Yesterday, I got a call from a dear old friend whose wife had just passed away after many years of health problems. I met Ray and his wife Terri years ago when he contacted me through a mutual friend. Ray and his son Brian were mountaineers, and Brian, who was about fourteen years of age at the time, was becoming more and more interested in technical rock climbing, so Ray contacted me to see if I would teach him rock climbing. Brian quickly surpassed me in skill and experience, as well as passion for the sport, and Ray was a wonderful example to me of Christian character and of the ideal father and husband.
As I thought about seeing old friends at the funeral, a thought occurred to me: someone would probably ask me, "So, where do you go to church?" How could I answer them? I thought of very direct honest answers, but all of them would only engender misunderstanding. How could I explain why I no longer "go to church?" How could I possibly communicate in a few minutes what has taken me years of intense dealings from God in order to assimilate for myself? It seemed impossible. I thought about giving the direct biblical perspective on how "going to church" and how the modern church status quo is not biblical, but I know better than that. Most Christians will contend for biblical authority, but only so far as it supports long held and fondly held traditions. When biblical authority seems to contradict fondly held traditions such as the one pastor/CEO model of church leadership and the corporate man-made organizational model of churchianity, biblical authority is no longer the platform from which one contends, especially if one has no concrete example of biblical life and worship being lived out in human flesh today in the earth. If "going to church" and all that it entails is our modern standard of Christian life and fellowship, then the biblical example of Christian life will be pressed into conformity to our modern human experience by the human mind.
However, as this thought kept coming to mind, the Lord gave me the means by which to communicate in a sort of parable, that which I could communicate in no other way, especially to my dear friend who, as a mountaineer, could relate to my spiritual journey.
In my early years, I began hungering for the mountain heights that surrounded my new home in Christendom, so I joined one of the many Outdoor Appreciation Associations in my local area. These, I was told, existed for the purpose of studying and enjoying the mountains and for the purpose of traveling as a group to Mount Zion. Thrilled to find a group of people with the same desires that had become so real in my own heart, I heartily jumped into every aspect of my local association.
We met twice on Sundays and on Wednesday nights, and the leader spoke to us of many of the mountain peaks surrounding our city. At times, we had guest speakers come from other areas and speak of their experiences on the great peaks of their lands, some of which were in foreign countries. We even gave willingly to help these mountaineers carry on their valuable work in distant lands.
As I heard and read of the many mountain peaks, both locally and trans-locally, I gradually developed a great hunger to climb these mountains. Deep in my heart, I had heard the "call to climb", and I felt I must answer that call. Each Sunday, I would arrive at the local meeting packed for a hike, expecting us to venture out of the city of Christendom and into the surrounding mountainous landscape. However, week after week, I became more and more disappointed, for we stayed in the city, hearing stories or reading from our text book about the surrounding peaks, such as Peace Mountain, Prayer Ridge, Freedom Peak, Vision Summit, and on and on. Each week I longed to experience the heights, but had to settle for an academic exercise.
My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray; They have turned them away on the mountains. They have gone from mountain to hill; They have forgotten their resting place. (Jer. 50:6)
Once in a while, I became so encouraged, for the leader would stand behind the podium and tell us of a new and higher location to which we as a congregation would soon journey. Oh, the thrill! Finally, we as a group would venture out and ascend to the heights that daily beckoned to me from above. We, the Outdoor Appreciation Association, would soon begin to experience the things about which we loved to talk! But, alas, time after time, we would simply relocate within the city, perhaps to a street on the hill, or beside the local park or river, or even to the suburbs. The many associations to which I belonged over the years, as well as their respective leaders, never left the city in order to climb, but only moved within the city in hopes of finding a better view of the mountains.
I remember times when a mountaineer would visit our association and erect a climbing wall, and there were times when we erected our own walls within our association. What life it brought to our congregation! We learned about the equipment and how to belay each other. We learned the moves of technical rock climbing and we experienced the thrill of ascent. They were wonderful times. However, in time, we as an association gradually grew disinterested in the climbing wall, and when the novelty wore off, we consistently returned to the program of song and sermon about the mountains. For most, the climbing wall was a temporary diversion turned relic. For me, it only served to deepen the pain of my longing for the mountain heights. I longed to use my newly acquired skills to reach the pinnacles of mountaineering experience.
Eventually, the disappointments began to sour in me, so I began to turn in my heart away from the association and more and more toward the books that seemed to feed my deep yearning for the mountains. I read stories of great mountaineers such as Finney, Bartleman, Murray, McCheyne, Howells, Hyde, and many others. I educated myself with the writings or audio messages of mountaineers such as Miller, Ravenhill, and Tozer. I began to lose myself in the experiences of others, and I became very critical of the members of the association who, in my eyes, had deceived themselves into believing that they were outdoorsmen, simply because they enjoyed gathering to talk and sing of the outdoors.
The voice of my beloved! Behold, he comes Leaping upon the mountains, Skipping upon the hills. (Song 2:8)
One day, I realized that I could in no way push the leader out and up, and I decided that I could no longer wait for the group to go. I was determined to become a great mountaineer like the men in the text book from which we always read, and like the more contemporary men in my books. I was going to climb!
I set out for a local peak, and journeyed for some time. However, the peak turned out to be much further from the city than it appeared. It looked so near, but in fact, before long, it became abundantly clear that the journey to the base was a greater journey than the climb itself, and the path was fraught with many obstacles and dangers. I didn't make it very far before I ran out of food and water, and returned to the city and the association scratched, bruised, starving and thirsting.
For the first time, I realized why the association was not attempting to enjoy the mountains from the summit, but rather from the city hall. The journey was too time consuming and costly for those with lives, families, careers and hobbies there in the city. The association was just one more aspect of their city life. In fact, it was their most important and valued aspect of their city life, for it was the wonderful vistas beyond and the stories of the mountain heights that seemed to give their lives meaning as they gave themselves to meaningless city-life. The grand vistas also gave them hope and comfort in lives that, at times, were very negatively affected by life in the city. During painful times, it was the view of the mountains, as they lifted their gaze, that gave them hope in the midst of despair or comfort in the midst of sorrow. However, to leave all that they valued in the city for mountain climbing was a price that none seemed willing to pay.
I realized for the first time that I had been mistaken for all those years about the reason for the existence of these Outdoor Appreciation Associations. The purpose was not to climb, but to gather. It was not to enjoy the glorious landscape by standing on the summit of beautiful mountain peaks, but to enjoy the beauty of the mountains by viewing from a distance. It was about gathering, not to venture to the mountains, but to swap photos of the mountains, or to read of the mountains, or to hear exciting stories of those few "special ones" who had ventured to the mountains or summited great peaks. I realized that the purpose of the association was not what I had understood in the beginning, and so I realized why there was such tension and misunderstandings between myself and many of the other members. We had different goals, and we each saw one another as a hindrance to our own particular goal.
Over the years, I ventured out again and again, and failed to reach the base of the mountains again and again. I tried to be a great mountaineer, and I tried to do the things I read and heard of my mentors doing, but I could just never find the way. I only and always failed. I switched associations over and over, hoping to find a people with whom I could climb, and some associations met on some wonderful hills within the city, but none were willing to relocate to the wilderness. They all desired to maintain easy access to the public for continued growth and influence within the city.
And He went up on the mountain and called to Him those He Himself wanted. And they came to Him. (Mark 3:13)
After years of failure, having finally given up on the idea of ever becoming a mountaineer, and having quite the associations all together, one day, everything changed. The Mountain Guide showed up at my door, and promised to be my Guide. He came to live with me and spoke to me of great and wonderful mountains, even in distant lands, and He promised to lead me to those mountain heights, if only I would place my life in His hands without reserve and obey His every command. He entered into a covenant with me, and we began a journey together as He began to train me and equip me for mountaineering. I returned to the association and met often with them, but now it was different. I no longer felt the tension or the conflict. I was at peace with them and they with me, for we would gather to speak or hear about certain peaks, and my Guide would take me out on excursions to those very peaks.
Eventually, after much training and equipping, we summited together our first peak. Oh, the wonder and beauty from above was beyond expression. I could see the city from far above and the view from above was so different from what I expected. The ground beneath my feet, the crunch of the pine needles, the smell of the clean crisp mountain air, the wild flowers and wild life were all so very different than what I had imagined, though so very similar to all that we had read about in the mountaineering text book. When we read or spoke of the mountain stories in the book, we all developed mental images, sort of fantasies about the mountain heights, but the reality was so different from our fantasies.
We summited some peaks that are well-known to those of Christendom (at least by name) such as John 14:21, Luke 14:33, The Romans 8 Mountain Range, Galatians 4:6, Galatians 2:20, John 15:15, and many others. It was wonderful. I was living what I used to read and dream about. I was standing on the very peaks that I once knew only in theory; only as names in a book or as stories from the experience of others. Now they were mine. I was living my dream!
"O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, In the secret place of the steep pathway, Let me see your form, Let me hear your voice; For your voice is sweet, And your form is lovely." (Song 2:8)
In coming years, my Guide led me through shadowy valleys, lonely deserts, and to great and high mountain peaks. He equipped me little by little and trained me in advanced mountaineering, preparing me for the great peaks in distant lands. We traveled together, venturing out into strange and obscure lands, and I found myself being asked to speak at times to Outdoor Appreciation Associations about my travels and the peaks that I had summited. I began to learn the more difficult aspects of technical ice climbing and high altitude mountaineering, and I learned to belay others from above. When I wasn't climbing, I was writing or speaking of my experiences, and I found wonderful fellowship with the rare and highly trained climbers that I met in my travels. We had a camaraderie, a brotherhood that was unknown among the busy folk of the city, but unfortunately, our Guide seemed to always lead us on diverging paths, so we would meet at times, but travel and climb mostly in solitude.
Eventually, my Guide began to speak of my responsibility to teach others and lead others to the mountains. When He did, I turned my focus from climbing to the new venture of training others. The only way I could see to lead others into my experience was to form the only kind of association I new, and that was an Outdoor Appreciation Association. However, my Guide said that an appreciation association was not His way. He then led me into an extremely intense and painful training regimen, as He stripped and at the same time equipped me for something yet unknown to me. I just followed and trusted my Guide, though the process was nothing that I would've chosen for myself.
He makes my feet like the feet of deer, And sets me on my high places. (Ps. 18:33)
Eventually, He instructed me to establish a base camp for summit assaults, something of which I had never heard. The concept was new and exciting to me, and I expected this to be the means for me to lead others to the mountains that I had climbed myself. My climbing partner and I organized, equipped, and gathered provision, and began an assault on a new peak, of which I was unfamiliar. At times, some climbers would seem to join with us, but would quickly disappear. We wondered, but didn't have time to become overly concerned, for we were following our Guide into a realm and a height previously unknown. We established a second camp for acclimatization, and eventually a third and forth camp.
"Come, I will show you the bride, the Lamb's wife." And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God... (Rev. 21:9, 10)
One night, at around midnight, my Guide awakened me and led me on a final "assault" on the summit. I say, "assault", but in actuality, one never assaults or conquers this summit. One only quietly and humbly slips up and then back down again, totally at the mercy of the mountain and the elements. My Guide drew nearer than ever before, and we became one with one another and one with the mountain. I saw His feet, as I had at times, and finally, my feet looked just like His. We reached the summit and stood where so few have stood. I then recognized the fabled mountain, and realized that I was standing where so few have stood throughout history. I wanted to live there, and deep in my heart I fully believed that I would, but we only stayed a few moments and then slipped quietly down the face to a lower camp.
I don't write or speak of the experience in any detailed or concrete way, except in my climbing journal or with my climbing partner or my Guide. I do, however, speak in vague terms, hoping to encourage fellow climbers who understand the heights. My climbing partner and I don't meet with Outdoor Appreciation Associations any longer, though I do at times speak to them, for I'm more concerned with training future mountaineers in the technical aspects of high altitude climbing than I am with meeting with Associations in the city. I spend very little time in the city now. Most of my time is spent on the mountain.
At times, However, I'm allowed the great privilege to speak to associations in the city, and with tears of inexpressible joy, I tell of the wonder of the mountain heights to which we are all called, and I've learned, for the most part, not to overly grieve at the reality that the folk to whom I speak in the city will never become climbers themselves. I just try to give them what they desire, and that is a moving vision of the mountain heights about which they love to read and speak, and deep within, I know that here and there, in these associations, there will be one young man or woman who, like me, longs for the summit of a distant peak. I always hope that as I speak, my words will compel them to venture out into this life that I live with my fellow climbers in training, and in our periodical expeditions to great summits. Hopefully, they, like Brian, will surpass me in skill and experience, as well as passion for climbing. I can't stay with them and gather with them, but if they so chose, they may come with me and leave the city behind in search of the mountains.
Now it shall come to pass in the latter days That the mountain of the LORD 's house Shall be established on the top of the mountains, And shall be exalted above the hills; And all nations shall flow to it. Many people shall come and say, "Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, To the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, And we shall walk in His paths." For out of Zion shall go forth the law, And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (Is. 2:2,3 Micah 4:1,2)
The mountains... Ah, this is my home, and up here, there are no organized associations, just a family of fellow climbers whom we love and cherish. We depend on one another, and we gladly hazard our lives for one another. Life up here is so different from life in Christendom. I really have found no way to reconcile the two, for they are so different. It's a different world, and a different life, this life of mountaineering. You can only really know it by living it, and it can only be lived up high.
For those of us who live up here, the strange and sometimes ridiculous concepts of the city-dwellers don't much interest us, especially when contended for or passionately propagated by those who have given themselves to the study or exposition of the mountains, having never ventured to the high places of intimate union with The Rock. We simply smile and affirm their appreciation for the mountains and their love for our mountaineering text book, as we pass on, following our Guide to greater heights. We continue to plod our way up glaciers, trudge through wind-driven snow drifts on switch-back routes in the dark, scramble up red rock faces with blue sky and sunshine for a cathedral and clouds for stained glass, hunker down in bivouacs through long dark nights or through sudden, intense, and unexpected storms, and we tie into one another as we front point our way up sheer and shimmering walls of crystal ice. We succeed, we fail, we fall, we hurt, we hunger, we thirst, we laugh and we cry. We continue to climb, for climbing is our life.
That's why I no longer "go to church."