Friday, October 5, 2007

The Climb

There is a mountain in New Hampshire, which is sort of a Mecca for me when I vacation up there. Mount Shaw. You just go around Lake Winnepesauke to the west side and park your car and start hiking up. You can make the trek up and down in part of an afternoon. It’s not like climbing nearby Mount Washington, or far away Pike’s Peak, or even farther away Mount Everest. I have been with a 3 year old who climbed it, and I have been with an 83 year old who climbed it.
The first time I trekked up Shaw was probably 8 years ago, with my son Benji. If I remember correctly, I ran virtually all the way. The last time I climbed Shaw was this past summer. I didn’t run virtually all the way. As a matter of fact, I was amazed at how much steeper and higher it had gotten over the years. (Probably due to the geo-dynamic shifting of the earth’s crust to make higher and steeper mountains.) Hiking up Shaw made me think about a book called A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson, which was a journal depicting his hiking the entire Appalachian Trail.
“On the first day of the trail,” he writes, “it was hell. First days on hiking trips always are. I was hopelessly out of shape—hopelessly. The pack weighed way to much. Way to much. I had never encountered anything so hard, for which I was so ill prepared. Every step was a struggle.
The hardest part was coming to terms with the constant dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill...Each time you haul yourself up to what you think must surely be the crest, you find that there is in fact more hill beyond, sloped at an angle that kept it from view before, and that beyond that slope there is another, and beyond that another and another, and beyond each of those more still, until it seems impossible that any hill could run on this long. Eventually you reach a height where you can see the tops of the topmost trees, with nothing but clear sky beyond, and your faltering spirit stirs ... nearly there now! ... but this is pitiless deception. The elusive summit continually retreats by whatever distance you oppress forward, so that each time the canopy parts enough to give a view you are dismayed to see that the topmost trees are as remote, as unattainable, as before. Still you stagger on. What else can you do?”
Mountain climbing, I suppose, is not a bad metaphor for the life of faith. Scripture is full of stories that take place on mountains. There’s Moses on Mt. Sinai, Elijah on Horeb, Jesus with the Sermon on the Mount. The mountain is the place for God’s self disclosure. Back in the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa wrote “The knowledge of God is a mountain steep indeed, and difficult to climb.” That’s not the way we usually think of it, is it? If only we could find the right book on spiritual self-help. Perhaps there’s a conference, a spiritual retreat, perhaps if only we could develop the discipline of reading the Bible daily. All good things, don’t get me wrong. But building a relationship with God that gives us a sure sense of God’s presence, God’s guidance, and God’s sustaining love is hard, like climbing a steep mountain.
Is it worth it? Is the hard climb worth the view? Bill Bryson thought so. He continued in his journal after collapsing from exhaustion: “Finally, with a weary puff, you roll over ... struggle to your feet, and realize ... that the view is sensational ... This really could be heaven. It’s splendid, no question; but the thought you cannot escape is that you have to walk this view.”
We understand that. Too many people I know have been climbing and climbing and climbing to the point of exhaustion and despair. Some are in the midst of one heck of a climb: a teenager I know is diagnosed with cancer; parents I know whose son will soon be deployed in Iraq; a friend whose new job has crumbled after a month. Some feel that they have been walking for such a long time: Every time they hear their boss yell, it conjures up memories of their father yelling all those years. Sometimes a loss triggers memories of other losses. Sometimes it’s just weariness from too many responsibilities and too little sleep. Kids’ needs on the one hand and aging parents needs on the other, and the light is not at the end of the tunnel. And though we try hard, faith does not always come through as the comfort we would like.
But dear friends, let me say this. I believe with my whole heart that it is worth the climb, and at the end we will see the glory of God. We will know God as never before. That doesn’t mean we won’t encounter dangers and difficulties on the trek to the top. I know that there is so much more I need to learn about myself and my own limits, that I need a strength far beyond my own to make it up to the top of the mountain.
How long the climb is, I don’t know, because I’m still climbing. I do know that at times it is
difficult, a hard climb. Sometimes the ascent is treacherous and demanding. But from all that I
have been told, it’s well worth the climb.


TWELFTH NIGHT/EPIPHANY      I read this line in a interview with Christian Wiman in Christianity Today:   "Jurgen Mol...