Mountains Beyond Mountains: Address to the 162nd Annual Meeting of Trinity Cathedral

The 2003 book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, tells the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, a physician who has dedicated his life to delivering quality medical care to some of the poorest and most remote parts of the world. The book focuses particularly on his work to help tackle the public health crisis posed by tuberculosis in Haiti. The book’s title is drawn from a well known Haitian proverb, which states simply that, “beyond mountains there are mountains.” Indeed, Farmer’s life and work are a testimony to the fact that, when it comes to fulfilling the words from Isaiah that Jesus quotes in today’s gospel lesson–bringing release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, setting the oppressed free–one challenge is  inevitably followed by another. Beyond mountains there are mountains. What I find most inspiring about his story is that every single one of us, when we set ourselves to it, has the power to make a big difference in the world. All of us have something to contribute, all of us have a part to play. But none of us can fully accomplish it on our own. Only God’s power will bring in the fullness of God’s kingdom. The most we can do is give what we can, and contribute what we have. Beyond mountains there are mountains.

Today is the sixth annual meeting of Trinity Cathedral that I have presided over as your dean. In these years, we have climbed a mountain together. When I first met the search committee almost seven years ago, they described a congregation that wanted to turn itself outward toward the community, that wanted to renew its focus on children, that was hoping to grow and serve the world in deeper and bigger ways. As I look at where we are today, we have climbed that mountain.

We continue to be an exception in the landscape of American Christianity: a church founded before 1900 in an urban core that is experiencing significant growth. Most churches with our formula are in decline. Our average Sunday attendance has increased by  more than 40%, our total membership has grown by more than 100 people, even accounting for those who have moved away or who have gone on to greater glory. Our annual giving has increased from $214,000 in 2013, to almost $350,000 the past two years. And if you wonder about our commitment to children, last Sunday at coffee hour I was walking across the room to talk to someone, and I was nearly tackled by a stampeding horde rumbling toward the treats. Together, with the power of God’s spirit, we have climbed a mountain.

But always, beyond mountains there are mountains. This annual meeting represents a turning point in a lot of ways. As we enjoy the view of where we’ve come, we can see the next mountain approaching on the horizon.

The foothills of this mountain have to do with our financial position. When I arrived at the cathedral, your chapter made an intentional decision to invest for growth. We have built up our staff and our programs, and the vitality and growth we’ve seen is a direct result of that. But we are using our roughly five million dollar endowment more aggressively than we can sustain over the long term. The chapter has made the intentional decision to do that each year, but they are also aware that we can’t continue that practice for more than another few years. While our annual giving has increased substantially, around 60% of our active households make a pledge every year. If we can get closer to 100% of families participating in our annual giving, it would go a long way toward putting us in a place to sustain who we are today into the foreseeable future. That’s one challenge we’ll need to work in in 2019.

The grand, picturesque mountain rising beyond those foothills is one of the biggest capital projects this congregation has ever undertaken. What we are calling Cathedral Commons will be a center for nourishing spiritual hunger and building community in our congregation, our city, and our region. A fully renovated parish building will in the first place better serve the needs of our growing congregation–improved accessibility, better hospitality and security, improved and more flexible spaces to support our programs. But Cathedral Commons will also serve as a platform for us to build on what we are doing, and will become an important spiritual and community center. It will allow us to make DEO not only a nice lunch, but a center for serving the poor and addressing the root causes of poverty and homelessness. It will allow us build on the work Brother James and his community are doing, and bring the riches of contemplative spirituality to support the lives and work of business, non-profit, and faith leaders here in Omaha and beyond. It will help us to work with interfaith partners to help young people discover their callings, and build the character and habits that will sustain them in pursuing their life’s highest purpose. I’ll say a lot more about some of these emerging programs downstairs, but what we are envisioning for Cathedral Commons will make us an important center supporting faith and the life of prayer in Omaha and in the wider region.

And honestly, we don’t have to climb this mountain, of course. There are good reasons not to. It’s hard work. If we’re going to do it, all of us will need to pitch in with time and prayer and money. Frankly, it would be easier not to. The thing is, when you called me to be your dean, you trusted me with caring for the spiritual well-being of everyone who makes their home here. That’s a sacred trust, the weight of which I feel day in and day out.  And as I read the scriptures for wisdom about how to fulfill that trust, as I look over the history of the church, as I say my own prayers day by day, it’s my observation that God doesn’t ever ask anyone to stay where they are. God never asks anyone to play it safe. The Bible is full of people who had good excuses for not climbing their mountain. Too old, too young, too poor, too sick, too scared. God has heard it all.

God is in the business of healing the world with love. I believe, in the core of my being, that God is going to do that, with us, or without us. I’m now old enough and have taken enough falls to know that God’s project to heal the world with love doesn’t depend on what our budget looks like, or whether we can pull off a big, fun capital campaign. But I also know that each of us gets one life. Just one. It was given to us out of God’s pure love, it can be taken from us at any moment, and we don’t get it back. So when I think about how I want to spend this one little blip of a life I have, I can’t think of anything better than giving it fully to God’s project of healing this broken, grieving, heartbreaking and beautiful world with love. So I’m going to do what I can to climb whatever mountain comes next, for as long as it pleases God to give me breath. In these years, I have come to love every one of you as family, and I’m all in with you. So let’s go climb this mountain together. The view will take your breath away.