Having a free weekend in Black Mountain – a rare thing as much as I have been traveling lately – I headed for the Smokies and soon found myself standing before this 60-foot high abandoned fire tower atop Mount Sterling. A little rusty and built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, I had to stare at it for a little while before deciding to climb it. The rickety thing had been standing for 76 years, which gave me pause. At the same time, it had been standing for 76 years, so what could go wrong? The open hatch at the top of the wood and iron staircase was beckoning, and I so accepted the call to adventure.
I stepped onto the first wooden step, and it felt secure. So I continued. But about halfway up, I could begin to feel the wind gaining. It was rushing up the mountain and over the ridge. So I tightened my grip on the rails and moved a little more cautiously. The tower itself wasn’t swaying, but I sensed that a strong gust could be mighty threatening. With resolve, I finished the last 30 feet and moved into the safety of the 6×6 foot box atop the staircase, safely out of the wind.
Though the wind could only get through the few shattered window panes, it roared all around, beating against the side of the tin box. No swaying still. I had just stepped up into the box and without thinking stood still for about 5 minutes, not even taking in the breath-taking view. Mostly just trying to acclimate to the situation. I soon felt comfortable in the safety of the tower, but still moved cautiously around the re-enforced floor and occasionally cowered low when I could hear a strong wind coming. I spent about an hour in the tower, watching the sun set behind the mountains. I could see mountains all around, even ridges that were more than 10 miles away.
There’s something about us, as men and women, that makes us want to feel like we can control things. We want to make sure that we have a handle on everything, that we can see it all. That’s the very reason that this tower was built, to get us off the ground – where you really couldn’t see any of the surrounding mountains – and up to a place where we could see it all, where we could manage the whole thing ourselves. And so we built a tower.
Growing up in the church, my faithful Sunday School teachers taught me about a certain tower in the Bible, the Tower of Babel. It was explained to me that this story, related in Genesis 11:1-9, was recorded so that we would know why there are so many different languages spoken in the world, why we can’t understand one another. That’s certainly a part of the story, but I do believe there’s more to it. I would even suggest that the story is given to us to prepare us for Christmas, an Advent story of sorts. As the engineers and workers who set out to build the Tower of Babel explained in their own words, they were building a “tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4 NIV). This story is all about their desire to be in control. It was as if they were telling God that they didn’t need him anymore, that they could take it from there. They could make their own way, even their own skyscraper touching heaven.
After all their hard work, we read that “the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building” (Gen. 11:5 NIV). They had been working so hard to make a name for themselves, to reach heaven on their own. They had built something impressive, something very tall. It’s funny to read that even still, God came down to see their work. What was of great height to them – likely a tower so high that you would strain your neck to see the top – was something so far below heaven that God made a long journey down. They hadn’t reached heaven independent of God. They had only attained frustration.
What those men and women learned that day when God visited them was that we cannot make our own way. The story line that we see throughout the Bible is one in which it is always God coming down to us, never the reverse. We cannot build a tower that reaches heaven, not a physical tower nor any spiritual tower within our heart. It is always God who, by his grace, comes down to us. The good news of the gospel and the great event that we celebrate at Christmas, is the grace-filled act of God coming down to us. It is the story of a King leaving his throne in heaven and coming to meet us down here, right where we are. It is a great act of love that God would come down to us, that he would get on our level and experience all the brokenness and heartache that we so often encounter, which is exactly what he did through Jesus. Such love would lead Jesus to the only tower that could make a way to heaven, that rickety piece of wood on another mountain – the cross.
Though that fire tower at the summit of Mount Sterling has stood tall for a long time, I could sense its age as the wind beat against it. It will one day, like so many other fire towers in the Appalachian range, be out of commission. It will one day fall or be removed. Our towers – whatever form they may take – will give us a sense of power and control for a time, but they cannot stand forever. As the camp song says, you must “build your life on things eternal.” God came down at Christmas to remove the towers of our hearts, to give up all his power for a time, so that we could know his love that is stronger than any structure man has ever made.
Protecting You and Me: This is a must-see in the Smokies! There are no restrictions against climbing this tower, but it is a climb-at-your-own-risk tower. The National Park Service and Great Smoky Mountains National Park cannot be held liable for any accidents that happen at this tower.