Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Of Mountaintops and Men: Reflections from a retreat

I did something this past weekend that usually isn’t my style. I went to a men’s retreat. I do not usually go for large crowds. I am not one for the emotionalism that is often associated with “camp.” I do not like participating in the bravado often associated with group competitions. I have a disdain for sharing a bathroom with over two people.

I have countless neuroses that I often use to excuse myself from such opportunities. So, I went somewhat unwillingly, at least begrudgingly, to the retreat. I cautiously participated, warning myself, as many in vocational ministry like to warn, not to get too emotionally involved. Rather, I was to be of sober mind.

In the church, we recognize a certain type of experience as “the mountaintop experience.” Often when speaking of such experience, we feel the urge to add a caveat concerning seeking such experience. “We cannot stay at the top of the mountain forever,” we suggest, and we seem to think that much more real and lasting experiences are those undergone with a sober temperament. The mountain top experiences are fun, but they are fleeting. We must go back down into the valleys to traverse the ranges of life.

Sometimes our want to warn our brothers and sisters of the folly of trying to cling too tightly to such experience turns sour, and our only use of the phrase, “mountaintop experience,” is implemented as a derogatory referent to religious emotionalism. I have even assumed at times from this idea that the higher you climb, the further it is that you have to fall. Better to avoid it altogether then.

After this weekend, I believe God has been challenging my thoughts on mountaintops, calling me towards more nuanced considerations. In part, I agree with warning against the dangers of misunderstanding such experience. We cannot live off of one encounter with God that happened way back when. One religious experience cannot sustain a life of faith. In fact, we must continue to encounter Him daily.

We must remain in relationship.

Therefore, is it not possible to so warn against the overemphasis of one experience that I belittle for others and myself all experience? Is there not an opposite danger that I often miss for want to downplay the mountaintop? What if, in my caution, I so warn against the mountaintop that I keep people from ascending at all? What if all experience is overshadowed by doubt?

Perhaps I, and people in ministry like me, have a need to calmly consider what it is that we are seeing in such experiences. We have often assumed it is emotionalism (and a lot of times it is), but what if what we witness is supposed to be more normative than sometimes we assume.
Perhaps our want to underemphasize the experience, because of the assumption that “this is not the norm, and, therefore, it must not be relied upon,” could be just as much of an issue as any attempt to overemphasize the moment. What if it is not the norm, because, at least in part, we do not let it be? So, I decided to look closer, asking God that I might see with the eyes of my heart.

Just this past weekend, I watched as 235 men came together to experience the presence of God. We came for a retreat and knew why we were all there. We all came knowing we would be invited into worship and challenged as we examined ourselves in light of what a Godly man is supposed to be.

Because our church intentionally carved out a time and set aside a place for such vulnerability, as well as set expectations, men came with vulnerable hearts and were broken from the bondage of self and healed into the image of Christ, at least many took a step in that direction. Will it last for the individual? Only time will tell if each man will stay tucked up underneath the Father. But, it is undeniable that many there had profound encounters with God.

We were rightfully warned, and not overly so, of the Christian “camp” mentality. We cannot live merely for a once per year experience. We cannot live off emotional highs. However, what if some simply assume the only place from here is downhill? What if God hasn’t led them to the heights that He wishes them to go? What if, as soon as He began to soften the heart, in our leeriness to avoid emotionalism, we close ourselves off to the real journey of continued experience with Him?

Fortunately, our church has invited the men to continue the process of learning and gathering over the next six weeks on Wednesday nights and has further challenged each man to find a group of men to which he can grow in accountability. Not all will join, but the opportunity is there.

Nevertheless, what if others came in with like assumptions to my own: “Don’t trust emotionalism.” What if, for want to avoid such, we too easily attribute a movement of God to the emotions? I believe God has been challenging me over the  last few days to evaluating my thoughts on the matter, and the question that now comes to my mind is this: “How did these men experience such a mountaintop?”

Sure, some may have just been caught up in the emotions of others. They have never seen other men so vulnerable, and they were perhaps caught up in the moment. But, knowing what I saw, I know this not to be the overarching story of this past weekend.

So, what is the story: The Holy Spirit led men to the mountaintop, and spiritual experience, while often stirring our emotions, goes far beyond emotionalism. His work is more real than that. So, what they experienced was not the sort of thing that I should warn against, but should encourage. Again, the question arises, “How was this made possible?”

This is what I think: Our church has for months been praying over this weekend. From beginning to end, the Holy Spirit was welcomed in our midst. He was asked to come and to act, and this was no fleeting request. Prayer and invitation unfolded for months before we ever arrived to the site. The site was prayed over before we ever arrived. And, while we were there, a round-the-clock prayer group lifted us up.

While there, our leaders reminded us of His presence and we too invited Him all along the way. Some men may have come not wanting anything to do with the Holy Spirit, but, regardless, He came, and they were forced to experience Him. It might not have been pleasant, but it was real. For many it was pleasant, even, perhaps, a mountaintop moment.

So, how did so many of us have an experience?

Was it because of an overly emotional, engineered situation?

I did not see that. Instead, it was because God was invited and expected. It was because of a promise, “For where two or more are gathered in my Name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:20). It was because our local body was intentional about calling upon Him to make Him the focus, introducing His presence to these men at this moment together. Why should we think this is anything less than normal? If He is invited, sincerely, He will come.

The experience was real, but many might be unaware of just how tenacious, single-minded, and intentional others were to invite and expect this experience for the sakes of those who came. Some of these men might have no idea just how they were made able to be ushered into such a presence, and they might assume that this was just a special time that they cannot have again, not at least until next year. Some might have no idea that we should constantly invite His presence together.

It is no wonder then that we find ourselves incapable at times of “reproducing” that experience. It is not because God only draws near and takes our breath away once per year at the camp of our choosing, but because we are unaware of the fact that it is not simply the music, the message, or the place (all of which were a blessing, no doubt) that provided the experience, but the persistent and expectant welcoming of His presence in our midst.

Having thought this, I began to consider, “How often, outside of Sunday service, do two or more gather in His Name?”

I am not just asking how often do Christians gather for fellowship. We do that all the time. I am asking this: How often it is that we gather “in His Name” expecting Him to come and make a difference with His presence? How often do we longingly invite His presence long before we show up? How often do we show up for the sole reason of encounter? And, how often do we show up truly expecting Him to be there to fellowship with us, not to just be amongst us, but a very real part of the community, speaking to us just as we speak to one another?

We experienced God this weekend, because we expected Him, invited Him, set aside a place and time for Him to come. It was meant to be an experience. What if we intentionally made space for more of the same? What if we did not just simply gather throughout the week to share each other’s company, but were intentional about inviting Him to come before we ever arrived and expected Him to show up?

What if we made space and time for Him and were just as passionate about inviting Him to come to all our gatherings, as we were intentional about this weekend.  Perhaps the Church should create more space in our midst for such, more opportunity to gather in His name. What if such opportunity was simply a part of our everyday culture as a church? What if?

What am I trying to say? Perhaps I need to calibrate my warning. Perhaps what we experience from time to time is only a mountaintop because we are not used to ascending. Being spiritually out of shape might mean that any encounter with God takes our spiritual breath away and makes us pant in exhaustion. We feel euphoric and exhausted at the same time, because His presence is so foreign that we can hardly stand it.

We feel we have ascended to the highest heights, but what if this was only base camp? What if we allowed God to better condition ourselves to His presence by expecting more of the same, not warning against seeking such experience, but inviting it. We are to encounter Him each day, to walk with Him so that our path becomes much more level. Perhaps we are meant for a life, not of constant ups and downs, but for a life of a path ever upward.

What if we were simply experiencing the beginning of a journey, an introduction to the life of intentional community, and not simply a mountaintop experience?

We cannot assume that God will only meet us on the mountaintop and that real life is that hard area in between experiences, where I must, on my own, act out of what He reveals to me on the mountain. We cannot think that the overwhelming nature of His love is reserved for the top of the mountain and that the majority of our time will feel much less connected.

He wants daily presence. If we know this, why should we not continue to climb? What if we made more space for Him? What if we showed up to daily, weekly, and monthly gatherings with the same expectations and with the same heart of invitation as we show up with for the retreat?

Yes, there are two sides to every coin, and there is a need to avoid emotionalism, but let us not become so reactionary so as to altogether forget the other side, that real experience should happen often.

We are not to create the experience. We should not imagine that if we can only replicate this event or that event again, hear this message or that message again, sing this song or that song again, we will be able to relive the moment. We should not simply seek out the feelings we had at this or that moment, but, we should expect that the God who showed up to introduce to us new things at our retreat, will show up to show us more new ideas and will provide new experiences, if we welcome Him to do so. It is always up to Him, but we can rest assured He wants our relationship.

We should be intentional to welcome Him in our midst continually. It is proper to warn against holding onto only one experience, but the solution is not to belittle experience. It is to encourage others to seek more of His presence. We should not expect less, but more.

This past weekend I was able to witness other men encounter God and walk with Him on a path that I often feel isolated on, assuming many men do not seek after Him. I felt the presence of a community in my journey that often feels lonesome. Why would I ever discourage men from seeking more of the same? I need them with me. I think this well thought out retreat provided something more than emotionalism, something sustainable, and that is real encounter. We can lose sight of the source of our experience, and try and make it about something else. That is the danger of the mountaintop experience. However, if we realize He is the source and submit to His authority, never presuming He has to show up, but that He wants to show up, then we should always keep inviting Him. Lord, come.

I have spent too much time seeking God with an unwillingness to surrender to His presence for fear that I would be allowing myself to be swept away by emotionalism. In the past, I have made pursuit of Him all about the mind, because the heart seemed to be too expressive. I have come a long way from that place, and this is just another reminder of my need to keep climbing. I am thankful for the men's retreat and for experiences that seem to be mountaintops because of the overwhelming presence of God. But, I will press forward, knowing that just because my finite mind cannot fathom going any higher, there is no limit to His path.

Want to hike with me?