At end of his life, Paul declares that he’s not done growing spiritually when he says, “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what Lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:12-14
These were the theme passages when we ran a ministry in the mountains, because the notion of the “upward call” was compelling, as the rugged glaciated peaks of the North Cascades were our constant companions. We’d hike them, climb them, rappel off them, glissade down them – always with an eye toward teaching students about the Upward Call of God in Christ Jesus.
You’re in your tent, warm and toasty, at 3AM, when your guide unzips the flap and says, “it’s time to climb!” He’s already munching a power-bar, wide awake, and as you drift into consciousness you need to decide what to do with the invitation. You can role over in your bag, and stay in base camp, or get out, get dressed, roped up, energized, and climb. The invitation upward has been offered – it’s your move.
I’m seeing this same theme of “upward call” in Jesus’ invitations, scattered through the gospels, as he asks people to follow him.
1. The invitation is always higher – This is why Paul was never finished, and the truth is that we’re never finished either. I’m perpetually bothered by those that think they have the Christian life figured out, sewn up, mastered. If Paul didn’t have it fully mastered by the end of his life, then I’ve a suspicion that I won’t either. I need to be open to God’s perpetual call to move higher, as he exposes the ground beneath my feet and shows me that there’s a better way. There’s a better way than violence, a better way than fear, a better way than the American dream, a better way than… you fill in the blank. When I stop hearing God’s call to move higher, it’s probably not because He’s stopped calling, it’s because I’ve stopped listening. Are you hearing from the Guide these days?
2. Higher always means leaving some things behind – Part of the reason we become hard of hearing is because we become attached to the security of “the ground beneath our feet”. That ground though, has a theological name once we’ve become attached to it: stronghold. It’s why you can find 19th century theology books justifying slavery through a crass misreading of Genesis 9, or why the American church, or how the earlier church of Puritan settlers could justify land theft by appealing to God’s calling for Israel to “take the land” in Joshua. I wonder what ground, right under our feet, we’re holding onto today? Are we letting God challenge our notions of acceptability when it comes to things like consumerism and environmental degradation?
3. Higher is dangerous – We live in a world that isn’t climbing higher towards God’s upward call. Our world is fighting for the mythical safety of lower regions on the mountain. People aren’t moving higher, because to do so means abandoning our present bastions of security. Moving higher means we’re no longer trusting in our savings account, or credit card limit, or job, or reputation, or tall fences, or military might, or whatever it is we trust in to make our lives meaningful. We’ve met the Guide, begun to follow Him, and discovered that He’s taking us away from these sources of meaning, as we begin to give generously, live simply, bless others, lay down our lust for revenge, and forgive our enemies. Following could cost us our lives. It will cost us our lust for autonomy and control. But higher is where we’re called to move.
Historically, when the Guide has called the church higher, the those who’ve responded faced the greatest antagonism and persecution, not from the world, but from the church, who’d set up outposts in the lower regions and were exposed as posers by those going still higher. Read about it here.
4. Higher is more beautiful – We can stay in middle-earth, but the problem is that the Guide is going higher. I’ve stayed behind on climbs before, because someone became sick from altitude and couldn’t continue. The rest of the group went higher. They risked more, were challenged more, and they saw more.
Do you want to see the heights of God’s love, the clarity of His power, the matchless beauty of the story He’s writing in history? You’ll never see on the middle of the mountain. You’ve got to keep climbing – and so do I.