Saturday, March 28, 2009

Mountain of Promise

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Four in the AM and I'm up. My room still feels like a display at the museum in Cairo - poor lighting illuminates the clutter of a hasty departure and late return. Dust belies the fact that it has been bereft of human presence for two weeks. And I feel like a passer-by, an observer in my own home after wandering Jordan, Israel, and Egypt in some surreal version of my life...

A version in which...

I dreamt of chariot races in Petra last night.

I've done nothing but crave oatmeal in the 24 hours I've been back.

I climbed Mount Sinai.

* * *

We set our alarms for 1AM and headed out a half hour later. Wendie and I missed the bus (she thought her clock was fast) but we found it again at the little shop/lobby where the others were sipping tea or coffee and eating bread before the big climb. We had a moment to partake of the fare before we piled onto the bus and headed out.

The sense of adventure was as palpable as the chill in the night air. We pulled up to a building with a single light illuminating only a 20ft radius or so. The mountain was hidden in the darkness. All we could see was our guide as we stepped out of the bus and through the gate to begin our ascent. My mind was filled with what I had just been reading in Exodus: God instructed Moses to prepare here - prepare himself and the Israelites for His appearance - here, at the base of the very mountain we were attempting to ascend.

I had walked the valley in awe only hours earlier, the late afternoon sun bathing the desert foothills in a golden-amber glow.

This is where they camped. This is what greeted them every morning and what they said goodnight to every night. This is where they gathered manna, where they grumbled and complained, where they saw GOD...

Prepare.

The scene reminded me of a vision God had given me four years earlier, a vision of a high plateau with mountains all around. Only in the vision, the valley and the mountains were initially covered with snow and then had become a garden. The land I walked here was dry and barren. It was like I had already caught a glimpse of the way God made in this desert, the springs he brought to the wasteland. But that is another story - a story of how I was prepared.

Prepare

It's the word that God has spoken over this season of Lent. God said it to Moses, to the Israelites, too. The image I continue to carry in my mind's eye is that of the parable of the ten virgins. They prepared by having oil in their lamps at all times, waiting, watching for their Lord, ready to greet him, to go away with him at a moment's notice. They were prepared.

And because God had been saying it, I was prepared when the call came on Friday night saying, "Do you want to go to Israel?"

I was prepared in some way, yes, but shocked out of my socks! I had only just mentioned it that morning in an off-hand conversation. Little did I know that someone had been praying for exactly this trip, for me, for almost a week.

And when I went to God to ask him, "Can I go? Is this your time for me, your doing?" all he said was, "Prepare."

My only sadness on the morning we gathered at the base of a mountain we could not see for the dark was that I was climbing alone. It had been many years since the last time I went on a hike. Memories of the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone toyed with my imagination, but other than a distinct sense of my solitude, I was surprised to find little grief in my heart. It seems I have walked the path of sorrow and cried my tears for that life. I have already climbed that particular mountain and seen the view from there - and it was hard and beautiful and I am no longer the same person. I am no longer the Corpse Bride. I am no longer a tragic story. I am a new creation.

In fact, that revelation was a tangible presence, my companion on this pilgrimage to the Holy Land. So it was with the thought of that mountain I climbed four years ago that I grew excited about the hike ahead of me. What view would I gain from atop this mighty peak, the peak of Mt. Sinai, the place where God appeared and spoke and made a covenant with his people?

What view indeed! It was pitch black. We walked by the glow of a few flashlights and looked up at a sky overflowing with stars. At one point someone yelled, "On the left!" and a caravan of camels passed by. We paused as their tall, shadowy figures walked beside us, nothing but knees and swishing tails illuminated by our bulbs, their great long necks, regal heads, and besaddled humps dark shadows somewhere over our heads. For a moment they were sillhouetted against the stars and it nearly took my breath away. I felt like a pilgrim then, like one of the shepherds making her way to see the baby the angels had spoken of, or one of the attendents to the wise men who traveled so far to see the Christ.

My head was covered in a close proximity to the arabic fashion and I wore several layers against the chilly early morning air. At one point we walked beside the camels and I wondered at the picture we painted - if it had been light enough to see. Crazy Americans climbing from 3,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation with camels at 2AM!

I got into the groove and led our company out, walking in the dust of our guide, eventually joined by Galen, who's wife had opted to ride one of the camels to the top - or as close as the camel could get her to it. He held the flashlight for me and kept me company with his talk. It made me happy and I smiled at how God chooses to walk alongside us at times. I couldn't have asked for a more congenial, more considerate, and more appropriate hiking companion. He was even the one that loaned Wendie and I his thermals and kept us from freezing to death! :)

Somewhere near the peak the hike changed and the camels could go no further. The path became a very steep staircase carved into the rock or assimilated out of huge boulders. They were steep and they climbed up into the sky, into the black night without any hint as to their end or their final destination. I think there were about 750 steps, and it was the hardest climb I have ever encountered. The young guys passed me, I am ashamed to say, but I still think I did pretty darn good considering I am a girl and their senior. I was grateful for Galen's requests for more frequent stops to catch his breath until soon it was light enough to see and I pressed on by myself to the peak.

There were only two or three at the top when I arrived. There was a church of some sort, two plain stone buildings and a kind of courtyard in between. I climbed on top of the wall at the edge of the court, on the crest of the great cliffs looking down, and I watched and waited for the sunrise, breathing deeply in an effort to keep my body warm.

When I climbed that spiritual mountain so many years ago, I stood at the top and looked behind me. I saw the path coming up, I saw the past, a patchwork quilt with a ribbon of water through it. I saw the forest and the meadows and the sky. On top of Mt. Sinai I looked forward to what I could not face before - the path ahead of me. I saw an endless sea of mountain peaks, like waves in an ocean. I saw the mist hanging over their crests, like the Spirit of God resting on the waters. I saw the light of the sun long before it appeared, like the light of God's truth as it precedes him, illuminating all that was hidden in darkness before. I stood on the top of the world looking down as all of creation was being painted in pastels below me.


Then we huddled as a group as Roger read to us out of Exodus - I think. I can't remember exactly because all I could think about was pressing into the community around me, needing to get closer to them to avoid hypothermia, to feel warm, to live.

I'm glad I could not see but the steps in front of me as I climbed. If I could have seen the arduous path ahead I probably would have grown discouraged. If the hike had been scheduled for the middle of the day, I may not have gone. In the sun the stairs were endless, the path dusty and deep and hot, the mountainside a desert. I would have wondered about whether the peak was worth it. Perhaps I would have contented myself with the height just before the monstrous stair-climbing and comforted myself with an over-priced cup of cocoa and a solitary view of the sunrise from just below the top.

But God showed me only the steps in front of me disappearing into the darkness. It was not mine to ponder the length of it, to consider when it started or where it ended. It was mine to relish the moment, to embrace the challenge and savor the adventure. It was mine to accept the companionship along the way, to offer covering when it was needed (Wendie will know what that means), to dangle on the cliffs by myself in the first rays of light and to press into the warmth of others when there was a chance.

I looked toward the future, toward life on top of that mountain, then we climbed down the way we came.
I always thought that embracing the future would be to step off the cliff in faith somehow, to fly from the mountain peak or dive off into what is in store. But we climbed down the way we came and continued on the journey where we left off.

Aaron, "The Burro," and Rodney, "The Puma," were my companions on the way down. My heart was full and I sang for a while...

Soon and very soon we are going to see the King
Halleluiah, Halleluiah we are going to see the King!

Then we talked and told stories in easy comaraderie until the bottom, recalling such tales as our first kiss and first date, Rodney performing his classic "Ta-Da" that we laughed about for the remainder of the trip.

Once upon a time I used to meet with God in a place in the heart, a perfectly round meadow surrounded by trees. Then God brought me to that place. It's called the Sanctuary of Hope and it's in Kansas.

Once upon a time God took me to a place in my imagination, a plateau in the cleft of the rocks where he called me his dove and covered me with a pristine white robe. Then God took me to the desert where I camped in that plateau and climbed to that peak where he covered me. It looked like the desert, but I had seen it both white with snow and bathed in the rainbow of a spring garden. I saw it now and in the future through the past, the past of God's promise, which he is fulfilling, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but always materialized if we believe.

Prepare for the consummation of God's promise, people of the Lord!

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