Fellow Passengers, this week’s Poetry Passage (Psalm 24) transported me to Grandfather Mountain, just outside of Linville, NC. In a matter of days, I will be running “The Bear,” a five mile race to the top of Grandfather Mountain that is the part of the Highland Games celebration. Let me be clear, however, I’m not really a runner. Rather, I refer to myself as a “schlogger” (it looks pretty much how it sounds). There are no speed records broken when I schlog – the goal is just crossing the finish line.
As I’ve prepared for this race over the past few months, I’ve learned a very important principle about running and about life. You don’t just wake up one morning and decide that you are going to run up a mountain. When I started running a couple of years ago, I am not exaggerating when I say that a 20 foot tall hill was a major obstacle. Running up Grandfather Mountain will be a 1,600 foot obstacle. I have been training for this for months, slowly increasing my hill work to be able to handle this formidable challenge. There have been many days that I didn’t really feel like running, but I went anyway. There have been many times when the voice in my head has said, “This is crazy! Why are you doing this?” but I kept going. There has been a temptation to cut corners and leave out the big hills, but I didn’t. There have been many runs that I wanted to sit down half way up one of those hills, but I kept going – one slow, agonizing step at a time.
“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?” the Psalmist asks in Psalm 24. “And who shall stand in God’s holy place?” Mountains have always played a pivotal role in the life of God’s people. Whether it was Mt. Sinai upon which Moses received the law, Mt. Carmel where Elijah faced down the prophets of Baal, Mt. Moriah where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac, or Jerusalem where the temple of God was built on the highest peak, mountains symbolized closeness and communion with the Almighty. One might even say, “The higher the elevation, the more sacred the space” in many cases.
For the Jewish people, the law commanded an annual pilgrimage to holy place of the temple to offer one’s sacrifices to the Lord. Really spiritual Jews (and those who could afford it) may have gone multiple times a year. The journey from the surrounding countryside up to the city of Jerusalem and to the temple was often a long one. As the pilgrims traveled, they sang songs to accompany them on their way. These songs retold the stories of the people. They reminded them of God’s deliverance. They called the pilgrims to “lift up their eyes” that they might catch a glimpse of God. Eventually these songs would be collected together into what is now known as the “Songs of Ascents” (Psalm 120-134 in our Bible).
In his book on the Songs of Ascents, Eugene Peterson described the theme and overall message of these songs as “a long obedience in the same direction.” You see, it’s not heroic acts that typically bring us face to face with God. Rather, it is “a long obedience in the same direction.” It’s one slow, agonizing step after another. It’s making up our minds that we are going to schlog up that hill whether we feel like it not. It’s making a thousand small decisions to follow God’s command. It’‘s “presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice.” It’s taking up our cross daily to follow. This is discipleship: not the sporadic sprint, but the long, intentional, steady climb of obedience up the mountain of the Lord, where we just might finding God waiting there, ready to meet us face to face, when we summit.
Rev. Steven Norris is Senior Pastor of Ecclesia Baptist Church in Fairview, NC. He is also an accomplished trombonist and performs on occasion with the Blue Ridge Orchestra.