Sunday, August 14, 2011

Good and Pleasant (Psalm 133)

Some of you are aware that I like to hike. Since moving back to southern California 3 ½ years ago, I’ve enjoyed a number of hikes with my good friend David, who still lives in Burbank, the town in which we both grew up.

At first, our hikes developed a strange sort of pattern. We hiked to the top of the Verdugo Hills, where we saw a number of communication towers, and enjoyed a nice view of the San Fernando Valley. Then we hiked to the top of Mt. Lukens, where we saw a number of communication towers, and enjoyed a nice view of the San Fernando Valley. Then we hiked to the top of Cahuenga Peak, where we saw a number of communication towers, and enjoyed a nice view of the San Fernando Valley.

And that’s when I began to suggest that maybe we didn’t always have to hike to the top of a mountain with communications towers, no matter how nice a view it offered.

Hiking to the top of a mountain peak is rewarding. When the scouts of Troop 29 hike to the top of a peak, they get a nice, shiny silver bead. And there is a nice sense of accomplishment in being able to say that you’ve made it to the top.

Well, in my life I’ve been to the top of Strawberry Peak, Mt. Waterman, Ontario Peak, Mt. Baden-Powell, Mugu Peak, Echo Mountain, Mt. Piños, Clouds Rest, Half Dome, Mt. Lassen, and Mt. Whitney, plus many others. I can say I’ve been to the op. I’ve experience that sense of accomplishment many times.

But do you know what I realized? My favorite parts about these hikes is down below, on the slopes, or in the canyons, along the streams, beneath the shade trees, and along the shores of mountain lakes … the peaceful serenity of watching a leaf fall off a tree, land gently on the water, then float downstream, tumbling over tiny cascades, swirling around in the eddies … following a trail that meanders through a forest, not being able to see too far ahead, wondering what will appear around the next bend … marveling at the colors, shapes, and sizes of the wildflowers that grow in abundance, learning to recognize them and understand what makes each species unique.

It took me a long time to realize this. Climbing to the top of a mountain has a certain amount of excitement to it, and in that excitement it’s easy to get so caught up in the destination that you fail to enjoy the goodness of the journey.

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of returning to Mt. Baden-Powell with the scouts of Troop 29. I have been to the top of Mt. Baden-Powell a total of six times now. Named in honor of the founder of scouting, it does have a special appeal. Plus, the view from the top is spectacular. Well above the clouds and most of the surrounding peaks, you can look down on the Mojave Desert to the north, and much of the San Gabriel Valley, Inland Empire, and L.A. basin to the south.

In addition, the top of the mountain contains a forest of rare, ancient limber pines. I’ve mentioned those trees to you before. Some are close to 2,000 years old. Imagine seeing and touching something that’s been alive for 2,000 years!

The trail starts at an elevation of 6600 feet. It’s four miles and nearly 3000 feet in elevation gain to the top, which is at 9400 feet. Just in terms of elevation, that’s nearly the equivalent of climbing the stairs to the observation deck of the Empire State Building three times.

With the rise in elevation, the trail passes through different climate zones, and the forest reflects this. At the bottom it’s oak and ponderosa. Then come Jeffrey pines, white fir, lodgepole pines, and then the limber pines at the top.

I enjoy every moment of this hike; every spot along the trail has its own unique beauty. That’s the real reason I hike: because I enjoy it. It’s good for my soul. My muscles may be a little tight when the day is done, but I feel renewed and refreshed.

You may not need to hear all of this, but I do. Lately I’ve felt the need to remind myself why I hike, that it makes me feel good, that I enjoy it, and that it renews my soul…. Because this Friday, I’ll be hiking Mt. Whitney.

The Mt. Whitney trail begins at 8000 feet and travels 11 miles to the summit, which is at 14,494 feet. That’s 22 miles roundtrip. That’s the equivalent of 3 times up and down Mt. Baden-Powell. That’s the equivalent of nearly 7 times up and down the Empire State Building.

A marathon is 26.2 miles on mostly level terrain. A trip up Mt. Whitney is 22 miles roundtrip with 6500 feet elevation gain at an altitude where there is considerably less oxygen in the atmosphere, which makes it much more strenuous than a marathon, I think.

As I mentioned, I’ve been to the top of Mt. Whitney before. I know that I am physically capable of setting my sights on the top, focusing on my destination, and making it to the summit. But what I have to ask myself is: why? Why do I hike? Is it to make it to the top and reach my destination? Or is it to enjoy the journey?

Sometimes, focusing on the destination is good and important. There are times when it is important to set a goal, and work hard to achieve it. A student working toward graduation. A stewardship campaign to support the ministry of the church. The journey a person takes to work each morning.

Other goals are perhaps not so important: camping out overnight so you can be first in line to buy the latest technological device the day it is released; working extra long and hard in the hopes of getting a promotion at work, without taking the time to understand why getting that promotion is important to you.

The key is in asking why.

Sometimes, we become so focused on what’s on top, what’s on the horizon, what’s coming next, that we overlook the good in what’s present. One of my big concerns in hiking Mt. Whitney is that I will be so focused on reaching the top that I won’t have time to notice the beauty of the trail. I’ll be so focused on reaching 14,494 feet that I won’t admire the scenery at 12,000 feet or 10,000 feet. There will be no time to pause, as the psalmist does, and consider how good and pleasant it is.

It’s a fine line. As I said, it’s good to have goals, and work for them. But it’s also good to stop and notice and be grateful for the blessings that are present here and now. And if I were to make a guess as to which of the two we are more prone to neglect, I would say that it’s stopping to be grateful and notice what’s good and pleasant.

After all, we are constantly urged to keep going, to not stop and notice. In our society, we have so much. Current economic turmoil notwithstanding, we are wealthier than the rest of the world. We have more conveniences and luxuries in our homes than the vast majority of people around the world have, more than most can even dream of.

And yet, strangely enough, developed countries like ours have higher rates of depression than poorer parts of the world.

I can only assume that this is because we, more than anyone else, are constantly being pressured to want more. We have more, but we also want more. Our society trains us to think that we never have enough. Climbing to 12,000 feet isn’t enough; you’ve got to climb to 13,000 feet. When you reach 13,000 feet, you’re told to press onward to 14,000. It’s neverending.

Think about all the advertisements you see and hear in a given day or week. Every single one of them is telling you the same thing: you don’t have enough; your life is incomplete; you’re not there yet. Of course, the promise is that if you purchase whatever it is they are selling, that will complete your life, but that doesn’t happen. No matter how many purchases you make, they keep telling you your life is incomplete.

You’re climbing the mountain, with your attention focused on the summit, but no matter how much you climb, the summit keeps getting farther and farther away.

What are you working for in life? What is your goal? Have you stopped to ask yourself why that is important to you?

A person saves up to buy a new car. Labors night and day, working two jobs, just so he can look good driving down the street. He believes that’s important. He’s been told it’s important. But he never stops to ask, why. Never asks, “what’s the point?”

If he did, he might answer himself that the point is to enjoy life. There’s nothing wrong with that. But is working two jobs, night and day, enjoying life? Perhaps there would be a lot more “enjoying life” if he got a bicycle, and gave up his 2nd job so he could actually relax some.

So now I can ask myself why it is that I hike. What is my goal when I hike? What do I hope to achieve?

And the answer I’ve come up with is that I hike to feel good: physically, emotionally, spiritually. If I can accomplish that goal and make it to the top of Mt. Whitney, great. But if I don’t make it to the top, that’s OK, because I will still have accomplished my goal.

What is your deep down ultimate goal in life? Why do you work for the things you do? Is it to be on top of the world? Or is it to find the good and pleasant things in life?

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