“He was born in the summer of his 27th year…”
I promised that my next blog post as I prepare to cycle up near Everest Base Camp in the Himalayas would be a reflection on John Denver’s song Rocky Mountain High. I have friends and family who roll their eyes when I quote John Denver as if I had never grown out of children’s fairy tales. When my son was a wild teenager he would often tease me that I loved music about teddy bears, rainbows and dancing unicorns. He’s a funny one!
The truth is I have grown out of much of John Denver’s repertoire as I often prefer music with a little more poetic and tonal edge. But John Denver had a few really great lines and great songs that have stuck with me all these years and this verse from Rocky Mountain High is one of them. For a pastor who sometimes gets asked, “Are you born again?” John Denver takes what is often a religious litmus test and gives it a much broader and more accessible read.
“He was born in the summer of his 27th year,
Coming home to a place he’d never been before.”
In the third chapter of John in the Christian New Testament Jesus tells a curious Nicodemus that he must be born of the flesh and Spirit. Nicodemus, clearly taking Jesus literally asks, “How can one be born when one is old? Can one enter into the mother’s womb again?” I am sure that Jesus was shaking his head thinking, “You’re just not getting it! I am not talking about physical birth. I am talking about spiritual birth.”
And this is where the late John Denver hones in on Jesus’ message better than any Christian who has tried to corner me with their “born again” litmus test. “He was born in the summer of his 27th year…coming home to a place he’d never been before.”
Being born again and coming home. The language of being “born again” has become so over-used and misused in some circles that it has virtually lost its meaning for many folks. In fact, if they even smell a conversation going that direction you can guarantee they will suddenly remember an appointment that they hadn’t yet scheduled.
But this language about “coming home” tastes good, feels good, and gets right to the heart of what this Jesus thing is supposed to be about. For the subject of John Denver’s song, Rocky Mountain High, coming home presented itself when he showed up in the Rocky Mountains. “When he first came to the mountains his life was far away…”
As I wrote in my last post I have pretty much lived in or near mountains all of my life (with the exception of the detour into Wisconsin where the absence of mountains startled me!). But it was that day after crossing the Nevada desert on my bike when I made the first pedal strokes to climb and conquer the Sierras in California that I knew that I truly belonged in the mountains. It was the first time that I said out loud, “I am home. I am home.”
For the next few weeks I will be examining various religious texts, poetry and song lyrics related the place that mountains play in religious experience and spiritual connection. What I hope to do is get a number of them sort of written onto my heart before I embark on my trip to the Himalayas. It’s one thing to read a text about mountains and imagine its meaning. It’s a whole other thing to recite a piece of poetry or song lyrics while actually grinding one’s way up a Himalayan peak. It’s the difference between reading a description of honey and actually tasting honey!
I first became interested in this project when I realized how often mountains played a part in the most significant events of the Bible–Moses on Mt. Sinai, Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount, and the transfiguration story when Jesus takes Peter, James and John up to “a high mount.”
But an interesting thing is taking place. I started this project believing that mountains played a significant role in much of religious literature–Christian as well as the other major religions. But I am not so convinced that I am completely right about that. My first search is telling me that what is significant is place and that depending on the origin of one’s religious stories and tradition that might be the mountains or water or the forest or the desert.
I am starting to wonder if mountains play a significant role in my religious tradition because the Bible is based in an area of the world dotted with numerous hills and mountains. I know my spirituality is rooted in the mountains, but that is because I was born in the mountains of Montana and raised at the foot of the Colorado Rockies.
This is why I started with John Denver’s song Rocky Mountain High. The mountains play a central role in this song, but the central issue is not the mountains. It is the spiritual awareness that one has found home. For John Denver’s subject and for me the mountains seem to call out, “Come home. Come home.” But I know of many other people for whom the ocean is home. I even know of others who breathe a sigh of relief as they drive back through the cornfields of Iowa. I have a sneaking suspicion that as I study other religious traditions what will tie them together will not be the spiritual significance of mountains but the spiritual yearning to “come home.”
Born again. Coming home. I think it’s all the same thing.
I arrive in Kathmandu, Nepal on September 17 and invite you into this journey.
Keep the wheels turning!