God wasn’t waiting there for me

I have often wondered if, in the two days following Christ’s crucifixion, Peter and James and John – the three whom Jesus led up a mountainside that they might see him transfigured, robed in holy light and talking with Moses and Elijah, exuding a divine power so palpable that it brought the three disciples to their knees – I have often wondered if after Jesus’ death they thought about returning to that mountaintop, hoping to encounter their Lord in the dazzling white clothes of heaven as they had before; hoping that though he was dead, he wasn’t really gone. I have often wondered if they thought about returning to that mountaintop because they had met God in Christ face-to-face there that day and expected that if they went back to the same place they might meet God in Christ once again and be reassured that their world was not crashing down around their heads as it so appeared.

I have often wondered this, I think, because I am so often drawn back to the places where I have had the kind of deep spiritual encounter with God that leaves you breathless and changed, arrested by the mystery and power of our Lord. I am drawn back to those places, hoping that that encounter might be repeated – that I might find God waiting in those places for me, to stir my soul in the same way as before.

Most recently, I returned to the church on my college campus on a Sunday night at 9 p.m. It was dark, the bright colors of the mosaic walls muted in the waning light, the stained glass windows that I knew by heart lifeless without illumination. Twelve candle flames stood nearly still in the chancel, as if untouched by the whispers of wind that stirred the dark air. Their glow caught on gilded pieces of tile, glittering. Despite the small group assembled, it was nearly silent. Heads were bowed as people prepared for this service of compline – the close-of-day rite in the Episcopalian tradition that was, in this church, sung by a quartet. In my last year of college, it was in this service that I found myself moving back towards the God that I had walked away from in my freshman year. It was in this service that the Spirit grabbed hold of something inside me and drew me towards a mysterious sense of God’s presence. Compline had been for me a mountaintop place, where the Holy Spirit crashed into me and brought me to my knees in wonder. And so, when I was back in my college town just about a month ago, I returned to that holy space, expecting that I would have that same spiritual experience that I had had before.

But God wasn’t waiting there for me. The darkness didn’t seem as deep, and I found it hard to settle. People came in late and fidgeted in their seats, disturbing the quiet. The quartet was not as professional as I remembered them being – not as perfect. But most of all, the sense of the Divine Presence, the holy mystery that had grabbed me as a young adult – it was gone. God was there, certainly, but God hadn’t been waiting a decade for me to return to that place to meet me in the same way as when I was 20. And I was disappointed.

And so it was in disappointment that I went to the opening worship for the conference that I was attending the very next day. One look at the bulletin told me that it wasn’t “my kind” of service. The music was out of my comfort zone, as was just about everything else. But worship isn’t about me, so I braced myself for what I expected to be another disappointing experience and tried to set my mind on Christ.

So I was astounded when I found that God was there waiting for me; that in that worship that was so beyond what I would describe as comfortable, Christ grabbed hold of my innards once again and drew me so close that I was breathless. There I found myself up on the mountainside with Jesus yet again, but this mountain didn’t look at all like the mountains I’d trekked up before.

But I suppose I should have expected that. After all, had Peter and James and John gone back to the mountainside of the transfiguration, Christ would not have been there in dazzling white clothes. Yes, God would be there with them but not in the same way as before. No, Jesus wasn’t waiting there for them. The risen Christ was going ahead of them, through death, to meet them in another place – around a table or on a mountain in Galilee, depending on which Gospel you read. The risen Christ was going ahead of them, to meet them in another place and to send them out on a new leg of the journey, into the unknown, into the uncomfortable.

We humans, we like to go back to the places we know, the places we feel comfortable, even in our spiritual lives. We like to set up stones, like the Israelites, to mark the places where we’ve met God, that we might return there and seek God again. For the Israelites, those stones marked holy places – holy because they reminded the people of what God had done for them there. But God was always leading them onward – farther into the wilderness, farther into the promised land, farther into the unknown of exile – and God was always meeting them anew.

And so it is with us now. Christ is always leading us onward, farther into the wilderness, farther into our understanding of who we are, farther into the unknown future of our calling as individual churches, as a denomination, even as the church. And Christ is already there ahead of us, waiting to meet us on new mountainsides, waiting to grab hold of us in the moments we least expect it, waiting to stoke the fires in our souls as we step out of what is comfortable and into God’s promised future.

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Jennifer Barchi is serving as the Solo Pastor at Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland, where she lives with her dog Cyrus.