“When I was six or seven years old,” writes Annie Dillard in her luminous book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,
I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.[i]
Annie Dillard is thinking here about seeing, about being aware of what is around us. She is making the point that “free surprises” and “unwrapped gifts” lay all about us in the world, in the same kind of way as does the poet Mary Oliver who asks what we plan to do with our “one wild and precious life.”[ii]
I think Dillard’s childhood memory may be helpful for us today as we take a look at this story of Jesus’ transfiguration—as we follow the arrows written in the dirt up the side of the mountain. SURPRISE AHEAD. A free gift from the universe. COME AND SEE. It makes me wonder if God in this story isn’t a bit like Dillard’s giddy six or seven-year-old self: SURPRISE AHEAD. Follow the path! LOOKIE HERE: my son, my son. Listen to him! Do you see what you’ve got here?
Her point is that we can tend to miss the importance of what is in front of us, especially if it is obscure and hard to get at or make sense of. Certainly, this seems to be the challenge for these disciples up on this mountain as this vision unfolds. Will we make of this “prized penny” what we should?
Dillard presses her point: “Who gets excited by a mere penny?” she asks:
If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit [—baby, that is—] paddling from its den, will you count that sight as a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? It is dire poverty indeed when [someone] is so malnourished and fatigued that he [or she] won’t stoop to pick up a penny.
We are all, no doubt, guilty of this, as we make our way through our days. But Dillard reminds us there’s an invitation here that is not unlike the invitation of Lent:
…if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.[iii]
It's that last line that may be particularly instructive for us: What you see is what you get. Or put differently, how do we learn to see what we need to see, what gives us life, what truly is?
I mean, do you really get what’s going on here in this story on the mountain? Let’s see if we can shine this thing up a bit.
First, there is this: neither Jesus, this Messiah, nor the voice that speaks on his behalf ever explain why this particular way of rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection must be so. Neither do they offer an explanation as to what this cross-bearing of would-be followers entails for non-messiahs like you and me. It just is. So its value, in a way, depends on what we see. What we see is what we get.
Does this trouble you? It does me sometimes. And yet even though I can’t explain it, I can’t parse it out or give you the algorithm, I think I understand. It captures my attention, at least. It arrests my senses, my emotions, my heart perhaps more than my head, which circles the story, trying to grasp it, trying to put it back in its box where I can close the lid and take it with me. I want to be able to keep it in my back pocket and pull it out whenever the need arises. Here it is. Don’t you see. Here’s the proof. It all makes sense now.
Crucifixion and resurrection always seem to go together in Mark’s gospel. He doesn’t talk about one without the other. Even though Mark doesn’t choose to preserve original stories about the appearance of the risen Jesus as the other gospels do, there is little sign that Mark is skeptical about resurrection. Jesus has already raised Jairus’s daughter in chapter 5. He’s warned the disciples to not make him ashamed of them when he comes in the glory of God with the holy angels in chapter 8. The man at the tomb tells the women the resurrected Jesus will meet them in Galilee in chapter 16, just as Jesus had promised them at their last supper in chapter 14. And here, in chapter 9, Jesus forbids these few disciples to tell this story of transfiguration until he has risen from the dead.[iv]
There is, it seems, no death without new life when it comes to Jesus. Of course, the inverse is also true. There is no new life without death. If we are to believe in resurrection, we will also believe in the power of death. And if we believe in these two, we will also believe in the power of self-giving.
As the story of the transfiguration makes abundantly clear, Jesus understands himself to be the Messiah, the one they’ve been waiting for. And right along with it, he understands this: He is the Messiah who will be rejected and killed by the machine, by the establishment. And Jesus identifies his disciples as the ones who take up their cross, as the ones who love Jesus more than our lives, as those who are not ashamed to confess Jesus publicly—not as know-it-all victors who have all the right answers, mind you, but as ones who follow this particular way of service and love, as ones who understand that death and life always seem to walk hand-in-hand, as ones who take evil and its power as seriously as we hold onto the greater power of goodness.
If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, says the writer to the Corinthian church. [v] The writer seems to be suggesting that Christianity, this way of ours, is not readily self-apparent; it just isn’t a proof as much as we’d like it to be so. It is a Way. You have to climb up on the mountain to see it. And you have to slog through the valleys too. It is something that is, somehow, experientially based, rather than scientifically verifiable. It isn’t an equation, but a Way, a path with highs and lows. You can’t just tell someone how the light bends through the thin air as it rises in the morning at elevation; you have to be there. You can’t know what it’s like to live as a Somali Muslim in the south end of King County unless you show up and listen and walk with them. The story, and faith itself, is shaped by our experience of it, by noticing those copper coins strewn all over.
So what does this mean for us? It means that taking the journey is a prerequisite for faith. What you see is what you get. You have to give yourself to the thing. I suspect this is true with whatever religion you practice and why criticisms that come from outside our systems are inherently flawed. The two have to be held together, you see. You can’t know the one if you don’t know the other. You have to take the journey. You have to step out in order to come to know it, and without stepping out, you may never see it.
Annie Dillard says it this way a little later in her essay. She says the “lover can see, and the knowledgeable.” And she illustrates it by telling this story:
I visited an aunt and uncle at a quarter-horse ranch in Cody, Wyoming. I couldn’t do much of anything useful, but I could, I thought, draw. So, as we all sat around the kitchen table after supper, I produced a sheet of paper and drew a horse. “That’s one lame horse,” my aunt volunteered. The rest of the family joined in: “Only place to saddle that one is his neck”; “Looks like we better shoot the poor thing, on account of those terrible growths.” Meekly, I slid the pencil and paper down the table. Everyone in that family, including my three young cousins, could draw a horse. Beautifully. When the paper came back it looked as though five shining, real quarter horses had been corralled by mistake with a papier-mâché moose; the real horses seemed to gaze at the monster with a steady, puzzled air. I stay away from horses now, but I can do a creditable goldfish. The point is that I just don’t know what the lover knows; I just can’t see the artificial obvious that those in the know construct.[vi]
Perhaps we get this. We understand it. We know that to really grasp something you have to live into it, practice it, hone your skill, set your mind, forgo other things. You’ve got to take the journey. You lose your life to save it.
There’s a corollary here as well. If, as Dillard suggests, it takes a lover to know something, then we are wise to practice some humility toward those things we know little about.
We Christians often make claims for Jesus’ divinity as if it were a public truth apparent to anyone. Within this story, and within Mark’s gospel that seems to be anything but the case. The knowledge of Jesus as the divine Son is a matter of revelation, or, if you prefer, a gift. It comes to us in God’s own way and God’s own time.[vii] And it takes showing up as Elisha knew well.
Let’s say it another way. This faith, this knowledge or belief or hope is not a possession. We cannot claim a special spiritual status on the back of it. We are not little gods ourselves, ruling the world in his name, by virtue of our special knowledge. In fact, that is precisely the danger that emerges later in the chapter as the disciples argue about who is the greatest.[viii]
So faith comes through the doing of it, the practicing of it. And Lent comes to us as a gift, an invitation, a long chalk arrow drawn by a giddy God who says SURPRISE AHEAD and COME AND SEE. Take a look for those priceless pennies, and don’t be afraid to stoop down.
[i] Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (pp. 16-17). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Oliver, Mary. “The Summer’s Day.” Here is one location it can be found: https://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/133.html.
[iii] Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (p. 17). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Location 16226). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
[v] Corinthians 4:3.
[vi] Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (pp. 20-21). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
[vii] These insights are drawn from Rodney J. Hunter’s commentary in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 16294-16296). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
[viii] Cf. Mark 9:33-37.