What Goes Up
Last Saturday I climbed Mt. Toby. It was, admittedly, not the smartest thing to do.
When I reached the bottom of the trailhead that leads straight up to the fire tower, I gave myself permission to turn back if the conditions felt unsafe. After all, even though the weather was unseasonably warm, there was still a lot of snow on the ground and a great deal of ice. But I wasn’t the only one out there, or even the only one attempting the trail, so I figured, what the heck. Let’s give it a go.
I quickly came upon and passed two women and a small child. The little girl kept asking if they were going all the way to the top, to which one or the other would reply, “we’ll see, Honey. We’re just going to take it one step at a time.” I don’t imagine they made it that much further, because pretty quickly I was using my poles to chip holes in the ice so I could steady myself and they didn’t have poles at all.
After a little while longer I caught up to four young men, who were really scrabbling. They moved aside to let me pass them, but after that I wasn’t able to go much faster than they were. There came a point where the whole path was covered in a sheet of ice so thick and smooth that my poles weren’t even helping anymore.
All I could do was grab on to the trunks of trees and low hanging branches to slide myself up, inch by inch. I needed to consider not just every step but the step after that, as I searched for patches of snow or rock, anything I could use for purchase.
At one point I pulled myself up, slid round a tree, and then rested with my back against the trunk. I could hear the young men behind me ribbing each other - sliding and falling and laughing - all while questioning with every step whether this was such a good idea.
“Just remember, guys,” I said, “we’re doing this for fun.” They laughed. But I think they also realized at that point that they weren’t having much fun at all, and as I continued to labor up, bit by bit, they gradually fell behind as well.
I don’t think they made it to the top. But I did. I made it all the way up, climbed the fire tower, and looked out over the valley. I caught my breath and thought about how much nicer the view would be come Spring. And then, after risking life and limb, I headed right back down.
I took the trail that wends slowly and far less steeply back to the bottom. But I headed down all the same, because here’s the thing with hiking up mountains: unless you make it back down, you really haven’t made it at all. Everyone who turned back that day and made it to the bottom without getting injured was as successful as I was.
Reaching the summit always feels like a huge accomplishment, but it’s just one particular step on one type of journey, and a middle step at that. The goal of any good hike, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t just to get out, get to the end of the trail or the top of the mountain. The real goal, for me at least, is always to make it back home - preferably in one piece - and then put the kettle on for tea.
I don’t just hike for what I experience on the outside: the light, the quiet, the appearance of a deer or awe at the sheer majesty of nature. I hike because something about the experience inevitably changes me on the inside: slows me down, humbles me, soothes and strengthens me for whatever lies ahead.
I often think of that quote of John Muir’s: “And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” That’s why I go out. That’s why I go up. But always, always with the intention of coming back down… always, always with the intention of coming back home.
Last week our Church’s budget team met to discuss our plans for the coming year and how we might fund them. We really try to let our mission drive the budget here at First Churches rather than the other way around, so we always start by talking about our hopes and dreams for the future - where we feel God is calling us - and then we try to figure out how to do that with the money on hand.
Well, I shared that my long term goal is to last long enough in this position to see our attendance and giving increase such that we can justify worshipping in a space this grand, afford an associate pastor again, and pay off our mortgage.
That’s all. No biggie. I basically said that I was willing to give it my all and then some until we’re back on top of everything and not worried about anything. At which point I can stop if I want to - maybe even retire - in the knowledge that everything will be fine. First Churches will be all set and you can all worship here in perpetuity and live happily ever after.
It’s ok to laugh at me if you want to. I think MJ did before she very gently - God bless her - pointed out not just the hubris but the pointlessness of my thinking.
“Um, Sarah, that’s not how it works,” she said. “You can never get to the point where it’s all done and everything is fixed and there’s nothing left to worry about.”
She was talking about the church, but the same goes for life, and I realized immediately that she was right. You’d think all that hiking up and down and up and down and up, up, up but always, always all the way back down, would have taught me this by now. But somehow, some part of me is still utterly convinced that if I just work a little harder, run a little faster, hold out just a little bit longer, I can finally get to a place where I’ve figured it all out and I’m done.
People often say that life isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon, so pace yourself accordingly. But I need to remind myself constantly, that life isn’t a race at all any more than it’s a mountain you need to climb, climb, climb until you finally reach the top. There’s no finish line. You’re never done. On the other side of everything, there’s just more of everything.
Life isn’t a mountain; life is full of them, and no matter how many you climb or how nice it is at the top, you always, always need to come back down.
Well in our reading for today we are privy to the mountain top experience to end all mountain top experiences; the mountain top experience that gave mountain top experiences their name.
I mean sure there was Moses on Mt. Sinai getting the 10 commandments. And then there was Elijah on Mt. Carmel hearing the still small voice. But here on Mt. Tabor, for one day and one day only, we have not just Moses, not just Elijah, not just Little Voice, but Moses, Elijah, and the Voice of God Almighty - loud and proud - proclaiming that Jesus is God’s beloved son, “so listen to him!”
Peter, James and John get a front row seat to this amazing event and Peter is so overcome with awe and wonder and the completeness of it all, he wants to stay.
“Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
And I don’t blame him. Not one bit. I mean what a relief on so many levels: to not only be one of the three chosen to go on this journey up the mountain, but then to be privy to this meeting between Jesus and the two greatest heroes of his faith, to see with his own eyes the revelation of Jesus’ divinity, and hear the VOICE OF GOD! (You can’t see it, but that was in all caps).
Peter has given up everything to follow Jesus, and now here is the ultimate affirmation that he has done good. He made the right choice. He has arrived. Somebody roll the credits because it does not get better or more beautiful or more life affirming or awe inspiring than this! Gold stars all around!
But - and this is a very important “but” - this moment of revelation, this moment of enlightenment - this moment of triumph is not the end of the story; for Jesus or for Peter. In fact, we are literally in the middle. (Ok, maybe not literally because there are only 28 chapters in the gospel of Matthew, but close enough.)
They’ve spent the first half of the book getting to know Jesus as a healer and teacher of uncommon wisdom and they’ll spend the second half of the book seeing where all his radical ideas lead.
But right here and right now, for this one, brief, shining moment, Peter, James and John, are now granted this glimpse of Jesus’ true identity. They are allowed a peek behind the curtain, if you will, allowed to see all of the love and wisdom, authority and power that Jesus has at his back. And that’s amazing. But just getting to see and therefore know that Jesus is God’s son, the real deal, the messiah, is really not the whole point of this journey.
The point isn’t what they’re experiencing on the outside - the light, the quiet, the sudden appearance of ancient prophets or awe at the sheer majesty of Jesus’ true nature. The point is to let this experience change them on the inside - slow them down, humble them, sooth and strengthen them for what lies ahead.
They need to integrate this knowing, tuck it away, guard it close, and allow it to give them the courage to act as if everything Jesus has taught them up until now is actually true.
You know, all that counterintuitive stuff about loving their enemies, and the messiah needing to suffer, and true power being about what we can do for each other rather than just to each other?
They are going to need to hold on to this idea that Jesus really is God’s son and worth listening to, because it is time to head down the mountain toward the cross and everything about to unfold from here on out is going to put all of that to the test.
And yet…. And this is the part of the story that is as expected as it is unexpected….the part that should come as no surprise but somehow does anyway…. it is a test they will fail…fail in spite of all they have just seen.
We see this in their inability to heal the epileptic boy.
We will see it in their petty disputes with one another as they walk with Jesus to Jerusalem.
And we will see it in their failure to stand by Jesus at the cross.
So where is the good news in this story, for them or for us? What was the point of all that revelation if it didn’t keep them from failure?
I’ve thought about this all week and I wonder if there’s actually good news in the idea that we never fully arrive or get it no matter how much we know or how enlightened we become.
I wonder if there’s some good news in the idea that their failure was actually normal and to be expected and seeing how Jesus, even in spite of his frustration with them, continued to love them anyway, just as our failures are normal and Jesus continues to love us.
Because you see, none of us, no matter how much we know or how long we’ve been at this or how holy we might seem, ever get it completely right. I certainly don’t. None of us make it to the mountain top and get to stay there. As Jack Kornfield so famously said, “After the ecstasy, comes the laundry.”
No matter how high we ascend we all need to come down, and re-entry is never easy, but it’s all part of the process.
To quote Kornfield:
For almost everyone … cycles of awakening and openness are followed by periods of fear and contraction. Times of profound peace and newfound love are often overtaken by periods of loss, by closing up, fear, or the discovery of betrayal, only to be followed again by equanimity or joy. In mysterious ways the heart reveals itself to be like a flower that opens and closes. This is our nature.
The only surprising thing is how unexpected this truth can be. It is as if deep down we all hope that some experience, some great realization, enough years of dedicated practice, might finally lift us beyond the touch of life, beyond the mundane struggles of the world. We cling to some hope that in spiritual life we can rise above the wounds of our human pain, never to have to suffer them again. We expect some experience to last. But permanence is not true freedom…
Every wise voyager learns that we cannot hold on to the last port of call, no matter how beautiful. To do so would be like holding our breath, creating a prison from our past. As one Zen master puts it:
"Enlightenment is only the beginning, is only a step of the journey. You can't cling to that as a new identity or you're in immediate trouble. You have to get back down into the messy business of life, to engage …Only then can you integrate what you have learned. Only then can you learn perfect trust."
I think it’s true. Frustrating, but true. No matter how much we know, the knowing never seems to be enough. No matter how much we work there will always be more work to do.
Coming back from retreat, finishing that book that you were sure held the answer to your marriage, paying off the mortgage, finally making it to retirement, or starting that centering prayer practice - no matter how high we go or how far we’ve come, no matter how much we learn or accomplish, we all need to bring what we’ve experienced back home, and that’s where things inevitably get messy.
Something always seems to break or go wrong or isn’t what we’d hoped it would be. We might know better, and yet somehow we don’t always do better. We still mange to fail ourselves and God and one another.
And so although we absolutely need the occasional mountaintop experience to affirm that God is good and God is with us, we also need this story to remind us that God is with us on the other side too.
God isn’t just in the high and holy moments - the candlelight of Christmas Eve or the sudden burst of insight…. but in those moments when we descend, those moments when our faith falters, those moments when we fail to be the person we know we can be.
Friends the good news is that we can trust Jesus to be with us in the rising and the dying, in the glory and the mess, the succeeding and the failing, the going up and the coming down, the shiny moments when we feel most accomplished and those moments we’d rather no one else got to see. The knowledge that we are held in love in every moment, no matter what, that’s the truth that sets us free.
And so we venture out, one step at a time, searching for moments that affirm that love - transcendent moments that slow us down, humble us, sooth and strengthen us for whatever lies ahead. Knowing as we do that God goes with us all the way on this journey that never ends. All the way up. All the way down. All the way home.
Someone put the kettle on.
I think it’s time for tea.