hiking


 

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Grand Teton National Park

{Lent 2018 has provided me with time to let my photographs prompt some writing. The days dwindle down to a precious few, as the old song says.}

As I age I grow aware of my limitations. This is the time of our lives when we just have to admit that some things we had hoped to do, or dreamed of doing one day, or even things we had once enjoyed — well, those things are no longer possible.

This is not to say that advancing age means we are now invalids, or in-valid as persons. It simply means that we know we must learn to deal with some limitations. While retirement has brought awesome (I rarely use that word unless I mean it) opportunities for travel, our sight-seeing reminds us that our trails are shorter, our hikes less intense, our energy levels not what they were when we were 35. No kidding, huh? You too?

There we were in Grand Teton National Park. We had hiked, and thoroughly enjoyed the journey over some fairly easy trails. But looking into the distance at that grand panorama, it dawned on me that I wouldn’t be climbing any of those peaks. Just gazing at them from afar would have to do.

 

There was a time, however, that I climbed, and with a heavy backpack weighing

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The Writer Back When…

me down. I’m not a veteran climber of the most challenging high peaks, handling ropes, harnesses, rappel devices, grip savers, etc. I liked the smaller challenges of Virginia sections of the Appalachian Trail, or hiking up Montreat’s Lookout Mountain in western North Carolina. I had the legs back then, and the energy, and the will. Today, I still have the will, but less energy, and a bad knee. So my climbs are more modest. I know my limits.

 

That expanse of water in the photo above prompts another limitation of mine. After three local attempts at swimming lessons when I was a kid, and even after a couple of years of weekly classes in college, I am not a swimmer. I never got over my fear of high water. I guess I could do the back stroke, but why would I want to? So, swimming in that lake, or canoeing or kayaking? No, thanks. It’s been a lifetime limitation; not one related to aging. What is related to my growing more elderly is the realization that at my age, I do not hold out much hope that I will ever learn to swim. Please…I know it’s possible. But, I’ve gotten along just fine, so far. I like boat rides, from my friend Matt Matthews’ speed boat ride through Hampton Roads, to transatlantic cruises on huge ships.

A recent episode in deep water brought back my water-related phobia. We were in the Caribbean and a boat ride was to take us to an island for lunch. When the boat’s pilot learned I wasn’t a swimmer, he rather casually noted, “Hmmm, that might be a problem. There’s no dock I can get to there. We usually anchor a ways out and swim in for lunch. But I’ll try to get as close as I can. If the tide is right, you can probably wade in.” Probably. I left the boat and the water was chest high. All I could think of was stepping into some hole and… Or, what if the tide rose a bit and water that was chest high would be over my head? Turns out, the wading thing worked, and I am here to write this.

Living with limitations is something we all have to adjust to. And aging does mean the limitations grow. But, for every sign of slowing down, there is an opportunity to compensate. I won’t be learning to swim and enjoy water sports. So what? I won’t miss it. But, look, I’ve learned to over-write about it! (Freshman composition professor Dr. Bleasby would not be pleased.) I have other skills I can continue to develop. I may not be able to climb Mt. Ranier’s peak, but I can take a lesser trail there and pull out my camera. I may not follow my cousin Danny around the track at Watkins Glen at 100 mph, but I’m content to put miles and miles on my RAV4 between here and there.

One more limitation I’ve learned to live with. I can’t play an instrument. I go to jazz jams and wonder what it would be like to just get up there and play…play anything! Piano. Guitar. Trombone. But as I near the end of my third quarter of a century, I’m realistic. If I didn’t have the self-discipline to practice back then, what makes me think I would be able to “take lessons” now, and how much time would it take to actually play well? (The estimate, I’ve heard, is 10,000 hours. OK then.) So, while I can’t blow into a mouthpiece, strum strings, or beat a drum, I am a big fan of those who can. I am a music appreciation junkie. And, thanks to an invitation a few months ago, I am writing a monthly column about jazz artists in our community.

I live with one limitation after another, but adjust, adapt, compensate, and continue to bloom where I’m planted. Like a weed.

One more limitation: my understanding of God. The older I get, the more the Mystery deepens. One would think that after some sixty-plus years of Christian education and nurture, my aging would bring my theology into clearer focus. Maybe I have a theological cataract that’s come with age. I certainly hold to my faith, but my system of belief is blurrier. Maybe that’s not really a limitation after all. Maybe it’s a liberation. I am free to be me, and God is free to be God.

And perhaps — just maybe — that is indeed the wideness in God’s mercy!DSC06037

 

 

 

 

 

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Walking in the Glen (Again)

{Lent 2018…the last week during which I post panoramic pictures I’ve taken, along with some words that are suggested by the images. If you are looking for profundity, please move along. Nothing more to see here.}

On Ash Wednesday, I posted a picture taken along the same path as the one seen here. That photo showed a stranger walking in solitude, an apt way to begin my Lenten journey of images, memories, and miscellaneous reflections. In a few days, we’ll have reached our destination, an empty tomb in a faraway garden, but for now…

As a teen I walked these roads and trails with my friend David Cook. Both our Dads worked at IBM, and this was (and is still) called the “IBM Glen.” Back when cars were smaller and times were simpler, this path carried automobiles up and down the gentle hills of this IBM-owned property. Thus, we see these ancient guardrails made up of concrete uprights and heavy braided wire cables designed to keep cars from slipping into the glens.

Whether those rails were ever tested, I have no idea. Many have disappeared, perhaps intentionally uprooted for path improvements or just falling away due to erosion. These remain a reminder of the times when the Glen was an active recreational area, rather than the quieter conservation area it has become. Decades ago, almost all highway guardrails looked similar to these. Today, these are almost quaint compared with the heavy steel rails that line the Interstates.

And, back in the day, we did call these guardrails. As if they would guard cars and trucks from leaving the road. It’s a vague memory now, but didn’t I read that a few years back states such as Pennsylvania rebadged these rails as guiderails? Seems to me it was a legal issue connected to one or more lawsuits that contended that the rails didn’t guard effectively enough to keep people safe. Rather than facing more litigation, someone suggested new nomenclature. Call them “guide” rails instead. No longer promised to guard, they were now merely a guide. No guarantee of safety was stated or implied. So there.

Which would you rather have along your life’s journey, a guard or a guide? If you choose a guard, the next question is, What is it you fear? Is that fear such that it hinders your journey? So, a guard, eh? Brawny, well-armed, omnipresent, and alert? Will that guard give you at least a sense of security. Can a bodyguard completely cancel out anxiety, suspicion, or paranoia? Maybe a second guard would be good. Just in case.

Or, maybe we’re not considering a physical human presence, not a literal guard, but more a kind of mental or psychological prophylactic. Some defense against the unseen terror that lurks in the shadows of our very being. What would that kind of guard look like? Figuratively speaking. Maybe the figure of a plastic statue of the patron saint of travelers, St. Christopher, mounted on the dashboard to protect and guard. Or, some other talisman, within or without, to defend, to shield us, shelter us,  ride shotgun for us against that which threatens our spiritual well-being.

Another kind of guard just came to mind. Some U. S. Christians have traveled to Central American countries to provide protection for Christian folk who, while in their own neighborhoods, have faced kidnapping or physical violence because of their faith. Working for justice and peace can be a dangerous mission for followers of Jesus under some regimes, but it is often enough just to have an accompanier sharing the path, walking to the market, to church, to school. That’s all it takes to be safe. I suppose the North American Christians who volunteer for such ministry have some training before leaving the security of the U. S., but they are not trained as if in a militia; the pre-deployment instruction is more situational, but clearly intensive.

I just looked on an Australian website that describes recruitment for a World Council of Churches program for Ecumenical Accompaniers. I read:

It is a theoretical model for humanitarian work in conflict zones, and a biblical model for acting justly in the way of Christ. The effectiveness of the model comes from a combination of strategic local presence and international pressure.

Turns out that that particular program went beyond the theoretical, and was recruiting people to spend three months as accompaniers, not for Central American countries, but for seven locations in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Funny how this writing was turned from wanting a guard to being a guard.

But let’s look the other way. Maybe you’d rather have a guide than a guard. Not so much fearing what today or tomorrow might bring, but wondering how you might approach the mystery of the future, from later this afternoon to the rest of your earthly life. Who might accompany us on this journey, as a guide, or, to use the biblical term, a shepherd? More brains than brawn would be required here. And a good bit of heart. No judgment, no wagging fingers, or shrill warning voice. But a walking alongside, maybe some handholding, thoughts gently shared after care-filled listening.

This guide might be a close, trusted friend (that’s redundant, isn’t it?), or a life coach. It might be a counselor, therapist, a spouse, parent, or another family member. Maybe even a pastor, the very term relating to a “shepherd of souls.” Doesn’t every soul need a guide?

A shepherd? A good shepherd? One who is also good at saving us as we walk life’s paths.

 

 

 

 

 

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Lake Susan, Montreat, NC

{During the forty days of Lent 2018, I am writing some reflections on panoramic photographs I’ve taken over the years.  Full disclosure, finally: most of these images were taken in a standard format and merely cropped to the wide view. But, so what?}

The image above may not be the iconic photo Montreaters expect to see of their beloved North Carolina “mountain retreat” setting. The massive stone façade of the Assembly Inn hotel as seen above the placid Lake Susan is the more familiar view (just below). Still, this panoramic image communicates the serene beauty of the place that Presbyterians, especially the “southern” ones, call their Mecca.

Montreat is more widely known maybe as the long-time home of the late Billy Graham. He lived in the hills, quite a hike from the conference center.  Montreat’s main gate is just a few miles up the road from Black Mountain, and that village is not far from Asheville. And surrounding it all is the Smoky Mountain range. A friend once admitted he wasn100_0405‘t a fan of Montreat because the high mountains encompassing the retreat and conference center made him feel terribly claustrophobic. But everyone else I know so loves Montreat that they dream of living there year-round, a four-season Eden, but with clothes on.

I was a seminary student from “up north” when I first heard of the place from my Southern Presbyterian classmates. They spoke of it so highly that I was immediately suspicious. Then I attended a conference there one summer. And then another. And then led several, maybe a dozen, and went back summer after summer. Youth conferences, music and worship conferences, peace gatherings, meetings…staying in that hotel, or in the dorms of Montreat College, or in rented cottages and homes, and for many years enjoying the grace of hospitality offered by dear friends, the Williamsons. 2333-1Joan and I looked forward to those music conferences like Trekees look forward to the next Star Trek big screen epic. We also looked forward to the day when we might look at real estate there. Then we did. And put that dream away very quickly. ($)

Climbing Lookout Mountain, walking the hilly roads through the area, attending the events in Anderson Auditorium — those opportunities would never be taken for granted by those fulltime citizens of the Montreat municipality, anymore than a Vermont farmer in the Northeast Kingdom would take the daily view of Mt. Mansfield for granted. But making the place a retreat destination is very special, an occasion of spiritual growth, continuing education, and shaping community with friends old and new.

Yet back home, finding that particular geographical sacred space, that place set apart for special times and holy possibilities is something that surely feeds the human spirit. It may be enough to spend a Saturday fishing, or to sit in the local library apart from the busyness that normally occupies our energies. Perhaps a hike in a nearby glen or a bike ride along a rail trail will help us accomplish a kind of retreat. Whatever turns you on, or around.

There was a time when church doors were open 24/7 for anyone who needed a rest from spiritual weariness or personal strife. Doors are locked against fear today. No quiet prayer in the pews is possible, with few exceptions. We have to create our own retreat spaces elsewhere. A garden bench, a labyrinth, even a table in a café in its off hours– these are ripe for private retreats, however short.

The thing about a big summer conference at Montreat like the ones we participated in is that schedules are usually full, people are everywhere…paddle boating on the little lake, heading toward the bookstore or toward some ice cream, racing to a seminar. Even the Lookout peak can be crowded on a sunny afternoon. So, you see that stone bridge in the panoramic photo? That’s often a good place to stand, somewhat apart from the rest of the retreating world, and watch the swan or the ducks. Retreat from the retreat, as it were. And ponder. Anything.

I only went to church camp twice as a kid. I couldn’t swim, so a week on a lake had absolutely no appeal to me. But when the camp took place at a conference center with a pool, I gave it a try. At the end of my second summer’s week-long “retreat,” we high school youth were to go off by ourselves with a small candle, find a place apart and light the wick, and then stay there in silence until the candle was close to going out. I chose a small wooden bridge over a stream that ran through the conference center property. I stood there by myself, candle flickering against the night breeze, and I did what was expected: meditated, prayed, and wondered. Even as the silence was broken by those who had blown out their candles and ignored the directions for being silent until cabin time, I stood there. And fifty-seven years later I remember that night, that bridge, that brief but oh-so-holy retreat.

We miss Montreat. We’re a number of miles away, way up north of it, and even going for a week there seems expen$ive. But while it may not be Eden or Mecca, it is a very profound reminder that spiritual getaways and personal escapes are good for the soul. A week? Yes! A day away? Sure! Take an hour’s break and breathe deeply? Of course.

Mountains, beaches, deserts. Or, a candle on the kitchen table. Locale is one thing, but the main thing is… make your getaway!

 

 

 

{Wednesday of Holy Week, and another of the forty mugs of Lent 2017. If this is your first time here, and the mug thing seems odd, welcome to the cluSONY DSCb.}

This is the CinemaScope mug in the cupboard. Wide-mouthed. More for soup than for a hot drink. But it is a mug, so it fits the theme. It’s chipped and cracked, indicating some age. I’ve held onto it all these years because I like the earthy design. I see a landscape: sky above, blue-ridged mountains, green forests, and some brown woods, or soil. It’s the kind of view one might have after hiking up a neighboring peak, a gentle vista, a terrene panorama.

Unlike the phone-camera digital collections of “pics” that rarely if ever make it beyond the tiny device’s screen, my first photos were transparencies projected on a 50″ X 50″ movie screen in the family living room. My very first slides held no landscapes to speak of, at least not the view I imagine on the soup mug. Those pictures told the story of a large family, its everyday life, special occasions, the neighborhood. Even the summers we spent a week on Cape Cod didn’t produce photos of the Catskills or the Berkshires. We didn’t stop long enough to take in the views, and truth be told, as a kid I just wasn’t paying attention.

But once we traveled as far south as my grandmother’s home in western North Carolina, I started aiming my camera at the mountains, the lesser hills, and the landscapes that I had overlooked earlier. The cameras I had early on didn’t have many adjustments. They were inexpensive forerunners of today’s “point and shoot” cameras, and the cheaper color film I bought had little “latitude.” In other words, it wasn’t very forgiving, exposure-wise. Thus, my washed out scenery, a very pale representation of what my eyes had beheld. O beautiful for spacious skies, for kind of grayish waves of grain. So much for purple mountains’ majesty; my mountains were more mundane than majestic.

As I grew into adulthood, the cameras and film became more sophisticated and I traveled more. Living then in Virginia brought many landscapes into sight, and neighboring states had their own breathtaking vistas. When I started shooting video, I could pan and zoom (always slowly, always judiciously), and I could capture the breadth and width and depths of hills and valleys and rivers and lakes. Now in the digital age, if I have to, I can even improve upon the natural beauty of the earth’s scenic gifts.

One of my favorite movies is “Grand Canyon.” Danny Glover plays a lead character whose challenging urban existence in sprawling Los Angeles moves him to dream of going to the Grand Canyon. Not to merely escape the violent gangs in his neighborhood or to run away from personal and family issues, but to stand on the canyon’s rim and gaze into the wondrous spectacle of the river-carved panorama. Film critic Roger Ebert referenced L.A. as ominous and threatening, “an alienating landscape.” And the Canyon? For Glover’s character, and eventually for others in the story, the Canyon is that which is so immense in its grandeur that one’s own insecurities and worries seem petty and small. The dream is not a real escape, but the imagination’s way of seeing beyond, way beyond, present reality to a landscape of liberation. 528-1

I’ve stood there, on that rim, and while I wasn’t battling any demons at the time, I can attest that as you gaze out over the expanse, you are lost in wonder, almost breathless with awe. And you are the last thing on your mind. That was the power of the grand landscape for the characters in the film.

A recent journey west took us to three National Parks — Glacier, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone. Each breathtaking in its own way.  But I have to say that the vistas I’ve seen hiking the Appalachian Trail or having climbed Lookout Mountain in Montreat, NC were more literally breathtaking, because of the difficult paths we had to follow to reach the peaks. Rocky trails, switchbacks, steep climbs…expending energy, exuding determination. And once you have reached the mountaintop, there is no way you turn around right away and head back. You survey the broad geography of hills across and valleys below, of rivers that created canyons and of towns and farms and people below, people who may well be looking up at your mountain peak and thinking wow!

So, you linger. And catch your breath. And pray your gratitude for the beauty of the earth, for hill and vale and tree and flower, as the hymn goes.

We lived in northern Vermont for almost ten years, and never took the landscape for granted. I once asked Albert Urie, who had farmed there for sixty years or so, if he had gotten so accustomed to the scenic views that they were hardly worth a glance. “Never,” he replied. And then he pointed out and named each distant mountain range and peak seen from his front steps.

Whether snow-covered or bathed in summer greenery, the rolling hills and stony pasture land, the walks down the wooded Cemetery Road and the evening vigil we’d keep on Betty Patterson’s hill, looking toward distant Mount Mansfield —  that was our spiritual geography, akin to that found in the Dakotas so admired by Kathleen Norris.

I write these reflections in Lent, not always tying up theological loose ends as we head toward Resurrection Day. But today, I have to wonder about the landscape of Holy Week. Talk about hills and valleys! Palm Sunday was definitely a mountaintop experience for Jesus’ disciples. Everything was working out as they had hoped, and people, their people, their fans and followers, shouted acclamations of praise and prayer-songs for salvation. Hosanna!

But by mid-week, the tide had turned. Heading down the road, there was a deep, darkening valley looming. By Friday, they would see a garbage heap of a hill, a skull-like landscape for the execution of those who had violated or, better, crossed the ruling empire.

Saturday’s landscape will be empty. Just empty.

And on Sunday? It’s too early to tell. But there might be a garden. So full of life, it will be hard to believe. And a straight road to Emmaus we can walk together.

And seven more after today. Each day in Lent 2016 I am writing reflections based on photos I’m finding among the film and digital images I’ve taken since childhood. Today, this wooden walkway, wet from a recent rainfall. It’s from a  file labeled “Saint John, New Brunswick.”

April looms, with its requisite showers, the ones that bring May flowers. Yet, the truth is that this whole winter has brought more rain than snow, and storms have produced devastating floods in many areas of the U. S. over the past months. Torrents of rain have brought misery, homelessness, hardship, and loss to thousands. I hesitate to write of rain’s blessings, but after the gray of winter, we do need those flowers. And green grass. And crops. And life.

I once did DSC04548.JPGan hour-long radio program with songs about rain providing the primary content of the show. Without much trouble I’m sure you can come up with ten or twelve song titles that include a rain reference. Often those songs are less than upbeat, centering on the melancholy or outright sadness of rain, using the image as a metaphor for tears. That might have made for a downer of a program called “Celebration Rock,” so, of course, I made sure I dealt with rain’s gifts, its beauty, its baptismal qualities of cleansing and new life.

Rain, I said in that radio script, gets mixed reviews. One person regrets the game or picnic getting nixed by the rain, while another is grateful for wet relief for dry garden rows of thirsty sprouts. An unexpected squall drenches people running from parking spaces to offices, but others huddled together at a sheltered bus stop find community in the space they share against the showers.

Even being caught in a rainstorm on a mountain trail turned out to be a memorably fun experience many years back. I had hiked up Lookout Mountain in Montreat, NC alone, but shared the trail with countless youth who were heading up to the summit or passing me on the way back down. At the summit, several of us shared the glorious view of the surrounding Smokey Mountains and the valleys below, but also noted the dark clouds moving toward us. Really dark clouds.

Not wanting to challenge the oncoming lightning on the mountain peak, we decided to head back down the trail, and quickly. But the rains came, the path grew slippery, and we got drenched. No one complained about the cool raindrops on that hot July day. The rain was refreshing, renewing. Over the sound of the storm, there was laughter as we made our way back to Montreat. One guy we had met up with, a stranger before that soaking storm, invited several of us to his family’s cottage where he provided towels, and where we learned one another’s names and shared stories. Rain had nourished new friendships.

After that tumultuous forty days and nights of rain that rocked Noah’s boat, most of the other Biblical references to rain are far more positive. Rain is seen as God’s gift, life-giving blessing, and nurturer of earth’s bounty. Everybody gets it, for rain falls on the just and the unjust.

Rain is not something we can do much about, other than try to predict it and accept it when it comes. We can’t stop it from raining too much or too long; we can’t make it rain when the earth is parched and drought looms. Sometimes the best we can say about rain is, “At least it isn’t snow.” Other times, listening to the drizzle on a hot summer day or watching with awe lightning strike and counting the seconds until the thunder rolls — rain can be almost entertaining.

From “The Fantastiks” a favorite rain song:

Soon it’s gonna rain, I can see it
Soon it’s gonna rain, I can tell
Soon it’s gonna rain, what are we gonna do?

Whether we merely tolerate it, survive it, or dance in it, it is as necessary to life as love is.

Suddenly I have an urge to listen to the Clapton-Bramlett song that sings, “Let it rain, let it rain, let your love rain down on me…”

 

 

One more mountain image, and then we move on…for awhile.

[On my Lenten personal journey, I’m looking through my photo collection and choosing an image-a-day to reflect on and write about. I’m glad you happened by today.]

Here we are, high in the Canadian Rockies. Whistler Mountain in 2012. No way we climbed here. We took a long tramway and a ski lift and did some easy hiking. A couple of days ago I wrote that I had told some youthful hikers that they could appreciate the view all-the-more since they had earned it through the aches and blisters of actually hiking to the summit. Now, at Whistler, my wife and I did no such thing. But we nonetheless gaped with reverence at what we saw around and below us.IMG_0729_edited-1.JPG

Around us, rocky peaks, wild flowers dancing in the heavy mountain breezes, and people, lots of people. In my video of this summit experience, I have a panoramic view of this and nearby peaks, with clear skies and snow covered crests, and there, if one looks closely, is a young man sitting on a jagged ledge — one solitary person, so small in that scene that he would be easy to overlook.

When I slowly zoomed in on that lone figure, I saw he was wearing headphones. What could he possibly be listening to that was more magnificent than the wind? Perhaps it wasn’t that he wanted to hear his music, but that he didn’t want to hear the noise of the crowds who made their way up and down Whistler’s paths, with kids’ shouts and laughing youths, the occasional parental call to caution along some hazardous pathway.

In this photo, the foreground includes that decidedly unnatural pile of rocks, a cairn. Originally, I suppose, cairns were erected as memorials or to mark a special place along the way, but the many stones we found here were more playfully stacked. This is a small version of a huge inukshuk nearby, the largest one standing perhaps over 25 feet high. Rooted in the Inuit culture, this formation has become a symbol of peace and friendship in Canada, this human figure with outstretched arms. (The one in this photo is a bit squat, maybe 18 inches tall, and the human form isn’t easily seen here!)

Some may see any cairn as an interruption of nature’s own beauty; others enjoy the delight of the formations, knowing that rarely would anyone build a cairn without smiling at the finish.

And then there is in this picture a view downward.  Look, way in the distance there’s that lake amid the green forested valley. There’s no sign of another human being in all that the lens has taken in. But you know they are there. Camping, sailing, fishing, working, living and dying…there. We just can’t see them. I don’t know: is there a village or a settlement amid the greenery? A tour bus along the road? A rafting expedition on the river? The cairn keeps its silent watch.

If that cairn is a bit of blight that mars nature’s wild and wonder-filled landscape, imagine the damage done by humans to the whole ecological balance of that one summit view from the peak. This looks pristine enough, but we can’t see ugly details from such a distance. From space, zoom out from the Rockies and pan over to major cities, zoom onto coastal areas, scan clear cut hills, and zoom into coal fields. I may be a person of faith, but I also respect the science that says the planet is at risk. That is one thing that theology and science have in common (among others): we are not being good stewards of “Mother the Earth” and “Father the Sky.”

If I had any guts, I’d have shouted from the highest peak, “Repent!” I mean, just the echo would have been awesome, right?

Almost finished. But referring back to that guy with the headphones? I imagine his listening to my favorite Dan Fogelberg song “Nether Lands.”

“High on this mountain, the clouds down below; I’m feeling so strong and alive. From this rocky perch I’ll continue the search for the wind, and the snow, and sky…” He has a vision of two roads, one leading to simple acceptance of life; the other road offering sweet peace. The song ends with the lines, “When I made my decision, my vision became my release.”

He never reveals the path he took. We must choose our own.

And it’s time to leave the mountaintop.

 

 

Today’s image, among the forty I’m choosing from my vast array of photos taken from my teen years ’til today, continues a short theme for this series: mountains. Yesterday I wrote of following blazes as a hiker. Today, a peak I’ll never attempt.

This is Denali, the highest peak in North America. On our first trip to Alaska, the weather was overcast most of the time, and on one particularly gray day we joked that we’d have to go back to Alaska again sometime to see its beauty in color. 380-1_edited-1

It was 2006, and as our guide drove us toward Denali (even then we heard no one refer to it as “Mt. McKinley”), he noted the clearing skies and told us that the majority of tours he led wouldn’t get a clear view of the mountain during that time of year. But it looked like we were in for a treat, he remarked. A “treat?” It was far more.

I know that the overused adjective that modifies the word mountain is “majestic,” and that one could say this was a breathtaking view, or we could go back to my earliest of these forty essays and apply “awesome” to this scene. Maybe it’s best to just let the image, flat and tiny as it is here, communicate the wonder that is Denali.

While in the area, we heard a climber describe  all it takes to get to Denali’s peak. The physical prep, the training, the equipment, the team…commitment, determination, trust, endurance, obviously a high degree of climbing skill, weather-watching, and even some luck — all contributed to his successful climbs.

Personally, I added all that to the list of things I would never put on my bucket list (along with deep sea diving and sky diving). But I admired the combination of bravery and foolishness that got that guy from the base to the summit. Good for him.

As for me: gape, wonder, focus, and take a few slides to preserve the moments.

I’ll spare you the meditation on mountaintop experiences in life. But I am led to think (and write) a little about what mountains meant to the life and ministry of Jesus. Oh, compared to Denali, the mountains Jesus is said to have climbed were mere hills. But they afforded him “retreat” from needy, pushing crowds, away from often dull-minded disciples and suspicious religious leaders. He knew that the occasional escape from the busy-ness of ministry would do his spirit good.

Mountains in those days were seen as holy places, for they were closer to heaven than the dusty roads and everyday routines of the low lands. Today it’s mostly cartoons that picture pilgrims climbing mountains to find the meaning of life from some “holy man” at the peak. In his time, Jesus made it clear that God preferred no particular mountain as a sacred place for worship.

There are several references in the gospels to Jesus heading up this mountain or that, “withdrawing” not to be closer to God, but to be alone, to pray, to meditate. The mountain trek provided fresh air and new vistas. Sometimes, he’d invite friends along, but that was to give them time to breathe too. Look how such higher vistas play into his story: the sermon on the mount, his transfiguration, the Mount of Olives, and, the story we hear as Lent begins of that vision where he is taken up on a high mountain to survey what might be his if he would but worship his tempter.

Yeah, I’d say that Jesus was a mountain man! But, no. On second thought, the mountains were only temporary havens to which he withdrew. He didn’t put down roots there and then withdraw into the valleys to serve for a time. The fresh air, the quiet, the solitude, the vistas of the mountains and hills empowered his ministry back in the valley villages and the lower lands we now call “holy.” The main thing is that those higher elevations had high purposes for him and his work down below.

Today, then, we have lifted our eyes to the hills…and on Monday (after tomorrow’s Sabbath) we will see the view from the summit. And breathe deeply of creation’s, well, “majesty.”

 

 

 

 

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