3 July 2020
A Moment to Reflect -58
‘I have been to the mountaintop” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Located at 3640 metres above sea level (almost 12,000 feet) La Paz in Bolivia is the highest administrative capital in the world. It sits in a kind of bowl-shaped depression in part of the “Altiplano,” a plateau in the Andes more than 3,500 metres high. La Paz (‘Peace’ in Spanish) is also surrounded by even higher mountains including the spectacular Mount Illimani. The photograph of these ‘lesser’ mountains was taken from my hotel window in La Paz. It is not quite the highest point in the planet that I have visited but it’s still ‘up there’ among them.
When I visited Bolivia in 2013, we flew into the highest airport in the world at El Alto (Spanish for ‘The Heights.’) The very next day we were back at El Alto airport (4,150 m or13,615 ft above sea level) to board a very small plane that would take us down to the Amazonian region of Bolivia (only 155 metres above sea level.)
The contrast could not have been more dramatic.
[To be honest my personal ‘high points’ of that trip were actually in Amazonia rather than the Andes, but I won’t confuse you by taking that thought any further at the moment.]
Instead I want to reflect on the fact that in the Bible we find several stories of spiritual ‘high points’ followed immediately by crashing lows. Let me remind you of just a few.
Take Moses, for example. One minute he’s up on Mount Sinai face to face with the living God receiving from God what we know as the Ten Commandments, the next he comes down off the mountain to be confronted by a people who have turned their backs on God and are ready to rebel against his leadership.
Or Elijah… who has a dramatic (and triumphant) confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel [1 Kings 18] then promptly falls into a deep, dark depression that drives him into the wilderness.
In the New Testament, as I mentioned a few days ago, Jesus took his three closest disciples with him up a mountain and there they were able to witness the mysterious and mind-blowing transformation of their ‘Teacher’ and to experience a momentous spiritual high. Coming down off the mountain again they meet up with the rest of the disciples who have been making a real hash of things, prompting Jesus to say with exasperation, “How much longer must I be with you? Why do I have to put up with you?”
Coming down to earth with a bump, as we might say.
Perhaps Simon Peter had an inkling of that ‘down-to-earth’ reality when he asked Jesus on the mountaintop if they could stay there with him forever …in that moment.
I guess it’s a natural reaction in the midst of any spiritual ‘high point’ to want to hold on to that moment—like Mary Magdalene on the morning of the resurrection wanting to hold on to Jesus and make that moment of inexpressible joy live forever. But that’s not how things are.
I probably would not subscribe to all the views of the late French writer and poet, Rene Daumal, but I do agree with this quote:
“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen.” —Rene Daumal
In other words the transitory ‘high point” experience can have lasting consequences; it can change you, give you new insights and deeper understanding that stay with you forever.
Or, as I would put it, although you cannot stay in that moment, that moment can stay in you.
The other day, in a telephone conversation, I was sharing with a friend some memories of a very special spiritual high point that we had participated in, along with the rest of our ‘Summer Mission’ team, away back in the mid 1980s. It was a Communion service led by “The Community of Celebration” in The Cathedral of the Isles in Millport, Cumbrae. For many of us who attended that time of worship it was a true ‘mountaintop experience.’
One immediate (and as it turned out lasting) consequence of it was that later that evening after the team had sung through every worship song they could think of, I brought our time together to an end by spontaneously singing “May the Lord bless you and take care of you…” I didn’t know what the tune was going to become until I started singing it, nor how the words might fit in, yet somehow it worked.
This is the version of Aaron’s Benediction that we sing regularly in Kirkton Church. You’ll hear it in this coming week’s online worship at www.kirktonchurch.com/this-weeks-worship.
You can’t replicate such mountaintop moments, but you can remember them, even (and perhaps especially) when you’re walking through the deep, dark valley of shadows.