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.