What is Your Mountain? –A Death in Cambridge

In Cambridge this past week on the 21st January, friends of ours buried their 22-year old son. He was descending from a mountain summit in Norway on New Year’s Day, lost his footing, and fell to his death. His funeral was attended by hundreds of the best of both Cambridge and Oxford, where he had finished with a first in history only last year, bringing together a unique mix of people to mourn the loss of a brilliant young man who had a passion for mountains. His greatest achievement was being part of the 2016 Oxford team who retraced the historic 1923 Spitsbergen exhibition to an unexplored part of the Arctic. He dreamed of being an explorer in an age where it would seem there is little left unexplored on this planet.

Yet, as long as there are mountains and those who are drawn to them, there will be explorers. The phrase “because they are there” seems to be a uniquely Western concept. Westerners are a restless, inquisitive lot, seduced not so much by “because they are there,” but “because we can.” Westerners have a long history of striving to conquer the unknown, not just externally, but within, to live at the outposts of one’s dreams and prove we are capable of doing so. The mountain of achievement is huge in the Western mindset. We throw ourselves at it in so many ways. Some of us get to bask in the light and rarefied air of the pinnacle, having reached the summit through much hard effort and perseverance. Most of us are happy just to get to base camp.

But there are others who in the past have regarded the mountain as unapproachable. The Maori people, for example, don’t go “trekking.” The mountain is tapu, sacred, and who are they to challenge it?  Likewise, when God spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai, fire and smoke surrounded the mountain and the Israelites stood back in fear and trembling. They were a sinful people, unfit to enter the presence of a holy God on His mountain.

Many people believe God is still up on that mountain, remote, forbidding, and angry. But He came down to us in the person of Jesus Christ and gathered those who would follow Him on the side of another mountain. There would no longer be a barrier between God and His people.

“Blessed are those who mourn,” he told them, “for they will be comforted.”

What is your mountain? It could be grief, defeat, discouragement, or even pride. Something so solid and implacable, you can’t even begin to climb it.  But Jesus also told his followers that even if their faith was as small as a mustard seed, they could not only take on the mountain, but move it because with even the smallest seed of faith, “nothing is impossible.”

What is your mountain in 2017?

My year has started out with the death of a young man living on the glorious brink of a promising life. It has rocked the community in which I live so that the inauguration of a new American president went by unnoticed and unremarked. And yet, in the same week, I was reminded of a different kind of American, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who in his last speech before he was assassinated said,

“We got some difficult days ahead…But…I’ve been to the mountaintop…I’ve seen the Promised Land…I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Dr. King scaled the mountain of fear and hatred, leading his country with him, because of where his eyes were fixed. He was a weak, and ultimately mortal man, who gave his mountain over to God in faith. And God moved it.

What is your mountain? If you are having difficulty climbing it, take time to consider. You may think your faith is inadequate, or even non-existent, but all that is required is a seed. In the midst of tragedy, I am encouraged by the coming together of so many people here in Cambridge to love, support, and pray for this family. A seed has been planted in the sorrow and anguish, and I am watching it slowly take root. Faith doesn’t flourish on its own. It needs community to nurture and strengthen it.  The loss of a child, a life, is irreplaceable.  But it is still possible to reach the mountaintop, to grasp hold of the promises of God, and to dwell in a place where those who mourn are comforted.

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The Birdhouse

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I never thought I’d be so excited about a birdhouse!  There it stands, a rather elegant, miniature roofed dining pavilion elevated on a post above the middle of my small townhouse garden.  I’ve had bird feeders before, hung from trees and on top of squirrel-proof stands, but when there are squirrels around, nothing with bird food in it is squirrel-proof.  Now that I live in a townhouse, I have a garden with no trees–and no squirrels!  We didn’t even have birds.  All very sad and boring for Leo the cat.  And yes, I do miss having a garden with lots of trees and creatures of all kinds running and flying around in it.  So, when just before Christmas, a tiny, cheeky robin started making daily visits, drinking from our waterfall feature and digging worms out of our small patch of grass, he completely captured my heart.  His arrival couldn’t have been more timely.

In England, the robin is a Christmas bird.  It’s not because he shows up in winter instead of spring; with his reddish-orange breast, he’s just more visible in winter, and food is harder to pull out of a frozen ground.  He’s become the Christmas bird because postmen used to wear red vests and were referred to as “robin redbreasts”.  At Christmas time, as they delivered bagloads of Christmas cards, they inevitably ended up being depicted on Christmas cards  themselves as jolly little birds delivering Christmas cheer.  This year, robins were on the Christmas stamps and also featured in the Waitrose grocery store’s advertising theme, “Home for Christmas.”  The story of a fearless, determined little robin braving sea and storm around the world to wing its way back home to England and mince pies has to be the most epic, emotional Christmas ad ever made for a grocery store.

Do robins really fly around the world?  Well, first of all, British robins are nothing like North American robins.  They are small, round and fat whereas American robins are bigger and longer (and not as cute).  Did you know that the robin Julie Andrews sings to in Mary Poppins is the North American bird, never seen on this side of the Atlantic?  Oh, Walt Disney!

So, we bought our cheeky little Bobbin a birdhouse for Christmas.  We bought birdseed and installed this majestic piece of real estate in the perfect spot for breakfast viewing.  The first time he tentatively hopped inside his new dining room, we were ecstatic.  He likes it!

Then, he disappeared.  Days went by and there was no sign of him.  I began to worry the cat had discovered him.  Meanwhile, my own two fledglings in America were preparing to wing their way home across the sea.  I am always anxious when they fly, but even more so when they’re together, precious cargo up there somewhere in the vast, open reach of sky.

So much of life is about waiting!  We wait for a loved one to come home, for a child to be born, for a bird to show up.  The British are keen bird watchers.  Perhaps it’s because they have an aptitude for waiting.  Americans are an impatient lot.  I have had to learn to wait for many things, and not always with grace and kindness.  I grew up in an era of convenience–frozen vegetables and cake mixes, polaroid cameras, and credit cards.  I knew nothing about birds or plants or watching things grow.  I didn’t know caterpillars don’t turn into butterflies overnight, or that something broken takes time to mend, or that dreams don’t happen just because you wish upon a star.  I have had to learn patience, and along the way, perseverance.

So, I wait and watch.  Then, something marvellous happens.  The morning after my fledglings arrived safely home, a bird started singing merrily outside in my little garden as if heralding their return.  Could it be…yes!  Our robin was also back!  I am convinced it was the same one.  Wherever he went, he seemed so pleased to be home.

Christmas is over and my chicks have now flown off again.  It never gets any easier, this coming home and going away.  But Bobbin has decided to stay.  Only now he’s duking it out with a perky little gray wagtail (I had to look him up) and a big annoying blackbird.  They chase each other around the garden like naughty schoolchildren not liking to share.  My oh my, have I become a bird watcher in my dotage?  January is such a cold and heavy-spirited month, this one in particular.  I am saddened by loss and the ache of winter, waiting and longing for spring.  I am learning patience, and the resiliency of birds.

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