Mountain-tops. I don’t often get to them, but I know they inspire people. All that majesty, perspective, isolation … not to mention the sense of achievement in getting there. Then there’s the sense of proximity to God. I empathise. I’ve been to one or two, but tend not to make a habit of it. For a start I’m not a fan of heights. In addition, I have arthritis of the spine which can make getting up there a little too sore (I say ‘a little too sore’ in the sense of English understatement … really I mean more a sort of raging agony for the next few days); and I find it easier to draw close to God in urban environments as opposed to rural or spacious ones. So whilst mountain-tops may be great, I don’t visit them often. There’s also the fact that no-one lives on top of a mountain. So at best, a mountain-top can only be a short-term option. Wonderful for some, maybe, but only for a time. You still have to come down and get on with life.
Mountain-tops. If the spiritual life is a journey across a varied terrain, then it’s fair to assume it will contain some time on metaphorical mountain-tops. Moments, experiences of spiritual exaltation and exhilaration where prayer seems easy, God is tangibly close and we feel like we’re alive in every sense. Mountain-top environments are in the Bible too. Elijah calling down fire, Moses downloading the 10 commandments – much of significance takes place on literal mountain-tops. Others wrestle with angels, get life callings, experience bizarre healings on the metaphorical mountain-top. Yes, spiritual mountain-tops are from God, and they are good.
You can’t live on a mountain-top, though. You come down, and realise life needs to be lived. You get the 10 Commandments up a mountain but only so that you can go back down and live them out in mundane world of donkeys and neighbours, husbands and wives. Or you come down and realise that whilst you were having a fine time up the mountain with God, the people you lead have gone and made a golden calf whilst you were gone. Or no sooner has the blood of Baal’s prophets soaked the ground then you’ve crashed and burned. Peter may want to put up at tent up where Jesus was transfigured, but that was probably his way of ignoring the fact that he wasn’t yet ready to follow Jesus to the point of death.
Yes, mountains are glorious, dangerous places.
We all know the temptation, I think, to put up a tent on spiritual mountain-tops. Actually, mountain-tops are cold and lonely places if you linger there too long. They exist, for now, for short term energising and perspective. A glimpse of what can be and could be, but for now isn’t. We all know, I’m sure, people, places, maybe even whole churches trying to live there nonetheless. They may not even realise they’re doing it, but the price is a hard one to bear. The people who find they can’t breathe the rarefied mountain-top air for as long as others tell themselves or are told by a few that they’re not good enough, not spiritually fit enough, not close enough to God.
That happens, and it’s sad when it does. Ironically the ones saying ‘Come down off the mountain’ are the ones who are really close to God, really Christ-like. After an Old Testament full of people going up mountains to God and missing the point when they went back down, the New Testament tells us about God hitching up His cloak and breathing the not-so-rarefied air of the everyday, spending thirty or so years showing what it’s really all about in a world of parents and jobs and taxes and sex and games and fish. He didn’t get much of a hearing and ended up on a terribly ordinary wooden cross for His trouble.
Still, He persisted. The New Testament letters like Romans, theological mountain-ranges all, end with lists of ordinary people living ordinary lives for whom the letter-writer is grateful. Paul may be able to articulate the mystery of sovereignty or call people to imitate Jesus, but his sign-off is Euodia and Synthce squabbling. Get that right, and you’ve got a real insight into sovereignty.
So, mountain-tops. They’re real, and they’re good to visit. Visit them, but live in the breathable air of the everyday, the stuff of life, the Long Obedience In The Same Direction, as Eugene Peterson has titled it (itself a line borrowed, incredibly, from Neitzsche). There will always be someone, beckoning to you to pitch a tent up there somewhere.
Invite them to join you, then just get on with it. Because down in the valley is where Jesus lived.