Friday, August 10, 2012

Finding God in the mountains

On Monday I will be leaving for Squaw Valley, CA. Squaw Valley is a ski area that hosted the 1960 winter olympics and overlooks beautiful Lake Tahoe. Mountains figure prominently in the life of Jesus. He was transfigured on Mt. Tabor, we know about his sermon on the Mount, and we know he often retired to the mountains to spend the night in prayer. Most recently, Pope John Paul II was also known to be a great lover of mountains. He would escape to ski in the Italian Alps and when a polish priest, used to take young people up into the mountains. Mountains figure prominently in the spiritual life. St. John of the Cross used the analogy of climbing a mountain to describe the spiritual life (the ascent of mount carmel). Mountains can be obstacles, or they can be majestic peaks that remind us of the grandeur of God. When one climbs a mountain there needs to be proper preparation for severe weather changes. Here in New England the place known with the worst weather in the world is Mt Washington. Every summer thousands of hikers will climb the mountain. As one gets into the higher elevations the protective layers disappear. One of the amazing things about Mt. Washington is the dramatic ascent above the tree line. Artic fauna becomes the norm. The hiker is exposed to the elements. So it is as we get close to God. Those things we use to hide from Him-addictions, bad habits, sin-all get exposed as one climbs higher. When it comes to the highest peaks in the world, it is always a team that makes the ascent (Mt Everest, k-2). None of us is an island. Not even God is a perfect solitude. He was never alone-He was always Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We need community, we need to work out our salvation with brothers and sisters who are "teammates". Mountains also afford another perpective. One of my favorite hikes is Cannon mountain, NH. As you stand over what once was the "old man on the mountain" you look down on I-93. You see how small the cars are. Those problems, those things that seem to keep troubling you, look quite small when seen from the heights. " To the heights" was the motto of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassatti. Blessed Pier Giorgio loved the mountains outside his home of Turin, Italy. He loved to hike. Mountains are the setting of some of the world's most famous monastaries. Saint Bruno founded the Carthusian order in the mountains of France. I spent some time at Monte Corona, an ancient Camaldolese monastery west of Assisi in Italy. Psalm 121 says so beautifully: "I raise my eyes toward the mountains. From where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth." Psalm 95 says "Come, let us sing joyfully to the Lord; cry out to the rock of our salvation. Let us greet him with a song of praise, joyfully sing out our psalms. For the Lord is the great God, the great king over all gods, whose hand holds the depths of the earth; who owns the tops of the mountains. The sea and dry land belong to God, who made them, formed them by hand." In 1 Kings 19 there is the famous passage of the prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel: "There he came to a cave, where he took shelter. But the word of the Lord came to him, 'Why are you here, Elijah?' He answered: 'I have been most zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.' The the Lord said, 'Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord: the Lord will be passing by.' A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord-but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake-but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire-but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said to him 'Elijah why are you here?' He replied, 'I have been most zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. But the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.' 'Go, take the road back to the desert near Damascus' the Lord said to him.' When you arrive, you shall aniont Hazael as king of Aram. Then you shall anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi, as king of Israel, and Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah, as prophet to succeed you.'" Looking for your marching orders? Want to realign yourself with God's purpose in your life? Go to the mountains. It is what Jesus did. If you cannot go to the mountains then find some quiet place in nature where you can hear the "Still, small voice." Be persistent and do not let the silence of God frighten you. He is waiting.

Christian Themes in "Carousel"

Last night I had the great privilege of watching Rogers & Hammerstein's classic musical "Carousel." The setting was the Goodspeed Opera House on the CT river in Haddam Ct. What a beautiful spot and what a beautiful theater. For such a small stage the play really brought out some dramatic performances. The singing was wonderful and the chorearaphy/dancing was outstanding. From the sound of many tears I could tell the play impacted many in the theater deeply. One of the key Christian themes is redemption. Billy Bigelow takes his life and comes through the "back gate" of what appears to be heaven. He is asked if he has any unfinished business. Mind you, his friend Jigger, who got him into the predicament in the first place, warns him-he will not get to go before the Supreme Judge. Jigger tells him the best the two can hope for is a local magistrate. Only the rich get to go before the Supreme Judge. This is a reversal of how Christians understand God. Because of Jesus it is the poor who have a special place in the heart of the "supreme judge." In the dramatic scene in the gospel of Matthew we are told that we will be judged on how we cared for the "least in our midst." Are we goats or sheep? The answer appears to have eternal consequences. What is interesting is that Billy Bigelow appears to receive a second chance. In life Jesus gives us more than a second chance-he gives us many chances-his mercy endures forever. St Peter, the leader of the church, experiences this first hand. That same mercy was extended to Judas, but he ended in despair. The problem of a second chance after one dies is problematic. The Catholic church understands purgatory to be a place of final purification. It is not "plan b" as some see it, or even a second chance, but rather a place where one has been saved but there is still some attachment to sin, or purification that needs to take place. In the words of Curtis Martin, author of "Catholic for a reason": "The second objection against purgatory is that it is a manufactured second chance. If you don't really want to follow Christ, you can still get to heaven through 'the back door.' This offends against Christ, who called us to stand with Him or against Him. Scripture is clear that mediocrity is unacceptable: 'I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! Wo, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot or cold, I will spew you out of my mouth.'(Rev 3: 15-16) Jesus calls for complete commitment. He is either Lord of all, or He isn't Lord at all. There is no second chance; we are either for Christ or against Him (Lk 11:23). The doctrine of purgatory seems to be an end-run. But Jesus said, I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.(Jn 14:6)." Aware of the traditional scripture "proof" passages for purgatory ( 2 Macc 12:45-It was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin), Curtis Martin still remained skeptical about the Catholic teaching on purgatory. He was a born again evangelical and "faith alone" and "sola scriptura" were the two pillars of his faith. Listen to his words on how he began to see that the Catholic teaching may be true after all: " I began to search the Gospels to see if Jesus gave any teachings concerning judgement or purification at the end of our earthly life. I began to see that several of Our Lord's teachings, far from disproving purgatory, seemed to point to the possibility that there might be some debt of justice that would be paid after our earthly life. As Christ teaches about the importance of forgiveness, He gives the example of a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. He brought in a man who owed a great deal of money and forgave him the debt. The forgiven man in turn went our and met one of his fellow slaves, who owed him but a fraction of the amount, and demanded repayment. The just king summoned his slave back and said,'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should you not have mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you? And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt (Mt 18:32-34) What was Jesus talking about? Scripture clearly attests 'There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1). And yet Our Lord Himself gives the example of a man who had been forgiven, afterward acted unjustly, and finally was handed over to repay all that he owed. Again in St. Luke's Gospel, Our Lord challenges His followers to make peace with one another, so that they will not be handed over to the magistrate who should throw them into prison: 'I tell you, you will never get out till you have paid the very last penny (Lk 12:59; Mt 5:26). Christ calls the believer, who has passed out of condemnation-the sentence of hell-to live a life of justice which will be exacted to the last cent. If this is not the case, then the teachings of Jesus make no sense. The Catholic teaching about purgatory is that if, at the end of our earthly life, this debt of justice was not satisfied, we shall be purified in purgatory before entering heaven. The teachings of Christ do not contradict this." Aside from purgatory, there is also the Catholic theme of the intercession of the saints. We believe that saints are alive, part of the body of Christ, our brothers and sisters, and people upon whom we can call for assistance. As is the case with Billy Bigelow, we see he is able to go back and be very close to his daughter. He even trips Enoch who insults her. We believe that the canonized saints and our dearly departed loved ones are very close to us as well. We also believe that healing with deceased individuals can help with prayer. For instance mothers who abort children find great healing when naming the child and knowing the child has forgiven them. People who experience sudden loss of a loved one may have some unresolved issues-these, too can be worked out in prayer. What about suicide? Isn't that a mortal sin and doesn't that condemn someone to hell? No. There are three necessary conditions for a mortal sin: grave matter, sufficient relection, and full consent of the will. Depression severly impairs the consent of the will and a person who may be inebriated or on drugs is not capable of making a fully rational decision. In this area the church focuses on mercy. Through it all the Christian can "confidently walk through the storms of life with a head held high" because Jesus has promised that he will walk with us every step of the way. Carousel is a wonderful musical that highlights human love, sin, redemption, mercy and forgiveness-all Christian themes-in a powerful way. As Psalm 23 tells us: "You guide me along the right path for the sake of your name. Even when I walk through a dark valley, I fear no harm for you are at my side; your rod and staff give me courage." What a comforting thought....none of us walks alone.....Jesus is at our side!