Mountaintops and Intersections

"I have been to the mountaintop," said Dr. King, and even people who live in low-lying seacoast towns know what he was referring to. The image of the mountaintop runs through Scripture as that place where the human experience touches the Divine, that symbolic place where God is present and mere mortals can catch a glimpse of ultimate truth. And so we fondly recall those mountaintop experiences that happen on retreat or at church camp, upon some extraordinary accomplishment or in some exotic destination--where the cares of this world seem to recede and we are better able to understand who we are and why we are here on this planet. What were your mountaintop experiences? What insights did you gain? How did those moments change your life?

In Exodus, Moses and Joshua ascend the mountain to speak directly to God. Likewise, Jesus takes the leaders of his ragged band up the mountain where suddenly they encounter a transfigured Christ, radiant and filled with light. Two men appear--the apostles assume it is Moses and Elijah, both patriarchs in the Hebrew Scripture who were taken up to heaven but who did not die.

Peter doesn't really know what to do so he starts building dwellings. Why? Was he reverting to the comfort of liturgy--a feast of the tabernacles? Was he trying to busy himself with lesser things so that he didn't have to deal with the extraordinary that was happening right in front of him? Was he trying to contain these visions, put them in a box? Protect them from the elements? Capture the moment in a medium that he could understand--symbolic bricks and mortar--maybe a building campaign? Haven't we also undertaken these same avoidance techniques to escape things--even wonderful things--that we cannot understand?

But then God's voice interrupts and completely overwhelms them, "This is my son, my Chosen. Listen to him." And isn't that how it is so often with mountaintop experiences? The feeling is so grand, so ecstatic, that any attempt to control it--to put it in a box--is futile and we're compelled to yield to the power of the God force that fills the moment, a force so powerful that it can change your life forever and even, as in Dr. King's vision, change the whole of society.

Well, the symbol for my job description, as Director of Intersections International, might be called the "anti-mountaintop." I live and work at the intersection: the common street corner. Few of them are located on peaks; rather they are in the mud and muck of congestion, exhaust fumes, accidents waiting to happen, where those apparently pedestrian occasions fill our daily lives. I live in the midst of human interactions, not in the transcendence, where individuals and groups come into conflict across lines of faith and culture, race and religion, lifestyle and ideology. And I would guess this is where you live your life--most of it, anyway--as well.

Intersections is a permanent, multi-faith initiative of the Collegiate Church of New York. Our mandate is to bring people together who differ, to forge common ground for justice, reconciliation and peace. There's a great hunger out there to find places where our voices can be heard, our stories honored, and where we can make authentic connections that deepen our experience of community and citizenry. Intersections fills this need. We work with communities in conflict. We create safe space where we bring together diverse and often unlikely voices to a common table. There, we seek innovative solutions to some of the world's most pressing problems.

We use education and the arts, traditional media and emerging technologies to amplify ideas evoked through these in-depth conversations. We seek sustained engagements that heal communities over time. We build bridges of understanding across lines of difference--veterans and civilians, immigrants and indigenous people, religious organizations and the LGBT community, Muslims and non-Muslims, CEOs and economic justice advocates. Our work is local and global. It is imaginative and it is urgent.

There are a thousand stories I could tell, but I will briefly share just two. The first comes out of our work with veterans. In seeking to address the terrible condition of post-traumatic stress in our returning soldiers, we were told repeatedly by our service personnel that what is needed is for veterans AND civilians to work together, to share stories and to address the issue of how war impacts us all. The result of these conversations led to our Veteran Civilian Dialogue project where equal numbers of vets and civilians share their stories of how the trauma of war has impacted each community. We've done more than forty of these dialogues over the past three years, with almost 2,500 participating. Why, you might ask, is this particular intersection so important? My story will illustrate.

I was sharing with a colleague--Mitchell is his name--some of the frightening statistics about suicide rates among veterans. Every eighty minutes of every day, a US veteran takes his or her life. Studies show that as many as three times the number of Vietnam vets have committed suicide as were killed in combat, and that now there are more Iraq and Afghanistan vets who have killed themselves than have died in those conflicts. "Oh, no," Mitchell said, "I can't believe those statistics. They can't be right." I shrugged and told him that is what I have heard.

A week or so later, I saw Mitch again. He approached me with a tremor in his voice. "I spoke to my buddy about those statistics," he said. "I've known this friend for ten years. He's a Vietnam vet although we've never spoken about his service." This, of course, is part of the problem; combat vets are reluctant to speak about the horrors of war they have encountered. Mitch went on, "When I shared what you told me, he started to cry. He said, 'I went to Vietnam with a platoon of fifty. Twenty were killed in combat. Twenty-nine have committed suicide. I am the only one left.'"

If we can somehow help avoid this terrible tragedy--which has taken decades to unfold--being repeated among the service personnel returning from our current conflicts, then this work will be worthwhile and the intersection will become a mountaintop.

Globally, much of our work has been focused on healing the rift between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. As part of this work, last spring Intersections led a delegation of US religious leaders to Oman to begin a dialogue process with religious leaders from Pakistan. In this first-of-its-kind effort, our goal is to build relationships, shatter stereotypes and create an action agenda among people of faith to help bridge the troubled divide that separates our two countries.

Present at our meeting were Amir and Noor, two Pakistani Salafi scholars studying in Oman--salafism is a brand of conservative Islam. These two scholars approached this gathering with considerable anxiety. Neither had ever met a Jew and their language, we later learned, prior to our gathering had been filled with predictable prejudicial remarks about Judaism in general and Jewish people in particular. Our delegation included both a conservative and an orthodox rabbi.

On the first evening, we traveled together in cars to a location for a get-together ice breaker, a boat ride off the Omani coast. Amir and Noor just happened to sit next to Ari Hart, the orthodox rabbi in our group. Within minutes, they were chatting together as if they were old friends.

At the end of our three-day gathering, Amir and Noor gave everyone gifts; and in Amir's closing remarks, he spoke about "the Abrahamic faiths" and how Christians and Muslims and Jews needed to work together for peace. And then he did a remarkable thing, thanking the other rabbi in our group--Burt Visotzky--who Amir said, had mentored him like a father during the conference. Through his body language, the clutch in his voice and the words he used, it was easy to see how this had been a transformational experience. The world view of this rising star in conservative Islam in Pakistan had moved 180 degrees. The intersection became a mountaintop.

This is how it begins. Yet for people of faith, this is not where it ends. Only when the structures of our society are filled with the mutual respect and understanding that this encounter signified can we begin to discover lasting peace.

In returning to our Scripture, it is interesting to note that in Luke's writings, "two men" appear miraculously three times: at the transfiguration; to the women at the empty tomb on Easter Sunday (Luke 24:4-7); and to the men of Galilee on Ascension Day in the first chapter of Acts (Acts 1:10-11).

In the words spoken during these three encounters, we discover valuable lessons, both for our mountaintop experiences and for the day-to-day tasks that can be so all-consuming. First, in the transfiguration, God speaks to the disciples out of the cloud, "This is my...Chosen. Listen to him." Let the words of Jesus' teachings be the ultimate guide for your decision making and your interactions with other human beings. Listen to him, for in his words lie the secrets to justice among peoples and the peace that passes understanding.

At the resurrection, the two men ask the women, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?" and then they proclaim, "He is not here; he is risen." Be prepared to be surprised by God. Do not dwell on the things that make for death, but seek the way of Jesus Christ among the hustle and bustle of life, at the intersection where the cross currents of difference reflect God's magnificent human mosaic--and there will you find your redeemer.

And on the Day of Ascension, they asked the men of Galilee, "Why do you stand here, looking up?" In other words, look forward. Get on with it. It does us no good to stand rooted to the ground gazing into the beyond. Rather, we need to look one another in the eye and move forward together, across lines of difference, so that the world can be a better place. And in so doing, experience the eternal in the present, the transcendent in the mundane, the mountaintop at the intersection. May it be so for you this day and every day.

Let us pray. Merciful God, help us to see in the other a reflection of you. Help us to hear in the commonplace the melodies of transcendence. Help us understand that in the "stuff" of this life, we can find the gifts of eternity. Open our hearts to these truths. In your name, we pray. Amen.