‘Why do we need mountains?’ A child’s profound question merits a thoughtful response

Prologue: Last Sunday in our church we closed out teachings on the book of Acts with an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session. Of course we were able to get to only a fraction of the questions. One of the questions we didn’t have time to discuss came from a younger child in the congregation, and it’s too good to leave unanswered.

I love questions from kids. Children are full of honesty and urgency, since they have not yet learned to throttle their curiosity. The question on Sunday: “Why do we need mountains?” Here is my response in the form of a letter.

Dear N,

Thank you for this thoughtful question. I will do my best to offer a helpful response. Since I am still getting to know your family, I am not sure all the places you have lived. But I know that you live pretty close to our mountains just above Pasadena and Altadena. I can see them from my house, but I bet you have an even better view than ours.

I believe you have grown up in the shadow of these mountains. I have only been this close to mountains for a couple of years now, since I grew up in the southern part of our country. New Orleans to be exact. In New Orleans we have no mountains. We don’t even have hills. It is as flat as a kitchen counter.

When I was about your age, my parents took my brother and me to Colorado. Have you been before? The mountains there are insane. They are solid rock and full of snow. In the Rocky Mountains, it’s hard to find much flat ground. So when I was a kid and traveled there, I was overwhelmed. You know that feeling you get in your stomach when you ride a rollercoaster? That was how I felt when I saw those Colorado mountains for the first time. I felt very small. And the world felt huge and scary close at the same time.

“Maybe that is why we need mountains, because we have a hard time paying attention to the world around us. Mountains are hard to ignore.”

The mountains where you and I live in California are a little bit more gentle, and because they are on one side of our city, less suffocating. But I still feel a small shudder of joy when I see them. You sound like you think about our mountains a lot too. Since you asked this question, I know you have been paying attention to the world around you.

Maybe that is why we need mountains, because we have a hard time paying attention to the world around us.

Mountains are hard to ignore. That little trail of ants out in your yard, you might walk by them every day and never notice. Why do we need ants? That’s a good question too, but fewer people notice ants anymore, unless it is to smush them quickly and then go back to forgetting they exist.

Mountains remind me that there is a lot of world out there that is not-John-Jay. Maybe mountains remind you that there is a lot of world that is not-you. Have you noticed that when you see the mountains you feel different inside, like you are bigger and smaller all at once?

Mountains are also like signs that tell you where to look. Next time you are in public, look at what other people are looking at. I bet almost everyone is looking down at a mobile phone. When we stare at that little shiny screen in our hands, our backs hunch and our necks bend downward. People look like they are turning inward, focusing all of their attention on themselves and the small world inside their small phone.

A very long time ago a writer said that this way of turning in on the self is the effect of living in a difficult and at times painful world, especially when we are the ones making it more difficult and painful.

View of the San Gabriel Mountains from downtown Pasadena (Photo John Jay Alvaro)

Mountains tell us to look up, and to look out. To see a mountain, we have to literally stand up straight, with good posture and neck extended. Try breathing while bent over like you are staring at a cellphone. Now stand up straight and look up at our mountains. Does it feel easier to breathe when looking down at the screen or up at the mountain?

Maybe mountains help us take deep breaths. Breathing is one of the gifts God gives to all living things. It seems few of us take deep breaths anymore, but we should. When we breathe deeply, it is like we are inhaling God’s power and love.

People used to build churches and holy temples on the tops of mountains. They sensed that mountains had a special kind of energy. Sometimes people want to hear God talk to them, and mountains have always been places where God’s voice is easier to hear.

Some people call this a Thin Place. Have you ever pressed your ear to a wall in your house to listen to the voices in the next room? It’s easier to hear if the wall is thin. Sometimes it feels like God is in the next room, and if we could just find a thin spot in the house, we could hear God’s voice.

Mountains are often thin places. Moses hears God on a mountain. Elijah hears God on a mountain. Jesus hears God on a mountain. I don’t think that God lives on the tops of mountains, because I believe God can be found anywhere. I just think that humans have a hard time being quiet and still long enough to hear anything anymore. Including God.

Maybe mountains help us slow down and quiet down. Like leaning with your ear to the wall to listen, the mountains quiet us down. God’s voice is easier to hear, not because God is louder, but because we are being better listeners.

“Mountains are often thin places.”

Maybe mountains are here because God loves them. Maybe that is why you and I are here too. And why your question is so great, because in the end it helps us to see what God’s love looks like. Sometimes it looks like mountains just to the north of our window, asking us to consider their presence in our lives.

Looking upward,

Pastor John Jay

Epilogue for pastors and other clergy: Kids are not asking us to say less in order to address them. Neither are the adults who occupy the pews on Sunday mornings. They are simply asking us to speak to them in a way that honors who they are, how they take in information and how they receive language.

Within my response to a child’s question is a ton of theology based on decades of study and application. Augustine and Incurvatus in Se is in there, the deformation of sin. So is the Divine Name’s connection to breath. There is a nod to Julian of Norwich near the end, joined up with Martin Buber’s I and Thou.

“Maybe mountains are here because God loves them. Maybe that is why you and I are here too.”

I would love to see theologians and ministers find new ways to bring theological fruit down to where people can reach it. Ask the kids in your church how they understand (or don’t!) God, faith, sin, heaven, Satan, salvation, forgiveness, etc. Let them ask their truest questions, the ones most churches spurn for fear of nuance, paradox or heresy.

Adaptive Leadership experts talk about the Sacred Heart postures necessary for difficult work and difficult change – namely, curiosity, compassion and innocence. Those sound like childlike qualities. And didn’t Jesus say something about emulating children if we want to make into the Kingdom?

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