I'm not a big mountain climber, but in my youth I climbed a few. Once I climbed Diamond Peak in Oregon. Standing more than 9000 feet above sea level, it wasn’t Everest, but it still wasn’t an easy hike for a thirteen-year-old Boy Scout. When I got to the top, I found a view that was breathtaking. I could see for miles in every direction, from the high plains of central Oregon in the east to the fertile Willamette Valley to the West. Looking north and south I could see the whole spine of the Cascade range punctuated by high peaks. Far below was Crescent Lake, the site of our Scout camp and off in the other direction was Odell Lake, both crystal clear and blue. There’s something truly awe inspiring about great mountains; they remind us of our own smallness and the grandeur of creation. When we stand on a mountain top, we also might find ourselves drawn into the presence of God.
GOING TO THE MOUNTAIN
From the earliest times we’ve gone to the mountains looking for God. From Mount Olympus to Mt. Sinai, we’ve sensed that God is up there. Besides, going to the mountains is to get away from the everyday routines of human life. The mountain offers peace and rest, quiet and serenity. They also allow us to see beyond the confines of our lives.
What takes place on the mountain, however, can happen internally whenever we listen closely for the voice of God. It could be at the beach or the desert or in a quiet room. The place doesn't really matter, the point is finding a place that allows us to get beyond the limits of daily life, a place that allows us to feel, to hear, to smell, to see, and even to taste God's presence.
I remember being in such a place, though I didn't take advantage of it. One summer, I cleared brush in the mountains. I was alone for much of the time, miles from the closest person, kept company only by a dog. The property sat at the 7000-foot level and after I turned off the generator at night, extinguishing the last bit of artificial light, the stars and moon glistened above me. The stars seemed so close that I felt I could reach out and take them from the sky. If I’d known better, I’d have listened more for God’s voice. I didn't have any great visions that summer or insightful revelations, but I can understand why people go to the mountains seeking clarity and a sense of God's presence. On the mountain top the distractions are few and God's presence is more apparent.
EXPERIENCING THE MOUNTAIN
Mountain top experiences can be life changing. That’s why we go on retreats and to camp. Just this week I decided I needed to spend a few hours away from things and so I drove up to the Mount Calvary Retreat Center in Santa Barbara. I needed time away to free myself from the daily grind – and liberation from my blog.
When Moses went to the mountain he had a profound experience of God’s presence. When he returned with the tablets of the law, his face radiated God's presence. So bright was his countenance that he had to put on a veil. Jesus also went up the mountain, accompanied by three of his disciples, to pray. Jesus needed to get away, to be refreshed, and to refocus. Like Moses, Jesus' countenance changed. His clothes turned a dazzling white and his face shined with God’s glory, and as he stood there praying, two figures appeared to him. They were Moses and Elijah; one symbolic of the Law and the other of the Prophets, and each came to bear witness to Jesus’ calling.
The path to the mountain includes prayer, contemplation, perhaps fasting and the reading of scripture. Whatever steps we take, the point is to listen for God's voice and to taste a bit of heaven. We go to the mountain to find rest for our souls, for as Catholic writer Thomas Keating says:
`Rest' implies that we are beginning to experience the mind of Christ, his awareness of the Godhead as infinite mercy, concern for everything that is, and the servant of creation. This rest is our reassurance at the deepest level that everything is okay. The ultimate freedom is to rest in God in suffering as well as in joy. God was just as present to Jesus in his abandonment on the cross as on the Mountain of Transfiguration. [Thomas Keating, Reawakenings, (Crossroad, 1992), 127.]
COMING DOWN THE MOUNTAIN
It’s natural to resist returning to the valley below. But as wonderful as the mountain top is, we can't stay there. We have to return to the real world and the responsibilities that define our lives. Moses returned and Jesus returned. Peter offered to make shelters for the three men, but as God spoke from the clouds, Peter received his answer. You can't stay here, you have to go back down the mountain.
Both returned to difficult situations. Moses led a stubborn people and Jesus faced the cross. We go to the mountain searching for refreshment, but once we’re refreshed we must return to the business of life. What’s true of the mountain is true of our experiences of worship together. We come to this place to worship God, to hear the word spoken, and to share in the sacrament of communion. Worship opens the door of heaven, and yet we can't stay here. We have jobs and family and responsibilities that require our attention. The way forward may not be easy, but we don't go alone. When Jesus and the three disciples returned to the valley below they found the other disciples trying to relieve a young girl of spiritual oppression, but they couldn't seem to get it done. No, they hadn't learned enough, they hadn't been to the mountain, and they weren't ready.
We return from the mountain top gifted and prepared servants of God's kingdom. As we come down from the mountain, we’ll be asked to address the needs of those who mourn. We may not have all the answers, but we do have peace to share. We needn't run away from those in need, because God is with us.
It’s rare to see something on TV that reflects spiritual values, but sometimes something pops through. Several years ago an episode of ER told the story of how God’s presence can be experienced in the midst of pain. It told about an encounter between a young Croatian doctor who’d lost his family in the Balkan wars. He’d been carrying his guilt and his grief because he couldn’t save them. He lost his faith, but then he encountered a Catholic Bishop who was dying. At the end of the program the bishop got Luka to share his story and then just before dying himself, the bishop gave Luka absolution. The bishop had been on the mountain and was at peace with God, and though death was at his door, he found the strength to share a bit of peace with a young troubled man.
We can't stay on the mountain forever, though we’re tempted to remain above the fray and remain in the safe confines of the mountain. But we can take that mountain top experience with us into our daily lives and share that transforming joy with our families and our friends and our neighbors so that they too can taste the healing joy of God's presence.
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church
February 18, 2007