Saturday, November 29, 2008

The "Mountaintop Experience"

A day or two ago my son climbed to the top of Island Peak in Nepal. Its summit is at 20,300 feet. The mountain is only two or three peaks away from Mount Everest. In the past few years my son has also climbed to the summit of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Aconcagua in Argentina, Elbrus in Russia, peaks in Ecuador, and throughout the sierras from Washington State to California.

This photo shows him a few feet from the summit of Island Peak.

How often in my teen years a good friend and I set out to explore the mountains to the north of us. The youthful desire to discover, find adventure, break away from adult constrictions, and stake a claim on independence pressed us to go beyond the asphalt streets and manicured lawns into wild territory. “Wild” territory was just following a stream that somehow managed to survive the shackles of neighborhoods and shopping centers.

I noticed one day about 1964 that this stream flowed along its gentle course adjacent to my high school, that it came from the north, and that to the north was a ridge of mountains. I reasoned that the stream must have a source somewhere within a few miles of us, and I suggested to my friend that he and I follow the stream until we found the spring that brought its waters to the surface.

For a number of Saturdays we hiked alongside that stream, passing through neighborhoods we’d never otherwise have known, cutting through fields, passing underneath rows of eucalyptus, and eventually coming into the foothills. When we got far enough away, we had to depend on our mothers to drive us to the place where we’d left off the previous Saturday afternoon, and pick us up eight hours later.

As we had feared that we might, once we entered the mountains we came to places we couldn’t get through on foot—steep slopes with Gordian tangles of briars and the like. We had to go around and then guess where the stream, ever narrowing, picked up. I’m pretty sure we did find its source—somewhere on a slope. The stream burbled down the incline into a narrow dell, turned to follow the decline, and went off to the points south where we’d come from. And it was obvious that the water had to emerge from the mountain at some place veiled in the briars. We considered our quest achieved.

By that time, though, finding the spring was only one reason we were hiking; we’d found so many hidden, rural places that our pleasure was not limited to completing our goal. We pressed on until we came to the peak of the mountain. There were four old pepper trees near the summit. Under their shade we ate our sack lunch and looked out over the valley in which dozens of incorporated little cities lay and a million people had their homes—including us. We returned to that small grove near a mountaintop several times over our teen years.

There is a theological reason why Moses met God on a mountaintop, why Jesus was transfigured on a mountain. Even the crucifixion took place on “Mount Calvary”. The term “mountaintop experience” refers to some sort of revelatory experience with God. Many people need at some time in their lives to be at the top of a mountain, whether it is low or lofty. The vision they are afforded must be literal as well as internal. Sometimes people need to see for miles and miles in all directions. Human minds and souls need remote horizons, not compaction.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


As I write, the Yorba Linda-Corona fire is burning a few miles to the east of me and the Brea fire is about three miles to the north. I didn’t see the signs of fire until about midday, when I noted a great brown and orange cloud to the east. I wondered how far away the fire was. It was obviously the kind of cloud that only a massive wildfire can produce. I’ve seen more than one of them in the years I have lived in Placentia.

At this time of year there are warm, dry winds that blow from the east, and much of the land is hard-packed and dry. What growth covers the hills is dry as well after a hot summer and before the rainy season begins. This part of California sees fires often in late autumn. Sometimes they are set, but a chance spark can also ignite them. I think this is the third season of firestorms in five years, but never have they been so close to me. It is the first time I have felt personally anxious about such a fire.

Within two hours of the time I first noted the cloud to the east, the entire sky was dark as dusk. Smoke filled the air and the only place I could see sky was far toward the western horizon. The sun was dull and surrounded by a red halo. Ash drifted downward like a light gray snowfall, and the smell of massive burning was overpowering. By late afternoon the wind died down and much of the smoke had dissipated, but now it is rising again. The winds are not expected to blow out until late tomorrow afternoon. A lot can happen in that time but most likely the church will be safe. Thousands of homes will have to burn before the church goes up, and that’s not likely to happen.

By early evening I had identified and called every member of the parish I could think of whose home might be in danger—about twenty families. I probably overlooked some since I’m not sure where their address is located. Fortunately nearly half of those I called reported that they were safe and not likely to be threatened. Four others were safe for the moment but one or other of the fires was near. There were eight who were either preparing to evacuate or whom I couldn’t reach. In two or three cases a recording picked up that said that “technical difficulties” prevented my call from going through. I suspect that some of those whose phones did not pick up had already left their homes, and it is probable that some will lose their homes to the wildfires. In fires like these, the heat is so intense that metal street signs melt.

Probably one or two families will be sleeping at the church tonight. There are other places they could go but they prefer the church. After I post this item I’ll go over to the church and see who’s there and if anyone needs anything. Tomorrow’s Masses are bound to be out of the ordinary. However, as always, I expect that Blessed Sacrament will be filled with loving people. Gotta go now.

Update, 2:00 p.m. on Monday, two days later:
I am astounded and grateful that of nearly two dozen families in the parish who were very close to the fire, many of whom had to evacuate, NOT ONE lost a home even though one home was right on the edge of the fire and another family's home was well within the red zone. The fire whipped through a canyon near their home but left it standing. They are already back in residence.

The Yorba Linda-Corona fire and the Brea fire did eventually meet to create one large swath of burning. A map of the fire's devastation as of midday Monday, November 17, can be found here. My home and the church are located a little bit above the "n" in Placentia.

Right now the skies are clear and blue, a light breeze is blowing, and it is pleasantly warm outside. It's a beautiful fall day in southern California. Though a couple of hundred homes, some schools and businesses have been lost, most of our community has been spared.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Faithful in Babylon

In the age after David and Solomon, the kingdom divided. Israel lay to the north, and Judah was in the south with Jerusalem as its capital. Both kingdoms progressively apostatized. Injustice grew until it became commonplace and accepted. The Law was little observed or taught, and therefore eventually was forgotten. Exploitation of widows and orphans by the rich and powerful was widespread. As godly morality declined into depravity, and fidelity to God was cast aside for syncretism and eventual idolatrous abomination, the ministry of the great prophets arose to call the people to repentance.

Israel refused the call and was eventually wiped out. Judah likewise rejected the call and, seven centuries before the birth of the Messiah, was conquered by the armies of Babylon. The rightful king, 18-year-old Jehoiachin, was captured by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, deported, and held in captivity in a foreign land. Not long after, Jerusalem was destroyed, the Temple looted and burned, the nobility and well-educated taken to Babylon in chains, and the poor of the land left to fend for themselves. They suffered and died from hunger and disease. The prophets had threatened this fate to the nation that refused to heed the word of the LORD, and that word was fulfilled.

Question: in spite of the rampant disobedience to God for several generations before the disaster, were there not people in Judah who were faithful? Of course there were. There are many indications in the annals of the books of Kings that there were many faithful, though few were prominent. God himself told Elijah that there were “seven thousand” who had not worshiped Baal—7,000 is the symbolic number “seven” (which means a full, round, plentiful amount) multiplied by “a thousand” (which adds great emphasis to the number). Even in the days of worst apostasy, there remained uncounted faithful in Judah. Most were apparently neither influential nor in positions of prominence—but they were faithful. The apostasies and corruptions surrounded them but they resisted.

Second question: in the conquering of Judah, then, and the subsequent deportations to Babylon, was it not likely that there were many faithful among the exiles—people who did not deserve and had not earned the punishment enacted against the nation? Of course there were.

Is God unfair then, to punish the innocent along with the guilty? Of course not. What then is going on? The destruction and deportations are disaster to the guilty, for they lose everything they had clutched to themselves as of most value. To the innocent, it is a time of suffering, to be sure, but also a time of challenge, refinement, and even renewed vision. They, who had never put their hope in fame, wealth, influence, or intrigue had little to lose, then, when these things were swept away. They, who had preserved their hope in God, in exile found that hope deepened and even made more pointed.

In short, they who could not possibly have “won” the day in a land where all was corrupt and in which they were without influence or power, found themselves in a position where, of all their people, they alone knew hope and knew what hope meant, and therefore lived in hope. And to the exiles who were dragged from what they craved into foreign captivity, it was only to the faithful who retained hope that they could go in any repentance and renewal. It was only the faithful who had hope to show and to give to those who could finally want it! Eventually, at the age of 55, Jehoiachin was released from prison and through him the descendants of David continued in unbroken line to Joseph, husband of Mary.

For fifteen years or more, it has seemed likely to me that the current time of apostasy and all the ills of the misguided Episcopal Church provides an opportunity for the faithful to dig in, strive for continuing fidelity, and hold onto the seeds for the time when the soil shall be ready to receive them and produce a rich harvest. Only God satisfies. Nothing else can. Any genuine hunger for God will lead the searcher to him. People can only live on spiritual snow cones and M&Ms for so long. The real food is always waiting and offered. As the most recent statistics on the Episcopal Church show, membership continues to decline and the money continues to increase—a recipe for spiritual catastrophe.

In the first millennium before Christ the age of rampant disobedience and graspingness was also the age of the prophets. They went together. And the age of the exile was the age of rebuilding the faith on firm foundations. This is the theme of the Book of Daniel, unique in the Old Testament. It is this book that features the famed “handwriting on the wall”.

There are a number of ways today that the faithful of the Episcopal Church can fulfill their calling, and are doing so. Let us not stumble, nor grow tired, nor become discouraged. The handwriting is on the wall.