Mountain Climbing

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

Climbing a mountain is a muscle straining, exhausting experience. It is also a wonderful, soul inspiring experience. Even the rolling, tree covered “mountains” of southeastern Oklahoma make for great hiking and wonderful views.

For an hour one Tuesday morning I sat, perched on the top of Lookout Mountain -- on a stone wall placed there for that very purpose by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps — and contemplated my life and the ministry God has given me. You know, sometimes you’ve just got to get away from all the cares and concerns of this life so that you can reflect upon them with greater clarity. And, as I sat on the top of that “mountain,” and looked out over Beaver’s Bend State Park and the Mountain Fork River Valley below, I could see not only the hills and trees many miles in the distance, but also the many hills and trees of my life.

It is a marvelous thing ... unspoiled nature: the clear air and the bright sunshine, the cool breezes and the sounds of wildlife. We miss so much of that, living in our urbanized culture. We miss it and, quite frankly, I believe that it misses us. Sitting in the midst of nature, soaking it in through every pore and sense God gave me, I began to think about what life would have been like for me had things happened differently. Of course, all of us have had similar thoughts in the past. For example, perhaps things would have been remarkably different had you never gotten up the nerve to ask out that young girl who sat next to you in senior English. Or, perhaps, if you had never married you would have lived a better — or worse — life. What if you had decided to go on vacation to Israel in 1967, and had died in an air raid? Or, what if you had never entered into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? These kinds of questions can keep you going around and around, trying to imagine what life would have been like had things gone differently. I like the “what if” questions ... they force me to think about things that, often times, I would like to forget or would like to avoid.

The question I was asking myself last Tuesday was, of course: “What if I had never answered the call of God to the ministry?” It’s a good question, and one that pops into the minds of Methodist Clergy during appointment season and at Annual Conference time, when the pressures and anxieties about serving in the ministry seem to be evident on the surface.

When walking along a nature trail it’s easy -- or, at least relatively easy -- to see the route ahead of you for as much as thirty to fifty feet. You might even have some general idea of where the path is leading you. Looking back, however, you can see, with great clarity, where you have gone, where the pitfalls and the rocks were, and just how sticky and icky were those bushes on the left. As the old saying goes, “hindsight is 20/20;” unfortunately, foresight is often quite myopic.

I don’t have any idea what the future holds in store. No one does. We can dream, fret, worry, and perhaps try to make contingency plans for the future, but no one really knows what’s going to happen. All we can truly do is look back on the path we have been following, thank God for his presence, his promise of mercy, forgiveness, guidance and protection, and then move forward, trusting in the Holy Spirit to lead the way. The path behind us is well known, but it will do us no good to try and walk it again, nor will it do us any good to wallow in a pool of self-recrimination for our stumblings and failures. Lord, I’m sure that we’ve all done that more times than we would like to admit. All we can do, being mortals, is plant our trust in God and turn to face the future that he has for us.

As for my question as to what my life would have been like otherwise? At this point in my Christian walk, I find it hard to imagine being anything other than a minister of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Sure, I could do many other things, and there have been times -- particular during the year before I came to Beverly Drive -- when I would much rather have been doing something else. But, when I am most honest with myself I realize that none of the things I could otherwise be doing would give me the joy and fulfillment I experience through proclaiming the Holy Gospel, celebrating the sacraments, and being your Pastor.

Frankly, if I had it to do all over again I would probably change a few things. I would try to not make all the mistakes I made the first time around and I would try to do some things differently. That being said, if I could start over from the beginning I would still be in the ministry, I would still be proclaiming he Word of God, I would still be serving God's children as an under shepherd of the Great Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord.

© 1994 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from