Spiritual Topography

Sermon for Sunday, February 11, 2018 || Last Epiphany B || Mark 9:2-9

Our spiritual lives are topographically interesting. Two of the most enduring images of walking with God are the mountain and the valley, the high place and the low. You’ve heard of the proverbial “mountain top experience,” which can spark faith for the first time or renew the well-trodden paths of faith. And you’ve prayed the immortal words of Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…thou art with me.” The mountain and the valley: these are the peaks of our spiritual lives and the troughs.

The stories of the Bible often involve such peak moments, literal ones that take place on actual mountains. Noah’s ark comes to rest in the mountains after withstanding the flood. Abraham’s faith is renewed when the Lord provides the ram for the sacrifice; Moses receives the ten commandments and speaks with God; Elijah discovers God’s presence when he’s on the run; even the holy reign of God is envisioned as a mountain – Mount Zion. The valley times are less literal in the scriptures, but still very present, especially in the book of Psalms. The poet laments of sinking into mire or drowning in the sea or falling into a deep pit or generally being unable to find God’s presence.

In the life of Jesus we see both the mountain top and the valley. He’s in the valley when praying in the garden of Gethsemane and when crying out his abandonment on the cross. Jesus preaches his most famous sermon on a mountain and commissions his disciples on a mountain. In today’s lesson, he takes his inner circle up a mountain, and there he is “transfigured before them, and his clothes become dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”

In this event, Jesus gives Peter, James, and John a proverbial and literal mountain top experience, a vision that will hopefully strengthen their faith and steel their nerve for the days to come. For Jesus knows what’s about to happen in Jerusalem; his friends are going to need all the spiritual fortitude than can get. But Peter doesn’t seem to want to leave the mountain. When Moses and Elijah, two other prominent spiritual mountaineers, arrive to speak with Jesus, Peter blurts out his plan. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Peter doesn’t really know what to say, but his words suggest he is content to remain on that mountain top while these three great prophets set up shop. I can hear him saying, “No, no. It’s no trouble. You three, just take your time. We’re good.” I think a part of Peter – the small part designated for self-reflection – knows something is going to happen once they leave mountain. There have been rumblings. Jesus has told them his death is near, and Peter didn’t want anything to do with it. Peter knows there’s a valley awaiting him below, so he’s content to stay put on that mountain, thank you very much.

I know how Peter feels. Obviously, the mountain is so much more fun and relaxing and – hey – it’s just easier than the valley. Why would anyone want to leave? Well, for most of us it doesn’t happen on purpose. Sometimes, tragedy strikes and we’re heaved off the mountain like that page in the great children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon when Harold draws one side of the mountain, but then falls off the undrawn other side. We could be tempted into thinking this is the only way to come down from the mountaintop – that without tragedy we would get to stay up there for the long haul. But that’s not the reality of our walks with God. Most mountain tops are merely sugar rushes for the soul. We might stay up there for a little while, but inevitably we crash.

Here’s what happens to me. When I’m on a spiritual high, I’m in the most danger – for one simple reason. It’s on the mountaintop that I forget to pray. I’m really good at remembering to pray when everything’s going horribly. In the valley, prayers just bubble up from some secret well of my soul. I enter spiritual survival mode and begin frantically looking for God, only to have the walls of anxiety or fear or exhaustion limit my sight. And my prayer becomes the call of the psalmist, crying out for a God who no longer seems to be around. But on the mountaintop, things are going so great that I trick myself into thinking I don’t need to pray. Prayer is for the lean times, I tell myself, not the times of plenty.

Of course, prayer is for both the lean and plentiful times, which is why prayer includes both gratitude and petition; that is, thanking God for blessings and asking God for more blessings. But I guarantee you, I am constitutionally incapable of remembering this when I’m riding that spiritual sugar rush. I know the deficiency in my brain, but such knowledge doesn’t transfer into practice as often as it could. Like Peter, I want to stay on the mountaintop. Like Peter, I tumble back to earth.

If you’re anything like me, and you have trouble taking your spiritual life seriously when everything is going well, then I invite you to join me in a discipline. It’s a more intense variation on counting our blessings. I do that simpler level of discipline in my journal, but too often the lists become fairly homogenous and perfunctory. I simply list my blessings and forget to thank God for them. But this variation doesn’t allow such limited interaction.

Take a few moments to look at the current state of your life. Orient yourself on the topographical map of your walk with God. Where are you in relation to your most recent valley? If you know that you are no longer in the valley, force yourself to do more than think about or list your blessings. Rather than an amorphous abstraction you call “blessing,” separate each small blessing into individual shimmering lights of grace. Write each one down. Then thank God for the blessings individually, and be creative. Thank God not just in thought but via action. If your blessing is having enough food, go feed someone who is starving. If your blessing is living near the ocean, go stomp around in the shallows (though you may want to wait until summer for this one). If your blessing is being a member of a loving family, go tell them how much they mean to you. If your blessing is simply the song in your heart, go sing.

This discipline will not guarantee a return to the mountain nor a vaccine against the valley, but it will keep our prayer lives more consistent and more active. If we only pray when we enter survival mode, we condition ourselves into thinking that survival is prayer’s only function. But it’s not true. God invites us into prayerful relationships at every stage of life and state of being: on the mountaintop, in the valley, and everywhere in between. This morning I feel blessed to be here with you, preaching this sermon. And I close today praying my gratitude, acting out this wonderful blessing. Thank you, Lord, for the opportunity to speak the words you have placed on my heart. Thank you for these people who listen: for ears to hear and hearts to love. Thank you, Lord for this blessing. Amen.

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