This week we heard the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, that moment on the mountain in which Peter, James, and John witness Jesus conferring with Elijah and Moses. I like to think of Moses and Elijah offering words of encouragement, words of hope and resilience to prepare Jesus for all that lies ahead. And I like to think of Jesus drawing strength from their counsel and wisdom, from the experience of those who had gone before him.
As a memoirist, and as someone who encourages and teaches others to write memoir, my work involves going back to examine the lives of people who have gone before me. I am thinking about my uncle, my father’s older brother, who lived to be 98. During the last years of his life, his body was frail, but his mind was sharp and full. I would drive to his home to spend an afternoon looking at old photo albums with him. I was writing a book about our ancestors, and he held the key to stories and histories and connections I was hungry to understand. There was no shortage of tragedy in this history. Most of my uncle’s first cousins were killed in the second world war fighting for Germany. When I tried to press for these grim details, he often steered the conversation gently, imperceptibly away. When I asked about the tragic way my grandfather died of sepsis, my uncle wanted to talk instead about the time that Pastor Westendorf played his phonograph in the open window of the parsonage as loud as he could while my grandfather walked home from their country church. He knew my grandfather loved classical music and had attended operas in Berlin where he worked as a carpenter before getting a steerage ticket on a ship bound for America. My uncle chose to remember moments of joy, the moments in which we glimpse how precious life is, made more so with the love of friends, family, and community.
It was a good reminder to me. When my uncle insisted on remembering the happy moments in his father’s life and his own, he was making a point I am still learning and trying to share with my memoir students. Our lives are not the tragedies, setbacks, or failures that befall us. Rather our lives, should we chose to see them this way, are filled with evidence of God’s faithfulness to us, of God’s relentless refusal to let us go— no matter how far we find ourselves from home or from the version of ourselves we aspire to be.
Perhaps that is what God had in mind for Jesus on the mountain. A reminder that in the lives of the saints who have gone before us, we find again and again evidence of God’s faithfulness. For all of Moses’s initial reluctance, God worked through him. Despite Elijah’s failure to change the hearts of others, God loved him. God could have chosen angels to counsel and comfort Jesus. Isn’t it marvelous that God chose two fallible, frail humans who had gone before?
Toward the end of his life, my uncle’s favorite thing was to sit in a lawn chair close to the steps of his house. He spent hours watching the sun travel its arc through the sky. He had worked sixty, seventy years as a farmer on the same land his father homesteaded. His son now had that privilege, and so my uncle spent his days enjoying the breeze that cooled him, the warmth of the sun on his skin, watching the hawks circle above the windbreak of pine trees, the robins and starlings flit and land on his long-deceased wife’s old clothesline.
On those Saturday afternoons I spent with my uncle, I took away a deep peace, a kind of grace-filled transcendence, after talking about his years and years of living. He had been blinded in one eye by a fellow student who threw an eraser aimed at someone else. That event precipitated the end of his formal schooling. Then his beloved father died when my uncle was barely twenty-two, leaving him responsible for the farm and the survival of his mother, younger sister, and brother. My uncle longed to find someone to share his life with and finally married my aunt when they had both reached the age of forty. He wasn’t embarrassed to tell me that he cried on his wedding night out of sheer happiness. It’s not that his life wasn’t marked by heartache, but that he chose to see the way God had been at work in his life even through the messy, difficult times. He chose to believe in God’s unerring, unending faithfulness. And so I cling to his example. I look to one who has gone before me. A member of my personal community of saints, and a reminder that the God who knit us together in our mother’s womb, who knew us in secret, continues to abide with us and know us in all the dark times and places of our lives and leads us through them.