Mountains carry an immense spiritual freight in the biblical imagination. After 400 weary years of slavery in Egypt, Israel is constituted as a people as they surround Mount Sinai. In the book of Isaiah, the mountain of Zion is the site where God’s intent for the whole cosmos comes to finality and fruition. When Jesus is transfigured, pulling the veil back on his true identity, he does so on a mountain. In the wilderness of Judea, it is atop a mountain where Satan tempts Jesus with all the power of the world. In his last week of life, it is from a mountain that Jesus descends triumphantly into the city of Jerusalem. And, subsequently, Jesus instructs his disciples to meet him atop a mountain in Galilee after he has arisen from the dead. As this brief topographical survey suggests, you can practically trace the story of significant moments in Scripture through the mountains of the Middle East.
There is just something majestic, something mysterious and wild, about the mountains. I suppose that is why my wife Lara and I chose for our summer vacation—and for the celebration of our 6th wedding anniversary—a trip to California’s Yosemite Valley.
Yosemite was made famous by the likes of John Muir (also known as “John of the Mountains”) and Theodore Roosevelt. After hiking through it with Muir in 1903, Roosevelt declared Yosemite Valley hallowed ground. Exploding above Yosemite Valley is a geological masterpiece known as Half Dome. Half Dome is so named because, like a potter working with clay, glaciers slowly formed its iconic smooth and “dome-like” surface. Half dome sits at the breathtaking (literally) elevation of 8,900 feet, which puts it about a quarter mile above the highest point in the Blue Ridge Mountains and almost a full mile above the valley floor below it.
As is the case with any mountain of fame and stature, Half Dome dares hikers from around the world to test its limits. Known to the internet by the moniker, “The Half Dome Hike,” this 17-mile, sky-scraping journey requires a special permit that is won by lottery. Who would ever pay to have the chance to do such a thing?
Two Midwestern-born co-pastors living in the small-town south, apparently.
After eight hours of flying, four hours of driving and one ridiculously early wake-up time (4 a.m.) later, Lara and I stood at the Half Dome trailhead — headlamps and beef jerky in hand. The early sections of the hike are known aptly as “The Mist Trail,” so named because as you scale the infinite number of large granite stairs (the “Stairway to Heaven” as I called it), you are soaked with the water from Vernal and Nevada falls. As Lara and I trekked onward, we were met with the grandeur of wild things. Three black bears play-fought on a log just below the trail. Enormous rock formations erupted out of the valley like natural pyramids. For endless hours, all we had to do was simply watch the amphitheater of God’s creation reveal itself. Perhaps the psalmist’s language comes closest to what we saw, “O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
After weaving through miles of lush forests and scrambling a sketchy trail called “The Sub-Dome,” Lara and I reached the infamous “Cables of Half Dome.” Imagine 500 feet of cables jutting out of a 45-degree rock face 4,000 feet above the valley floor. In order to summit Half Dome, one must slowly—very slowly—pull themselves up to the top. Once we reached the top of Half Dome, we looked at the surrounding mountain vistas from the vantage point of God and the birds.
Being atop this mountain of majesty was, as I told Lara, “the most wonderful, terrifying thing I’ve ever done.” And that’s pretty much what I feel about being a pastor: it’s wonderful, terrifying work. Maybe that’s why such wonderful and terrifying things happen on mountains in Scripture, because the mountains are “thin places” — liminal spaces where heaven and earth converge like the tectonic plates that formed the Sierras. Mountains are the arenas of transfiguration and crucifixion, blessing and woe, fire and torah, and of divinity and humanity. In all their brutal brilliance, climbing mountains is like the pilgrimage of faith; it’s tiring, mysterious, full of twists and turns, and most of the time you feel unequipped and lost. But if Abraham, Moses, Elijah and Jesus can teach us anything about braving these craggy theophanies, it is that the struggle is worth the growth.
If you had seen us that afternoon as we completed our 11-hour, 4,500 feet, 17-mile journey, legs beaten and battered, you would’ve seen nothing but smiles framing our faces. Smiles of gratitude for God’s gift of mountainous places. Smiles of delight at the inherent and ever-present human need for adventure. Smiles of unbridled joy, because there was a pizza place just around the corner.
JOSHUA MUSSER GRITTER co-pastors First Presbyterian Church in Salisbury, North Carolina, with his wife Lara. They watch movies together with their dog Red.
Editor’s note: This blog was written prior to the coronavirus pandemic.