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“The Mountains Are My Church”: A Reflection

Wolf Creek

Wolf Creek, Colorado, January 2017; taken by me.

So, I’ve heard this line a lot: “The mountains are my church.” I’ve perhaps heard it more than most, as I’m a pastor, and people often volunteer a description of their spirituality to me, and also because I currently live in Boulder, Colorado, filled with Mountain Lovers such as myself.

Part of me responds to this line with an inner eye roll. That is, outwardly, I smile and nod, while inwardly my soul goes all StanleyStanley-from-The-Office, because I’ve heard this sentiment so often, and because I love the Church in all of its broken beauty, and can’t help but hear a curt dismissal of that which I think is the most important institution in the world (cue inner eye roll for some of you).

Nevertheless. From a theological perspective, while the line indeed warrants constructive criticism, it also deserves validation. I will begin with the latter.

The Giver in the Gift

face shots

Not me.

The experience that is behind the Mountains-are-my-church idea is what is called transcendence. By default, much of life (particularly 21st century North American life) is solipsistic. Self-absorption is the order of the day, and we tend to direct our lives so as to be the sun of our own little relational solar systems. But in the mountains (or on the beach, etc.–insert your own preferred ecological place) we cannot but help to behold the beyond. We have the pleasantly uncomfortable experience of a grandeur which dwarfs our own delusions of the same. We feel more real, more “alive” because of a scaled reality that includes us and also transcends us. Much of this happens off stage of our conscious thoughts, as is often the case in the realm of aesthetics. That is, when I experience ten blissful turns in bottomless powder on a steep, untracked bowl at my local ski mountain, I don’t need to think about transcendence, because I just experienced it in the form of face shots.

And yet, more is needed than just a snow-eating grin and another trip up the lift. The something more is gratitude. Without it, an experience of transcendence gets sucked into the orbit of our self-absorption. The story is told of a Rabbi named Jesus who heals ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19). Only one of them offers a word of gratitude in response. Describing what was different about the grateful man, one commentator explains, “He saw the Giver in the gift.”

We marvel at the design of nature, but do we applaud the Designer? We soak in the beauty, but do we acknowledge the Artist? “Thank you,” the two words which are arguably the essence of prayer, can be uttered even by those of us who are not pray-ers, even by those of us who hold at an arm’s length the possibility of a Being behind the beauty. Gratitude is how we move towards seeing the Giver in the gift.

Gathered and Scattered

So, yes, the mountains can be a churchly experience, for part of the point of “church” is to provide a space and an occasion to encounter the Holy, and to express our gratitude for beauty.

But.

More is needed. The mountains are not sufficient for anyone’s “church.”

And here’s the key: the thing that drives people crazy about church, that often drives people away, fleeing for the serenity of the hills, that thing is actually what makes church church, and is the very thing that we need to encounter the fullness of who God is. That thing? People.

I won’t go into too much theology mumbo jumbo here, but the concept of church that leaps out from the Bible is that church is necessary so that God’s people can be gathered and scattered. We gather together to worship, pray, and offer encouragement to each other. We are then scattered so as to be God’s people in the world.

And yes, the fact that we have to gather with a bunch of broken, messy, awkward, sometimes-not-nice, often hypocritical people is by design. It’s the way God wants it. God wants it this way not to annoy us, but so as to enable transcendence, that very experience that we get in the mountains. A different kind of transcendence happens in church, however. When I enter into relationship with a bunch of broken, messy, awkward, sometimes-not-nice, often hypocritical people (ahem, a bunch of people like me), and when I stick in those relationships, my me-centric universe encounters the fracturing grace of Jesus, the one “who came not to be served, but to serve.” This can’t happen “in the mountains.” Even though I would choose a trout rising to my dry fly over a church potluck nine times out of ten, I need the latter as much as I long for the former.

So, Mountains-Are-My-Church people, I feel ya. Two suggestions: 1) The next time you’re in the mountains, say “thank you,” taking the risk that there is an Artist behind that artwork; 2) Try church (again? for the first time?) and know that the difficulty of it is the very thing that makes it beautiful.

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Comments

  1. Wow, I have heard the “the mountain is my church” before and you speak on this clearly and convincingly. I will share this.

    Thanks.

  2. Pete Noack says:

    Thanks Jeff! Well said, This is going to my wife and daughter immediately. I like the multiple paradoxes you put out there. Real good food for thought.

    Thank You!!

  3. Hi Jeff,
    Reading Ps. 121:1(without punctuation) in the old KJV goes like this: “I lift mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh mine help”. A possible implication being that we can draw a certain strength or inspiration from the mountains. A proper reading would be with the punctuation. “I lift mine eyes unto the hills. From whence cometh mine help?”
    Ps. 121 is a song of ascents or a pilgrim psalm. As the pilgrims would go up to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple, they would walk through the valleys, keeping their eyes on the hills for fear of bandits.

  4. Well said. And John C touched on a similar theme in a recent devotion at Session. And good news: the mountain church and the people church are not mutually exclusive – we can have both.

  5. Rhonda Blinne.org says:

    Amen, Brother Jeff! Kudos to you for declaring Biblical truth, honestly supported by Scripture, while maintaining a tone of gentle humility. Keep proclaiming Scripture, and may we ever seek Him as we hunger and thirst for righteousness.

  6. John Moser says:

    Jeff. You nailed it. As a Lake Tahoe devotee I resonate with “the mountain is my church” folk and…… worshiping the Designer God who stepped into the design in Jesus brings me to chirch. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.
    J

  7. Linda Wagner says:

    Very true..I love the mountains and I love church..we need both to be, as you say, gathered and scattered

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