Have I ever experienced a day more “head-twisting” than last Thursday in Denver?

It began with a gathering at Denver’s snazzy Convention Center. I had agreed to host a forum with sixty business leaders before the Colorado Prayer Luncheon, but as a freelancer with precious little business experience, I had to search for something worth discussing. Fortunately, I had just read the new book by New York Times columnist David Brooks, The Second Mountain.

Brooks describes the journey on which successful people embark: enrolling in prestigious schools, climbing the corporate ladder, accumulating tokens of wealth and success. Then one day, some of these achievers wake up with a hollow feeling, wondering, “Is that all there is?” Others are gobsmacked by some event—the death of a loved one, a fractured marriage, bankruptcy—and find themselves in free fall.  Now what?

I had listened to Brooks describe his own fall in an interview on Good Morning America. As a famous columnist and best-selling author, he reached an enviable summit. Yet when his 27-year marriage ended in divorce and depression set in, he realized he needed to climb another mountain, one that offered community and meaning. A friend told him, “I’ve never seen a program turn around lives. Only relationships turn around lives.” Hearing about a family who welcomed neighbors for a weekly dinner, Brooks showed up in his business suit one evening and rang the doorbell.

One of the neighbor kids opened the door, and Brooks stiffly extended his hand for a formal handshake. The kid looked him over, said, “We don’t do that here. We hug here,” and gave him a bear hug. Inside, Brooks found a household led by a warm, loving couple who hosted an average of 26 visitors from the neighborhood for dinner. For five years Brooks joined them on most Thursday evenings, and in time that diverse, lively community helped heal the loneliness in his soul.

To the business leaders, I read aloud Brooks’s conclusion: “The natural impulse in life is to move upward, to grow in wealth, power, success, standing.  And yet all around the world you see people going downward.  We don’t often use the word ‘humbling’ as a verb, but we should. All around the world there are people out there humbling for God. They are making themselves servants. They are on their knees, washing the feet of the needy, so to speak, putting themselves in situations where they are not the center; the invisible and the marginalized are at the center. They are offering forgiveness when it makes no sense, practicing a radical kindness that takes your breath away.”

David Brooks began exploring a second mountain, one in which ascent begins with apparent descent.

After the meeting with business leaders, we all moved to a huge ballroom. More than a thousand guests had assembled for the annual prayer luncheon, where Christian groups and individuals are encouraged to invite their nonreligious friends. As the speaker, I sat at the head table with the governor and mayor and several dignitaries from the city council. The elite of Denver, many of whom were busily checking their cell phones for last-minute messages, filled 140 tables around us.

The tone was somber for, just two days before, a suburban school had experienced a fatal shooting, a few weeks after the twentieth anniversary of the Columbine tragedy. The mayor, an African-American man who rose from homelessness to head a major city, practically preached a sermon, quoting Isaiah and urging us to care for the poor and the suffering. Meanwhile the governor, the first openly gay and the first Jewish person to hold that office, probably wondered who had scheduled him for an event among so many Christians. He responded with thoughtful remarks about the power of prayer in times of crisis. I tried to address both audiences: the Christian core, and their skeptical friends and colleagues who may have attended out of curiosity or civic obligation.

Three hours later I entered a federal prison. I had agreed to speak there as well, to honor ten men who had completed a rigorous four-year seminary program. The contrast in settings could not have been starker. Whereas the prayer luncheon was a fancy, dress-up affair, the prisoners all wore drab uniforms, with their names and numbers stenciled on the front. They lived behind bars and razor wire, ate institutional food each day, and were defined by their failures, not their successes. In David Brooks’s image, they had fallen off the first mountain, spectacularly.

I learned details of some of the graduates’ lives. One inmate started reading the Bible while in solitary confinement, and spent the next four years in the seminary course while also translating a German novel by Gerhart Haupmann called The Fool in Christ. Another had earned degrees in Biblical Studies and Theology and was working on a Masters in Divinity. Another said, “It was not until I came to prison that the Lord found me. I was the one that was lost and could not see. I was not only found but was able to see just how much the Lord loves me.”

One of the graduates wiped away tears as the recorded strains of “Pomp and Circumstances” filled the room. He later told me that his mother, who traveled from Nebraska to visit him every chance she got, had died that week. She would be buried back in Nebraska on Mother’s Day, and officials had denied his request to attend the funeral.

Although we were celebrating graduation from the seminary program, mostly the men spoke of another “graduation,” the day in 2021 or 2024 or whenever they would be released to resume life outside the prison walls. One inmate admitted addiction to some form of drug or alcohol from the age of nine. He had five drug-related felonies on his record, and was serving a 15-year sentence for distribution of meth resulting in a person’s death. He was using the time in prison to lose weight (75 pounds so far!) and hoped someday to work with kids in Teen Challenge, guiding them away from the path he had taken.

Another confessed that, after no more than seven years in school, he was barely literate and never read books. In prison he was working on his education and trying to “grow as a child of God.” He hoped in the future—“when I get out, God willing”—to return to prison as a teacher, training others. The seminary program, he said, “has helped me so much I must tell everyone about it.”

At the Colorado Prayer Luncheon we had enjoyed a full meal at tables set with cloth napkins and china. The prison served slices of carrot cake on paper plates with plastic forks. Though delicious, the cake had an unusual flavor of spices I couldn’t identify (“We have to improvise in this kitchen,” the chef admitted with a grin).

I left the prayer luncheon with a stack of business cards. I left the prison with empty pockets—we had to lock all belongings in our cars before entering—yet inspired by the stories of redemption I had heard. A late-spring snow was falling as the electric gate clanged shut and I walked out with a group of volunteers who have been coming for years, without pay or fanfare, to bring hope and renewal to the inmates locked inside.

The prisoners, volunteers and, yes, David Brooks have all learned the same lesson, that to climb the second mountain, ascent begins with apparent descent.

 

 

 

 

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35 responses to “The Second Mountain”

  1. Kimberly Dearman says:

    Mr Yancey, you will never know how much you have impacted my life. I have read your books over and over and have used Grace Notes as part of my quiet time for the past 5 years. I get something new out of it every year. My husband asked me today, if you could meet anyone, past and present, who would it be and it is You. My answer to the what 3 person is Jesus, Oswald Chambers and You. Even before Grace Note your books, etc. have been a part of my God time for the past 13 years. I found you in my depth of despair and. What is So Amazing About Grace gave me a new outlook on life, after my fall from my first mountain. I am now working on the second. I heard David Brooks on Oprah and Brenning Mannings Second Journey kept coming to mind. I turn 50 this year and to meet you or go to an event in which you are speaking is in my prayers. Walking through this thing called Christianity with you have been an integral part of my life. I thank you for being real, for not having all the answers and for sharing the struggles with us. You are Gods blessing in my life. Thank you.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Lovely, Kimberly. Keep climbing. And if you reply with a comment on where you live, I won’t post it, but will make a note in case I do visit your area sometime! –Philip

  2. Julanda says:

    Thank you for your thought-provoking books and especially for sharing your doubts and fears, with which we can identify. May God bless your work when you are putting together all of this, frequently alone. And also your wife who supports you and makes this possible. Apart from C.S. Lewis, whom I started reading in childhood, your books have touched me most. May you be granted the strength and courage and sheer stickability to continue your ministry in the way most suited to the talents given you.

  3. Thora Warrington says:

    Mr. Yancey,
    “THE JESUS I NEVER KNEW ” and “THE BIBLE JESUS READ” were among the required readings in obtaining my Nursing Degree. Well, I met the requirements and filed the books away in a visible spot. That was about years ago.
    I fell off the mountain about 8 years ago; the harsh realities of the fall continue to resonate through every aspect on my life and I fell into conflict with Jesus. Not even the Bible was able to uplift me until I was drawn to those 2 books. It was like an infilling of the Holy Spirit that gave me a more realistic view and understanding of my Jesus.
    Thank you, and I pray Almighty God continues to bless you and your gifts.

  4. Ann O'Malley says:

    “I’ve never seen a program turn lives around. Only relationships turn around lives.” I wonder how many healthy relationships the prisoner whose addiction began at the age of nine, or the young suspects in the recent school shooting, ever had. The government offers programs to fix all our problems. God offers relationship.

  5. Gloria Chapman says:

    Great essay, Philip! I have attended several of those fancy prayer breakfasts and I often visit a maximum security prison where you can’t even bring in lip gloss or tissue to blow your nose. The way you described the differences was perfect.
    Congratulations to the inmates who received their degrees!

  6. Niek Wit says:

    Would you not consider to include on your blog some of the books you are reading? I found your reference to David Brooks, The Second Mountain, very helpful.

  7. Margie Lidster says:

    Philip, it’s been a long time since we talked at your book signing in San Diego. Much has happened to us. My husband turned 90 and has been diagnosed with Macular degeneration and I have Atrial Fibrillation and knee trouble. so we have started that second mountain. please keep us in prayer.
    I read some of your books two and three times. You and Brennan Manning have
    kept me going through many storms. God bless you in your work for him.

  8. Bina says:

    To see beyond the frills, to look into hearts that seek hope.. That is Christ

  9. Neil Beauchamp says:

    You’re an awesome writer Mr Yancey.

  10. Susan says:

    Prose and personality are only two of your blessings. May you discover the depth of how God has led you into our souls through your authorship and be grateful and full of joy. You do not know me, yet we both know who the real author is that inspires us daily. Praying to and praising Him for your gift to continue. In gratitude to the Holy Spirit who hooked me up with your books many years ago. May the Holy Spirit enter you at this moment with more wisdom and knowledge. Praying for your ministry dear Phillip Yancey.

  11. Bonnie Sloat says:

    I look forward to your blogs and used your devotional last year. I miss it so will no doubt go back to it in 2020. I’m just finishing The Second Mountain. I sincerely hope and pray that the message of it (and yours) will be used in the lives of those who haven’t yet started the Second Mountain. It is so needed in our culture! Thank you, for your blogs, books and transparency!

  12. Alton says:

    I enjoyed the expression, “humbling for God”. There is about 40+ of us who get together at our church once a month and take care of foster kids for four hours. The kids love it (we provide games, food, crafts, etc.). The foster parents really appreciate it. We do this year in and year out with any fanfare. I love the people I volunteer along side for this “ministry”.
    Your blog just encourages me to keep on keeping on.

  13. Susan Jones says:

    Hi Philip,
    My favorite part was picturing you leaving the luncheon with pockets full of business cards, only to leave the prison several hours later with empty pockets.
    Jesus emptied Himself, and I’m guessing you felt most full doing the same.
    Susan

  14. Lisa Simmons says:

    I wish you could meet my sister and her husband…hear their story and visit “The Shack” where they serve the homeless and under served. If you’d ever like to visit, let me know. It’s near Little Rock AR
    Blessings
    Lisa

  15. Pat Hale says:

    Thank you, Phillip. As always you bring a thoughtful message. I love hearing about your experiences. At my age I have learned that relationships are essential to my wellbeing. Our congregation shows an abundance of God’s love that fills me up for the week ahead. I endeavor to pay that forward.

  16. Kathryn says:

    I always love reading your blog posts. You put so much thought and care into writing them. I have read all your books and find so much insight in them, unlike a lot of those written by “celebrity pastors.” God bless and hope you have another book coming soon!

  17. Eddie Chu says:

    Thanks, Philip, for sharing your one-day contrasting experience. I, too, at the age of 67, a career in business, and over 40 years as a Christian, am seeking more significance for the remainder of my life. Thank you for showing a way forward through your sharing.

  18. Steve Cuss says:

    I was at the Convention Center. We needed your words that day, also your ‘two governors in a day’ brought the house down. Thank you for this poignant blog reflection.

  19. Linda Brown says:

    This was such a beautiful gift!
    To see, in your written words the stark difference between what we believe as success!!
    The depth of your picture, in words, shows my heart God’s love is everything we need.
    I’m working on how to build and keep relationships. I call out to God for. Help , because I just have not found anyone to fit into my world!
    Now I see I must allow God’s Holy Spirit to move me into the world of others. I just don’t know what to do. Where to go to wash feet and serve.
    Mother Teresa ( sorry if her precious name is spelled wrong), advices me to start at home.
    “Generational legacy”, (Dr. Philip McGraw), has certainly been an influential leader in my life , thus far!
    You give such encouragement to my heart to pray and I’m energized again to keep moving for God’s change to save my family.
    Thank you so much !!

  20. Nora Derrick says:

    Needed to hear this… what a great day God have you to be part of to experience such contrast… wow is a good word to describe it. Thank you for writing about it so we can learn from it and rejoice in God’s plans for people in the best and worst circumstances.

  21. Deborah says:

    I love this. I’m inspired to open my own for a weekly dinner for people who just need a place to go and connect. What a great idea. The prison stories also really touched me. God bless you for the work you do.

  22. Pamela Wood says:

    Thank you, Mr. Yancey. GOD bless you.

  23. Woody Chenault says:

    What a day Philip! Humbling is such an important part of our Christian life. I can particularly identify with the prison visit, since Miriam and I have been visiting a young Christian in prison who is also studying at a bible college even though after his 15 year sentence is complete, he will be deported back to Africa. We look forward to our visits with him. His highlight each week is a bible study hosted in the prison by a local church. It is a stark contrast, but nothing is hopeless with God.

  24. Ingrid Harder says:

    I am so very grateful to you for sharing your valuable experiences, your unwaivering faith and kindness. Thank you. Of bless you.

  25. Karen Rhodes says:

    WOW!

  26. Sharon Kuehnel says:

    What a beautiful article. I love that God in interested in every person in every walk of life right where they are at. Thank you Mr Yancey for your faithfulness and honesty for God’s Kingdom ❤

  27. Jane Hakes says:

    Powerful story! Thanks for sharing it.

  28. Carolyn says:

    This is fantastic and identifies a deep need in the church to fulfill what Micah says what God requires of us.

  29. Hsin-yi Tsai says:

    Thank you Mr. Yancey for sharing the stories.God’s power has always astounded me!
    Thank you!!!!!

  30. j says:

    Not only a beautiful essay and testimony but “words fitly spoken” (golden apples in silver baskets) for my situation. And so many others, of course. Thank you for this.

  31. Carmeline says:

    Dear Philip,

    Thank you so much for this message! As a person who is “busy’ being “busy”, it is a gentle reminder of what matters; not only the self but the community that helps us to heal and grow.

    God bless

  32. Movers says:

    I really enjoy Philip Yancey’s writing. There was nothing here that was particularly revealing or new information about Jesus, but the author seems to have a way of writing that gets your mind engaged and thinking about the topic in different ways. I’d definitely recommend this one.

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