I've got the rare opportunity to do a 2-part series with one of the churches in the circuit. They're a smaller congregation, but the are faithful, and active, and proved to be excellent company yesterday morning.
Part one, yesterday, was titled "Mountain High", and in a few weeks I'll be back to do part two "Valley Low."
Let us take a moment to thank Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell for the title:
Anyway, the passage we started with was Mark 9:2-9 - The Transfiguration - and the idea of "Mountaintop experiences with God."
I decided to try something a little different, and just tell stories that related to actual mountain experiences I've had, and weave some thoughts into the stories.
Here's the raw, unedited, unimprovised version:
I thought it’d be quite nice to do a 2-part mini-series across the two services.
I’m taking my titles from a 1967 song, first a hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
Any guesses? Any Motown fans? Anyone remember where they were in 1967? (I wasn’t…)
How about if I play you the intro?
This week we’re going to be thinking about “Mountain High”, thinking about those times where God is present, where there is unspeakable joy, when you are quite literally “on top of the world”. Next time we’ll journey down the mountain to the “Valley Low”, and maybe think of the lament that come with struggling in between the mountains.
Let’s start by thinking about real mountains…
I wonder when the last time you went up a mountain was?
What’s the highest peak you’ve been to?
Can you remember the view?
How about the climb… Was it difficult?
What was your motivation to make it to the top?
Or perhaps there was a cable car or train to do the task for you?
Maybe you’ve not been up a mountain, but maybe you’ve been in a plane…
How was the view?
I have a few memorable actual mountain moments that have happened in my life, and each have their own story and lessons I could draw things out of. I want to tell you a few of them.
I grew up in Suffolk, in East Anglia, in the lowlands. There aren’t any mountains in Suffolk. There aren’t really things tall enough to be called hills! It’s picturesque enough, but it’s all a bit flat, like a plateau.
Sometimes my life feels like that. Sometimes I feel like there’s no particular lows, but there aren’t really any highs either. It’s not like things are bad, but there’s no sight of any upward direction either. The feeling that God is up there somewhere, but I don’t really have any means of getting any closer to him… Ever have times like that in your life?
Sometimes I miss the simple flatness of Suffolk and my childhood.
When I moved to Scotland I was a lot closer to real mountains… but I rarely took the time to visit their heights.
A few years ago a friend of mine decided that he wanted to do the Three Peaks challenge with his cousin, intending to climb the highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales inside of 24 hours. They were to start at about 9pm at the foot of Ben Nevis, where they would run up and down again before it got properly dark. Then they would jump in the car and drive to the western Peak District in time for an early dawn run up and down Scaffell Pike, only to jump straight in the car again for the drive to Snowdonia to race to the top of Snowden and down again before the 24 hours was up.
I’ll be honest with you, I think it’s a ridiculous idea, and I told him so… But he needed a driver. They needed someone who could help them get safely between mountain top, who could guide them and be a support base. That I can do!
Don’t get me wrong, I’d have probably loved the views at the top, but the thought of the hurried climb, and my fitness levels just weren’t, and indeed aren’t, quite there, but I have the endurance to drive long distances and to sleep while they climbed.
Those two guys achieved a remarkable feat, completing the challenge in about 21 hours. I know for a fact that they wouldn’t have been able to do it without me. I didn’t get the “mountaintop experiences” that they did, but I drove them to them.
Sometimes that sums up my job. I can go a long time without feeling like I’ve made it to the mountain top, but that’s ok as long as I have lead other people to an encounter with God. I know that there will come a time I’ll need that encounter, but I know what I’m called to do, and it’s not to bask forever in the brilliant white of a mountaintop experience with Jesus, but to travel the lowlands and encourage others to climb the mountain.
I realise that I’m coming across as quite lazy as I tell these stories, that I don’t put the effort in to go up the mountain, but there are stories I made the effort. There was one Easter weekend where I climbed 2 (if I’m being 100% honest, they might only have been classed as hills…)
On Easter Saturday a group from my church in Glasgow decided we would venture up the Campsies on the outskirts of Glasgow. Climb to the top and you have a cracking view of the city in one direction, and of Loch and Ben Lomond in the other.
That was a tough journey though! As we climbed, we tended to stick to the paths, which was great, but it wasn’t a case of going straight up. It wasn’t even a case of zig-zagging back and forth all the way up either. Instead, this climb meant that the slope was always going up to your right, and down to your left. If you’ve ever tried to walk with constantly uneven ground with one side higher than the other, you realise that your shins get sore and your muscles ache, and that’s before you realise you didn’t bring enough food or water, and that the shoes you’re wearing aren’t waterproof and are designed more for the badminton court than the hillside…
But I did it. I ploughed on through the pain to reach the summit and take in the views. We sat for an hour or so just looking, and then we sang together, accompanied by the trumpet that John had carried all the way up, and we wandered down, making sure we balanced the pain in our right legs out with the new pains in our left legs.
The following morning, Easter Sunday, we got up well before dawn and drove to a different part of the Campsies. Overnight it had snowed, and having parked the cars, we embarked on a torchlit ascent up a new hill. This one was shallow enough to walk straight for the most part, but the snow, the dark and the unfamiliar route made it a challenge.
When we got to the top we sat and waited with about 100 other people for the sun to rise. We were sat in the clouds and the mist and the snow, as the sun came over the horizon and began to light up our world. The electric lights of the city below were drowned out by the breaking dawn.
As it rose we worshipped, prayed, sang and had communion together at the top of this hill, me, a handful of friends, and a shedload of strangers.
The pain was worth it to be at the top of the hill, worshiping the one who put the hill there to begin with.
When I was 11 we drove to Switzerland on a family holiday.
I can remember that we went up the Jungfrau railway to a saddle in the mountains. It was early September in 1997, in fact I think I’d be right in saying it was the 5th and it was my sister’s birthday.
At the bottom of the mountains we were wrapped up warm. It was the sort of day that could go either way weather wise. As we boarded the train, it got colder and wetter as we went up the side of the mountain. It wasn’t long before my parents were regretting their decision to use a day of our holiday looking into the mist outside the train! I’m sure the poster at the bottom said the views were breathtaking on the way up, but all I remember is the mist.
Eventually we made it to the top. for the last stretch I remember the train being in a tunnel, and the station at the top being part of the tunnel. As we alighted in the darkness, we followed the arrows through some ice caves, grateful for the layers we’d brought until finally we emerged, blinking as we stepped into the brightness all around.
We’d risen above the clouds and we’d found the snow. The sky was blue above us, and the clouds were below us and everything else was bright white as the sun bounced off the ice and snow. Those sunglasses I’d picked up on the way out of the tent in the morning were suddenly needed!
Whenever I think about that day, I don’t start with the journey. My first thought is to the brightness at the top, of the glare of the sun, of the silence that was blissful, the peace and the happiness of the space. I think of the wonder, and the husky puppies as we queued up to have a ride on the husky sled. The top of the mountain made the glum journey up disappear from my thinking.
The journey down was much the same as the journey up, grey, grizzly and drizzly, but all the way down all we could think of was the glory that we’d seen.
At the transfiguration the description in verse three is all about the bright white… Bleached. Daz White. Blinding white light. The radiance and Glory of Jesus and his faithful: Moses and Elijah. It was so bright that even Peter was speechless.
Have you ever been in a mountaintop place where you’ve encountered God? Where he’s left you speechless and you don’t really know how to respond?
I said there are no mountains in Suffolk, but that’s where I met God first. There’s a hamlet on the coast that is known for its power stations: Sizewell. 2 miles down the beach from the nuclear power stations is a house from the 1800’s that was a family estate, a boarding school, and a base for armed forces in World War 2, but is now run as a Christian conference centre.
The house overlooks the sea, and has in its grounds a large campsite that I grew up going to each summer with my family, or to youth camps to learn more about Jesus and the Bible.
There’s something about that place that you might describe as magical. Whether it’s the fact that thousands of people every year make a sort of pilgrimage to be together and to pray and worship God, or what, I don’t think I’ll ever know, But I believe that was always my mountain: the place I could guarantee I would meet God.
I have sat at the top of the steps down to the beach and sung my heart out against the crashing of the waves and the roaring wind; I’ve sat in silence under the stars listening to the lapping of the waves against the shore; I’ve cried, and screamed and shouted at God knowing he’s big enough to take it and felt held by him in spite of my feelings.
I’ve marvelled from that beach at the vastness of the universe above me, that is a hobby of God’s and yet he has a heart for me. I’ve wondered at the vastness of the sea before me, and how he still knows my name and loves my. I’ve tried to count the stones on the beach and the stars in the sky and realised how significant I am in spite of my apparent insignificance in the world’s eyes. I’ve admired the creative God and revelled in his creation alone and with others.
I wonder if that’s the way it felt for Peter, James and John to be at the Transfiguration?
A couple of times while we lived up in Scotland, some friends and I went skiing, where we would venture up and see how fast we could make it down. Being Scotland it was hit and miss as to what the weather would be like, but that didn’t really matter because there was a group of us and we enjoyed being together.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been skiing, but it is full of ups and downs. You have to go up so that you can tear back down again. Every pass you’re looking to try new things, get better, get faster, share with each other the thrill and the excitement and try not to fall at the same bit twice!
I found when I first went skiing when I was at school, that at the top of the hill I was excited and ready for what came next, but there was always that little bit of me that didn’t want to go down, didn’t want to leave, because I was scared of what might happen. I was scared of losing control and of falling over.
As time went on I realised something: I’m going to fall over. It’s bound to happen. But I know how to get back up! It’s one of the first things they teach you to do when you go skiing. They teach you to lay on you side, with the top of your head pointing up the mountain, and your skis pointing the way you’re facing, to push with your arms and dig the side of your feet into the side of the mountain… And when you’ve done that, you go again!
Continuing on with our story of the transfiguration, the Disciples had to come back down the mountain, and they had to respond to the things they had seen and heard and learnt. Whether it was here or coming down from the sermon on the mount, or down from the hillside garden where they’d been praying, or later the hill where Jesus was being crucified, they knew they had to leave, they knew what they had to do, they knew that they were likely to fail, but they had to move on.
I’ve not really taught anything this morning, and it might not be what you expected or wanted, but maybe it was what you needed? As I finished typing, I realised this process was what I needed. To remind me of my encounters with God and how close he is regardless of my altitude. To remind me of his blessings and what he continues to give to me. And that will see me through the valleys that we’ll think about next time I’m here. Maybe that message will be all about stories too…
I want to end this bit of our service with the words of another song:
Standing on this mountaintop
Looking just how far we've come
Knowing that for every step
You were with us
Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Yes, our hearts can say
Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did You leave us on our own
You are faithful, God, You are faithful
Remarcable is one man blogging about Youth Work, Theology, Family, Life and those other random things that come to mind.