I remember three years ago. I went on a walk in my favorite park. You all, it is said that I-5 has a love affair with Seattle and a vendetta against Everett. You drive through Seattle and you see the water. See the Needle. See parks. See the best architecture. And, this is wonderful. Because, you know, I-5 gives you the slow tour of Seattle. This week, I was promised that the only upside of Covid-19 — other than sounding like “Come On Eileen” — was that it would empty the highways. Not true. Not true. Not true. Traffic is like a dear old friend to Seattle. Even when Seattle is sick, traffic will settle in at Seattle’s bedside and refuse to leave.
I digress. I-5 has a love affair with Seattle. But when you drive through Everett, you’d get the impression it is simply a cluster of smaller outdated buildings and a Kaiser Permanente. It’s like I-5 drives past the back of Everett’s head after a rough night of sleep and we haven’t had time to comb our hair, okay. Give us a break here!
If you get off I-5 to see the face of Everett, I recommend heading west to Grand Avenue. Especially this time of year. What we in Cascadia call “Fool’s Spring.” The cherry blossoms love Fool’s Spring. So drive to Grand Avenue. Find Grand Park. It has the cherry blossoms. It has old historic houses. It has public art. It has green grass and everyone’s dog on their best behavior. And it has a view of the sound and a sweet little island called Hat Island.
I remember three years ago I went on a walk in Grand Park. The Fool’s Spring cherry blossoms were floating through the air like a warm pink snow. The sound was perfect. Still. Quiet. And strapped to my chest was Liv. She was just under a year. Sleeping. With her head against my chest.
In Japanese thought, part of the significance of the cherry blossom is that it is perfect. But it is perfect for just a moment. And then it dies. It falls. Something else is born. Those red leaves that will be with us in their wake — I suppose those are beautiful as well. But the cherry blossom is perfect but fleeting. We only have a few days to take them in.
Babies are perfect but fleeting. We only have 12 or so months to memorize them before something else happens that is wonderful. But babies. We have a limited number of months to hold them. To walk with them strapped to our chests. To feel their soft and delicate breathing against our chests.
I am wise enough to know this.
So I remember almost three years ago, walking through the cherry blossoms with Liv on the cusp of leaving infanthood for toddlerhood, her head resting on my chest with a gentle snore brought to her by the faithfulness of cold and flu season to really make the acquaintance of new human beings.
I knew that moment was fleeting. And it was perfect. I remember thinking that the only imperfect thing about that moment was that it wouldn’t last. And I hated it for the fact that it wouldn’t last. I hated that I couldn’t live there forever. There could be no better moment. Even heaven couldn’t compete as the cherry blossoms baptized me like a dove descending and announcing that, despite reasons to the contrary, I was a child in whom the Eternal One was well pleased. I hated that moment for passing. But I was wise enough to know that was exactly what it was doing and that I couldn’t waste it in anger that it was leaving me.
I wanted to climb inside that moment and live there forever. But that’s not how moments work.
So I held Liv closer. I breathed her in. I closed my eyes to memorize the feel of her. Memories are easier to pull up if your brain connects them to multiple things. I learned this in school so I could teach better. But at this moment, I used it in life so I could cheat and keep this moment forever. So I sang a favorite song and I took in all the smells and touched Liv and the trunk of the cherry blossom tree and rubbed the cherry blossoms between my fingers and acknowledged the slight stench in Port Gardner Bay that day. The angle of the sun. The ways it hurt my eyes just a little. Even the slight ache in my back from where the baby carrier cut in. I took in everything I could to give my brain as much information as I could possibly deliver to it so that it could scrapbook this moment and, though I had to leave it, I could visit again.
I was as present to that moment as I possibly could be. I was in my body and used every piece of my body to consume that moment.
And so I mean it when I tell you that I remember three years ago when I took a walk in my favorite park.
And I remember about a month later when I noticed that Liv’s eye was wandering. And I remember a few months after that when she had an MRI to explore what was happening with that wandering eye. And I remember the phone call that followed, letting us know that Liv has a very serious and potentially life limiting condition.
So, again and again, I’ve climbed back into that moment in the park.
CS Lewis said of the great joy he had with his wife before she tragically died quite young of cancer: My pain now is a part of my happiness then. That’s the deal.
That’s the deal.
So the transfiguration — or this story we just read of eternity interrupting day-to-day life — is an odd text to read in Lent. I saw it and I wanted to preach on it. But I couldn’t work out for the life of me how it ended up there. Honestly, I still think it was probably some sort of mistake. But a holy one.
Because as I sat with it, as this week unfolded with so many worries and heart aches and heaviness, so much heaviness… I needed that memory of Liv and I needed the transfiguration.
Growing up, I was always taught this passage as yet another place to say: “Oh, Peter. You don’t get it. We can’t live in those holy moments. We have to live in the gritty real world. You can’t make a shrine to Jesus anyway. Will you ever get it?”
But what I’ve come to see is that Peter knew some very hard change was coming around the corner. He began to suspect that his dear friend Jesus was like a cherry blossom — perfect, beautiful, bathing you in love and light — and fleeting.
He wanted to climb inside that moment and live there and not have to look at the darker moments coming his way because he didn’t know if he was up for the task and who wants to feel pain anyway.
“Can we just make some tents and stay here, please Jesus?”
I can imagine Jesus saying: “The pain to come is a part of the happiness now.”
But we need that happiness to carry us through the pain.
We need to absorb moments of joy, of glory, of clarity in who God is, what love is, what liberating justice is, what welcome is — what welcome feels like. In our bodies. We need to absorb those moments with every cell of our bodies and help our brains encode them so that when we see Jesus on that cross or when our kiddo is sick or when a candidate we thought could bring change drops out or when environmental justice seems just too hard to keep on working for, we can climb back into those moments.
The happiness then is a part of the pain now. That’s the deal.
The happiness then carries us through the pain now. That’s the deal.
The hope then nags at us when we want to give up in the now. That’s the deal.
The love then floods our hearts with the longing we need to push us ever forward in the relentless work of seeking liberating love justice and welcome in a broken and breaking world now. That’s the deal.
The disciples needed to climb into a moment with all their senses, with total presence, with such presence that they could envision an entire life lived in a moment that heaven itself would have trouble competing with. They need to climb into a moment and memorize it so that they could take it with them into other times. Times that would still be, as all times are, full of wonder — but where the wonder would be a little harder to touch.
This has been a hard week you all.
It is okay to be tired. To be scared. To be frustrated. It is okay to really let yourself feel that feeling. It is okay to be present to that anger, sorrow, worry with your whole bodies.
And, we will need those memories of sacred, fleeting perfection breaking into our day to day lives to carry us through.
The cherry blossoms are right outside our door. They are fleeting. But they are here to kiss you. To bathe you. To baptize you with a mystical love to carry you through the days at hand.
Yesterday, leaving Roger Bowden’s memorial, Mira stopped me. I was in a bit of a rush. Covid-19 had taken all my sermon writing time away from me and two kids don’t allow for much cramming and we lost an hour today. You all. We did not need to lose an hour on top of everything else this week. Am I right?
So I was in a rush. And Mira stopped me. She pointed. She didn’t give me any clues as to what I was looking for. Something in a grey sky. And when I slowed down and determined that I absolutely would find the thing she wanted me to see — I saw a rainbow.
I needed that rainbow, you all.
Thank you Mira. Thank you from the depths of my soul.
The disciples needed to be present to a fleeting moment of eternity to carry them through harder days.
I needed to memorize my sleeping baby and her head covered in cherry blossom petals at the park to get through the next chapter of the story.
We all need little pieces of eternity tucked away in our pocket to hold on to and rehearse when times get tough.
So, this was a strange passage for Lent. But it is the perfect passage for Lent. As we journey toward the cross, be present to the sheer joy and beauty that interrupts the seriousness of life. As we journey toward the election, be present to the laughter of children who forget to worry about who is sitting in the oval office. As we work for ecological justice and racial equity and economic transformation and full inclusion for all genders and sexualities and abilities or disabilities — breathe in even the potentially rank smell of the Sound as cherry blossoms dance across your face. Rehearse the rising of the daffodils as though they didn’t know that we are in a serious time. Be present. Use everything we know about how memories work to memorize these moments. Feel that happiness in every cell.
The happiness then is a part of the pain now. That’s the deal.
The pain now is a part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.
Live that mysterious and eternal deal with gusto you all.
We may not be taking communion physically today. But my sincere exhortation is to find time to take in the physical communion of the cherry blossom. Or a child. Or your partner. Or a neighbor. Or a renegade ray of sun breaking through the clouds. Or the rainbow that a quiet prophet insists you stop to see.
Maybe try on fleeting joy as your Lenten practice this week.