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Are you Climbing the Right Mountain?

To allow Pastor Rick time to enjoy the Christmas season, we are re-publishing some of his most popular blog posts of 2013. (Originally published on April 4, 2013) 

I meet every Wednesday morning with a group of men for Bible study, prayer and accountability. We're currently using Patrick Morley's Devotions for the Man in the Mirror as a guide, and a few weeks ago we discussed a very relevant topic for us--ambition. Our small group consists of men who have reached some of the highest peaks of their particular fields. From the world's perspective, these men would be considered ambitious and quite "successful." But one of my observations as I meet with people from all walks of life is that regardless of successes, accomplishments, or a lack thereof, people are people. We all have our joys and struggles. We all long for a meaningful existence, and we all have certain ambitions.

For some of us, we have ambitions to achieve, succeed, and excel. Morley tells the story about Edmund Hillary and his guide, Tenzing Norgay, who led the first successful climb to the top of Mount Everest, towering five and one-half miles high. They overcame what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles of avalanches, high winds, thin air, fatigue, and dwindling supplies. Hillary wrote about the exhilaration of becoming the first man to reach the pinnacle at 11:45 am on May 20, 1953. Hillary and Norgay stood on top of the world for all of … fifteen minutes. That's right. Fifteen minutes after they arrived, the high winds and sub-freezing temperatures forced them to begin their descent. If they delayed their retreat, nightfall would overtake them, and they would die on their downward trek.

Think about it. All of that sacrifice, training, and hard work to scale to the top of the world for fifteen minutes.

Most of us have some type of Mt. Everest we want to climb. Athletes want to compete at the highest level. This weekend is the Final Four in the Men's NCAA Basketball Tournament, and only one team will be left standing at the pinnacle of college basketball success. Business people want to reach their Everest of success. Pastors often look to their Everest as more crowds, bigger buildings, and expanding budgets. We all are tempted to cave in to the pressures of allowing worldly ambition determine our drive, value and identity.

Most of us climb the wrong mountain. As the old cliché says, "I climbed my ladder to the top only to find out it was leaning against the wrong wall." Is the mountain you're climbing worth it? Is your fifteen minutes at the top worth the sacrifice you must make to get there? When we make our Everest a temporal mountain, we only find temporary elation in making it to the top. If our mountain top is simply to fuel the engine of selfish ambition, we may make it, but we will often make it alone and discover that the momentary thrill is just that, momentary. We are still left with an emptiness and longing, because, as Solomon put it, all we're doing is "chasing after the wind" (Ecclesiastes 1:14).

Ambition can be a good thing, if it leads us to climbing the right mountain. And the only mountain worth climbing is one that leads us to our heavenly Father. Psalm 43:3 says, "Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling." The goal of the Christian life is to climb the holy hill, the one that leads to the dwelling place of God. Morley writes, "The independent spirit wants Everest. The surrendered spirit wants the holy hill."

So what mountain are you climbing? Are you seeking your fifteen minutes at the top or an ascent that will last into eternity filled with a joy that's inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8)? The choice is yours: fifteen minutes or forever.

The One Commandment We Quietly Ignore

Most people, regardless of religious affiliation, would agree that we should follow the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:1-21). In fact, the Ten Commandments are often referred to as foundational for all civil and moral law. Edwin Louis Cole once wrote, "The Ten Commandments have never been replaced as the moral basis upon which society rests." An atheist might dismiss the first three commandments, since they directly tie to one's belief in God, but the other seven are rather fundamental for the ongoing durability of society.

We know we should honor our father and mother. We know we should not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet. And for those of us who do believe in God, we know we should have no other gods before the one, true God, and we know we should not have any idols in our lives.

But there is one commandment we very quietly ignore and hope that God doesn't notice: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8). Perhaps we believe that since the Ten Commandments were given specifically to the Hebrews, Sabbath keeping was intended for Jews only. Fortunately, for the good of society, we don't apply that logic to the rest of the Commandments.

In the Hebrew, the verb form for sabbath, shabat, is almost identical to the noun, shabbat, and it means "to cease, stop, be at a standstill." So the Sabbath is a day set aside to cease and desist. But do we? The Sabbath is not the same thing as a "day off." I don't know about you, but when I take a day off, that's when I catch up on my "honey-do" list, run errands, and work on other projects. That's a far cry from what the Bible calls a sabbath rest.

The biblical context for the Sabbath is found in the creation story where "God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested [shabat] from all his work that he had done in creation" (Genesis 2:3). Why would God rest? Not due to fatigue but due to completion. God completed His creative work, and He ceased. In the Exodus account of the Ten Commandments, the reason given for observing the Sabbath is consistent with the creation account. We are to cease our work as a reminder that God ceased. In Deuteronomy 5:12-15, the reason to observe the Sabbath is different. We rest in celebration as we remember how God delivered the Hebrews from slavery.

Both reasons to observe a Sabbath are still needed in our own spiritual formation. We may not observe the Sabbath on Saturday (although some might), but setting a day aside to cease and celebrate connects us to the very structure God orders in the rhythm of creation and freedom. In Romans 14:5-6a, the Apostle Paul writes, "One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day [whatever day it may be], observes it in honor of the Lord." Whichever day it may be, Sabbath keeping reminds us that our lives are not defined by our work. Our identity is not in our activity. Through Sabbath keeping we enter a weekly rhythm that requires intentionality in our action (work) as well as our inaction (cessation/celebration).

In describing the high value of Sabbath keeping, Eugene Peterson writes, "[The sabbath] is uncluttered time and space to distance ourselves from the frenzy of our own activities so we can see what God has been and is doing. If we do not regularly quit work for one day a week we take ourselves far too seriously." Sabbath keeping affords us the opportunity to "quiet the internal noise so we can hear the still small voice of God" (Peterson).

So how do we "keep the Sabbath"? By keeping it simply. Don't make it complicated and wearisome. If you do, you're not going to be keeping it for long. Notice that the two biblical reasons for Sabbath keeping (to cease and celebrate) form the parallel sabbath activities of praying and playing. In Exodus, the Sabbath directs us to the contemplation of God which leads us to pray. In Deuteronomy, the Sabbath directs us to the celebration of God which leads us to play. That's right, Christians can and should play! Unfortunately, if we do keep the Sabbath, we either become puritanical and eliminate play, or we become secular and eliminate prayer. Both are needed.

Here's the good news. There is no legal prescription of how to set aside a day in order to keep the Sabbath. What I challenge you to consider is to get into a weekly rhythm where you commit a half-day (and eventually a full day) where you pray and play. Don't make it complex. Once you set time aside--weekly--then PROTECT it, because your instincts and habits will try to force their way in to your emptied time and space. You will feel unproductive and wasteful, because we are taught that time is money.

There are no rules to preserving the sanctity of time. There is only a commitment to set aside time for being, not using. Enjoy the God-ordained rhythm of work and rest, and in your rest don't worry about "getting things done," only be responsive to what God has already done.


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