December 30th 2009 (2) comments so far
On November 8, 2009, my wife, oldest son, and I climbed to the “Top of Texas”- Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in the state. The hike is a 10 mile round trip with a 3,000 foot vertical change with hard climbing the first mile and the last 100 yards from the peak. Our objective was to touch the stainless steel pylon that marks the highest point: 8,749 feet above sea level.
This was the first time my wife Sally and oldest son Martin made the climb. We did so in honor of her sixt, uh, “significant” birthday. I made the climb in December 2007 with our three younger sons, my brothers, and their sons. Martin didn’t go then because he was preparing for deployment to Iraq. With this climb, the whole family has been there.
Beyond the personal challenge and family connection, climbing the mountain allowed me to revisit the first of the three “M’s” that have characterized my life: Mountain, Military, and Ministry. I was introduced to some principles about God and about life as a boy climbing Sugarloaf and Mount Franklin in El Paso and have lived them out in my life ever since.
Learning about God and life from a mountain? Don’t be surprised. The writers of the poetic passages of Scripture found comparisons between mountains and God. They saw that mountains speak of:
The greatness of God as Creator (Psalm 104:1, 2, 5, 8 )
The eternality of God (Psalm 90:2)
The power of God (Job 9:5 and Psalm 65:6)
The righteousness of God (Psalm 36:6)
The reign of God: (Isaiah 2:2)
These pictures refer to God Himself. Scripture also uses mountains to relate God to man:
The same God who made the mountains speaks to man (Amos 4:13)
The same God who controls nature helps His people (Psalm 46:1-3)
These passages were written by those who pondered the mountains. Mountains to them represented permanence, might, mystery, and magnificence. As such they present an apt metaphor for the person and acts of God.
But boys do not ponder mountains; they climb them. I grew up a block and a half from the base of the Franklin Mountains (highest point 7,192’ above sea level). Towering above my boyhood home was Sugarloaf Mountain with the abandoned military outpost on top, Ranger Peak with the KTSM towers and aerial tramway, Franklin’s Nose, McKelligon Canyon, the Cross, the “A”, and an infinite number of unnamed points in between. Each offered new discoveries (like caves with prehistoric writing on the walls: “Beto was here”, “Frank loves Julie”, and “Seniors ‘56”), adventure (complete with guttural “clop,clop” sound effects and the William Tell Overture as a soundtrack), and a wide spectrum of boy-sized personal challenges.
Climbing a mountain is the active response to observing it. Climbing fulfills the burning desire to interact with the magnificent entity you cannot ignore. It is through the interaction of climbing that you experience the mountain and in so doing learn some things about yourself and about life.
Where the mountain metaphorically represents God and His ways, principles gleaned from climbing a mountain may be applied in the great man-sized adventure and personal challenge that is life. Permanence, might, mystery, and magnificence speak of God, and it is interaction with God and His works that teaches me about myself and about life.
So, with the view from the top still fresh in my mind, I’d like to share some of the principles from mountain climbing that relate to life.
1. The mountain is bigger than me.
The mountain existed before I existed and will be there after I’m gone. Someone greater than me created the mountain. There is no way I can grasp the mountain’s entirety. I can only interact with the mountain for a short period following a path is unique to me.
The mountain puts my personal significance into perspective. I have no claim to pride because I am just part of something bigger and more permanent than me: the eternal plan of God. My place in that plan is unique. I cannot grasp or understand it all. My sojourn there is temporal, and I am called to fulfill only a small part.
For all of us, that small part is our fundamental calling – to represent Jesus Christ. Where that part takes us individually is found in other principles from climbing the mountain.
2. I don’t change the mountain; the mountain changes me.
“I don’t change the mountain” is paraphrased in the National Park admonition: “Leave nothing behind – what you carry in, carry out.” What I could leave behind on the mountain is called trash – and it can only change the mountain for the worse. Further, the footprints I make on the way up and down are there only until the next big wind or small rainstorm. 1Timothy 6:7 tells us: “For we brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either.”
I don’t change the mountain; the mountain changes me. I left nothing behind on Guadalupe Peak and on the trail there. My footprints have already been erased. But the experience changed me and changed the relationships I have with my wife and sons. I didn’t think it possible to be as proud of another person as I was when my wife placed her hand on the pylon, or as proud of sons when they spontaneously reached out to help each other when the climbing got tough.
In God’s view, our significance is not found in accomplishments or changes we make. Our significance is found in the changes that He, by controlling events in our lives, makes in us.
3. No one climbs exactly the same way or follows exactly the same path.
The mountains I climbed as a boy did not have established paths. Each time we climbed we determined where we wanted to go and set a path to that objective. No two times did we ever follow exactly the same path.
The path to the summit at Guadalupe is defined, and hikers are obligated to follow it. Even so, no one has or will ever place his or her feet exactly where I placed mine. No one climbs at exactly the same pace, even when climbing as a group.
What does this tell us about life? Don’t compare yourself with others. You were uniquely made and uniquely placed in God’s plan. You will follow the course and timing He has set out for you. He is with you where you are, not “where I think I should be.” Paul wrote Romans 14 to tell us to avoid comparisons. Jesus sharply rebuked Peter for his attempt to compare himself with another disciple: “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”
In the climb that is our life, Jesus takes the point for each of us. He leads and sets our individual paces. Don’t look around – follow the lead climber.
4. I carry precious cargo on every climb.
When hiking in the high desert of west Texas you must carry practical provisions of food and water. This cargo is necessary to enable you to complete the climb. Wherever you go in the hike that is life you carry a precious cargo: your heritage.
Side note: Every member of my family and extended family who made the climb in 2007 was tasked to carry with them an artifact: a tangible representation of a previous generation. On that climb I carried my mother’s Bible. Since sons are my heritage, on this climb I carried a small stuffed toy that belonged to our son who died in infancy. With Tom’s stuffed elephant there I can truthfully say that my wife and all my boys have joined me at the Top of Texas.
Heritage can be represented tangibly, but it is by definition intangible, and encapsulated in a single phrase: “your name.” You receive your name from your parents and ideally they went to great lengths to insure that the name was associated with honor. It behooves us to preserve the honor and to pass it to our progeny.
As Christians, we carry the name of Christ. That name above all names is eternally honorable. We are charged to live in such a way as to not besmirch the honorable name by which we were called.
To do so requires us to make daily choices, so
5. Climbing involves a series of choices.
Every climb starts with the personal choice to set aside time for the climb rather than expending it on another pursuit. To make it to the top requires us to take ‘one more step’ innumerable times. Successfully completing the climb means choosing to take another step regardless of the pain or cost.
At no point on the Guadalupe trail can you see the pylon that marks the peak. You only see it when you get there. Every step prior is a step of faith – faith that a path that someone else laid out will take you there.
Isn’t that the way it is in the plan of God for our lives? We have a heavenly destiny but do not see it until we get there. The trail has been set out by God and we can only trust that He in His goodness, love, wisdom, and care designed our trail.
I had a map and a GPS – objective sources outside of myself – to tell me I was on the right path and headed in the right direction. God gave us His Word and his Spirit to be the objective guides for our path through life. Knowing our direction is important, because every step in one direction means rejecting every other direction.
The choices we make determine what kind of life we will live. Each choice in one direction means repudiation of the corresponding opposite choice: Honor versus dishonor, diligence versus laziness, courage versus cowardice, integrity versus indulgence.
Each choice carries with it a consequence for we affirm that sovereign God assigned a specific consequence to every choice. In God’s ordered universe, each choice can be evaluated based on its consequences. The obvious consequence of climbing up the mountain is that we have to climb down it also. The climb down reminds us that …
6. Success or failure is not permanent.
Two things are obvious at the peak: “You cannot stand higher in the state of Texas than you are currently standing,” and “you cannot stay here.” You stand at the top because you have done something difficult and achieved something few achieve. The list of those who successfully make the climb is short. And, doing a little bragging, shorter still is the number of women who successfully make it. Shorter still is the number of women 60 or over who do it. Shorter still are those who have had both ankles rebuilt. I married someone on the shortest list.
The view on top is spectacular, and those who make it there feel exhilaration. This is as it should be: when you achieve a worthy goal, you should be rightfully proud. There’s a catch: you cannot stay there. Shortly after arriving, we must head down the mountain and return to our everyday lives and the mundane duties they entail.
On both treks, some from the original group of climbers did not make it to the top. They, too, had to climb back down to resume life. Failure is just as temporary a condition as success.
So, with both success and failure in life, we savor the accomplishment or learn from the failure and move on. In God’s scheme, neither is permanent. He is neither impressed with our performance nor distressed by our failure. He seeks character in each of us, measuring the growth in character by how we deal with both success and failure and keep on moving. Our final evaluation as Christians is based on one question: “How faithful were you with what I gave you to deal with in life?” In success or failure, we seek His highest commendation, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
One more principle drawn from climbing a mountain:
7. You never climb alone.
While the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction is individual, only a fool attempts to climb alone. As a boy I learned that the mountain was a scary place for a single climber, and it was not fun to climb without a friend or brother to share the adventure. On Guadalupe, we never encountered a lone climber. Each group had some who were obviously stronger and more able than others. As part of their climb, stronger members prodded or aided the climb of the weaker members. In our family group, my son provided the energy of youth and the pulling hand that helped his mother up the mountain. Being together gave us people to talk to and people we loved to share the joy and exultation.
In life as in climbing: at every step along the trail you can look around and see the faces of brothers and sisters – fellow climbers – who are there to encourage, or offer a hand, or push, or challenge you. This is by divine design, and it runs counter to the prevailing thought in our world: “others exist to make me happy or to accommodate me.”
God’s design is reciprocal: everything that I wish others would do for me I am to do for others. The objective in life is not happiness, but holiness – to be molded into the image of Jesus Christ. Ultimately the challenge of today is pushing you toward that objective.
Christians are enjoined to never give up hope. The best way to comply with this is to be with those who will not let you give up hope. The last 100 yards to the “Top of Texas” is the hardest part of the climb. Not only does this come at the end of the equivalent of 4 hours on a treadmill set to maximum incline, but the trail becomes a “three point climb” (three of your four climbing appendages – hands and feet – must be anchored before you move the fourth.) At one point my wife dropped her head and said, “I don’t think I can take another step.” Positioning ourselves to give a pull and a push, my son and I simultaneously saw something she missed by dropping her head. He nodded to allow me the honor of pointing this out. I sidled up to her and whispered, “Look to your right.” We were within 10 feet of the pylon. All those decisions to take another step, every helping hand or gentle push, and every “you can do it” finally paid off. In one glance, dejection became exultation and “I can’t!” became “I did it!!!!”
Each of us is currently somewhere on a God ordained climb. Listen for and heed the encouragement from others, and please be a source of encouragement to others. We will reach the pylon.
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