I have an at best ambivalent relationship with Christian conferences. These events seem to me have a culture all of their own; as a result I react in very particular ways. Within something like 36-72 hours of the start of the event I find myself experiencing a kind of claustrophobia. I start going to even less of the sessions than I was anyway; I need space; I want something that isn’t Christian – be it a pub, a coffee shop, a movie, a conversation. In short, I need air. Maybe its personality, maybe it’s spirituality, maybe it’s theology, maybe it’s a symptom of something physical. Whichever it is, or if it’s something of which I’m not yet aware, after a little time in these contexts I need air.
I say this because I’m recently back from one. There were over 5,000 people (most in some kind of church or other leadership positions) gathered to worship, listen and learn. It had many of the elements of Christian conferences which usually leave me grasping for the oxygen mask. Lights, lots of video screens, very loud worship purely in the key of joy, a load of talks delivered from the front, and the opportunity to be prayed with and for.
Yes indeed … there was plenty to annoy me. One of the speakers from a business background was not one whom I would have chosen. Not because he didn’t have good things to say (he did); but more because there are areas with which his business is involved and aspects of his organisation’s practice which are at the very least open to some serious ethical questions. The programme was packed, with little time for personal reflection and silence. The emotional register of the sung worship was joy … and it was only joy.
Here’s the thing. I loved it. I was fired up, I was energised, I was wired. I came away with my spiritual senses heightened. I was optimistic. Why? Part of it may have been the fact it was just 48 hours long. I could see the end from the beginning. It came, for me, at the end of a holiday so I was in a mentally relaxed state as I entered. I saw some people I hoped to; encountered others I was pleasantly surprised to get the chance to connect with; there were a few I was relieved not to have seen.Whatever the reason, something in me co-operated with something in the conference to allow deep to call to deep and for each to get heard.
The result? A shot of spiritual adrenaline, short and strong and invigorating like an essential espresso. I was on the mountain-top
For every high there’s a come-down; you have to come down from a mountain-top. You can’t live there. 24 hours later I was on the plane home. The plane home means lots of things for me … food and drink (variable); films and reading (good); sleep-deprivation (bad); arthritic spine and joints into lock-up (very bad). Add to that arriving home … to non-functioning internet, a doorbell constantly ringing with demands to be made by the perpetrators, a constant stream of emails to be caught up on, days more of arthritic pain because of the journey …
The result? A brutal come-down, emotional instability, self-doubt and a desperate grasping after the things I learned on top of the mountain and not lose them.
Does the mountain-top count for anything, then? Yes. Less so for information gained there (though notes taken have already been of practical help) as for hope infused. Those last two words are the essence of what I really got on the mountain-top. Yes notes were taken, ideas were formed, thinking was shaped, action was decided upon. More profound still was a sense of deep hope – that the dreams I have can be fulfilled because others see similar ones take flight. That mine is not the only plant in the garden. That joy may not always be so tangible, but is there and is real and is possible. That ideas can move beyond being ideas.
At the end of a really tough first week after the conference, there’s still light being shed from those 48 hours on the mountain; this despite walking a path that’s in the reality of a valley of beautiful plants, striking wildlife, diverse scenery and plenty of opportunities for my ankle to turn, for cuts and scrapes to catch me and for prowling lions to stalk me. The effect of the adrenaline has been as if to launch me downwards into the valley.
That sounds bad. I don’t mean it to. Down does not equate with bad. Down is where Jesus call me – lower, deeper, kneeling and walking. Using the energy, the gravity of the mountain-top to energize a descent that enables a landing which may be bumpy but effects change in me and in those amongst whom I move.
Does that make me sound like Moses, descending from the holy place with life-shaping inscriptions on stone? I don’t mean it like that either. (This is hard to articulate.) Leaders who allow themselves to be seen, by commission or omission, as the ones descending the mountain with cast-iron vision are the ones of whom I often feel the most suspicious. Even with our best efforts in the other direction that’s how it can often seem. Let’s be honest; it’s that for which some crave – for the leader to meet with God, for him (and it’s almost always him) to tell the people, and the people hear and (maybe) do. More than once I’ve had people say to me …. “If only our leader would just tell us what God is saying”.
I mean simply to say that I’ve been reminded of the view, have a sense that the journey really is moving towards something. Often I get so caught up in putting one foot in front of another that I forget that I and the others with whom I’ve been tasked to walk and lead are actually heading toward a definable, if not always visible or even known place.
So I need adrenaline. I can’t live on it, but I do need it. I need it for hope, for energy, for keeping going.
Finally, a question. If I need adrenaline, from where, from whom, do I find it? And do I know when I see it?