On spiritual adrenaline

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?

Drink the Spirit of God …  (Ephesians 5:19, The Message)

On top of the world, looking down…

Mountain-tops. I don’t often get to them, but I know they inspire people. All that majesty, perspective, isolation … not to mention the sense of achievement in getting there. Then there’s the sense of proximity to God. I empathise. I’ve been to one or two, but tend not to make a habit of it. For a start I’m not a fan of heights. In addition, I have arthritis of the spine which can make getting up there a little too sore (I say ‘a little too sore’ in the sense of English understatement … really I mean more a sort of raging agony for the next few days); and I find it easier to draw close to God in urban environments as opposed to rural or spacious ones. So whilst mountain-tops may be great, I don’t visit them often. There’s also the fact that no-one lives on top of a mountain. So at best, a mountain-top can only be a short-term option. Wonderful for some, maybe, but only for a time. You still have to come down and get on with life.

Mountain-tops. If the spiritual life is a journey across a varied terrain, then it’s fair to assume it will contain some time on metaphorical mountain-tops. Moments, experiences of spiritual exaltation and exhilaration where prayer seems easy, God is tangibly close and we feel like we’re alive in every sense. Mountain-top environments are in the Bible too. Elijah calling down fire, Moses downloading the 10 commandments – much of significance takes place on literal mountain-tops. Others wrestle with angels, get life callings, experience bizarre healings  on the metaphorical mountain-top. Yes, spiritual mountain-tops are from God, and they are good.

You can’t live on a mountain-top, though. You come down, and realise life needs to be lived. You get the 10 Commandments up a mountain but only so that you can go back down and live them out in mundane world of donkeys and neighbours, husbands and wives. Or you come down and realise that whilst you were having a fine time up the mountain with God, the people you lead have gone and made a golden calf whilst you were gone. Or no sooner has the blood of Baal’s prophets soaked the ground then you’ve crashed and burned. Peter may want to put up at tent up where Jesus was transfigured, but that was probably his way of ignoring the fact that he wasn’t yet ready to follow Jesus to the point of death.

Yes, mountains are glorious, dangerous places.

We all know the temptation, I think, to put up a tent on spiritual mountain-tops. Actually, mountain-tops are cold and lonely places if you linger there too long. They exist, for now, for short term energising and perspective. A glimpse of what can be and could be, but for now isn’t. We all know, I’m sure, people, places, maybe even whole churches trying to live there nonetheless. They may not even realise they’re doing it, but the price is a hard one to bear. The people who find they can’t breathe the rarefied mountain-top air for as long as others tell themselves or are told by a few that they’re not good enough, not spiritually fit enough, not close enough to God.

That happens, and it’s sad when it does. Ironically the ones saying ‘Come down off the mountain’ are the ones who are really close to God, really Christ-like. After an Old Testament full of people going up mountains to God and missing the point when they went back down, the New Testament tells us about God hitching up His cloak and breathing the not-so-rarefied air of the everyday, spending thirty or so years showing what it’s really all about in a world of parents and jobs and taxes and sex and games and fish. He didn’t get much of a hearing and ended up on a terribly ordinary wooden cross for His trouble.

Still, He persisted. The New Testament letters like Romans, theological mountain-ranges all, end with lists of ordinary people living ordinary lives for whom the letter-writer is grateful. Paul may be able to articulate the mystery of sovereignty or call people to imitate Jesus, but his sign-off is Euodia and Synthce squabbling. Get that right, and you’ve got a real insight into sovereignty.

So, mountain-tops. They’re real, and they’re good to visit. Visit them, but live in the breathable air of the everyday, the stuff of life, the Long Obedience In The Same Direction, as Eugene Peterson has titled it (itself a line borrowed, incredibly, from Neitzsche). There will always be someone, beckoning to you to pitch a tent up there somewhere.

Invite them to join you, then just get on with it. Because down in the valley is where Jesus lived.