In 1995, I had the opportunity to spend a summer working at a Christian camp near Yosemite National Park. As I climbed up into the foothills north of Fresno on my 1975 BMW R90S motorcycle, I traded the city life for oak woodlands and rolling hills. By the time I reached Oakhurst I was in mixed oak and sabine pine forest dominated by the pungent aromas of incense cedar and bear clover. It felt like I had arrived at home.
As a new Christian, I was assigned to the maintenance crew (presumably where I would do the least damage) rather than the counseling staff. This was perfect because it gave me a regular schedule with evenings and weekends off to explore the area. When I wasn’t repairing roads or cabins, cutting firewood for the winter, or chasing off black bears from behind the kitchen, I was mountain biking or hiking or exploring Yosemite and the surrounding Sierra National Forest.
I also spent some time following around the hottie who ran the snack shop. I met her in a staff meeting by complimenting her Birkenstocks (write that down, single guys – compliment her shoes!). On my breaks during the hot summer days I would stop by her hut for a soda and an ice cream. We would sit and chat for as long as possible before I had to get back to my crew. By the end of the summer I knew I would marry her if she’d say yes (which she did a year later!).
That summer was one of exponential spiritual growth. I was a new believer surrounded by passionate Christians, immersed in the most amazing place of all of God’s creation. My supervisor on maintenance crew was Larry Watkins. Larry was a family man and a strong Christian. He took me under his wing and mentored me that entire summer, helping me to memorize Scripture and understand what I was learning. He even bought me my first science-faith book, Biology through the Eyes of Faith, knowing I was headed to graduate school in science. That started a lifelong pursuit of looking for God in all of His creation.
I also began attending church and other functions with Ann’s family. Ann is the cute brunette I eventually married and made babies with. She has been my partner in adventure ever since that summer. Her father pastored a local church in Bass Lake, and I spent much of my weekends with Ann and her large family. I’d never known a family so committed to the Lord. Most conversations were about God. And the laughter was continuous, day and night. This family drew me into the Shepherd’s flock more than almost any other experience, and I will forever be grateful.
One Saturday in August several of us decided to hike up the backside of Half Dome in YNP. This was before the days when permits were required, so we could be spontaneous. We got to the southern park entrance at 7 am and so skipped most of the tourist traffic. By 8 am we were on the trail. If you’ve never hiked this trail up Half Dome, I highly recommend it. It is a difficult 16-mile round trip, and your legs will complain loudly, but the vistas make it well worth the effort and lingering pain. Two massive waterfalls (Vernal and Nevada), miles of wilderness, bears, rattlesnakes, grouse, deer. And at the end of the trail, there are cables that go up the nearly vertical backside of the dome. The last ten minutes are like rock climbing without ropes or a harness!
When we arrived at the top I was feeling pretty good about myself. I was young, physically fit, living in the great outdoors of California’s Sierra Nevada range. And I had just hiked, and climbed, to the top of one of the most amazing peaks in the world, Half Dome. I got a dose of humility, though, when I had to share the experience with grannies and little kids. Not long after, two climbers appeared over the lip, having climbed for two full days, sleeping on the face in a portaledge! But the view and the feeling from the top were no less incredible for having taken the easier route.
The summit of most mountains affords unparalleled vistas for miles in all directions. Peering over the edge (carefully!) of Half Dome you can see the Yosemite Valley nearly a vertical mile below you. Looking across the valley you can see nothing but undeveloped wilderness in all directions. It is a high better than any drug or alcohol can give.
That summer at camp was a mountaintop high for me as well. New friends, a love interest, deep spiritual growth, all in the peaceful arms of western Sierra sugar pine, ponderosa, and cedar forests.
But just like I had to eventually descend Half Dome and return to camp, life isn’t spent on the mountaintops. Nor is it typically spent in the valleys. When we’re hiking we tend to avoid valley bottoms and get out of them as quickly as possible. They are often rough going, overgrown with plants, and difficult to navigate. No, we spend most of our time on level ground. And the same is true in life. We certainly have mountaintop experiences and deep valley experiences, but most of life is lived on the plains, on level ground. Boring. Predictable. Neither high nor low.
Over these next few weeks, we will explore the mountaintops and valleys of life in search of understanding one primary question. Assuming God does not waste a single experience in our lives but instead redeems each and every one of them, what can we learn from time spent in the mountains high and valleys low?
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. Romans 8:28 (NIV)
The mountains are calling and I must go. – John Muir
Take-home point: God uses the mountaintop experiences as well as the valley experiences to shape us into the image of His Son.
Take-home verse: Romans 8:28
Questions for thought
Have you ever climbed to the top of peak? What was the feeling from high above the world? How did you feel when you had to return to level ground again?
What mountaintop experiences have you had in life? What gifts did you receive from the Lord in those times?
How can we be sure to remember what He shows us up on the mountain when life returns to normal again?
Father, you created the mountains of this planet by your mighty hand. And sometimes you bless us by carrying us to the top where we are humbled in your presence. The sheer mass of a mountain is heart stopping. And the heights and vistas simply take our breath away. Thank you for the mountains, Lord, and thank you for sharing them with us. Amen.