The Transfiguration! Mark 9:2-9
Remember when you were a kid, and it suddenly dawned on you, “Whoa. What if my green, is really your blue, and my blue is really your green?” Did that happen to you? Or maybe it was just me. I think this happened to me when I was learning about color blindness. And this strange idea of differing perceptions entered my brain. What if we just name our realities the same thing, but really, all of our realities are totally different? What if your “green” is my “blue” and vice versa. Well, as an eight year old, it totally blew my mind.
And then we learned about how the light hits the eye in just a certain way, and the light gets sort of bent, and what we see as different colors are actually different spectrums of light, different ways the light gets bent, and so that’s how we can differentiate between red and yellow, blue and orange, green and violet. These light receptors within our eyes transmit messages to the brain and that’s how we get color. Ok. So, not so mind-blowing after all. Green is green, because our eyes basically all see in the same “way” and our brains basically process that color similarly.
But if we go deeper, if we think further, we’ll come to realize that all of our reality is in our brains. Everything we experience, all of our sensations, emotions, questions and confusions, it’s all happening in our brains. How do I know that my green is the same as yours? Maybe my eight year old self wasn’t that far off after all.
So. Yeah. Dan and I just watched episode 1 of “The Brain” on PBS. It’s this series written and by David Eagleman who is a neuroscientist who is fascinated by this grey, jello-like three pound wrinkly blob that we carry around inside our sculls. So basically, this means, that I am now a neuroscience expert. Ask me anything. I figured it all out from one fifty-five minute episode on PBS.
But really, in this first episode, Eagleman explores the concept of “reality.” What’s really “real,” and how do we know what’s real? How many times do we perceive something to be the case, and then later, find out that it was totally not true?
Or, how many times have we been able to see two different realities of the seemingly same object? There’s a new one on the internet these days. Have you seen it? It’s the one of either a dog or a man running through the snowy woods. If you stare at it long enough, you can trick your mind into seeing both. Or there was the shoe one, where you’d see either the pink or the blue shoe? Or the dress one way back years ago. Was it gold and white, or blue and black? That one caused all kinds of arguments for weeks after.
And as a teacher and a pastor, I can’t tell you how often it has happened when someone has come up to me to say that they either loved or hated my sermon, that it really spoke to them, or they absolutely disagreed with it, and then, when they go to describe how it impacted them, when they go to explain their experience to me, I wonder if we were actually in the same room, let alone listening to the same sermon.
So anyway, back to this documentary. It turns out that our brain is tricking us all the time. We are constantly weeding through a massive amount of information and our brain is sifting through it all and deciding which things are worth focusing on. It’s going on all the time, all day, every day. We are taking in a ridiculous amount of sensory information and our brains are picking and choosing what is worth emphasizing. We get so used to these patterns of picking and choosing, these algorithms, that they just run on autopilot. We do things automatically without even thinking about them. How often have you gotten in your car and then suddenly arrived at work or at the grocery store, and you can’t really remember how you “got” there? Or, for me, when I was a kid, if I slowed down and really thought about it as I recited the Our Father, I couldn’t get through it, but if I sped through it, I knew all the words by heart? Turns out, that even though we don’t remember it, we even had to form algorithms for how to see. Even if we were born with perfectly functioning corneas, we still didn’t know how to see. That’s something we had to learn.
So there was this guy, Mike May, who went blind after an accident at the age of three. Fifty years later, because of developments in science and technology, he was given a cornea transplant. Amazing, right?! This guy is healed. So they take off the bandages after the transplant, and he opens his eyes, and now that the mechanics are all fixed up, he should be able to see, right? Well, no. He’d gone so long not seeing that his brain adapted, he formed new ways of “seeing” through his other senses, and getting his sight back was a lot more difficult than just getting new eyes. He would look at his two sons and not know who was whom. Once a Paralympic skier, able to navigate between trees and people and other obstacles going twenty miles an hour through the use of his other senses, now that he could technically “see,” he could no longer tell the difference between shadows and holes and a forty foot spruce right in his way. Turns out, it was really difficult for him to re-adapt to seeing again. He needed to create a totally new algorithm. When he lost his sight, he had to retrain his brain to see a different way. And now that he can technically “see” again, he has to re-retrain his brain. And it hasn’t been easy. Years after his transplant, he’s still struggling. When he was young, his brain was so elastic that he could adapt fairly easily, even to the point where when he talks about the accident today, he doesn’t recall it as being a big deal at all. His other faculties took over and so his capacity for seeing was displaced by the super-functioning of his other senses. But now. Now he has to function under an entirely different set of neurological relationships, and I wonder, if sometimes, he doesn’t just close his eyes or choose to wear a blindfold just so he can go back to the way things were before, when he didn’t have vision, but when he could still see.
So David Eagleman decided to check in on this experiment. A bunch of grad students were wearing these special glasses during 100% of their waking hours. These glasses had special prisms that basically switched what was seen into a mirror image of itself. So, essentially, what was “actually” on the right side was “seen” on the left side. And what was actually on the left side was “seen” on the right. You’d reach for an apple with your left hand, but you’d miss it, because it was actually on your right. So Eagleman decides to try on these glasses for himself. I mean, how hard can it be? He just has to adapt, right? Make the calculation in his brain that the wine bottle he sees on his left is on his right, and the glass he sees on his right is actually on his left. But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t make that calculation. It wasn’t a logical decision he could make. His brain had been “seeing” the world in such a way for so long that he couldn’t figure out how to pour the bottle of wine into the cup. In fact, it made him nauseous after just a short time, and he had to take the glasses off. But. Here’s the good news. One of the grad students was there who had been wearing these special glasses for the last two weeks. And, at the beginning, he’d had a similar experience - the expectation that he could account for the change, the failure to account for the change, the clumsiness, the mess, the frustration. But after about a week, things started to change. His brain started to adapt. New pathways were being written. The brain was “talking” to itself in different ways, and after two weeks, it was no big deal to pour that bottle of wine into that glass. He could travel through a maze just fine. How’d he do it? He’d gained more sensory experience, he’d made mistakes, adjusted, and tried again. He’d spilled a lot of wine. He broke a lot of glasses. He walked into a lot of walls. But every time he did, he’d get information from his other senses that would help him adapt to this new way of “seeing” the world. He couldn’t rationalize his way out of this situation. There was no logical way out of this. He had to live in to it in order to solve it. And that’s messy. And hard. And damn inconvenient. It required that he slow things down. That he do things differently. That he try things and fail. And then that he try them again.
Ok. One more example, because I know this is weird stuff to explain. Destin Sandlin is an engineer who started a really popular YouTube series called “Smarter Every Day.” In one of these episodes, some fellow welders whom he works with played a trick on him. They constructed a bicycle that works the opposite of how every other bicycle works. When you turned the handlebars to the right, the bike went left. When you turned the handlebars to the left, the bike went right. He “understood” the change perfectly. He knew cognitively, rationally, what he needed to do to right that bicycle. But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t ride the bicycle. He took this bicycle with him on talks and presentations all over the country and had others try it. He even offered them two hundred dollars if they could ride that bike just ten feet without falling over. And no one could do it. Everyone could “comprehend” how these changes to this bike were made, how they would impact the functioning of this bike. They “knew” what they needed to do to accommodate those changes. And yet. Nobody could ride the bike. Again, though, the good news? He figured it out, after eight months of trying every day. He could ride the backwards bike. But can you guess what happened when he tried to get back on a regular bike again? Yup. Disaster. But only for about twenty minutes or so. And then his mind just clicked, he “remembered” how to ride his bike the old way, and he was off, cycling down the road. The folks watching him saw the instant transformation from not being able to ride the bike to being able to ride the bike and they thought he’d been faking it all along. They thought he was just being silly, falling off the bike on purpose, but really, he was re-retraining his mind how to ride a bike. He had to “wake” himself up to that previous algorithm, the one he’d known all along.
This is the cognitive dissonance that goes through Peter in our story today. He thinks he sees one thing, Jesus, his buddy, the guy who makes fart jokes and spits watermelon seeds and was once caught picking his nose, is now transfigured right in front of Peter, dazzlingly white such that no one could bleach them. There’s Jesus. But it’s not Jesus. Not any Jesus that Peter nows. This Jesus doesn’t fit into his previous algorithm. And so he freaks out. He doesn’t know what to say, but still feels like he has to say something, so he says, “Uh, yeah. Let’s build some houses.” He tries to ride the bike and he falls on his ass. He’s given knew information that doesn’t fit with the old. They’ve switched his bike around, they’ve given him new glasses, his “green” is suddenly “red.”
“This is my Son, the Beloved,” God says. “Listen to him!”
And then it’s gone. It’s over. The bike is back to the way it was before. The glasses are taken off. The green is green again. Jesus is back to himself. And they’re walking down the mountain. Everything is back to the way it was before. And yet. Something has changed. Peter cannot undo new pathways that have been etched into his brain. Somehow he has to find a way to live in a world where Jesus is both the man he knows and loves and follows and trusts, and this other thing, this being in dazzlingly white robes, conversing with the prophets of old. He’s got to figure out the both/and. Jesus is both God and human. Jesus is both the Messiah, and the one who must suffer and die. Peter’s got to ride the backwards and the regular bikes all at the same time. He’s been given the eyes to see, but he doesn’t yet have the neurological shortcuts to back it up. Now, he has to function as both blind and able to see.
They come down from the mountain and Jesus tells them to say nothing until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.
Well. Maybe because they’re still processing. They’re still trying to make sense of this both-God-and-Man algorithm. And it’s not going to make sense until they see Jesus rise from the dead on the third day. That’s when the neurological or spiritual pathways will be complete. That’s when the switch will be flipped - when they can ride both bikes, see both colors, wear and not-wear the glasses at the same time.
In other words, we can train our minds to see the gold/white and the blue/black dresses. We can see both the dog and the hiker. Maybe, even, we can see the God and the man in Jesus Christ. We can see the one who will suffer and die and the one who will be raised again on the third day. Maybe we can’t see them both at the same time, but we can move between the two with a kind of neural elasticity that’s actually really common among young kids. Maybe we can have faith like a child - an ability to go back and forth between two differing languages or two differing realities and it’s no big deal. A sort of spiritual plasticity or elasticity.
We still have some theological and spiritual elasticity. We can still see the both/and. We can still see that Jesus is both things. But learning how to do that is going to be messy. We’re going to bump into walls and spill a lot of wine and mistake shadows for trees. We are going to fall off our bikes. We are going to insist that the shoes are pink while others swear they’re blue. It’s going to take experimenting and trial and error and mistakes and letting go of our old ways of doing things. It’s going to take time. And trust. And lots and lots of paying attention.
What do you see? Green or Red? Man? Or God?
Thanks be to God.