Thursday, October 19, 2017

A Life-Changing Experience?

      I heard myself say it: “It was a life-changing experience.”  Everyone in front of me nodded – but a question jabbed me in the side of my head: “Yeah, well if so, why am I not more… changed?”  We were in Assisi, a dramatic place where I take pilgrims fascinated by St. Francis.  I told them about my first visit there in 1984, and how I was transformed.  Their appetites were whetted.  Over two days, we visited key places where pivotal moments of Francis's life happened - and then as the climax, we climbed to the top of Eremo delle Carceri, a beautiful mountaintop refuge, and shared in Holy Communion. 
Quite a few said, "That was life-changing."

In the rush of the moment, you feel like nothing will ever be the same.  But then you’re back at work, stress mounts, your back hurts, you’re running late, disappointments or failures bedevil you – and you succumb to the same old, nasty habits you’ve always had.  What’s the point of the “life-changing experience” if life isn’t really changed so much?  I mean, I’ve had plenty of them by now, at the ripe age of 62.  A retreat at Windy Gap in college, a silent clergy retreat with Roman Catholics near Durham, a flat out amazingly successful revival series a few years back, my daughter’s ordination – the list goes on.  With a several dozen life-changing experiences, I should be brazenly holy, having shed most of my earthly addictions, perhaps even like St. Teresa 
clinging to the altar rail so as not to float up to the ceiling during prayers.  If anything, the gravity of my fallen nature is heavier than ever.

     I could trot out that old “I’m not who I ought to be; I’m not who I should be; but thank God, I’m not who I used to be.”  Perhaps the way you can’t perceive a child’s growth day by day, but then one day she’s 5’7”, maybe I have grown.  Or, maybe it’s a Cappadocian kind of thing:  my growth, my learning is a real thing, but only opens a door that shows me how much further I have to go; each question answered births three new questions, and I’m more confused than ever about God and this Christian life.  I have changed my approaches to mission, and I emphasize mercy way more than I did decades ago.

     Probably we don’t reckon with the inevitable slippage in the soul, that danged second law of thermodynamics in the heart – that things tend toward disorder and chaos.  I see this in preaching.  I tell people anything really – that God doesn’t cause car accidents or sow cancer cells in their beloved.  They nod – but then a few weeks later one is phoning me to ask why God gave his wife cancer.  Or, caught up in worship, someone resolves to be holy, or not so materialistic – and by 2pm the experiment has blown up.

     Maybe we focus too much on the emotion, on the drama of the moment.  I find most pilgrims who travel with me are seeking just that:  the riveting, knee-buckling moment – even better if captured by a photo on Facebook.  Two years ago I took a group to Qasr el-Yehud, a pretty cool spot on the Jordan river where Jesus might have been baptized.  On the way I told my group how amazing it was, how peaceful and moving our service of baptismal renewal – in the Jordan no less! – would be.  When we arrived, a veritable Egyptian plague of gnats and flies had swarmed all over the place, as had huge groups of robed people chanting, shouting, and singing loudly the kind of Christian music I frankly don’t care for.  We wedged our way to the water, waving off the bugs, I hollered a prayer, and we scrambled back to the bus.

     Massive disappointment.  But then it dawned on me – and I told them – that we crave the drama more than concrete, sustainable reality.  As Maggie Ross put it, there are always those who prefer their experience of God to God himself.  Baptism, as in the gift of God’s Spirit and our place in the Body, is a fact, not remotely dependent on mood, or dramatic setting, or shimmering emotion.  In fact, the point of baptism is that you are baptized even in the ugly, awkward, dull and banal moments.  Flabby Christians see an orange sunset or snow on a mountain peak and say Ahh, God does great work!  The mature see God in more places – and the saints understand God is in the storm, the places nobody photographs, the prison cell, the heartbreak and all other not-ready-for-Facebook locales and events.

     Certainly our life with God and in the Body is won or lost, not in moutaintop retreat moments, but in the daily exercise of spiritual disciplines, in what Kathleen Norris described as “repetition as saving grace.”  And yet, we might be wise to seek out special moments, some high drama in this long life of faith.  Without them, we might be like the foolish husband who, on his 31st anniversary, when asked by his wife if he remembered, responded, “Honey, don’t you remember that great overnight trip we had on our 5th anniversary?  Wasn’t that enough?”  No one anniversary junket is enough, just as no towering spiritual high moment is enough.  It will never be enough, at least on this side of eternity – which will finally, and thankfully, be a thoroughly and permanently life-changing experience.

My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is out - a very different book about leadership, for church leaders but also leaders in business, community and even family.