Harrowing Of Hell
February 19, 2023

Climbing the Mountain of Christianity

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Seven years ago, my sister Valerie and I set out to conquer Mount Rainier. The compulsion to climb that mountain set upon me the first time I saw it jutting up on the horizon as I drove south to the airport. There, single and solitary,a majestic point of power ripping out of the earth toward the heavens. A perfect metaphor for a priest, new, ready to lead a communityfrom the wallows of lasciviousness to the hallowed peaks of holiness.

It’s maybe what Peter, James and John thought as they climbed mount Tabor with Jesus; leaving behind the earthly, as they trekked towards the heavenly. But what I learned is what Peter, James, and John learned: that the mountain is a paradox. And that’s what I want to talk about today: the paradox of the mountain, where the mountain is metaphor for Christianity.

My first encounter with the mountain paradox came that first spring in Seattle. On a Saturday Kristin, Margaret, Desmond, and I drove to Mount Rainier to see it up close; but the odd thing was, the closer we got to the mountain the less apparent it was, until finally, when we arrived, the mountain had completely disappeared. 

To be on the mountain is to lose sight of the mountain. That can be true with our Christian faith as well. To be in it is to sometimes miss it all together. As we enter the season of Lent, beginning this Wednesday, February 22, with the 7:30 pm Ash Wednesday service, I am inviting each one of us to enter Lent with Intent. My invitation is for you to get religious this Lent, by taking on, as I spoke about last Sunday, a spiritual non-negotiable in gratitude for what God has done for you.  

My hope this Lent is for us to be more aware of the mountain upon which we stand, because it’s hard to see the mountain when you’re standing on it unless you are very intentional about it.

Now my experience of Mount Rainier with my family was below the tree line. My sister Valerie and I were committed to breaking that barrier as we sought to dominate the mountain. We hired a guide, which is what wealthy middle-aged people do who want to conquer the mountain but have no capacity to do so on their own…and yet are spurred by the vision of their own rugged individualism, and so trainers are hired, coaches consulted, porters procured to prove their metal. It is ironic how much help the successful need to be successful. It’s a worthy reflection this Lent to trace the reality of your achievement.

Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback understands this. Before the Superbowl he said if they win it they will win because of the offensive line. They won and he humbly thanked them.

Mostly we get to where we are going because of the community we find ourselves in, which can be our family, our friends, our colleagues, our offensive line, or the people that carry the water we drink along the way. The mountain reminds us of this. Christianity is the mountain. This is our community. Lent is a season to reflect upon this blessing.

Climbing a mountain requires team, and yet, as I climbed Mount Rainier, I found one of the paradoxes was that while surrounded by people it was mostly an isolated experience. Mostly it was one foot in front of the other, in front of the other. None of the chattiness I usually experience when walking with my sister. Just shortness of breath, as I trudged on behind the person in front of me, attached by a rope.

The Christian spiritual journey is something like that: an individual effort done in community, tethered by common worship… Epiphany is the rope.

As I walked in silence I stared at my loosely tied boots. Before we started the trek our guide insisted that we loosen our boots to such an extent that they almost fell off our feet. ,I was befuddled. But for her it was a non-negotiable, we must do this if we are going to hike with her. Her logic was that with your feet slopping around inside your boots no part of your foot will rub any particular part of the boot, and so, keep you from getting blisters. She was right.

The wisdom here, however, is not just loose boots, the wisdom here is to have a guide. The guides know the value of the non-negotiable. It is actually a spiritual discipline to take the advice of a guide. It requires humility, which is not a core characteristic of the rugged individualist, but it is a core characteristic of the Christian.

Which is why practicing Christianity is to be a student of Christianity. It is why we read books, and go on retreats, and employ spiritual directors. It is why we have the C. S. Lewis minyan, Bible study, the Women’s Retreat Group, and the Inquirers’ class. We are a Learning Church.        

And I find this to be true: That the more we know about Christianity the more we want to be a Christian. Lent is a season to study our religion. There are many ways to do this, but one is to join me Sunday evenings at 4:00 pm, starting next Sunday (Feb. 26) for the Inquirers’ class. We will study many things, not the least of which is how our brand of Christianity is different from the Prosperity Gospel, and White Christian Nationalism, and Fundamentalism, and Catholicism.

Lent is the season to secure in your mind the answer to the question: WHY CHURCH? I am the guide. Christianity the mountain.

One of the interesting things about getting to the top of the mountain is that when you do you find no one is there. No one lives on top of a mountain, not really. So, when you get there, you just turn around and come back down. No need to build a house. No one to live in it.No one who wants to live in it. That said, conquerors want to build things,an impulse expressed by Peter, James, and John. The last people who needed a house on a mountain were Moses and Elijah.

The paradox of the mountain top experience is the desire to make it permanent and the impossibility of doing so. That is generally a quandary of conquest. It is ethereal. It is fleeting. It is why Ernest Shackleton kept going back to the South Pole. Conquest never actually happens, it only fuels future ambition, or falls to historical revelry by old men (like me right now). No one conquers a mountain they just come back down filled with the desire to go back up.

Here is another paradox I was told by our guide: That experienced mountaineers are lazy, because whenever they stop, they sit down. She said this tongue in cheek. They stop to rest their bodies, to rehydrate, and to eat something.

But I think there is something more profound to be discovered in “the lazy.” I think the sitting is closer to the point of the climb itself. To climb is isolating, to climb is to look at your feet, to climb is exhausting, to climb is to be consumed by the mountain you can’t even see, until you sit down and turn around and see where you’ve come from.

To sit down seems the whole point. The vista is the deep value. That is another paradox of mountain climbing, it is about the sitting down. Lent with Intent invites us to sit down; to still our spirits, and seek the vistas of our soul that allow us to better see God. The practice of Christianity compels us to slow down, to stop, to sit down, to look around at what God has done — and say thank you. That is the point of Sunday service, worship is an action of gratitude. It is the mountain top experience of our faith.

Valerie and I brought a sign with us on our climb up Mount Rainier. It said Epiphany Parish- We are Part of the Pilgrimage. We were going to plant it on the mountain once conquered. But we never made it. We didn’t hit our number. We didn’t achieve our goal. We failed, which is hard when you are brought up on a steady gruel of achievement.

Some other guys continued to climb as we went back to the base camp. We sat in the tent. The flap was open, facing east.  There we saw the sunrise, just sitting there taking in the view. Only in retrospect do I see how that was the mountain top experience we were meant to have. It wasn’t about conquering the mountain it was about relationships engendered and lessons learned.

That’s what happened with Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor. Something shifted between them that deeply bound them as community, to see Jesus anew, transfigured, to perceive Jesus after the resurrection, to internalize Jesus through the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and to reconvene the body of Jesus through building the church.

Something galvanizing happened on that mountain between those men. In the same way that galvanizing relationships fuses on the mountain top of this church. Here, relationship is primary, and that doesn’t mean people will do what we want them to do, or act to affirm our own perceptions of how we think everything should be. It means that by the insoluble nature of these providential relationships (if we choose to let them be such) we become most fully who God hopes we will become.

This Lent, that we approach with Intent, as we each take on our own spiritual exercise, we do so in a way that brings us together as if we’re all sitting on a mountain watching the sun rise. That’s the experience of the mountain, in all of its paradoxes. It reflects the paradox of Christianity we intend to climb this Lent.