2012 AD: The golden roof of the pavilion glows even through the mist. The highest peak of the Azure City Mountain is in sight. Ten more of those wretched stone steps built onto the mountainside. Tired tourists drag weary legs up the stairs. Nine steps … the sweat drips down my glowing face. Eight … we pull out our cameras. Seven … six … five … four … three … two … one … we are there.
We lean against safety rails covered in red ribbons with names written on them for good luck, the metal wires dripping with padlocks hung by couples who want their love to continue forever. Through the light mist we can make out the outlines of nearby peaks and even closer trees. Birds sing melodiously, unlike we who are still gasping for breath. The energy in nature is almost palpable.
A long-haired Taoist monk sits by the altar. People donate money to purchase incense sticks and add them to the huge tub of burning or burnt sticks. Do they think that the Taoist monk’s presence will add extra value to their prayers? Or is the monk a security guard in disguise? Perhaps he is a combination of the two? A large metal windguard protects the incense sticks from the sudden winds which threaten to blow them out. Red fire extinguishers are strategically scattered around the temple.
Like most other tourists on this famous mountaintop, we pose for the cameras. These pictures will make Facebook tonight … if we make it down all those stairs. Our pedometers read 19000 and we’re only halfway.
143 AD: Emerging from the scrub, the old mystics settle their weary bodies onto the mountaintop. They gaze out over the surrounding peaks and forest trees, the energy of nature so vibrant it can almost be touched. They settle into meditative poses and begin their deep, rhythmic breathing.
Like a sudden gust of wind, it hits them. ‘Tao’ – the way, the truth, the source of energy, the force behind nature – this is the source of life. Simplicity, order, peace – these mark truth, and in seeking oneness with nature there is a connection with life itself.
As darkness approaches, the mystics make their way back down the mountain, step after weary step. They have a message to share with the people living on the plains below. They have found the meaning to life - the way, the truth and the source of life itself – the ‘tao’.
2012: We descend the stone stairs on the mountainside, along with scores of other tourists, a few pilgrims scattered amongst them. We pass through a number of temples that have been built over the centuries, admiring the artwork, including the flowing calligraphy of the character ‘tao’ which has been carved into the rock. Knees trembling, calves screaming, we reach the blessed cablecar and complete our descent in style, finishing with a luxurious cup of tea by the side of the lake, overlooking the mountains which are shrouded in a light mist.
Two hours later, after a bus, a bullet train, a subway, a little more walking and 86 more steps to the front door our sixth floor apartment, we’re home. Our pedometers read 27748.
Those mystics of old brought a message to the people of what was even two millennia ago a bustling city on the plains. As a result of their mountaintop revelation, they established what is still China’s only non-imported philosophy or religion (depending on your perspective) - Taoism.
Like those seekers of truth of old, we too have a message which also concerns the ‘tao’. In the Chinese Bible, translated from original languages by scholars who have spent painstaking hours on this issue, John 1:1 reads, “In the beginning was the ‘tao’ and the ‘tao’ was with God and the ‘tao’ was God.”
One who walked this earth not long before those second century mountain mystics wrote, concerning his own people, “ How … can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? … As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”” (Romans 10:14a,15b)
If we know the identity of this Tao that people today still earnestly seek even in this modern day world, then let us step out in obedience and faith to take this gospel to those who are even now still searching. Such ‘steps’ will matter for eternity.
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