The Demands of the Mountain

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If you’re geographically challenged, you might not realize just how majestic the mountains are in southern Indiana. Every year or so, I grew up riding across the state to a small town called Paoli, packed in a 15-passenger van with other kids from my youth group for our semi-regular ski retreat to Paoli Peaks.

It wasn’t until later in life that I realized those peaks are nothing more than a single smaller hill, and all that snow was manufactured by machines actually called “snow guns.” However, during those years and well into early adulthood, I was convinced that I was good at skiing. Paoli Peaks had not presented much of a problem. Several years later, I was taking youth groups of my own in newer 15-passenger vans to other Midwestern ski sites, this time in Michigan at places called Swiss Valley and Timber Ridge. These peaks were slightly larger and a bit more advanced, but my ski sensibilities met the challenges just fine.

If you asked me in those years about activities I enjoyed, I’d have definitely mentioned skiing. I had no idea what I was talking about.

In my mid-twenties, a friend invited me to speak at a ski retreat in Colorado. Copper Mountain, to be specific, nestled right next to Breckenridge the heart of real ski territory. I accepted, of course. Speaking at a ski retreat or seaside resort is an automatic “yes” (just a note for anyone interested in extending any further invitations). Unfortunately I had no idea what I was in for, and the resulting weekend was humiliating in a number of ways.

My friend had tried to warn me in advance.

“Have you skiied before?”
“Yes.”
“Are you good?”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
“Have you been skiing in Colorado? Because Colorado skiing is different than—”
“I’ll be fine.”
“And I’m not sure how in shape you are, but even being in the mountain air is something to account for. You’ll want to…” [keeps talking]

At that point I wasn’t paying much attention. I certainly don’t remember anything he said, other than realizing that, at some level, he was warning me about altitude and oxygen and nutrition. He was experienced enough to know that Colorado skiing — real skiing — is exhausting exercise if you’re not ready for it. Cardiovascular health is key. Hydration is very important. There are key ways to eat, to prepare, to approach a weekend of skiing. I paid zero attention to all of this.

The results of that weekend played out predictably. The total vertical drop at Paoli Peaks is 300 feet. At Copper Mountain, it’s 2,600-plus. The ski lift itself took 25 minutes to get to the top. I could have watched an entire episode of Seinfeld in the time it took to even start skiing. After struggling off the lift and looking down at my final destination, I realized that no previous experience had prepared me for this. To even use the same term, to call it skiing, was inaccurate.

Halfway down the mountain, I kid you not, a group of 4- and 5-year-olds who were taking a lesson stopped right next to me as their instructor had to help me out. “Hold on, guys,” she said. “This man needs some help.” She proceeded to help me back up while all 8 or so toddlers stopped skiing without any issue. Once I’d located my missing ski and pole, they moved on down EZ Road. I’m pretty sure I fell down again the moment they turned around.

It took me 5.5 hours to get down that mountain, taking a path that was literally called EZ Road. I missed lunch entirely and didn’t get back to our table in the lodge until mid-afternoon. One chaperone thought I was enjoying myself so much that I’d just decided to indulge skiing all day at the expense of taking any sort of lunch break — until she saw the look on my face.

My body shut down after that. I was angry and embarrassed. I was exhausted and stressed. I was hungry and thirsty and more tired than I can ever remember being before that moment. It took me considerable effort to remove my snowsuit from over my clothes, but once I did, I never even thought of putting it back on. I was finished with the mountain.

Looking back, I realize that my primary error was that I failed to understand the demands of the mountain, even when I’d been warned ahead of time. The mountains of Paoli, Indiana do not require the same demands as those in Colorado, and it’s a reality I could only understand when I was face-to-face with this new mountain. I have a feeling that even if I’d listened to my friend and respected the journey a bit more, I’d have still been thrown off by the sheer enormity of it all.

Recently, I was reading through the lectionary and came upon a passage from Isaiah 2. It conjured this memory for me because of its mountain imagery. Even more, it presents a mountain of enormous magnitude with demands of its own.

1 This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
2 In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
3 Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
5 Come, descendants of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the Lord.

As with most prophetic texts, there are multiple layers of truth to be found here. In a sense, there is a direct application for the time in which Isaiah lives and yet there are also future ramifications here, that there will be a day when all things will bend toward the mountain of God. The Lord’s temple will be established as the highest mountain of all, exalted above all the other hills that have been named as the most majestic in our world. The Christian’s vision of the future is set here: even with the grandeur of all created things around us, a new mountain will be established that will capture the attention and awe of everyone and everything.

This is nothing new for the Christian. We should be used to the idea that, at the end of all things, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess — that at the culmination of the kingdom of God, when the kingdoms of this world finally meet their end, we will all find ourselves overwhelmed by the light and love of King Jesus. But it’s also here in Isaiah that we find out what such a warning means for our daily lives today.

Just as I failed to hear the warning of the mountain I would soon visit, it’s possible for us to acknowledge this coming mountain marked by God’s presence without also preparing for it. Yet this mountain also has its demands, asking us to learn his ways and walk in his paths. We are then instructed what happens when the mountain appears. Our cycles of violence will end. Our weapons of warfare will become civic tools. The dividing lines between us will be blurred in an ultimate globalization where enmity between nations will cease to exist.

The demands of this mountain are laid out to us as a vision of the future. Yet in the end, we are then encouraged to “walk in the light of the Lord.” We participate now in a new lived-out reality called the kingdom of God, enacting our future hope out in our present age. It is here in the present that our tools of destruction be transformed into tools of construction. It is here that our violent cycles should give way to new schools of thought/action.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a prominent Jewish theologian in the 20th century, wrote, “When the prophets appeared, they proclaimed that might is not supreme, that the sword is an abomination, that violence is obscene. The sword, they said, shall be destroyed. The prophets, questioning man’s infatuation with might, insisted not only on the immorality but also on the futility and absurdity of war … What is the ultimate profit of all the arms, alliances, and victories? Destruction, agony, death.”

Perhaps, like myself, most of us will not change until we’re confronted with the reality of a new mountain, that we will refuse to address our violent selves until we’re overwhelmed by the beauty of something greater. But I believe we can begin to showcase the beauty of the peaceful presence of God before the establishment of this mountain, that it is possible to walk in God’s paths in the here and now and that his light can lead us there.

Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.


5 Comments

  1. David Mitchel

    @dmitchel

    Wonderful, Matt. This took me back to my own experience of being tried by a mountain and found wanting. I was climbing Mt. Adams in Washington State. At about 7,900 feet above sea level I slipped while climbing a dusty slope and tweaked a knee. I knew almost immediately that the dream of reaching the summit (12,276′) was gone.

    I was, however, able to reach the camping area (roughly 9,100′), and enjoyed a sunset more majestic than any I had ever seen. Sitting on a rocky shelf between two glaciers, with my right leg elevated, I looked out at that sunset and wondered why the heavens are so inaccessible. Why the steep slopes, biting winds, slippery glaciers, thin air, and thick clouds? An answer followed almost immediately: because the beasts rise up out of the sea.

    The various rebellious powers operate at sea level and address us — recruit us for “their side” — as if we were destined always to live at sea level. How much even a little formation into an alpine mindset makes the kingdoms of the world look like the small and fleeting things they are.

  2. gllen

    thanks for this Matt – confirms one of the aspects of life i’ve been wrestling to live out the past year or so – “Love your enemies, and pray for those who despitefully use you…” – oh! hard stuff – impossible even? – but part of the way of the mountain – the new kingdom…

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