the sacred quietly playing underneath the cacophonous noise of existence. It’s the practice of militant hope in the face of tired cynicism, steadfast love in the face of polarizing and crippling fear, and open-handed faith in the face of endless attempts at control.
Put simply: it’s an invitation to die to all the ways we think we understand the world and what fills the spaces between us, in order to come alive to the grace and peace buzzing around us even amidst the asphyxiating humidity fogging up the windows of our 2001 civic.
generally speaking, of course.
So may we put down our jars, our doctrines, our fears, our control, our tight-fisted ownership, and our compulsion to build shelters in moments that only require the quiet orthodoxy of our awe as the hair on the back of our necks begins to rise in the face of a forest of light.
Because, the jar is always smaller than the sky.