Conquering Mountains

Ben Goram and Croagh Patrick, from the south.

In March I took a spiritually-important but perhaps physically ill-advised trip.  I’d had back surgery two months before that had accomplished exactly nothing.  I was in chronic discomfort, with a much-weakened right leg.  But I’d had on the docket for almost a year a pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick—St. Patrick’s Mountain—one of the holiest sites in Ireland, with the plan to climb the mountain on St. Patrick’s Day with three of my closest friends from across the span of my life.  I won’t go into all the advance reasons that I thought this climb was important, mainly because all those reasons were quickly rendered moot as soon as we started up the mountain.

Croagh Patrick is the mountain on which, in the late 400s, St. Patrick lived for forty days and forty nights, emulating Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness.  My three friends and I hired a local hiking guide to take us not up the straight, well-marked, relatively easy north face of the mountain, but up the unmarked, no-trail south face that St. Patrick himself is believed to have climbed.  Our climb actually included two mountains: First Ben Goram, then across a saddle, and then up Croagh Patrick itself.

Blissfully unaware before the hike, with Ben Goram in the background.

Ireland was unseasonably sunny and warm in the days leading up to our climb.  But as soon as we took the first step up the steep and boggy turf of Ben Goram (the first mountain), an unholy tempest as if from the fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel blew in from the Atlantic.  In an instant, the temperature dropped twenty-five degrees, and for the next five hours—five hours!—we were sleeted on and enshrouded in thick fog.  Even so, I approached and attacked the mountain the way I do hikes in the U.S.  I wanted to beat the mountain and, honestly, I wanted to beat my three equally-middle-aged friends, to demonstrate my fitness and vitality.    

Then reality set in.  Fifteen minutes into our climb I began to lean hard into the mountain to keep from being blown off of it.  Thirty minutes after that, my right foot began to “slap” and get hung first on turf and then on scree, as the strength drained from my hobbled right leg.  By the time we topped Ben Goram, reached the saddle between mountains, and briefly paused—but only briefly, because of the risk of hypothermia—I realized that I might not make it to the top.  (Actually, what occurred to me because I watch too many movies, is that, if we became stuck on the mountain and the group was forced to eat someone in order to survive, I’d be dinner!) 

Only because turning around and climbing down the way we’d come was more treacherous than continuing to Croagh Patrick’s summit, we kept going.  But not in the same way as before.  My movements were numbingly slow and deliberate.  With my eyes half-closed against the wind and sleet, I knew that I was the anchor dragging everyone down.  When I finally opened my eyes, I couldn’t see anyone ahead of me.  For a split second, I panicked, because I thought I’d fallen so far behind the others that I’d lost them in the fog.  But then I realized that they weren’t in front of me at all.  Without a word to me, and without a word to each other, my three friends had fallen behind me and were walking in a line with me in front.  All competition and bravado had completely given way in our circumstances.  In essence, my three friends were, on the one hand, serving as a safety net to keep me from falling and, on the other hand, pushing me up the mountain.

Ascending Croagh Patrick in the cold, sleet, and fog.

My eyes teared up, this time not from the wind.  For a moment, I was humiliated, as all the unspoken, subconscious things that has brought me to the mountain were revealed to be empty motivations.  That flash of humiliation then gave way to the recognition that I was encountering, in my friends and in real time, a love that is rare; a love that is life-saving.  Much more slowly than we’d planned, we made it to the top of Croagh Patrick.  And fifteen minutes after we began our descent on the other side, the weather broke, and the sun shined brightly.  God’s wonder!

This is Senior Sunday at Christ Church.  Today, we celebrate those at the cusp of adulthood who have been part of this community and who will remain so, even though they may soon be geographically distant.  So to you seniors, but also to all of our youth here present, I share this: Over the next several years, you will hear many people encourage you to climb all sorts of peaks, metaphorical and otherwise, to demonstrate your prowess, your strength, your ambition, your superiority over your peers.  You’ll be told there is no mountain summit you cannot reach.  You’ll see mountain-climbing memes on Instagram that read, “Don’t give up,” and “You can do anything you set your mind to.”  You’ll be told in innumerable ways that life is there for you to conquer. 

That is not my message to you. That is a message we’ve been conveying for three generations now in our culture.  It is largely a lie.  It is detrimental to you, and it is detrimental to the world.  Because if you succeed in conquering those mountains, you do so by leaving behind those injured on the slopes, or by causing an avalanche in your wake and not pausing to see or care about the destruction it causes.  And if you don’t succeed in conquering those mountains, you are left in humiliation and shame because you have not fulfilled the promise all those people told you was your birthright.

Even though we are now well into the Easter season, today in John’s Gospel we are catapulted back to the Upper Room and the Last Supper.  Jesus has just gotten up from the dusty floor where he, to the disciples’ shock and amazement, has washed their feet.  Jesus now explains in words what he has demonstrated in actions.  Jesus says to those he loves, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

To love is an easy thing.  I love lots of things: bluebonnets in spring, the Arkansas Razorbacks, Wendell Berry novels, my car.  If Jesus had only said “Love one another” and stopped there, we could conquer life’s mountains with determination and grit and love just a bit here and there to make us feel better about the climb.  But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  In the same breath, Jesus interprets for us the kind of love he means for us to show one another, the kind of love on which those who follow Jesus are to model our lives.  We are to love one another as Jesus loves us: a get down in the dirt and wash one another’s feet love; a see one another through the fog love; a love that recognizes that we reach the top together or it isn’t worth the climb.

Drying out in the sun after descending the mountain.

There are mountains to climb.  Seniors, the next one is right in front of you, and when you reach its summit, there may be a brief pause on the saddle, but then there will be another peak to climb just beyond.  To that extent, the mountain-climbing metaphor for life holds.  But Jesus shows us that the goal in life is not to conquer the mountain or beat others to the top.  The goal in life is twofold:

First, push yourself, surely, but also recognize your true limitations not as failures, but as reminders that none of us is a little god, that we are creatures of this world, and that the world will ultimately mold us rather than us molding it.  This recognition and embrace is not humiliation, but humility, the opposite of destructive pride, and our hurting world needs humility more than bravado. 

Life’s second goal is to recognize that, as we climb, our first responsibility is to our fellow climbers.  Sometimes, you will be the only one who prevents someone else from falling off the mountain.  Sometimes, you may be the one who can push someone else to the top, so you both reach the apex together. 

So, climb the mountains.  In summer or sleet, climb.  In sunshine or fog, climb.  But as you put one foot in front of the other, remember Jesus’ words: “As I have loved you, so you should love one another.”  With a love like that, and climbing together, sunlight scatters the fog, and we each become disciples.

May Fete and Moral Ecology

In a bible study several years ago, we were reading Acts, and upon reading today’s passage, a member said, and not at all tongue-in-cheek, “Wow!  Paul had quite a ‘road to Damascus’ experience!”  Indeed, he did, the original road to Damascus experience, the one for which the phenomenon itself is named. 

Paul (at this point in the story still referred to as Saul) has lived in a religious milieu and among people who have formed him, and whom he has formed, to lash out against those who are different from him and who he perceives to be a threat to his way of life.  He has gone so far as to be the likely ringleader at the brutal murder of Stephen, one of the first Christian deacons who became the first Christian martyr.  Note that: Paul himself served as the spark that ignited a conflagration of religious violence against peaceful people that continues to this day.  That’s who Paul was, and he was all-in.  Such was his identity through-and-through.

In fact, the very reason Paul was on the road to Damascus was a sanctioned mission to kidnap Christians there and bring them back to Jerusalem.  (For exactly what we don’t know, but judging by Stephen’s fate, nothing good.)  But while on his way, something happens that literally stops Paul in his tracks.  There is the flash of light.  There is the arresting voice.  There is the blindness.  It is a bracing, and in no way gentle, epiphany.  It changes Paul in an instant.  But it is also just the beginning of his story…

I grew up in rural Northeast Arkansas, on the slope of Crowley’s Ridge, at the northern tip of the Mississippi River Delta.  I was raised tromping around in fields, woods, and the long, meandering channel of Eight Mile Creek.  Throughout my young experience, there were birds, and small mammals, and buzzy, creepy, and crawly things that interplayed with the oaks and honeysuckle and various other flora of my environment.  Intuitively, I knew that it all fit together in symbiotic harmony, but it wasn’t until much later that I learned science has a name for my childhood world: ecology.  An ecology is, according to Mr. Webster, “the relationships of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.”  The way it all fits together and works together to create a world is an area’s ecology.

Social scientists have adopted this meaningful word as well.  In his newest book, columnist David Brooks talks about moral ecologies.[i]  Just as we all live in a natural ecosystem, we also all live within a moral ecology, an environment in which prevailing moral sensibilities all fit together and work together to define our relationships and our way of being in the world.  Our moral ecology determines which values we prioritize, and which actions are encouraged or discouraged.  Brooks says, “Moral ecologies subtly guide how you dress, how you talk, what you admire and disdain, and how you define your ultimate purpose.” 

You’ve probably heard the contemporary parable in which the old fish swims by the young fish and asks, “How’s the water today?”  Which leads the young fish to ask in reply, “What’s water?” 

Importantly, our moral ecology is usually like the water in which that proverbial young fish lives.  It is the milieu we take for granted.  It forms us uncritically.  We are rarely even aware of it.  Our moral ecology is the very water in which we live, and move, and have our being.

When Paul set out on that road to Damascus, he was saturated by the moral ecology in which he lived.  It was beyond him to pause and question his abuse of Christians.  He’d been formed—and he’d in turn formed others—deeply to believe that Christians were the threat, the other, to be suppressed and, if possible, expunged.  This was simply his moral ecology—his reality—and so he carried out his role.

But then the upending, world-changing event happens on that road.  In a flash and a voice, Paul’s moral ecology is shattered.  Paul’s blindness is both literal and figurative.  Like his actual cornea, Paul’s uncritical vision of the world clouds over and is revealed to be illusion and shadow.  On that road, Christ exposes Paul’s moral ecology—and Pau’s place in it—to be bankrupt.

Has that ever happened to you?  Through the unexpected encounter, via the new voice breaking through the din, by way of meeting someone who totally challenges your presumptions, have you ever had your vision of the world thrown into clear relief for the first time, and then obliterated?  Have you, with quaking knees and equally quaky heart, realized, as if outside yourself, that where you stand in the world is bankrupt and that where you stand is not where God would have you?

This is a truly shattering encounter for any of us, of course, and certainly for Paul.  Sometimes this is referred to as Paul’s conversion experience.  But by itself, that’s not exactly right.  The final verse of the experience on the road says, “Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing.”  Paul has been shown how wrong his whole life has been, but that’s all.  He hasn’t yet been shown a new way.  Paul’s moral ecology has been disrupted, but nothing has yet been put in its place.

This, too, many of us have experienced in our own lives.  The eye-opening epiphany often reveals the foundation of sand on which our own moral ecologies are built, and our moral ecologies thus crumble to dust, but we know no better at that point how or what to be instead.  Like Paul, our eyes are opened, but we can see nothing.

That’s why the second half of this reading is essential and should never be sundered from the first half.  Blinded, Paul stumbles on to Damascus—he finishes the journey on which he’d originally set out—but instead of bullying the Christians there, he finds himself ministered to by them.  Ananias opens his home to Paul.  He feeds Paul.  He tends Paul’s wounds.  He shares words of grace.  He loves Paul. 

Do you see what happens here?  More than anything that happens on the road to Damascus, this is the miracle of the story.  In the milieu of Ananias’ home, Paul is given a new moral ecology!  In place of violence, Paul is taught care.  In place of othering, Paul is shown brotherhood.  In place of indoctrination to hate, Paul is shown grace.  Whereas the voice of Jesus on the Damascus road obliterated Paul’s old moral ecology, the hands and feet of Jesus in the form of Ananias and the other Damascene Christians provide Paul a new moral ecology, a new vision—again, both literal and figurative—to understand the way in which all the pieces of the world and all human relationships fit together.  Only then does Scripture say that Paul’s eyes are opened and he can truly see.  Paul’s new moral ecology is the Gospel, and by transforming Paul it will then transform the world.


May Fete at Christ Church in days gone by

This couldn’t be more important for our world, and this is the perfect lectionary reading for May Fete at the Cathedral.  Since 1839, Christ Church has offered the Houston community a different moral ecology.  For those who’ve walked through these doors since 1839, or 1892, or 1928, or 1979, or who do so today, the moral ecologies that saturate the world outside these doors are exposed to be bankrupt.  Indeed, often people walk through these doors for the first time because they’ve had some shattering experience that has revealed to them just how destructive the moral ecology in which they’ve breathed and moved really is.  But, as for Paul, that revelation alone is not enough.  For the scales to fall, we must be shown a new moral ecology, the only moral ecology that can save the world.  That is why the church—that is why this church—matters.  In the bullying and brutal world in which we’ve all participated, the moral ecology we reveal, and teach, and practice here is one of openness, and feeding bodies, and tending wounded souls, and speaking words of grace.  We form one another in these ways.  We offer one another that Gospel vision.  And, like Paul, we rise from here with newly opened eyes to go out and transform the world. 

[i] Brooks, David.  The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, pp. 3-7.