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January 2018
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Fear of God

Why I climb.

I suppose it does demand an explanation.  Ascending walls of rock and ice for pleasure falls a bit outside the normal range of recreational activities.  No one asks for a justification of basketball or swimming.  They just make sense.  You have the all the benefits of exercise and competition, and they are quite safe.  Climbing, unfortunately, can only claim half of those as legitimate attributes.

Yet it is not the dance with danger that drives climbers. Well, perhaps a few find a certain suicidal thrill in the wildest niches of the sport. But for the vast majority, the danger is simply there.  Neutral.  Not something to be deeply abhorred, yet also, not a source of light hearted gaiety.

Fear is like God.  A constant presence whose counsel you ignore at your own peril.  Often I have found it in a whisper, a still small voice setting doubts before your stretching ambitions. The thin nagging sense that something is off, that something will go wrong.  Just loud enough to notice, but not enough to deter.

In others, it shrieks with a scream, bursting through the door with immediacy, demanding to be heard.  Disaster is no longer a lurking probability. It has arrived with a fury.  20 ft. from the end of the route and it is clear you will only make it 15.  Each movement a desperate attempt to halt the rushing onset of muscle failure. It doesn’t work.  You fall.

Almost easier are the fears that arrive after the moment of disaster.  A hold breaks without warning, sending you careening off into the air.  Your mind has no time to fear. Instead focusing the 1.5 seconds of freefall on twisting your body to avoid broken ankles. By the time fear can arrive, the rope has drawn taught, stretching to a halt 30 ft. below.

In the middle however, lies the vast majority of a climber’s interaction with fear.  The constant, dull pressure simply reminding you of the consequences at hand.  Real and tangible consequences, like missing a hold and falling 1,200 feet to the rocks below.  Without this steady admonition, your mind loses it’s sense of vigilance.

Mistakes would soon follow.  A knot tied incorrectly.  A carabiner clipped to the wrong loop. A simple misstep and bam, in an instant it’s all over. Fortunately with climbing, the danger is very obvious.  One simply has to look down to remind himself of the consequences.

Within this fear I have found two great gifts. The first came early, and it is very likely what drew me to the sport in the first place. It was a fear that taught me to consider only those dangers which truly posed a threat.

It wasn’t an active choice, rather a lucidity forced upon the mind by precarious circumstances.  When life hangs upon the grip of a small ridge of granite, the brain undergoes an instant purging.  All stresses, worries and contemplations evaporate in a moment, leaving every neuron to crackle and fire at the task at hand.

It is a curious sensation.  Doused with terror, yet not far from elation, the clarity producing almost a high.  For climbers, this is it.  The endorphins swirling through the brain, a euphoric brew of triumph and relief. Perhaps a summit to stand upon.

Transferring this grand concept to the rest of my life has proved remarkably difficult. The useless and mundane anxieties still rule much of the day.  But I persevere. The need is so great.  So much of the frustration and agony in the Christian life would fade away under shadow of His real concerns.  Yet we insist on shouldering it all.

I wonder, perhaps, if this is what God meant when He commanded us to fear Him. I have heard Christians say we ought imagine the fear of God as something more like awe.  It sounds very nice, but I cannot find it in scripture. The God I read about rarely goes 10 pages without responding in some dreadful lash of wrath and justice.

No, I think we are to fear God.  But I do not doubt we have walked a far distance from the essence of His command. Or perhaps more importantly, we have lost touch with the character of the one making the demand. And in this, our fears become a vivid indication of who we truly think God is.

This makes all the difference. If I believe God is capricious and vengeful, a response of bitter fear is quite natural.  I have found myself here often, thinking God an ill tempered father, waiting to spoil any happy moment. But how sad.  It leaves us little more than the cowering sneer of a peasant beneath his mercurial king.

But there is another way.  If I believe God is loving and faithful, if I believe He truly longs for my eternal joy, everything changes. Within this minor mental adaptation, this slight shift of perspective, lie enormous consequences.  So many troubles in life, from losing a job to unsolved health problems, lose their frightening countenance.

Despite its simplicity, I can think of few concepts more contrary to our natural tendency.  We are simply wired to worry, it sprinkled in the mold when our bones were cast.  Escape must from its hold must lie in repetition.  A daily remembrance of what we ought fear, of what we must trust.

This is why I must return.  To the mountains, to the cliffs, to the clear and vivid lines. Every movement an encounter with the tangible.  Each soaring ridge a stark reminder.  It is real, it is raw, and with my hand upon the rock, my fears find return to their rightful place.

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