What is it about the mountains? I have long been a lover of mountains, have for decades longed to see, live in, be surrounded by mountains. Then, by a cruel trick of fate, I found myself living for 40 years in Dallas, Texas, which by most calculations is at least 400 miles from any serious mountains. I used to gaze longingly at various cloud formations on hot summer days, imagining them either to be mountains or perhaps to hide mountains behind their cumulus selves. I want all of you to know that there is really nothing resembling a mountain anywhere close to Dallas.
Then in 1988 our family, along with two other related families, purchased land and built a cabin on it in the Pecos Wilderness of New Mexico, in the heart of the Santa Fe National Forest. It was smack dab in the middle of huge mountains! Our front porch has a glorious view of the 13,000 foot Santa Fe Baldy. When I am at the cabin, I am close to heaven. Each morning there, I fill my eyes with that view, straining hard to keep it stored in my brain, desperately recalling it all those years on our drive thoroughly and completely down hill to that cussedly flat Texas town which was our home. Believe me, it was a trial to return to a very hot and very flat Dallas after those cool and magical mountain cabin days.
Of course, now we live in Los Angeles, which is surrounded on three sides by some mountains, some very tall ones to the east and some shorter ones to the west and north. We do have this problem around here of near constant haze, and though I have been told again and again by LA veterans that it really used to be worse than it now is, many days go by when sights of these purported mountains are dim at best, non-existent at worst. Only in the winter months, say December through February, can these mountains be easily viewed. Indeed, the winter of 2018 was so snowy in the mountains that the vistas from LA were fabulous. As hard as I try to hold those special views in mind, I fear that 2019 has yet to yield similar sights, though I admit today (10/21/19) it is quite clear, and the Santa Monica hills are easily visible from the second story viewpoint that I have. And tomorrow, Diana and I are taking a brief trip northwest to Bishop, CA, driving up the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains that form a kind of eastern spine of a good portion of the state. We have made that drive before, and it is a grand one.
Though I am often “mountain dreamin’” in my mind, I am today especially interested in recalling all the spectacular mountain views we had on our recent 50thanniversary Bavarian trip. Many of these experiences were nothing less than mind- blowing in their awesome beauty and splendor. I well recall our first mountain experience was in the south of Switzerland, staying at the splendid resort, House of Architecture, not far from the Italian border. The hotel was ringed with craggy peaks, headed by long lush valleys, dotted with belled cows, mooing and ringing morning and night.
Yet, that was only the prelude to many days of mountain scenes, as we drove east through Austria. We stopped first at the village of Ehrwald, which abuts the tallest mountain in Germany, the fabled Zugspitze. Our hotel room opened its balcony directly below this jagged peak, so each morning afforded us an unimpeded view of its splendor.
And on the other side of the hotel we saw another glacier-formed string of peaks that rivaled the Zugspitze in brilliance. We then drove to Gerlos, a small village in the Tyrol, at the base of the Italian/ Austrian Alps. On the way there, vast green valleys opened up, dotted with villages and backed by more of the peaks that mark that part of the world. Each turn in the winding road brought another jaw-dropping sight of valley and peak and village that outdid the one we had just experienced.Then it was on to Berchtesgaden, a town nestled again among sharp peaks, and very close to the Kelstein, including the Obersalzberg and its inspiring vistas from the top of Hitler’s original “Eagle’s Nest,” that provides a near 360 degree view of vast mountains, both in Germany and Austria. Despite the horrifying past of the place, it is beautiful and magnificent beyond all telling. This trip surely filled my need for mountains nearly to the brim.
But what is it about mountains? I remember many a college dorm room wall that was festooned with posters of snow-capped mountain peaks with the biblical psalm captioned below: “I lift my eyes to the hills” (Ps.121:1). Israel is a mountainous place in the main, especially in the north of the country, topped off by the beautiful Mount Hermon, snow covered for part of each year. The Israelites were both captured and careful about their mountains. They long imagined that mountaintops were the correct places to worship their God, supposing that God to be somehow “up there,” above them in a kind of three-story universe. Hence, to get closer to God on a mountain was apparently a very good thing. The ark of Noah rested finally on the “mountains of Ararat,” and was the place of Noah’s first sacrifice to his God. Fabled Sinai, wherever it may have been, was the place where the great Moses received directly from YHWH the wondrous Ten Commandments that formed the backbone of Israelite life and practice. It was to this same mountain that Elijah was said to have fled from the fury of the evil Jezebel. It was the mountains of Megiddo that served ancient believers as the origin of the tale about the end of days when Armageddon would in a cataclysmic battle bring the world to an end. Mountains were places of religious power and serious danger.
The prophets again and again inveighed against the numerous sites of pagan worship that found their locations on “high mountains and every green hill,” as they often put it. Better to worship in the temple in Jerusalem, commanded Deuteronomy, than to practice cultic evils on one mountain or another. As you can readily see, mountains were of considerable fascination to the ancient Israelites. And we all remember the role of mountains in the Gospels, as Jesus speaks his central gospel from a mountain and appears after his resurrection on the “mountains of Galilee.”
Back for a moment to those ubiquitous dorm room posters of superb mountains. The great irony of those pictures is that they convey precisely the opposite of what the Psalm is attempting to say. One may look at the hills for certain, but if one expects that one’s help comes from those mountains, no matter how grand, no matter how high, no matter how imposing and awe-inspiring, in the end, no lasting help may be found in the hills. One’s hope comes only from God, the one “who made the skies and the earth” (Ps.121:2) and the hills that one sees. This is not to say that one may not be “helped” by the wonder of the mountains—I know I have been soothed and awed and swept away by mountains nearly my whole life. But, in fact, one cannot ultimately worship God better or more easily or more beautifully in Colorado than one may worship God in West Texas or Florida or Kansas. My help, your help, does not come from mountains, but from the God who made them.
And why is that reality important? It is continually easy to direct one’s worship and praise in the wrong direction; mountains and powerful people and wonderful ideas and great wealth can become objects of veneration. But only God must be that one worshipped, lest we fall into misplaced praise. Yes, I adore mountains, and had spectacular experiences of them in my recent trip, but mountains are merely huge piles of rocks, carved out by glaciers or thrust up by plate tectonics or volcanic explosions. And if I believe that God is creator of it all, I must direct my final attention to God and not to mountains. I will continue to try to do just that, but, goodness, I do love those mountains!
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)