Fire on the Mountain: Encountering God

  • Sunday February 23, 2020

“Fire on the Mountain: Encountering God”

by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen

Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ

Hingham, Massachusetts

February 23, 2020

Exodus 24:12-18

Back in 1994, I climbed Mount Rainier, which is located in the Cascade Range in the state of Washington. Rainier is not the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states (it’s number 4) but at 14,411 feet and blanketed by a volatile glacier, it is a very challenging climb. I was in good shape before I started training hard for 6 months. And the climb still kicked my… uh… rear end. And that was 26 years ago.

I was joined on the climb by two of my best friends and the experience was one of the highlights of my life to that point.

On the way up, our sub-group of about seven people (we were roped together for safety) started talking about spiritual matters. That wasn’t surprising, given the extremely challenging environment and the awe-inspiring view.

One of my friends let it slip that I was an ordained minister and one guy in the group, a marathon runner from Brooklyn, started calling me, padre. I just love it when people call me padre… (eye roll)…

Anyway… “Padre,” he said, “forgive me, but…” (I’m sure you’re getting an idea of what this guy was like). “Padre, forgive me, but this is my church,” he said, as he gestured dramatically at the view. “I don’t have time for sittin’ indoors on a Sunday morning.”

I smiled and thought to myself, “OK, I get it. I find deep spiritual nurture  and inspiration when I’m outdoors, too, especial when I’m walking and climbing. My question is, do we need to choose one or the other (the mountains or the church)? Why not both? And why not more than both? Wouldn’t it be great to explore the limitless ways that we might encounter God — everywhere and every day?”

I believe so.

The first time that I can remember really feeling — way down deep —the presence of God was when I was about six years old. My grandfather had just died and I was with my family on a camping trip in New Hampshire. We were a churchgoing family, but instead of leaving the woods on that Sunday morning to look for a church service, we decided to create our own on the banks of the Swift River (which is  near the Kancamagus Highway).

Some of you might have been there and know how beautiful and peaceful it is. My parents assigned each of us a part in the service and I was asked to offer the prayer. I did my six-year-old best and I’ll never forget it. It was a formative moment.

The times I’ve felt the closest to God in the years since then were when my sons were being born. I knew it was going to be an emotional experience, but I didn’t know that it would be such a spiritual one as well. For you, maybe it was when the child you adopted was placed in your arms for the first time.

When I’ve asked others: When have you felt the presence of God most profoundly? I have gotten so many different kinds of answers.

Some have said, I’ve never felt it. Some have said it was when they were struggling through recovery from addiction or mental illness and were truly open to something larger than themselves for the first time. Others have said it was when they were with the one they loved the most — or when they had lost a loved one — especially a husband or wife or a child —  and needed solace. Others have said it was when they lost their job or their marriage was ending and they needed guidance and reassurance.

Some have said it was when they were reading scripture. There was something about the words there that got to them, got into them and transformed them.

Some have said it was when they were singing in a choir or playing an instrument in an ensemble.

Some have said it was when they were simply listening to music (The artists mentioned most often have been Mozart, Handel, Coltrane, Billie Holliday… Dylan, John Denver, Mary Travers, and Jewel). There are certain voices, you know? What kind of music opens your heart to God?

In my time of service as an ordained minister, my parishioners have told me that they have felt the presence of the Spirit most deeply when in worship… or in the company of other church members, even when it’s just in a social setting… and even more so while serving others together.

When we lose someone we love, often God can seem so very distant. Maybe even unrecognizable. Why? Why?! Why him?! Why her?! We become angry with God, for good reason! Why, indeed?!

But, as we move through grief, as we move through the darkness of the valley and begin to see the faint glimmer of light in the distance, we also feel the presence of a wise and healing Spirit. Maybe nothing definable, not yet, but something.

How about you? When have you felt the presence of God most clearly and powerfully… or even subtly and softly?

Was it at summer camp when your counselor took you and your cabin mates out to the docks late at night and you lay down and looked up at the stars and you thought, Wow. There really is something more than just me, just us.

Was it when you were serving food to a hungry man at a soup kitchen or sitting with a single mom and her kids in Appalachia or restocking a food pantry?

Sometimes, we feel the presence of God when singing a hymn at a regular old church service like this morning or while attending a confirmation retreat on Cape Cod or the Arizona desert or the mountains of Colorado — like a million young people have done for generations.

Moses found God on a mountain, just like my climbing partner from Brooklyn. Moses found God in fire and in smoke and God gave him his marching orders. I personally wouldn’t have wanted those particular marching orders (10 commandments, 40 years in the desert, and never getting to enjoy the promised land!). But sometimes we don’t have a choice. We hear our calling and we know we must follow.

Jesus found God in his childhood in Nazareth… and in the Temple in Jerusalem… and in the people he met and spoke with and healed. And he met God on a mountain, too, with his best friends in a moment we call the Transfiguration, when he shone like the sun. There is something about mountains.

In case you’re not feeling up to a climb, actual mountains are not required for an encounter with God. The native people of our land believed that the Divine dwelt in high places. Mount Washington. Mount Katahdin. Denali. All sacred peaks to the people who were here long before Europeans arrived.

But, even of we can’t get to the top of those peaks, we can get to high places in so many other ways.

When we connect with someone else in a way we never thought we could — emotionally or intellectually. When we reconnect with someone with whom we’ve been estranged… That’s like summiting a mountain.

I got a phone call from an old friend the other day. Someone I thought I’d never hear from again. What a blessing! All the pain washed away. And there was healing and there was laughter. And God was there, reestablishing our bond. Rebuilding our friendship.

We were both pretty much at sea level. He in coastal Connecticut and I here in Hingham, but both of us on a mountaintop of hope and reconciliation.

Where and in what situations have you encountered God? Was it when you were very young or just last week? Or both? Was it when you were in nature… or watching a movie… or making love… or listening to your child say something surprising and profound… or right here in these pews?

Was it when you looked with compassion into the eyes of a person in pain… or when you were in pain and received a card or a hug or a smile or a cup of coffee or just a few minutes of listening from someone who cared?

My deepest hope, my prayer, is that we will all look and listen for God in every situation, in every place, in every set of eyes we encounter, and be blessed beyond measure.