Scripture: Matthew 17:1–8
“And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County, down by the Green River where Paradise lay.” Imagine with me a tall, lanky redhead named Ryan, singing these lines of his favorite song, which describe the part of Western Kentucky where he was raised. He was in pep band with me, and whenever there was a quiet moment at a ballgame, or in rehearsal, or on a van ride across the country to a game, he would belt out these words. That’s the only part of the song that he would sing, but he would sing it with gusto! Most of us had no idea where Muhlenberg County, Kentucky was, but he sure did, and would sing the song so the rest of us wouldn’t forget!
It wasn’t until several years later why I realized that he didn’t sing the rest of the song. It is a powerful song titled Paradise, written by songwriter John Prine and first recorded in 1971. Prine sings the true story of travelling with his parents to their homeland of Muhlenburg County, where they would explore and enjoy the beauty of this Paradise on the banks of the Green River. In the song, the narrator wants to go back to that land and enjoy it again, and sings Ryan’s favorite line: “And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County, down by the Green River where Paradise lay.” But then, Prine receives an answer that shocks and pains the listener: “Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking. Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.” You see, Muhlenburg County, Kentucky, was once the world’s largest coal operation, and the beauty that Ryan sang about was literally dug out of the ground, as the song records,
Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel,
and they tortured the timber and stripped all the land.
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken.
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.
This simple, joyous bluegrass song quickly turns into a heart-breaking ballad of Paradise lost. The title of the song has two meanings—both the Paradise of creation that the narrator enjoyed and an actual town named Paradise that had to be evacuated and shut down because of health concerns caused by the coal mining there. But instead of being a cautionary tale, the last fifty years have seen county after county in Kentucky destroyed in much the same way as Muhlenburg County was. The tops of mountains shorn off, leaching chemicals into the groundwater, and causing cancer rates to skyrocket in some of the most poverty-stricken areas of the country.
What a fun way to open a sermon on Mountain Sunday, huh? Today ends our worship series A Season of Creation with a Sunday I have been looking forward to for a long time: Mountain Sunday. You know how much I love the mountains and the hills of Colorado and Kentucky and Appalachia…because I talk about them all the time! But this song by John Prine helps to start a conversation about the complex spiritual lessons that mountains can teach us. For in the mountains lie both Paradise and pain. And mountains can teach us through both.
Belden Lane talks about both sides of this mountain spirituality or mountain wisdom in his book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. The first is what he and the giants of Christian spirituality call a kataphatic tradition. In this tradition, one experiences an awe-inspiring and transformational encounter with God. This is the type of mountain spirituality you have heard most often from me—stories of mountains that I have climbed, and the joy and exhilaration that those experiences have given me. Mountains for me, and for a lot of Christians, are symbolic of the experience of meeting God face-to-face, in glory and splendor. And I added another five of those mountains to my list this summer, in both New Mexico and Colorado, and each mountain is another moment of gratitude and grace and holy encounter. This, according to Lane, is a kataphatic experience.
He points to the kataphatic mountain spirituality of the Gospel of Matthew. Six times, at various points throughout the Gospel, there are these moments of full and profound encounter with God. The mount of temptation where Jesus rejects the idolatry of the world, the sermon on the mount where he teaches a new ethic of love, the mount of feeding of the 5,000 where all could see Jesus’ power, the mount of Transfiguration where Peter and James and John see a fully transfigured Jesus, the mount of Olives discourse where Jesus showed what love is all about, and the mount of commissioning that we often call the Great Commission. All of these powerful encounters take place on mountains in Matthew, and demonstrate God’s varied and full and profound presence. God is revealed, each time with a different dynamic of the person of Christ, in a clear and powerful way. This kataphatic wisdom provides a spiritual experience of God as we are able to know God: God as love, God as power, God as grace…find a noun or an adjective for God in the Bible and you have found an example of kataphatic spirituality. These encounters are bounteous and booming, revelatory and verdant, joyful and beautiful.
The physical symbol of this kataphatic faith for Lane is Mt. Tabor, the traditional site of the Transfiguration. Tabor is in the lush hills and mountains of Galilee, where Jesus grew up as a child. In his early ministry, the Gospels write that Jesus often went into the hills and mountains to pray. We can imagine him going to these places to better understand his ministry and prepare for long, hard days of dealing with sickness and ignorance. And we encounter through the eyes of Peter and James and John the amazing power of the Transfiguration, where Moses and Elijah stand nearby as Jesus is revealed in glory. Here at this pinnacle spiritual experience, they came to understand who God was in Jesus, fully and unambiguously. Lane writes, “Tabor…symbolizes the iconic, imaginative power of the kataphatic tradition, given to artistic and intellectual expression. There, on the tree-covered slopes overlooking the plains of Galilee, God is found in a sharpness and lucidity of image…There is no obscurity or confusion about what is seen.” This first mountain wisdom teaches us through God’s brilliant presence.
But contrast that image to a very different mountain experience in Scripture, one that is equally familiar: Mt. Sinai. If you remember your Biblical geography, Sinai is the mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments, after escaping the political violence of Egypt. Sinai is where Elijah escapes the political violence of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, and meets God and hears the “sound of sheer silence.” While there are at least a half dozen mountains that have been named as possible sites for the Biblical Mt. Sinai, Lane points to the traditional site, Jebel Mussa. Jebel Mussa is a stark, dry, barren, foreboding place, nothing at all like the kataphatic joy of Tabor.
Which is shocking to the system. When we look for God and fail to see God in the way that we expect, we often try and manipulate God into showing up. We see this in many of these mountain stories in Scripture. The Israelites forming a Golden Calf because God and Moses were taking too long. Elijah searching in vain in the wind and earthquake and fire when God was instead in the silence. Peter, trying to construct tents for Jesus and Moses and Elijah so that they could continue their holy encounter a bit longer. Lane calls each of these examples of a “false kataphatic”: attempts to force God into a spiritual encounter instead of silently waiting on God to set the terms of the moment. We do the same thing when we try to package God into positive, beautiful, domesticated images that don’t represent the totality of who God is.
Instead, he suggests that the lesson of Sinai comes when God is not who we expect God to be. Lane, and spiritual teachers through the years, call this an apophatic spiritual experience. Instead of spiritual ecstasy and holy encounter, there is only emptiness. The apophatic theological tradition insists that while we can see God in the beauty of mountains and creation, these also fail to capture the entirety of who God is. God is not a deity who can be defined or domesticated or controlled. Like in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, describing the lion Aslan as a metaphor for God: “He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.” There is a wildness and an “otherness” to God that resists definition or domestication. Moses on Sinai did not see God face to face, but instead only caught an unclear glimpse of God’s back as he passed by. Elijah looked for examples of God in nature, but instead experienced God in the silence. Apophatic wisdom is the wisdom of the cold and barren mountain, the fierce landscape that is dangerous and uncontrollable and transcendent and terrifying and beyond comprehension. We see it in the psalmist asking “where are you God?” and hearing no answer…in Job yearning for God amidst the broken shards of his life…in Jeremiah and the prophets decrying the brokenness of both creation and covenant that they saw around them. St. John of the Cross belongs to the apophatic tradition, as he wrote in the 16th Century of the “Dark Night of the Soul” that leaves us silent and yearning. As does the heartbreak of John Prine, asking “what happened to Paradise” as he sees an ugly scar and destruction and the “world’s largest shovel.” It is asking “how could you let this happen to your creation, God?” That is the apophatic mountain wisdom of Sinai: sometimes the answers are beyond our comprehension and control, and sometimes our best act of worship is simply to be silent.
For Lane, and Moses and Elijah and Job and all those who have searched for an experience of God and been left empty, there is hope that even in that Dark Night of the Soul, God is there. In the silence. In the starkness. In the apophatic emptiness. In the spare, sparse, ugly, and even violent side of Creation…just as much as God is in the verdant, peaceful, kataphatic beauty of Creation. Before us lie two mountain wisdoms. Two ways God that teaches us: through the glory and splendor of the beauty around us—including creation—and in the midst of the pain and sparseness and struggle all around us—including what we have done to God’s creation. Two ways that we experience God. Through the beauty and power and presence, AND the emptiness and quietness and absence. When God is obvious and glorious, and when God is less than obvious, but is still there in ways we don’t expect it. We need them both!
There are some days when I need to learn in the kataphatic tradition, to stop to notice and express gratitude for the light of Christ shining brilliantly right in front of my nose! A couple of years ago, I began this spiritual practice that I have shared about before, of stopping to take a picture six times a day, as an intentional prayer to God in the kataphatic brilliance that I see in front of me in that moment. To ask “how is God transfigured in this moment?” It is a lesson I am learning slowly, but I am still learning.
Meanwhile, there are times when I need to learn from the apophatic tradition, to be silent in the brokenness and emptiness and listen to what God has to teach me. Lane quotes Richard Nelson who writes, “There may be more to learn by climbing the same mountain a hundred times than by climbing a hundred different mountains.” Ouch. I am pretty sure if I sat down long enough, I could count a hundred mountains that I have climbed. And on each one, I am amazed by its awe-inspiring beauty. But the apophatic tradition reminds me that God teaches us not only through novelty and newness and excitement, but by the quietness of seeing the same thing over and over again, and realizing that God is there, too.
I don’t know about you, but I need a reminder not to get stuck on one side or the other of the mountain when I talk about creation. Apophatic despair or kataphatic awe. Scripture teaches us that we need both sides. We need to look long and hard at the destruction and despair and reckoning of Creation, as well as the life-giving power of its mountain grandeur. It’s why there is both Tabor and Sinai in Scripture. It’s why Earthworks has both a red team of prophets and a blue team of celebrants. Our walk of faith through God’s creation needs both of these types of wisdom. It needs both sides of the mountain.
Last year, John Prine died from complications due to COVID-19. Family and friends gathered with his ashes on the banks of the Green River in Muhlenburg County, Kentucky, where his last wishes and the last verse of his song came to fruition.
When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am
And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County,
down by the Green River where Paradise lay.
A fitting memorial, and a powerful reminder of God’s presence and silence. Of grief and celebration. Of exuberance and emptiness. Of paradise and pain.