Thursday, May 1, 2008

God on the Mountain

It is not because the truth is too difficult to see that we make mistakes... we make mistakes because the easiest and most comfortable course for us is to seek insight where it accords with our emotions - especially selfish ones. - Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Some days I don't feel like a Christian.

Reading this week's Newsbits concerning upcoming youth functions brought me back to the joyous days (ancient days, according to my kids) when youth retreats were annual events. The trips always included a long bus ride somewhere where us teens, completely hip with our cassette players and headphones (usually playing "contraband" music) would act completely bored, but were secretly excited about the independence a week away from our parents would afford. There was the usual awkward teen interplay between the sexes, closely monitored of course, the camp atmosphere, usually decent food (we all ate more on retreat than we ever did at home), and some sort of day outings to places like putt putt golf, a water theme park, or some similar out of the ordinary experience for most teens.

The retreats were always centered around bible studies and songs, and talks that built a sense of community and fellowship among the participants and evoked the strong emotions of knowing God. These events were intended to bring about more mature thinking about who we are and knowing God's love for us in Christ. They were designed for us to experience God, to know and feel His presence, and His will for our lives. Events like candle-light services, nailing our sins to a cross while singing choruses of "Jesus Paid It All, All to Him I Owe" which, in retrospect seem trivial, but in that moment, at that time, made the presence of God very real and concentrated every emotion we had on dedication to Him.

The retreats would always end with a "Youth Night" at the church, a Sunday night service where we "youth" would lead the church and show forth the community and fellowship and dedication that we had built during the week away. The service would range from anecdotes of the funny experiences of the week, to testimonies of the changes we intended to make with our lives. It would end with a call to the church to be as dedicated to the cause of Christ that we now had.

Even in those days, I recall thinking that the "experience" of the retreat was just that, an experience with God. Emotional, fulfilling, and desired. And absolutely unavailable to anyone who was not a part of it. You simply had to be there. They were, as Oswald Chambers calls them, "exceptional moments." The only thing the church would see was the immediate impact on us, and they could pray for the long term impact on us all.

The response to those exceptional moments was both positive and negative. Positive in the sense that we built community, understood the God of love presented in Christ, and sought meaningful change in our decisions and directions. But negative in that the immediacy of God's presence on those trips led us to believe we were more in tune with God than others, and also led us to believe that the Christian life should be one long "exceptional moment" and euphoric experience.

For many years, my Christian life was spent feeling unfulfilled because I did not feel the immediacy of God's presence and did not live in a constant "retreat high". I had to pay bills, work with people, deal with traffic, including some guy who cuts me off in the middle of my prayer time on the interstate. (A good place to pray, I might add.) Life impeded on my mountain top. And it took me years to reconcile within myself that it was ok to be normal, and real, and to live my Christian life in the ordinary surroundings of modern society.

Paul deals with much of the same issues when he talks about his longing for heaven.

Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2. Cor. 5:1-8).

Paul expresses all of our desires to experience the immediacy of God's presence.In such powerful language, Paul declares that while on this earth "we groan and are burdened". But tucked away in Paul's passage concerning longing to be with God, is a little phrase: We live by faith, not by sight. (2 Cor. 5:7). What Paul is conveying to me is that our present existence and experience are not indicators of God's presence, or lack thereof. We cannot look at what we have, the trials we experience, or the way we feel to determine whether God is present in our lives. We must simply live by faith that He is there.

What I learned from those years of longing for the immediacy and presence of God, the "retreat highs", is that I was not looking for God's presence, I was looking for the "feeling" of God's presence. It was only in those "feelings" that I could feel secure in Him. But the truth is, it was nothing more than my selfish desire to demand Christ reveal Himself intimately to me. Emotional confirmation that He "is", and I am His. It was me demanding of Christ that He conform to the way I want to experience Him. How selfish we are when God's unconditional love for us is arbitrated by our feelings.

Each of these are distractions from the truth that Christ is there, even when I'm cut off in traffic and I don't feel like a Christian. I've learned there is nothing wrong with those moments, when Christ reveals His presence in a unique and fresh way, but there is something in demanding He prove himself repeatedly by inspiration to me in the ways I demand. That is not walking by faith, it is living completely by sight.

Some days I don't feel like a Christian. But that doesn't change the truth that I am. I am learning to appreciate the retreat highs, but find my security solely in the truths of Christ.

Solo fides.


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