Sunday, January 8, 2012

I Gave Up Spiritual Mountain Climbing

Bear Creek Spire
Image credit jfdervin on Flickr
God has been real to me since childhood.  I can't remember a time when I didn't know He was there.  Even as a child I knew He listened to my prayers.  And I wanted so much to get to know Him better.  I prayed.  I read my Bible.  My parents and grandparents were pastors, so church was a given.  I soaked up teachings by Elisabeth Elliot and others.  I meditated on large passages of Scripture in the best tradition of Bill Gothard.  I read most of the books in the extensive libraries that my dad and grandpa kept--Bible stories, missionary biographies, devotionals, even theology books.   They grounded my soul.

But going to camps and conferences and mission trips?  That is when I soared.  I started when I was about 10 or 11, I think.  These were the old fashioned, Pentecostal-style church camps with at least two services a day, lengthy altar calls and emotions rising higher than the heat of an Oklahoma summer.  By the second year, I knew the pattern well.  The daytime services were usually just OK.  Mildly boring sometimes, like most regular church services, or kind of dumbed down for kids.

The evening services were much more intense.  The preaching was usually a bit livelier, the music a little more emotional.  The altar services crescendoed from a few kids praying briefly the first night to hours-long sessions full of tears, manifestations of several different spiritual gifts, and the ultimate spiritual high by the last night.  I didn't actually go to the camp from the Jesus Camp documentary, but I went to its country cousins, and in my teens I attended camps in Colorado with New Life Church (Ted Haggard was pastoring at that time) that had many of the same elements, but with a much more polished result.

If you haven't experienced it, no description can fully convey it.   A large gathering of preteens and teens pouring their hearts out in worship, striving to enter more fully into the presence of God and doing anything they can to get to that spiritual mountain top.  We would tearfully confess sins and repent.  We begged for the Holy Spirit to fill us, for God to speak to us, to transform our hearts.  And He did.  We were sincere, and God met us in amazing ways.  (And yes, there were also some pretty unhealthy things going on at times, too, but that is probably for another post).

We would come home with stars in our eyes, hearts vowing that we would keep the fire burning.  We wouldn't let it die down until our hearts were lukewarm.  We would pray and read our Bibles an hour each day.  We would witness to all of our friends.  We would destroy any rock music or anything else could cause our hearts to grow cold.  But it didn't work.

Inevitably, the spiritual high would wear off.  We would slip off that mountaintop.  And then we would laboriously begin the climb again.  The guilt was a heavy burden.  Every trite, well-meaning cliche (God doesn't move away--if there is distance in your relationship, it must be your fault!), added another stone to the pack of shame and guilt.  I would resolve to try harder.  But there was a hollowness there.  No matter how much I would strive, the emotional feelings just weren't the same.

I began a pattern of spiritual mountain climbing that would last for years--earnestly seeking a way to maintain the same high from the last camp or conference or mission trip, trying to recapture the ease of hearing God's voice, seeing His power, and feeling His heart beat.

What if it was never meant to be that hard?

I know we are called to seek Him with all our heart.  I am not advocating lazy faith.  I've simply learned to rest in His love.  I am not afraid of His rejection anymore.  I don't have to be enough, because Jesus is.  I always believed that about salvation, but not about actually living life as a Christian.  I kind of saw it as Jesus paying the down payment, but I was obligated for the periodic payments from that point.  And I gauged how well it was working by the consistency of the peaks.

Funnily enough, I still experience those mountaintop moments.  Even more often than before.  In prayer time in the middle of the night as I nurse a sleepy baby.  In the frazzled moments when I am losing my temper and suddenly breathe in peace.  When I feel His smile as we talk about the day.  In that perfect tingly buzz of transcendent worship.  When we catch our breath at the lovely colors of His sunset sky-paintings, or the clouds that are the dust of His feet.  When I hear His whisper in Scripture.  When I pray.

The emotions haven't disappeared at all.  But they aren't my altimeter, measuring how far I have climbed.  They aren't something I try to reach for. They are just nice.  If they aren't there, I am not wracked by guilt or fear or shame.  It isn't an endeavor.  It is just mercy, grace and relationship that is made up of every moment of everyday.  I gave up spiritual mountain climbing, but somehow, the view is even better from here.


Megan said...

WOW! That was a perfect description of my spiritual journey during my childhood and teen years. So nice to know I wasn't the only one dealing with guilt for not being able to sustain that mountain top high :)

Anonymous said...

Love it. Beautiful. You never cease to fit words around experiences familiar to my life. If we ever meet in person, I will probably act like I've known you forever.

Vanessa said...

You just described my teen years to a T. I too have given up fighting trying to achieve the mountain top. In fact, it has been one of the most freeing moments in time for me since I quit the guilt trip and just treasure those quiet special moments between just Him and I.

Thank you for sharing!! :)

Pippi said...

That's beautiful. I'm fascinated by St. Theresa of Avila, who maintained that one could reach a level of communication with God where conscious thought was unnecessary. I think most, if not all, Christians experience a few of those moments. If you want to dedicate your life to them, well, that's how monasteries came to be.

Mike and Christie said...

WOW! i agree with the others. This was a really good description of my early years too, but my family life was different. My parents were not united in faith.

Mike and Christie said...

I also found it interesting as a child to watch those emotional meetings and even participate in them. Somehow it seemed odd to go from a mountain top experience of Spiritual euphoria, to Bob's Big Boy and eat a burger.
Our lives seemed so divorced from Sunday Nights.
I think it is good to have prayer services and worship times, I LOVE those times, but the mustering up of emotion is not necessarily spiritual, but emotionalism, and emotionalism, can lead to destruction. I know sadly, MANY who participated in the outlandish services we had, but today are not followers of Christ. :(
It was VERY SCARY for me to step away from the denomination under which I grew up, to find Christ and Christ ALONE....
The family was NOT happy. I remember my grandmother telling me I was sending my children to Hell, because we were attending Calvary Chapel.
REALLY? All of us are going to Hell? wow.
Very sad. :/