CCE Corner – Where the Air Is Clear

February 23rd, 2023

We continue our series of reflections inspired by the recent Calvin Worship Symposium. This week, Mrs. Tellinghuisen shares about a faith practices workshop she attended.

A few weeks ago, the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire recorded overnight wind gusts of over 100 miles per hour and a temperature of −47 °F. This produced a new US record low windchill temperature of −108 °F. These conditions are comparable to what airplanes experience at cruising altitude. I was told by my brother (a biologist and weather fact enthusiast, who lives in South Dakota, where they know a lot about cold and wind), that it wasn’t the cold and wind that led to such extreme conditions, but an interesting atmospheric phenomenon. In effect, the top of Mount Washington became part of the stratosphere. Talk about a mountaintop experience! But not one anyone would want.

Mountaintop experiences usually involve moments of clarity, conviction, or renewal. From a spiritual—and Christian—perspective, it might be descriptive of a moment when someone felt especially close to God or felt the moving of the Holy Spirit in a very tangible way. For me, any visit to mountains can lead to a mountaintop experience. The landscape inspires awe and draws my eyes upward and inclines my heart toward praise and wonder.

I will lift up my eyes to the hills—
From whence comes my help?
My help comes from the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1–2)

The psalmist was saying more than just mountains are pretty. High places were locations for pagan rituals and sacrifices (e.g., Ahab and prophets of Baal as told in I Kings 18). But the psalmist is saying that when he looks to hills, it is not to seek answers in the idols of man. He trusts in the one true God, maker of heaven and earth. In the gospel accounts, Jesus goes to a mountain to find solitude and to commune with his father in prayer on several occasions. One of the most memorable accounts is the Transfiguration, where Jesus appears radiant in his glory to Peter, James, and John. And, more than that, Moses and Elijah appear alongside him (Matthew 17:1–13; Mark 9:2–13; Luke 9:28–36). Now that was a mountaintop experience! Isn’t it remarkable then that those same three disciples were the ones who fell asleep, ran, and even denied? How could they have seen that and not stood firm? Or maybe, if we are honest, we know all too well what it means to see and yet forget.

At the Calvin Worship Symposium, I attended a workshop entitled, “Faith Practices for All Ages,” led by staff from the Faith Formation Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church of North America. You might be familiar with more “traditional” spiritual disciplines (also called faith practices) of reading scripture, prayer, fasting, but did you know that remembering is also a discipline? The Faith Formation Ministries team has developed a wonderful resource, the Faith Practices Project, and they define the practice of remembering this way: It “centers our attention on what God has done in our lives, deepening our assurance that God is with us here and now, and expanding our hope and anticipation for what God will yet do.” What better time than Lent to explore these practices? (Click here to see their ”Remembering” page, but I hope you visit again—and often—to view the wealth of resources on this website.)

If I had to choose a favorite Narnia book (and who would want to choose just one), it would be The Silver Chair. I will not try to summarize the book as I would hate to rob a future reader of its delights. But I will risk a small spoiler by sharing Aslan’s words to Jill at the outset of the story:

Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.*

The air is clear in Aslan’s lands. And aren’t we thankful for those special moments of clarity and purpose? The Worship Symposium is always that for me, and I come away with so many ideas and plans for how to apply and, even more importantly, share what I’ve learned. For remembering is not just for me alone. Remembering can be a solo thing. We can stroll down memory lane on our own. But when I sit down for coffee with a lifelong friend, and my story-remembering meets her story-remembering, we aren’t just sharing our shared history, we are forging a deeper bond of friendship. We can build bonds of shared humanity too, even across the centuries. When I present a Greek or Roman myth to my middle school Latin students, we talk about what it reveals about the people who first heard it, internalized it, and then told it to another. We connect those discussions to how we, as Christians who believe in the one true God and his son, Jesus Christ, are shaped by hearing God’s word, recognizing the good news of salvation is for us, and then sharing it with others. Remembering the story allows us to enter the story and share the story. Our stories, yes. But the larger human story too. And, more than that, the story of good news for all people which, remarkably, has reached us in part through the memory of shepherds on a Judean hillside who remembered—and told.

The practice of spiritual remembering isn’t necessarily about memory, though it can include memorization of scripture or favorite songs and hymns (a discipline in itself). It’s not only for those who have a good memory. Some of us can remember our first day of kindergarten, while others can’t remember what we had for dinner last night. And many of us struggle to find our keys! Spiritual remembering is allowing yourself to be led to a place, a person, a time. Sadly, memory can fail due to injury, illness, and age. But thankfully, the spiritual act of remembering doesn’t fundamentally depend on us. It can be received as a gift from very much outside ourselves. I recall being at a continuing care facility worship service where I was sitting among people who had serious ailments of body and mind. And yet, when the preacher started reading the message text, Proverbs 3:4–6, voices from every part of the room joined in:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct your paths.

My mother recently told me that her oldest sister never lost her “spiritual memory,” even with advancing dementia. The final moment they shared on this earth was last Easter. They prayed together. My aunt was completely clear in her prayer that day, as she was throughout her cognitive decline. And while this might not be everyone’s story as they fight such damaging diseases, we can have every confidence that one’s individual—limited for all of us, in some way—memory is not the whole story. There is a corporate side to spiritual memory. Indeed, we are one body. We carry and share memories for each other. But more than that, we know that God knows each one of us by name, and we can never be separated from his love. We can be assured that his remembering of us is enough. More than enough.

The Latin root of “discipline” is disco, translated “ I learn.” A verb is an action. How can we actively learn to remember? As the Faith Practices Project states, it starts with centering our attention. And then it becomes about intentionality to make time and give space so that a behavior will take root and become a habit. And yes, that part is work. And it’s countercultural. We live in a world of 24-hour news cycles and 280-character Tweets. But remembering takes time and stillness to connect the dots, It’s also work because it might engage the emotions more than we might like. How many of us don’t want to remember because it only seems to lead us to places of sorrow, regret, and fear? Instead of being an edifying faith practice, it only leaves us feeling like moral and spiritual failures. “My sin is always before me,” says the psalmist (Psalm 51:3). But those who rest in the Lord and his love can echo the words of Nehemiah (even through tears): “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” (Those who returned to the land of promise after exile certainly had much to remember about their failures.)

Remembering is work when the air is not as clear. We’re not always on the mountain. And when the air becomes thicker, it’s hard to even remember we were on the mountain. Sometimes, the fog is so thick we can’t see our hands in front of our face. What do you do when all else fails, when the trail never emerges from the valley, or the rollercoaster isn’t climbing again? We remember that remembering has a purpose. We remember it is about learning, forgiving, and responding in faith. We remember the works of his hands.

Lord, hear my prayer,
listen to my cry for mercy;
in your faithfulness and righteousness
come to my relief.
Do not bring your servant into judgment,
for no one living is righteous before you.
The enemy pursues me,
he crushes me to the ground;
he makes me dwell in the darkness
like those long dead.
So my spirit grows faint within me;
my heart within me is dismayed.
I remember the days of long ago;
I meditate on all your works
and consider what your hands have done. (Psalm 143:1-5)

What do we learn from remembering? That God so loves the world, and just as Lewis’s Christ-figure lion, Aslan, God is “on the move.” He did not stay on the mountain summit either: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). And whether we are on the mountain’s summit, or in the deepest pit, or stopped at any of life’s way stations along the road, we are not alone.

*C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: HarperTrophy, 2000), 27.

© RRT – soli deo gloria