At the Academy Awards this past week, the movie “Free Solo” won for Best Picture documentary. It is the story of Alex Honnold, who last year became the first person to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan alone and without the aid of a rope -- the historic ascent of nearly 3,000 feet of vertical granite. I saw this movie just days before the Academy Awards, and was simply floored by the movie and by Alex Honnold. I believe his story - his ascent up this mountain alone - holds great truths and a deeper meaning for all us.
In 1923, the mountaineer George Mallory gave an interview to in which he famously explained why he was determined to summit Mount Everest. “Because it’s there.” He died in the attempt the following year. Alex Honnold, according to columnist Bret Stephens, seems to have a different explanation for why he climbs. “Because I’m here.”
Honnold, who is 33, doesn’t quite put it in those words, at least not in “Free Solo”. Honnold is not a thrill seeker. He’s a perfectionist who understands that the achievement of one supreme thing depends on the mastery of a thousand small things. That’s what transforms this movie from one that’s just about one remarkable feat of daring and athleticism into something much deeper. Not just for those people who are suckers for mountains (like me), but for anyone who seeks to do anything well OR for anyone who seeks to deepen their relationship to God.
There are many texts in the Bible that speak of mountains as holy spaces where one might encounter the living God, but almost all of them speak of experiences on those mountains, at those summits, and of what happens upon descent from the mountain.
But, none of the sacred texts speak more than a whisper about the ascent. Yes, there is the Song of Ascents, a title given to fifteen of the Psalms, but none actually talk about climbing a mountain. So, what about the trek up the mountain? Exodus says the "Lord summoned Moses to the top of Mount Sinai and Moses simply "went up." (Ex. 19:20) Luke says that Jesus took Peter, James and John and went up on the mountain to pray. (Lk. 9:28)
But, if you have climbed mountains of varying heights and degrees of difficulty before, you will agree with me when I say that there's more to it than these texts suggest. There is a lot of effort that lies behind these two words: “went up.”
Step, step, step. Stop. Catch your breath. Adjust your pack. Step, step, step. Breathe.
I am drawn to the ascent--not so much to the clouds and the light and the mystery at the summit, or to the descent at the other end of the experience, but to the climb itself as a way of talking about our approach to the experience of God.
Sounds like what I may be describing is metaphorically the journey of human life and of human faith.
About the ascent of human faith …at least the kinds of life and faith journeys many of us have experienced, let me explain in light of our church’s two core values:
We study. We actively look to increase our knowledge of God’s word and God’s direction for us as captured in the Bible.
We pray. Prayer is central in our discernment.
These are two essential tools in our ascent of the mountain. In your own faith journey, what are you doing when it comes to your study? Are you expecting to ascend that mountain without ever putting on a backpack or breaking your boots in?
And with prayer, how is this prayer thing working for you as you are climbing? We’ve heard Jesus tell these same disciples to pray…and not to lose heart. I suspect you, like them, have problems with prayer. Sometimes there are no more troubling words than the words, “let us pray.”
So, in the rigors of the ascent, do you lose sight of praying? As you climb, do you list all the problems you have with prayer? The problem you face may be practical: I just can’t find the time in my busy schedule for prayer; I want to pray but the pressure of life squeezes it out.
Or, as you climb, is the problem metaphysical? -- what does it mean to entreat God to cause something to happen? I suspect, the real problem - the deepest problem in prayer - is that we lose heart, we simply lose heart. If we really knew that praying for healing, praying for the joy for our family, for justice worked, then no one would keep us away from using prayer like a sure, steadying walking stick.
I am not saying we need pray more because what is required in a life of faith is dogged persistence. When the going gets tough, the tough get going in prayer. No, I think when Jesus took his disciples up to the mountain to pray, and later said to them, pray and do not lose heart, he wanted them to see not only the eternal splendor of God but the trustworthiness of God.
Prayer and study are necessary and important in the conditioning and development of our life of faith.
But, I know first-hand that it's a difficult climb. How long it will take, or what kind of effort, I don't know and can't say. I don't know because, like most of you, I am still climbing. And some days the ascent is demanding, and I find myself more than a bit shaky and short of breath.
But, we must keep climbing. We climb in faith because you are here and your heart is restless until it finds rest in thee, O God.
Click here to listen to Pastor John’s entire sermon on making the ascent up the mountain.