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Mission: Nepal 2008

Everest and the One True God

By Jim Doenges
Climbing For Christ minister of outreach

The tallest mountain in the world is in Nepal. Yet the country also includes areas less than 400 feet above sea level. Tens of thousands of wealthy tourists travel there each year, yet Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world – a place where tuberculosis and leprosy are common and the average per capita income is less than $200 U.S.

There are even starker contrasts. When I trekked and climbed in Nepal with two current members of Climbing For Christ, we could feel the presence of evil as we witnessed a blood-covered Hindu altar. Most people in Nepal know nothing of the righteous blood spilled for them by Jesus. In the mountains of Nepal it is disrespectful to put trash in the household hearth because fire is considered a deity. Yet the fire of the Holy Spirit is largely unknown. Many living in the mountains of Nepal believe that the yeti live among them and can become invisible at will. Yet those same people know little or nothing of the One who became visible flesh. The mountain people call on the multiple gods thought to inhabit the tallest peaks, yet have not heard the invitation from the One True God who calls the lowest, the needy, the weary into relationship with Him.

God created the mountains of Nepal with the broadest and boldest of brush strokes. It is incredible to stand at 15,000 feet – on a trail – and look up to peaks that are more than two miles higher. Ten of the 12 highest mountains in the world are in Nepal.

Yet Christians make up less than one half of one percent of the population, and it is illegal to proselytize.

Nepal is the land of the fabled “Shangri-la.” It is nearly synonymous with mysticism, a place that draws spiritual seekers from around the world. It is said that in Nepal, every other building is a temple and every other day is a religious festival. Yet there is not a single Christian church in the entire Khumbu region of Nepal, where Mount Everest is located. We pray that God would use Climbing For Christ to change this. We are sending a mission team to trek through the Khumbu this spring to see how God might use us to serve the people there.

 

Khumbu kids

The Khumbu and its people

The Khumbu region is home to the most widely known people of the Himalaya Mountains and Nepal’s most famous ethnic group – the Sherpa people. The vast majority of people living in the Khumbu are Sherpas. They are a warm and friendly people.

Sherpas do not get the respect they deserve in the western mountaineering press. Most climbers who successfully summit Khumbu peaks, such as Everest, do so only because Sherpas have guided the route, fixed ropes, installed ladders, and carried up most of the gear. Sherpas hold most Everest records – the most ascents, fastest ascent, and the longest time spent on the summit. More Nepalis have died on Everest than any other nationality, and the vast majority have been Sherpas.

Sherpas migrated from Tibet starting about four centuries ago. They were nomadic people, but the introduction of the potato in the 1830s is believed to have been the catalyst that caused Sherpas to settle in villages. The word “sherpa” has come to be used not just for the ethnic group, but also for a person from any of the dozens of Nepal’s ethnic groups who is working to support an expedition or trek.

Even though Nepal is predominantly Hindu, it is also the birthplace of Buddha. The Sherpa generally follow the Tibetan form of Buddhism combined with animism (the belief that non-human objects have spirits). Religion has a very strong hold on the Sherpa and its practice is very public. Even though their religion is not centered on a god, Tibetan Buddhists mistakenly believe that repeating prayer over and over (called mantras) gains people merit in this life. The Sherpa practice of having inanimate objects such as prayer flags and prayer wheels sending out prayers to impersonal gods contrasts with truth of Christian beliefs regarding prayer, where prayer is direct communication between people and a personal God. The repetitious mantras also contrast with Christ’s teaching not to use repetition when praying and thereby suppose you can be heard only for your many words (Matthew 6:7).

 

Buddhist monastery

Anthropologic park or Kingdom of God?

Many tourists sojourn to the Tengboche monastery, located at 12,700 feet in the Khumbu. Westerners seek enlightenment in the monastery by participating – for a donation – in what they perceive to be timeless practices in an ancient place. It is an exotic vacation destination for the lost. It is also neither timeless nor ancient.

The monastery was originally built in 1916. In 1988 an American foundation funded the construction of a very small hydroelectric plant to bring electricity to it. Less than a year later a fire caused by a space heater burned the monastery to the ground. With aid from the West, it was rebuilt larger than before.

In the early part of the 20th century, Sherpas were tending toward Hindu practices. That trend was reversed by the foundation of the monasteries. The monasteries changed the local religion. During the last 90 years, ritual animal sacrifices to gain wealth have been eliminated, shamanism has mostly disappeared, and the more violent elements of annual festivals have been toned down. While the large Tengboche monastery is flourishing thanks to foreign donations, many smaller monasteries off the popular trekking trails are not faring well.

Some long-time observers feel that Sherpas have used their religious rites on expeditions, as staged performances in response to westerners’ desire to experience the exoticness of Tibetan Buddhism and exert moral control. An example is the puja, which is a ceremony Sherpas use to ask permission and protection from the mountain gods. During mountaineering expeditions 50 years ago, Sherpas would usually hold pujas in small and private ways. Pujas held in base camps have grown larger and now westerners are invited to attend. They involve building a stone altar, hanging prayer flags, and tossing rice as part of seeking favor from the god of the particular mountain to be climbed.

Other long-time visitors to the Khumbu region believe Sherpa culture is declining and there has been a rise in individualism and competitiveness as Sherpas pursue business relating to tourism. However, there does not seem to have been any change in the consistent accounts of Sherpas’ kindness and heroism while they have supported expeditions and treks over the last 50 years.

Change in the region is undeniable. In years past tourists might seek a traditional meal as a guest in a Sherpa home. Today, tourists can log onto the Web and sip cappuccino.

Is the Khumbu to remain an anthropologic reserve for the entertainment of western tourists? Are Sherpas confined to mountain guiding and potato farming? Tourists to the Khumbu may be more resistant to the Truth of Christ than the residents.

During my trip to Nepal in 2000, I wrote prayerfully to God in my journal: “Please send reinforcements.” And so here we are. May His light shine in the darkness of Nepal.

Jim Doenges, a staff member of Climbing For Christ, will be our Mission: Nepal expedition leader. This story originally appeared in our magazine The Climbing Way (Volume 9, Winter 2007-2008).

The Word

“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”
— Matthew 6:7 (NIV)

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