Listening to God

Paparazzi Peter.

In today’s Gospel, he’s peering at Moses, Elijah and Jesus. This is a career-maker. But there’s a problem. No camera. No film. No nothing.

We can sympathize with Peter’s predicament. Let’s be frank: Peter would’ve done us all a big favor if he had been better prepared. We could visit today his shrine built to immortalize the moment if only he had been ready.

Imagine your grasp of history without Abraham Zapruder’s 26 seconds of film, shot with an 8-millimeter camera on November 22, 1963. We’d be stuck with Oliver Stone’s revisionist montage in his film JFK.

Or without the grainy footage of Neil Armstrong taking “one small step for man” replete with scratchy audio.

Or without your LP of Tommy, the world’s first rock opera.

It’s a good thing that The Who is now available on redigitized and remastered compact disks – along with every other LP in your collection – because it is increasingly difficult to locate a working stereo phonograph. And if you own a copy of I Love Lucy classics on Betamax, forget it. Those eight-tracks of Tony Bennett? Worthless, unless you have borrowing privileges at the Museum of Obsolete Machines.

The Zapruder film, the Apollo 11 footage, the census data stored by the government risk disintegration or obsolescence. We can launch photographs of the kids through cyberspace, but we are losing the photographs of our own childhoods, not to mention our ancestors’ childhoods, due to humidity, sunlight and general aging.

This hurts. It hurts because we have such a hunger to hang on to history. As the parents of Baby Boomers move into retirement communities, their storage closets – left unexplored for decades – have become fascinating excavation sites revealing both the history of their own families’ precious moments and the history of home movie cameras: the 8-millimeter camera, the Super 8, the camcorder, the Supercam, the Digital camcorder, the MX Pro Mixer with Fire Wire Technology.

These closet digs show that the first generation of parents wielding home movie cameras did a pretty decent job at documenting Christmas morning and birthday parties, graduations and weddings. And clearly today’s parents are following in their footsteps by dutifully documenting all the usual life-changing moments of their children as well – those transformative transitions from fetus to newborn, from crawler to walker, from preschooler to kindergartner.

But, because of smart phones or because they’re more self-absorbed than ever, postmodern parents also capture those NOT-so-special moments: little Amber eating French fries, sitting in the wagon, banging on the piano, digging in the dirt, rolling in the leaves, playing with the telephone, wearing a hat, smelling a flower, holding a book, watching TV, singing a song, throwing a ball, kicking a ball, sitting on a ball, dropping a ball …. you get the picture. If you’re the Brigham family of New York, you’ve captured more than 1,800 minutes of videotaped footage and over 3,000 still photographs of your daughter Courtney’s life. Courtney is only 6 years old.

Can YOU say, “Overexposure”?

Unfortunately, Courtney may clean out her own closet 40 years from now, only to discover countless faded photographs and a mountain of obsolete cartridges with no working video machine to play them. Technology is moving so quickly that, sooner than we expect, our painstaking documentation of life may be rendered a waste of time.

We’re losing history. This, despite the fact that more and more people are documenting more and more information every day. You better believe that if President Kennedy rode through Dallas today, Abraham Zapruder would be among HUNDREDS of ordinary people preserving the moment on their smart phones!

We want to preserve every special moment, and yet … armed with smart phones in one palm, hermetically sealed scrapbooks in the other arm, and countless files filled with images and personal data in our computers, aren’t we in danger of missing something even more monumental?

Missing – in our craving to capture it – the God-given moment itself?

Peter, of course, did not have an iPhone to capture the extraordinary moment he witnessed along with James and John. It was literally a mountaintop experience, a once-in-a-lifetime experience for three ordinary Joes who, as disciples, were still searching for a clue.

Peter, understandably, was absolutely awestruck. It was to have been a quiet retreat, a time apart from the crowds, but an extraordinary event was unfolding, a moment in history so sacred that Peter, as Vice President in Charge of Doing Something, had to do something. So he proposed building a booth or kiosk or shrine – whatever – to preserve the moment. We’re not told how he was going to do this, whether he had hammer and saw at the ready, or a few fisherman’s tools in his belt. Your options are limited when all you’ve got is a sewing needle. But then Peter was never one to let details get in the way of a dream.

A cloud dimmed the moment, however, before Peter could throw anything together. Out of the cloud came a voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (v. 7).

God did not say: “Get a shot of the three of them over by that cedar tree.” Didn’t say, “Be sure to capture the moment!”

Just, “Listen to him.” Bummer.

Like tourists who see Paris through their viewfinders, Peter, who wanted to keep the moment from passing, was in danger of passing the moment. Let’s face it: We, too, are easily distracted. Our lives are noisy. Televisions, radios, DVRs, DVDs, computers and smart phones fill our world with incessant sound. Hard to hear the voice of God these days.

Just as cameras can be programmed to print the date on the film in order to remember exactly when an event occurred, Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus took Peter, James and John up to this mountain exactly six days after reminding them that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it” (8:35). It’s not a bad idea to ask ourselves, “What are we really losing and what are we really keeping, in the big picture?” What will it profit us to preserve our life’s history, if we forget the fundamental reason for remembering?

We ought to call a moratorium on this memory mania. Home movies may jog our memories of family birthday parties and graduations and weddings and so forth, but here’s the danger: Focusing on the image, we forget about its meaning. We are losing the sense of the sacred in the mundane.

So put aside the iPhone and go live. Sacramentalize the mundane. Listen for the voice of God. We go through life too busy trying to film the Transfiguration. We look but don’t see; we hear but we don’t listen. So what? So what if we have acid-free scrapbooks filled with ticket stubs and report cards and pressed corsages, if we have forgotten what made those moments so sacred?

At the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appear talking with Jesus.  Why?  Because Jesus fulfills both the law (as given to Moses via the Ten Commandments) and the prophets (of whom Elijah is one of the greatest). But the Gospel does not record the content of their conversation.  Apparently, Peter was too busy coming up with his idea of building some shrine.

God’s advice is to listen. Listen to life, listen for the sacred. Listen to Jesus.