Prayer is boring
In Luke chapter 9, Jesus goes up a mountain to pray as he often does. But this time he’s not alone. He takes some of his disciples with him. And what a display it turns out to be. His face changes. He clothes turn the whitest of whites. There are conversations, clouds, mysterious voices, terror.
Praying for me is way more boring than all that.
When I pray, I sometimes experience a centering peace, like I’ve just remembered something I’d forgotten. Other times I feel God’s presence in a way that moves me emotionally. Often, though, I don’t feel much at all. Sometimes prayer is like brushing my teeth or putting on pants. It’s a habit. Though I barely notice I prayed, if I hadn’t done it I wouldn’t quite feel like myself. Sort of like walking around pantsless all day.
There’s a lot to pray for these days.
This first thing I want to say is that I hope that you will keep praying. For those suffering in Ukraine, as much as for the particular stresses and gratitudes that gather around your life. I also suspect—again, if you’re like me, that your experience of being the one praying all the things will be uneven. Comforting, annoying, confusing, boring.
Maybe it’s hard for Jesus too.
I wonder, though, what God experiences when I pray.
The account of Jesus, again, isn’t the only time he prays, just the first time he’s taken anyone with him. Just a few verses earlier, in fact, he was “praying alone, with only the disciples nearby” (9:18). That makes me wonder if there’s nothing out of the ordinary about what happens this time, it’s just that the disciples get to be there when it happens. It’s the tree in the woods dilemma. If a messiah is transfigured on a mountain and no one is there to see it, is anything revealed? Maybe transfiguration was a daily thing for Jesus.
But then again, maybe not. We have evidence from later on—his final prayer on the Mount of Olives—that prayer was sometimes difficult for him as well. That’s when his sweat comes down like drops of blood, and there is no evidence that he heard an answer.
The Veil of Boringness
Maybe what we’re seeing in the Transfiguration story, through the eyes of Peter, James, and John, is the norm. But not the norm as Jesus experiences it. What we’re seeing is what God experiences when Jesus prays.
If so, then this story is an apocalypse, a word that means an “unveiling.” We get to see behind the curtain for a moment. My daughter and I are reading a graphic novel about unicorns. It asks what is, I think, one of the great philosophical questions of our time. Why can’t we see unicorns? The book’s answer is that unicorns, which are all around us, weave a special magic spell on us. As a result, we see only the plain old world and not the unicorns right in front of us. Unicorns call the spell “the Veil of Boringness.”
In Luke 9, the disciples get to see behind the veil of boringness, into the secret mystery of the world as God sees it.
What do they see?
Behind the Veil
Jesus’ face changed as he prayed. Verse 32 calls this “his glory,” and it reminds us of the way Moses’ face changed when he was on Sinai. Moses goes up into the cloud atop Sinai and, and when he comes down with the Law, his face is lit up.
Saint Jerome’s translation into Latin, oddly, says that horns appeared on Moses’ forehead. That’s why you’ll often see Moses with goat horns in medieval iconography. It can be a little unsettling. It would something, though, if that were a widespread phenomenon. What if we could tell who had said their prayers each morning based on whether or not little goat horns were growing on our heads?
Anyhow, Jesus’ robes change, which might remind us of the way Elijah’s cloak became a conduit of miracles back in the book of Kings.
Then, as if on cue, Moses and Elijah show up and talk with Jesus.
Maybe every time Jesus prays, God sees his face glow like the face of Moses, and his clothes get heavy with the miraculous like Elijah. All the Law and Prophets are there. And then God says—every time—“that’s my beloved Son.”
Maybe every time Jesus prays, God experiences a transfiguration.
Teach Us to Pray
Ok, yes, you’re saying. That’s great for Jesus. He’s really good at praying. Of course that’s what it would look like. But what does God experience when I pray my boring, simple, inconsistent prayers?
I want to draw your attention to what happens two chapters later in Luke’s Gospel. Those disciples, who were lost in the cloud and terrified of the voice and said strange things like “lets build three houses”— those disciples come to Jesus with a request. “Teach us to pray.” Sure, it took them a bit, they had to catch their breath and really think about it. They weren’t ready right away. But they do come back. “Teach us to pray.” We want to pray like you prayed on the mountain, with the robe and the face and all that.
And he does. He teaches them a simple, kind of boring little prayer. Luke’s version is especially simple. “When you pray, say, Our Father…” I imagine the disciples cocking their heads to one side. “That’s all that was, back there on the mountain?” And Jesus: “That’s all that was.”
What God Experiences When I Pray
The point, you see, is not how hard we pray, not even how well we pray. The point is that God loves it when we pray. We get to pray as Jesus prayed, to pray as if we were Jesus, calling God “Father” just like he did. When we talk to God, no matter how dry or mundane we feel, God feels something else. Every Christian prayer is a transfiguration.
When we pray, God sees our faces shine like Moses’ face. And our clothes get heavy with grace just like Elijah’s. God sees the Law and the Prophets and the Apostles all gather round us. And God says, “That is my beloved child.” Maybe the angels even bend over to have a look—oh yes, that one there. There she is, with the glowing face and the gleaming white jacket.
I believe that’s what happens every time you pray. God wants to hear it all: Ukraine, the stress at work, your neighbor’s surgery, the grief you can’t quite let go of. The way you laughed with your friends or finally made a cake that didn’t tilt to one side.
Take all that to God. And know that on the other side of the veil of boringness and confusion, God is nearly speechless at your beauty and glory:
“That is my beloved child,” God says.
Many thanks to the people of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, for the invitation to come and preach this text.