Courtney T. Ball

Coming Down the Mountain: excerpt from His Final Sermon

When I was a freshman in college, I began my conversion to Christianity. It was a strange route. I was the son of a preacher, but I had almost no interest in religion. I didn’t believe most of what I thought the Bible said. I had also seen the way my father struggled as a pastor. I thought, Why on earth would anyone want to participate in all that nonsense?

My true passion was acting. In eighth grade, I had played Huck Finn in our school’s production of Tom Sawyer, and from that point on, I was head-over-heels in love with the stage. In 1995, I began my college career as a Theater major at the University of Iowa.

I had a lot of fun. In fact, I pretty much structured my life around fun. I had a full-tuition scholarship, so I had to make sure I kept my grades up, but as a Theater major, that wasn’t too tough. While others struggled with Organic Chemistry, I was playing improv games and attending rehearsals. I made sure to schedule none of my classes before 11:00 am, so even if I went out partying most of the night, I could still roll out of bed and show up. This was a lesson learned from my two older brothers who both bombed their freshman years by partying too much and skipping class.

I went out as much as my wallet would allow. I drank plenty of alcohol, sampled a few other drugs, and certainly chased girls as much as I could. And best of all, I was doing well in my acting pursuits. I landed decent parts in two plays, one of them in a main stage production, which wasn’t common for a freshman.

And then my oldest brother put a book in my hand. It was called The Vision, written by Tom Brown, Jr.[1] It was a kind of new-agey, autobiographical treatise by a white man who, as a boy, had supposedly been taught spirituality and nature survival skills by an old Apache shaman. Actually, if I were to pick it up today, I probably wouldn’t bother reading it. But at the time, it caught my interest. I enjoyed his stories of adventure as a boy and the lessons he learned.

The main point of the book was to explain the American Indian concept of “vision” and to describe the author’s own journey through the ancient ritual of “vision questing”. Vision is similar to the Judeo-Christian concept of “calling”. It is the unique life-path that God offers to every human being. It is our purpose, which we are free to choose or deny.

Vision questing is the process through which one asks God for clarity about one’s vision. As the book explained it, in many indigenous cultures a vision quest involves a set period (often four days and nights) of solitude and fasting in the wilderness. It reminded me somewhat of Jesus between his baptism and the beginning of his ministry.[2]

The hope is that during one’s quest, God—through spiritual mediators—will offer the quester a vision of what his or her purpose in life is supposed to be. Then the quester returns to his or her community for help from elders to interpret the vision and begin living by it.

I was fascinated by all this, but I was also deeply troubled by the challenge made by the book’s author. In several places, he stated that to live one’s God-given vision is the only way to truly live life. God has bestowed upon each of us a unique history and set of gifts that we are to offer to the world. If we do not, then our vision perishes, and our wasted lives are no better than death. To live without vision is to live as though we are dead, according to the author.

Naturally, as an impressionable young man, I took a look at my life and asked myself, is this my vision? Is this what God called me into the world to become? The answer was, probably not. So, I set out to find someone who could lead me on a vision quest. I discovered, through this wonderful new thing called the internet, an organization in Livingston, Montana[3] with ties to the book’s author. If I could get myself to Montana the following August, they would lead me through a vision quest.

I also shifted my focus from Theater to Religion. I started participating in a United Methodist Campus ministry. Along with my Bible, I began reading about other religions and philosophies. And during the following summer, I worked for a church camp where I learned a great deal about Christian community from a wise camp director, his wife, and other staff.

In August of 1996, after camp ended, I hopped on a bus and headed to Montana. During the long bus ride, I half-read, half-skimmed another book, Mitakuye Oyasin: We Are All Related, by Allen C. Ross.[4] Like The Vision, this was a personal/philosophical/religious narrative that today I would read with much more critical skepticism, but at that time I was very open-minded. I was on a quest for spiritual knowledge wherever I could find it.

Early in his story, Ross, who is of Dakota heritage, described a healing ceremony performed for him when he was wheelchair bound. In a completely dark room, as members of the community sang sacred healing songs, Ross witnessed the presence of spirits who looked like flying sparks of light. He could hear their wings flapping. He believes these spirits healed him and allowed him to walk again.[5]

As I read Ross’s book and the many amazing stories he included from various religious traditions, I fantasized that my vision quest would bring me closer to God, give my life the clarity I longed for, and allow me to witness miracles. I’m on my way, I thought. I’m beginning my path to spiritual enlightenment. Yep. I was more than a little naïve.

Here’s the reality of a vision quest on a mountain in Montana as I experienced it. I abstained from everything but water and confined myself to a ten foot circle. There was no fire or source of warmth, which was much more difficult to deal with on an empty stomach. The nights were unbearably long and cold. I wore all the clothes I had and tried to sleep inside my cheap, thin sleeping bag, but mostly I just shivered. Days were filled with boredom and hunger. I inadvertently made my campsite near a large anthill, so I spent much of my time observing ants or flicking them off me.

I did hear wings fluttering near my head once, but I can’t say they belonged to a spirit. It could have been a bird. And one dark night when I couldn’t sleep—this really was mysterious—I looked up into the absolutely beautiful sky full of bright stars, and one of them moved. At first I thought it was a large meteorite; it was very bright and moving fast. But then it changed course, swooped upward, and flew out of sight. I still can’t explain what it was. Perhaps I really was visited by a spirit as our guide said we would be.

Even so, the excitement of that moment wore off pretty quickly. If there was a message I was supposed to discern, I didn’t get it. Eventually, I fell back into a sort of half-sleep.

The next day was the third of four. At one point, I was roused out of my stupor by a loud, chattering squirrel. Apparently, it did not want me there. It kept chewing me out, as if my presence on its mountain was deeply offensive. I knew I was basically grasping for any kind of excuse that I could fool myself into believing, but I took that squirrel as a sign from God that I needed to get off the mountain.

So, that’s what I did. I walked back to the main camp and told them I had received a clear message that my vision quest was over and I would need a ride back to the bus stop. They didn’t ask too many questions (I imagine I wasn’t the first to cut out early), and one of the guides gave me a ride back into town. The only suggestion she had was that I write a journal about my experience and reflect on it later.

In 1996, the Greyhound bus station in Livingston, Montana was located in the lounge of an old, downtown hotel. After I bought a pack of cigarettes and took the first drag I’d had in a few days, I killed some time playing video games. Before long, a group of young people (late teens and early twenties, I guessed) came into the bar to shoot pool and drink a few beers. Apparently they didn’t have much to do that afternoon either. Seeing me, they struck up a conversation and invited me to join them.

I wasn’t old enough to actually buy alcohol, but I was up for a game of pool, so I grabbed a cue and started in. After a couple games, the younger kids lost interest. I continued to play a few games with the veteran of the bunch. He was old enough to drink, and somehow he played better the more he drank.

Eventually we got hungry, so he invited me to join him for supper at a local Chinese restaurant. I was more than ready for a full meal and still had a few hours before the bus arrived. As we ate, he opened up and told me about the girl who had just broken his heart after a long relationship. I listened quietly, not sure what to say other than, “Man, that sucks.”

It was enough for him. “I’m so glad you were in that bar,” he said. “I’ve been so sad all the time since she left me, and I don’t have anyone I can talk to about it. It feels so much better just to tell someone what I’ve been going through.”

And finally, I got it. Finally the frustration and humiliation I’d experienced during the last few days of begging God for a sign and getting nothing in return felt worthwhile. Why? Because they led me to that chance encounter at a hotel bar/bus stop. A young man I had never met and would never meet again was walking around Livingston, Montana, carrying around this pain and sadness and believing he had to do so all alone. I didn’t do anything other than play some pool, eat Chinese food, and listen, but it made a huge difference to him. To me, that was a small miracle.

On the bus ride back to Iowa, I decided that squirrel may have been a messenger from God after all. Perhaps God gave me a taste of mountaintop spirituality, and then led me down the mountain to my real ministry.

Over the years, I’ve had major doubts about many religious beliefs. I’ve learned to live with unanswered questions and prayers. At the time of this writing, I’m nearly twice the age I was when I sat shivering in that little circle of dirt and rocks and ants on a Montana mountainside, wondering when God was going to show up. I’ve long since given up on that mystical religion with which I was so fascinated as a young man. I don’t need it, and the world doesn’t need me to have it.

Even as I moved closer to calling Christianity my home and recognized the way of Jesus as our salvation, I have never personally felt Jesus’s presence or wholeheartedly believed in his divinity as those who write creeds would like us to. That is not the kind of faith God granted me. Instead, God led me down the mountain into the messiness and brokenness and miraculous beauty of human life. And while it wasn’t what I asked for, I am so thankful it’s what I received.

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[1] Brown, Tom, Jr. The Vision. New York: Berkley, 1988

[2] Mark 1:12-13, Matthew 4:1-11 , Luke 4:1-13. It might appear on first reading that Jesus’s time in the wilderness was all negative, as most of what is described in the gospels is his temptation by Satan. However, all three synoptic gospels state it was the Spirit that led him there after his baptism. Mark and Matthew also note that he was tended to by angels.

[3] Earth Heart (www.earth-heart.net), which is now located in California.

[4] Ross, A. C. Mitakuye Oyasin = We Are All Related. Denver, CO: Wicóne Wasté, 1989

[5] ibid. 5-6

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Courtney Ball

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