mountaintops


{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.

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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.”

 

 

 

 

For the next couple of days, I want to celebrate mountaintop experiences. Choosing a handful of images for this Lenten discipline of mine, a photo or slide for each day in Lent (2016) from a sixty-year accumulation, is hard when it comes to my scores of mountain views.

From journeys along the Appalachian Trail, to our Alaskan trips, to the Canadian Rockies, and to Lookout Mountain over Montreat…some Matt Matthews on the AT_edited-2.jpgmountains I’ve climbed, some I’ve just framed in my viewfinder. Today, I thought I’d start with this image of my good friend Matt. This hike was so many years ago, I can’t tell you where we were, except it was in the heart of the Blue Ridge in Virginia.  I do remember gently chastising Matt about his “hiking shoes” though. Old sneakers? Really? Turns out, his youthful energy bested my hiking-booted aging body, and he bounded ahead of me up one switchback after another.

Hiking the AT, even for just a day or two, can be both hard work and exhilarating. Climbing can be a challenge, yes, but the views, only hinted at in this picture, make every blister worth it. I’ve climbed with many youth groups (admittedly not recently, mind you) and I always encouraged the teens to spend some quiet time at every summit they reach.

I’d say something like, if a helicopter had flown up here and dropped you off, the view would be exactly the same. But you all struggled your way here, you followed a trail that was sometimes rocky and steep and you wanted to stop and rest, but we had to push you to keep going. You got scratches and blisters and you’re achy and maybe cranky, and your packs seem so much heavier than when we started. But look what you’ve achieved! Just look! No one can appreciate this view like someone who has earned it! So, let’s spend some time here before we head down. Rest awhile. Find your own spot if you want, and say a prayer, marvel at all you can see, respect the mountain and its gifts. Look down into the valley and find the river.

One thing that makes these treks easier is the blazes that guide us along the way. Learning what the various markers mean is simple. Then you just keep your eyes open to them as you go. Now and then, a marked tree has fallen or a blaze has been obscured, but for the most part it’s hard not to find your way if you watch for the guides.

I’m smiling as I remember a “talk” (that’s the quaint word we used back then) by an upper class student in college, a short meditation he was leading at a Christian fellowship meeting. Here it is over fifty years later, and I can still hear George’s voice as he exclaimed over the importance of the “white markers” along hiking trails, and he used them as a metaphor for life’s journey. George urged us to watch for the markers placed by God along our paths in college, in social relationships, and in moral decision-making.

I was pretty impressed by his “talk.” And only decades later did it occur that he may have gotten the idea from some Christian resource for campus fellowship leaders. Still, George’s guidance was useful then and remains so, all these years later.

For one thing, those blazes along the trail were put there by people who had gone before us, and who knew the best way to go. And the blazes marked well-worn paths that had kept others from getting  lost. Further, the markings on trees and rock formations had to be kept fresh, repainted now and then, for future hikers.

I realize as I type this that GPS may make those primitive blazes obsolete. Oh, I hope not. Because there’s a lot to be said for hiking along the trails and looking closely at the rocks and trees and formations and footpaths of nature, not at some damned gizmo’s screen. Keep looking at your phone as you traverse the trail, and you may find yourself tripping over a root, or falling into a deep ravine. To me, the whole point of being on a hike is to appreciate the wonders of nature. And experience the quiet beauty of peaks and valleys.

More about that tomorrow…