A number of years ago, The Economics Press cited the following story. A John Hopkins Economics researcher gave a group of graduate students an assignment. The assignment was to analyze the background and environment of 200 boys in an impoverished area, then predict their future.
The graduate students conducted their surveys. They selected and interviewed the boys. They consulted the most sophisticated social statistics. After much fanfare they wrote up their findings. They predicted that ninety percent of the boys were bound for prison.
Twenty-five years later, a follow up study was done. Another John Hopkins researcher gave another group of graduate students the task to contact the participants in the original study. The graduate students managed to track down 180 of the original 200. The rest had either died or moved away. To their surprise, they found only four out of 180 had spent any time in prison. The researchers were astonished. How, in an environment that was a breeding ground for crime, did these men come away unscathed? Over and over again, the men told the researchers, “well, there was this teacher….”
The researchers found that in 75 percent of the cases, it was the same woman. They grew more curious. The researchers decided to track this teacher down. By this time, she old and living in a retirement facility. What was her secret? They wanted to know. Why had these boys remembered her so? What did she do that made the difference? The old teacher just shrugged off all the questions. “I didn’t do anything special. She responded. I just loved those boys.” I just loved them.
I haven’t been able to track down and read the study itself. But whether or not the facts were embellished, deep down in our hearts, we know that the message is true. Our lives can be radically changed when we experience unconditional love that comes from being true and authentic. There are people, encounters or experiences we never forget. Those encounters have the power to sustain us, even through difficult periods of our life.
Perhaps it is a teacher. A friend. A spouse. Maybe even a stranger. Or a grandmother, or grandfather. Maybe, it was out in nature, during a camping experience. For some, it might be while fishing. For others, a walk on a beach early in the morning. Or it can be something as simple as really noticing a perfectly shaped flower. Or listening to a favorite piece of music. But in that kind of encounter our guard drops, and we come face to face with pure love. We experience the essence of life, the ground of being.
It is amazing what love can do for us. When just one person believes in us and accepts us unconditionally, we are able to not only withstand trials and tribulations, but despite all odds, persevere and flourish.
Deep down, underneath all the reserve, it is the one thing we need the most. To feel thoroughly accepted, loved, and clear, about what we are about.
Our Sunday is today is called Transfiguration Sunday. The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is probably, next to the resurrection, one of the most supernatural experiences witnessed by the gospel writers. The transfiguration and resurrection bookmark the season of Lent, which we begin this Wednesday. The transfiguration occurs at a pivotal point in Jesus’ life. Ministry for him has been hard and frustrating. Throughout all the miracles and healings that the gospels record, Jesus continually confronted in his disciples a lack of faith, a lack of vision and understanding. At the point that they are about to journey to Jerusalem, Jesus began to disclose to them what awaited them in Jerusalem: his suffering and death.
What made it possible for Jesus to press on? What made it possible for the early church to press on, despite persecution and scorn? What made it all possible is the experience of pure and total love that God had for Jesus. And Peter, James and John got to see that up there on the mountain. It was the experience of seeing the essence of Jesus – and the power in which God loved Jesus, and Jesus with Moses and Elijah, the holy men who represented the all the authority of religious life – law and prophecy, there in the company of Jesus. It was a brilliant. It was terrifying. It was a glimpse of glory, to the extent that glory can be apprehended by human senses. And in the midst of their terror at this amazing scene, a cloud overshadowed them. A voice spoke from the cloud itself. And it was the voice of God. “This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him.”
That voice was the Voice of Transfiguration itself. The voice did not give the disciples a lecture. It didn’t tell the disciples what laws to follow which laws to discard. It didn’t give them a laundry list of all their faults. It did not berate them for their lack of comprehension. The voice didn’t predict the future, didn’t promise pie in the sky. The voice said simply, “This is my son. The Beloved. Listen to him!” The Voice revealed the true self of Jesus. Jesus, God’s beloved child.
What a gift it is to hear these words. What a greater gift it is to give these words to another. Simple, basic, powerful. Simple enough to save dozens of impoverished men from winding up in prison. Simple enough for one man, Jesus, to change the course of world history.
This Wednesday we will begin our Lenten journey. Lent is a time associated with self-reflection, sacrifice and giving up. It is a somber time, because we journey with Jesus to Jerusalem to the cross. The sacrifice our text is asking us to make is to slow down long enough to open up to our true self. To live that true self faithfully through which we can touch the lives of others. In this we see a glimpse of Jesus.
Most of us have heard of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” the long running, beloved children’s show. Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, and one of his sayings touched me deeply. He said, “The greatest gift we can give to others is the gift of the honest self.” The honest self is another way of naming the essence of who we are, plain and simple. No masks, no gimmicks. That is what Jesus gave to Peter, James and John on the mountaintop. A glimpse of who he was. God’s child. Beloved. And isn’t that what the Transfiguration is about after all? It wasn’t about adding anything on the outside to Jesus’s character. It was about letting out what’s inside, letting it be seen and heard, in all its true, honest essence, in all its glory.
This Lent let us cultivate the gift of our true essence, our honest self. Find yourself in the Lenten practices and devotions. Glimpse Jesus. Be true to the self-God created you to be: beloved, child of God. Love your neighbor with the gift of your honest self, be open like Jesus so we can continue the journey together, knowing when we are whole, we make a difference in the lives of those God places in our midst. Let us find our ability to love, and like that old teacher, make a difference in the lives of whom we meet. Amen.