Life looks a lot different from the top of a mountain, and my recent ascent up 11,499 ft San Gorgonio was no exception. In fact, I would have to say that it will be hard to ever "top" the summit experience I had with my brothers from Revival Christian Fellowship recently.
It started out with a desire God put in my heart and mind to lead a group of men up a mountain, for the purpose of challenge, recreation, and most importantly- biblical application of how climbing a mountain relates to experiencing revival in Jesus Christ. It was called "The Ascent", and our official church flyer dubbed it as an "expedition for your heart, soul, mind, and strength", with the purposeful intent of being an experiential bible study on living out Christ's Greatest Commandment to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength" and to "Love your neighbor as yourself". Kind of like a men's church retreat, with less comforts and more blisters.
Now, for those of you getting bored with all this Jesus talk, hang in there.... this is a story that can be appreciated by any human being, regardless of your current decision about the relevance of Christianity.
On to the climb...
San Gorgonio is small when compared to all the massive "fourteeners" here in the United States, but I can assure you that "Ol' Grayback" is no walk in the park. It is quite the test of commitment, courage, strength, and endurance. And in our case, it was the perfect opportunity to put camaraderie into action for a shared purpose. Summiting this big dirt creature was absolutely a worthy accomplishment, and I congratulate each man who shared this joy with me. It’s worth mentioning that the age range of the men was very diverse- from 18 to 70 and everywhere in between!
I also congratulate each man who made it to our camp at Dry Lake- and for some that was their intended destination...one that required 7 miles of hiking and 2200 feet of elevation gain- all with a 35lb+ backpack slung over their shoulders. The skillful and knowledgeable mountaineer Arthur Unwin and his cohort Jeff Scofield guided and led us all safely up the mountain, and enhanced the experience for all of us through their love of the Lord and the San Gorgonio wilderness.
The point of it all was to better understand how to desire with our hearts, believe with our souls, search with our minds, and climb with our strength. I would venture to say that each man had the experience of coming alive in the wilderness...which in essence, is REVIVAL! As my pastor often says, "Revival is not an event, it's an ascent". How true this is...
As with any good mountain climb (and life, for that matter), we had our share of struggles on the trail. Blisters, heart palpitations, aching backs, nausea, phone calls about worrisome situations back at home, breathing problems, and exhaustion (just to name a few). So we prayed...and prayed...and worshiped, and encouraged, and shared jokes that only men can appreciate. We applied biblical principles such as "carrying each other's burdens" and "forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead". The struggles and insanely steep ridges eventually faded behind us, and the breakthrough moments of open skies and panoramic views opened widely before us as we rose above the thickness of the wilderness and reached the timberline.
I couldn’t help but compare this to the feeling of freedom I have experienced so many times in my life when I have entrusted my problems to God, only to come to a place where everything works out for the best and I realize that my hope was not in vain. I also couldn’t help but to think of the sacrifice that Jesus paid so that we could experience true FREEDOM in our lives. What a parallel! I knew this hike would be good.
After all this- yes, the best is still to come…
There is a certain glory that comes with reaching the peak of a mountain, especially after you have trekked uphill for 14 miles and dealt with all the struggles previously mentioned. As a wise man once said “Don’t you want a little taste of the glory? See what it tastes like!” (Nacho Libre, 2006). Seriously though- you can’t escape the glory from the top of the mountain. For some, it’s the glory of achievement, of conquering, of pride. For others (like me) it’s an accomplishment that is completely symbolic of the Glory of God. I feel closer, clearer, and stronger….as if I have been given the ability to stand on top of my own pride, my own sin, my own issues. We are more than conquerors in Christ Jesus, and I remember again how to truly appreciate the freedom that has been so graciously given to me.
And now we come to the crux of it all, the ultimate symbolic moment atop San Gorgonio Mountain – the raising of Old Glory.
You see, we had the privilege to include three seasoned active-duty United States Marines in our group- Gunnery Sergeant Robert Mantilla (16 years), Captain Patrick Keplinger (14 years), Sergeant Fernando Urena (10 years), and one retired soldier - Dave Madden, USMC. Young veterans they are- with several tours of combat duty combined amongst them. The kind of soldiers who could tell of life (and death) experiences that would put any adventurous mountain climb to shame. What kind of struggles could we really face on this mountain that these men hadn’t already faced a hundred-fold on the battlefield? I’ll just say it was an honor to have them along, since I have the utmost respect for the sacrifice these men make, all in the name of freedom.
Whether or not one agrees with the United States’ current commitment to sending our troops to fight in the most dangerous corners of the world is insignificant in comparison to the fact that these soldiers are individually committed to upholding freedom and are putting their entire lives on the line. It is this commitment and courage that has helped keep the American flag waving high atop flagpoles in our country for many, many decades. Regardless of the reason (that is a whole other issue), these men (and women) are laying their souls down for the sake of others. Some are given the opportunity to pick it back up again, yet many are not. As Christians, we should all be living like this in the daily battlefields of life. We need to lay our lives down for our neighbors, which consists of our families, our friends, our co-workers, our literal neighbors, communities, and everyone beyond the usual walls of our own lives.
So when Sgt. Mantilla handed the United States flag to me atop San Gorgonio, the concept of sacrifice and freedom became much more clear in my mind. I held up our nation’s flag in victory for our achievement, amongst a group of courageous, committed, Christian men. It was a glorious moment indeed, as well as a pretty cool group photo! Here I was, just a guy f
rom church who thought it would be a good idea to plan a group mountain climb, and the next thing I know I am handed this giant flag by one of the very men who has laid down his life to protect it and everything it stands for. To make it even cooler, the flag was signed by all the men in our group….some were notes of glory and praise to the Lord, and some were notes to me thanking me for planning this trip, which for me was a complete pleasure anyway. It was humbling, I have to tell you. But mostly, it was absolutely incredible!!
We descended back down to the camp, and Sgt. Mantilla carried Old Glory all the way back down, attached to a “flag pole” made out of a large tree branch. For anyone who might think coming down the mountain is the easy part, let me redirect you to a new way of thinking- it’s not!
So back to the flag…
Just when I thought I had already experienced my highest moment on the mountain- I received a major blessing. We were packing up camp, gathering loose ends, taking down our tents, etc., when Sgt. Mantilla announced in front of the whole group that he had decided to give the flag to me, as a gesture of appreciation for putting this whole climb together. What?!?!? I get to keep it? I was (and am still) truly honored to receive this gift, and I hope that I was able to accurately convey my sincere appreciation to him and the other men for doing this. I will smile and pray for each of the men as I read their notes on the flag. This was a flag that he had purchased, and flown, on his last combat tour in Iraq, and now it will grace a spot of honor in my heart for the rest of my life. I will think of freedom, and the September ’09 Revival Ascent every time I see it, and will jump to the opportunity to talk about it’s symbolism with everyone who comes to my home and asks “what’s the deal with the flag?” The Sergeant’s pin from Sgt. Mantilla and the Captain’s pin from Cpt. Keplinger will also get frequent salutes.
Here is the summary of it all: To Jesus Christ be the glory because this mountain adventure reminded us men that Christ is our reason for ascending in life, and that our eternal freedom has come at an enormous cost at His expense. We can overcome obstacles, endure through trials, help each other along the way, and come through as stronger people for it, all for the glory of God. It is His glory that we exist for, and it is His glory that deserves love from ALL of our heart, ALL of our soul, ALL of our mind, and ALL of our strength.
On Sunday September 20th, freedom was represented by a successful mountain climb and the red, white, and blue fabric of Old Glory, for which I am thankful. 2000 years ago on Calvary, freedom was initiated by the red blood of Christ and His Eternal Glory….and for that I am especially thankful.
Thank you Lord for revealing yourself in such awesome ways. And thanks to each of the men who ascended the mountain with me:
Ben Johnson (thanks for packing your guitar up the mountain, to lead us in worship!)
More pics at:
That’s all for now…..keep climbing everyone!
Revived in Christ,