(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Please listen to the message here or see below to read it.
Over ten days at the end of July, I traveled with my partner Keith to the Rocky Mountains. We spent several days hiking and camping with my daughters. We also spent time with my sister and her husband as we spread my dad’s ashes in a fishing stream he had loved and regularly visited.
For me, time spent in nature is invigorating. I particularly love the American west with its mountains, lakes, forests, and spectacular scenery. To tromp along a trail, or sit and look at an amazing view, is transcendent for me. I often leave behind the concerns of normal life to instead feel happier and more alive.
The late singer John Denver said it best with the lyrics to his song “Rocky Mountain High.” He opened the song by singing, “Going into the mountains is to leave yesterday behind and be born again.” And then he continued, “When he first came to the mountains, his life was far away…but the Colorado Rocky Mountain high, I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky…he climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below, he saw everything as far as you can see.”
I relate to John Denver’s mountain highs. I found several of them over those ten days – time spent with Keith, time laughing with and enjoying my daughters, time amidst jagged peaks, time alone with my thoughts beside an alpine lake.
I also felt some valley lows during the trip. The biggest one was standing with my sister beside the Gallatin River in southwestern Montana as we poured my dad’s final remains into the rushing water.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. That was what my dad’s life seemed to have come to. And I pondered that a lot during my trip. My dad had his own lifetime collection of figurative mountain highs – as well as valley lows. Did those highs and lows end in that stream?
To end in such a place could certainly be considered a high point. But, it also bothered me and seemed also a valley low. We live for a time and then we don’t. We collect our share of happy moments punctuated by challenges and heartaches. But is the sum of our lives defined by the peaks and valley’s we experience?
Like many people, I seek mountain peak moments – through travel, quality time with family, doing my best at work, and finding modest entertainment in good food, an interesting book, or a meaningful movie. In other words, I pursue moments of pleasure – times when I feel happy, at peace, and, most importantly, loved.
I don’t seek, but nevertheless still experience, many lows. Friendships that don’t last, dear ones who get sick and pass away, job frustrations, and everyday boredoms of same old / same old living patterns. And one day I’ll walk through the ultimate valley – the one darkened with shadows of my death. A few people may express sadness at my demise. My daughters will conjure memories of my times with them, they’ll bury or scatter my remains – and that will be it.
And as I thought about all of that during my vacation, I couldn’t escape a sadness that fought against the peak times I also experienced.
You’ve heard me say in many Sunday messages that the pursuit of pleasure, or so called mountain highs, is NOT all there is to life. Each life has purpose and meaning – and the definition of any life does not come from a collection of selfish pleasures. Life is instead about consistently loving, serving, and making a difference.
I truly believe that, but I’ve also realized those words can be ministerial “blah, blah, blah” – forgettable Hallmark card cliches. What, ultimately, does a life consist of?
In some ways, I feel I must apologize for pushing spiritual cliches from this pulpit. Indeed, my own pursuit of life pleasures – what could be called mountain highs – may well be the opposite of what I often encourage here to serve others more than oneself. Many of my messages may therefore smack of hypocrisy – a big sin for any minister.
Even if that is so, I can’t forsake what I believe. To live a meaningful life is to create legacies of kindness, service, and love. Nobody impacts the world for good because of vacations they’ve taken, the material treasures they acquired, or the pleasures they pursued. Those do not last into the distant future.
The mountain peak experiences we do seek, however, need not be all about satisfying selfish needs. What I felt with my girls, with Keith, and in the midst of forests and mountains, was hopefully not selfish pleasures of the flesh.
I love my daughters more than anything. To be around them, to recall past times together, to laugh at inside family jokes, and to see them as accomplished young women – is my way to give and receive love. So too is my time spent with Keith. I often think in amazement how giving he is – to put up with me, my family, and all that I like to do. Enjoying family and the dearest of friends in good times is, however, not something to feel guilty about. Such moments are the glue that binds people and generations to one another – all so that humanity will continue to survive and prosper. It’s not selfish, therefore, to find mountain highs in the love we share.
Tromping through a forest, or climbing a trail to an alpine lake was also not a mere pleasure to feed my selfish desires. Time spent in nature is often a sublime experience for me – one where I feel most at one with creation and the creator. I’m humbled when I’m outdoors. I sense nature’s greatness and my own insignificance.
The famed naturalist John Muir said that in mountains he found a practical sort of immortality. He understood the interdependence of all things and humanity’s primal link to the universe. At times, Muir said that felt he was completely at one with nature – someone who had simply melted into the surroundings. And mountains were for him extra special. They are, he said, fountains where the transcendent spews out of the earth.
To venture into forests, Muir also said, is to escape one’s thoughts and find, instead, one’s soul. Holiness and divinity is within nature, he believed. If someone wants to find whatever it is that God is, she or he should step into the woods.
As odd as it may sound, that’s what I sometimes felt during my vacation when I was in the midst of the mountains. Even though Keith and I experienced what might be called valley lows as we were assaulted by hordes of biting flies on several hikes, we still were awestruck seeing peaks towering upward to the sky much like church spires – or the pointed roofline of this sanctuary. It’s as if mountains are nature’s temples in which plants, animals and humans all worship together. It seemed as they called out to me to climb their heights and bask in their glory – all the better to drive away any valley lows I felt.
It was also very cold on the nights we camped. Our bodies were unwashed and smelled of campfire smoke. But the implicit satisfaction of cooking, eating, sleeping, and even using the restroom in the wilderness surpassed any hardship. So too was campfire camaraderie a high point. Gathering around flickering flames in the dark of night is something we’ve all likely experienced. Perhaps it subconsciously brings us back to times when fire and hearth meant communal safety, warmth, and togetherness against a frightening world. Campfires were the same to me. I was with my girls and Keith, in the mountains, and deep in a forest. The concerns and stresses of life seemed far away in those moments. I was huddled around light in the middle of total darkness – and yet I felt content and at peace.
In many ways, my recent vacation mirrors my overall life. Mountain highs were mixed with some valley lows. Like some people, that mixture troubled me. I don’t believe in pursuing self-focused mountain highs, but I also don’t believe in avoiding valley lows. And yet, I too often do the opposite of what I believe. I seek pleasure and I avoid pain.
Part of my trip was planned with my sister so we could spend quality time together and more importantly spread my dad’s ashes in a place he loved. We did so and it was a poignant and emotional moment for us. For me, as much as my beliefs about how our bodies continue onward in another natural form, spreading my dad’s ashes was a valley low for me – and one that continues even now.
As I said earlier, I’ve thought even more about the meaning of life and I’ve pondered the stark finality of my dad’s remains scattered into unfeeling water. I felt his life journey ending at that moment as I watched his ashes drift away. That feeling comes despite that is what he wanted – to rest forever in a place he loved. Nevertheless, I’ve asked myself, “How can I feel so low about what I believe should be a joyous event?”
I can’t fully answer that question but I know it has a lot to do about sensing my own mortality. I turn 60 in six weeks. I faced a cancer scare two years ago. As I contemplate my future demise, I wonder how I’ll fill my remaining years. Will I pursue self-focused pursuit of meaningLESS mountain highs, or will they be mostly filled with an others focused pursuit of meaningFUL mountain highs? I believe in the latter as much as my flesh calls me to selfishly pursue the former. That war within me bothers me, and causes me added sadness.
And so my message today, as relatively short and less researched than normal, is not intended to offer answers. I don’t know them myself. Instead, my recent journey ended, but it continues on in my mind. What role will mountain highs and valley lows play in my life? Can I pursue high moments that have lasting and good impact on others and the world? And, can I better understand the times when I’m in a valley low, in a so-called funk or sad time, so that I cognitively change my thoughts and thereby see the useful purpose behind them?
It’s a fact we can plainly observe: a mountain cannot exist without a valley. Otherwise, we have only flat, level ground that’s safe but quite boring. And the same is true of life…and of vacations.
In that regard, I needed my vacation – as much to rest and enjoy as to also reflect and feel some sadness. The high of being in the mountains and spending good times with my daughters and Keith felt extra special because they came with the lows I’ve described.
And so those valley lows were equally necessary for me – and perhaps an important part of being able to enjoy my vacation and to now remember it fondly. As I indicated earlier, I don’t believe there is anything in life – even the worst of valley lows – that we cannot learn and grow from.
As you’ve listened to my reflections this morning, perhaps you’ll initiate your own. On water communion Sunday when we add to years and years of the so-called holy water that we save, I wish you each many mountain highs, but I also wish for you some valley lows – all the better to reflect and answer your own questions about life and how to purposefully live it. As many people say, a vacation is never about the destination. It’s about the journey. And the same is true for life. I hope for us all life journeys of meaning, purpose, challenges to learn from, peace, and meaningful joy.