Faith: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

August 23, 2011

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).

For the last four days, I have been on the great Half Dome Adventure. I was accompanied by two backpacking companions, who stepped up to the challenge when my husband had to bow out due to an injury. One fellow hiker wanted to use our trail time to talk about faith, and in particular how I could be “so certain” about “my position” on the issues that were tested in the PCUSA ecclesiastical trial and appeal last month. These questions were intended to invite me to abandon “doctrinal tyranny,” because one cannot be so sure about some things and one most emphatically should not teach “one point of view” as the only correct one. As you can imagine, my exercise this weekend was both physical and mental.  But I am grateful, for the excursion provided an apt image of faith and the church’s teaching ministry.

Half Dome is a spectacular granite formation at the heart of Yosemite National Park and a magnet for technical rock climbers (think Spiderman ascending the sheer face) and backpackers (who conquer the heights via its eastern shoulder). Four hundred coveted permits are issued daily to scale the “sub-dome,” itself a formidable hiking challenge of 560 feet elevation gain in 1/4 mile, and “the cables” ascending the shoulder’s last 400 feet to the top. You can get a picture of this by going here.

At the base of Half Dome's cables. Many people in my acquaintance have successfully climbed Half Dome, and this year it was my turn.

 The ¾” steel cables are parallel handrails supported by poles every ten feet or so. The slope is so steep, and the granite so smooth and slippery, that you must use arm and hand strength gripping the cables to pull yourself up the hill. Yes, you have a very solid rock to stand on, and for this reason leg strength is essential. But if you do not hang on to those cables, you fall. Decisions made along the way are life-and-death matters—no drama here, just the reality that if you lose your grip, gravity will take over.

I realized one third of the way up the cables that my gloves were not “sticky” enough to grip the surprisingly slick cable. [For you physicists out there, their coefficient of friction was too low for the task.] My legs were strong, and my hiking shoes adequate for the standing/stepping task, but with each 10-foot section upward and progressively steeper incline, the cables— intended as a safety feature—just slipped through my hands. I had to turn back, all because of those inadequate gloves.

The gloves in this illustration represent the ministry of the church, which is to help people know and become attached to our Savior and Lord. Knowing Christ requires faith. This faith is not wishful thinking lip-service, but the robust hold-me-upright faith to give strength and stability against a slippery world, the uphill battles of the flesh, and the distractions of the devil. Faith is the traction required to cling to Christ. It is the church’s role to foster this faith through its teaching and sacramental life. Faith gives the Christian confidence in Christ’s salvation and allows the believer to put his or her full weight on Christ alone, Scripture alone, and grace alone, no matter how steep the Rock may get.

Sadly, it seems that Presbyterian gloves are just too slippery, and many Presbyterians are finding the church’s teaching and practice no match for the biblical and historic affirmations that have secured God’s people for generations. They are between a Rock and a hard place.

So what is one to do?  Change gloves? Replace the cable with something even slippery palms can grab hold of? Get off the mountain entirely?  It is these questions I believe are at the heart of the conversation to start on Thursday in Minneapolis, at the meeting of The Fellowship of Presbyterians.

Tomorrow: Reflections in preparation for Minneapolis.

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3 Responses to “Faith: Between a Rock and a Hard Place”


  1. woo hoo . . . physical and mental challenge. Way to go!


  2. “many Presbyterians are finding the church’s teaching and practice no match for the biblical and historic affirmations that have secured God’s people for generations”
    Can you be more specific as to what Presbyterians are finding “too slippery”? What is the definition of a Presbyterian?

    • revmary Says:

      Hi Christine, I’ll answer your question better if I know just a little about you. Are you familiar with Presbyterian ways? coming from a different denomination? Perhaps new to Christianity? In general, though, “many Presbyterians” is a reference to those on the conservative end of the bell curve of all Presbyterians, who are distressed at a growing laxity and departure from clear Scriptural teaching. The PCUSA has started down the slippery slope by making significant changes to its Book of Order, relaxing or removing previous ordination standards, things like that.

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