Picture a craggy mountaintop. Men appearing out of nowhere. A dark and terrifying cloud. Strange sounds and sights.
The Transfiguration? No, not this time. The Battle of Blair Mountain.
It was on a jagged peak in West Virginia, almost a century ago, that the biggest armed rebellion outside of the Civil War was fought. An army loyal to the coal companies fought 10,000 rebellious miners for 10 days beginning on August 24, 1921.
The Battle of Blair Mountain cost the lives of 25 men and resulted in 1,500 miners facing charges of treason, murder and conspiracy. The miners had revolted after a pro-miner sheriff was assassinated during a summer of unrest over working conditions.
Back in 1921, the coal companies won both the battle and the war.
Today a new fight has erupted over Blair Mountain and others like it. Environmentalists and long-time West Virginia residents are going to court and fighting the practice of what is called “mountaintop-removal mining” – lopping off mountaintops to get the coal inside. This is especially irritating to many natives who argue that their state is the “mountain” state for a reason; flat top Appalachians are not a part of their vision for West Virginia.
The practice has not only removed the tops of mountains but buried more than 500 miles of streams and displaced whole towns from the valleys. Mountaintop removal mining is basically strip mining on the top of a mountain, with the dumping of rubble into the valleys that separate the steep peaks. Blasting removes several hundred feet of a 2,000 to 4,000 foot mountain, and the mining company then moves in and extracts a seam of coal.
Move now from this chaotic scene, to another mountaintop crisis. We see, not miners, but fishermen, and they’re witnesses to one of the most spectacular events of Scripture – what we call the transfiguration of Jesus.
This time it is Peter who wants to do some clear-cutting on the mountaintop for a construction project. But his goal was not to shave off the top, but to preserve the experience.
Peter’s well-known impulse to build three chapels on the peak is usually derided by scholars, theologians and preachers. “We mustn’t linger on the peaks, but return to the valley of service,” proclaim the pastoral pundits. One can’t live in the rarified atmosphere of a mountaintop; we’re meant to live in the valleys of human experience and suffering.
But the fisherman was on to something. Here’s a guy who’d spent most of his life out on a lake in a boat. His clothes reeked of fish, his hands were gnarled from both the weather and casting and hauling in fishing nets. His life was going nowhere. He was facing a flattop future until Jesus came along.
It’s probable he’d never been hiking on Mt. Hermon before, much less experienced a transfiguring, transforming, and transfixing moment as this one. He was in on something special, seeing visitors and visions, and he didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to shave off the top of this mountain. No sirree.
In fact, we all need mountaintops, places and spaces where we can stand in the reality of the luminous, awesome presence of God. Both Moses and Elijah with whom Jesus conversed had had such experiences. When you flatten the mountains of your life, the streams fill up with the debris, and life becomes a desert and a wasteland.
When the coal companies of West Virginia shave off a mountaintop, they can never put it back. The peak is gone. And all that is left is a scar that functions as a reminder of the glory that once was.
Perhaps the argument can be made that, today, we have far too few peak experiences to savor. We’re being told not to shave off the peak, and we’re saying, “Like, what peak might you be referring to?”
Such a dilemma points to our inability to see the luminous, the glorious, the holy and the sacred in the world around us, in the mess and mundane of our lives. Why is it that we do not see the holiness of the moment when:
A child crawls into your lap for a story?
The strains of the music that moves you floods your soul?
You take a stand for justice in the chambers of city hall, the county commissioners or the school board?
You take time to pray?
You open the pages of Scripture to read and study?
You come through disagreements holding the charter of forgiveness and reconciliation?
You pray for the sick in a hospital room?
You awaken to a sunrise?
You sip that first cup of morning Joe?
We spend too much time cursing the profane, mundane, and secular nature of our world. We spend too little time transforming the secular into the sacred, the mundane into the momentous.
I enjoyed a peak experience while on vacation in Colorado a couple of weeks ago. My son and I hiked up to Black Lake, an absolutely gorgeous spot in Rocky Mountain National Park. The first part of the trail, which leads to Alberta Falls, was crowded with hikers. Then it began to thin out as we continued on to Mills Lake. By the time we finally reached Black Lake, we were alone.
As I sat atop a boulder at the base of a noisy waterfall at the far end of the lake eating my lunch, I took in the panoramic beauty of a glistening lake surrounded by jagged mountains. I watched Hamilton as he clambered across some rocks and slid down a snowbank several times for fun. I washed my hands and face in the cold, refreshing water. And I thought, “Wow, God, nice piece of work here – well done.”
So, what’s your transfiguration, your peak experience? And what are you doing to preserve it? James McGinnis made a point of inviting each of his children, when they were young, to identify a special outdoor prayer place in a large city park. Then, on the eve of significant religious days – a first communion or confirmation – he or his wife would take the child to his or her place for prayerful reflection on the event. “More than just another religion class,” reflects McGinnis, “this was a moment of communion between us as parent and child, between us as followers of Jesus, between each of us and God, and each of us with creation.”
Unfortunately, emotional, experiential mountaintop events are not part of our spiritual landscape. We prefer to stay in our comfortable, climate-controlled, monotonous valleys.
Or we shave off our spiritual mountains and turn them into flat tops, preferring to mine them for our own purposes.
Well, shave off the summit if you will, but you’ll have nothing left but a flat top future.
There was a Christian fellow who lived in the southern part of China and was a rice farmer. His farm was located in the middle of a mountain. In time of drought he used a water wheel, worked manually by a treadmill, to lift water from an irrigation stream into his field.
His neighbor had two fields below his. One night his neighbor made a breach in the retaining bank and drained off all the water from the Christian’s field into his own two fields. When the Christian noticed the breach he repaired it and filled his field again.
This happened three more times.
Finally he consulted some of his Christian friends and told them what he suspected his neighbor of doing. He said to them, “I’ve tried to be patient, but is it right to continue to be quiet about this?”
After they had prayed together about it, one of them said, “If we only try to do the right thing, then surely we are poor Christians. We have to do something more than that which is right.”
The troubled Christian took these words to heart. The next morning, instead of repairing the breach once again, he first filled his neighbor’s two fields and then in the afternoon he filled his own field.
After that the water stayed in his field. And his neighbor was so amazed at his actions that he began to inquire the reason and in due time he, too, became a Christian.
So, instead of shaving our mountain tops, we might want to consider sharing our peak experiences. Transfiguration – it’s not just a Bible story.