On the Mountaintops and in the Valleys

walkI will be the Spiritual Director this week for the Dallas Emmaus community’s Men’s Walk #262. I couldn’t be more excited!  This will be 12th or 13th time that I have been a Spiritual Director for a Walk to Emmaus in the Houston, Amarillo or Dallas Communities over the past 26 years.  This is something that I just love to do because what happens on a Walk to Emmaus puts me in touch with what Paul described as “the power of Gospel for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).   Through the years, it has been on Walks to Emmaus, more than almost anywhere else, that I have seen the difference that Jesus Christ makes in a person’s life.

I took my own Walk to Emmaus in February of 1990. It was Men’s Walk #47 in the Houston Community, and it came at exactly the right time in my life and ministry.  I had tried to get myself invited to a Cursillo weekend with the Episcopalians shortly after I was ordained in the early 1980’s.  But nothing I did could garner me an invitation.  It wasn’t time yet, and so I carried on.  And then, seemingly out of nowhere, ten years later, a friend of mine from my Hospice work in Houston arranged for me to go on my Walk.

Walks to Emmaus do different things for different people.   For me it helped to integrate my head with my heart.  I love God with my mind.  My spiritual temperament puts the premium on believing thinking.  At my first seminary in California, during a spiritual life emphasis week on campus, one of my professors told us about his favorite spiritual discipline.   He said that late at night after his family had all gone to bed, that he would slip into his study, put some classical music on the stereo and settle into a big overstuffed chair with a big volume of theology – maybe some Barth, or some Brunner, or some Hodge – to read. “Theology – thinking God’s thoughts after Him – moves me to prayer,” he told us with real emotion in his voice, “and it makes me want to sing the praises of our God.” Most of the class groaned, thinking that this was just a ploy to get us to read that week’s assignments.  But I nodded my head in agreement.   I “got” him and what He was saying.

What my Walk to Emmaus did for me was to take the Christianity that I believed was true with my head and made it very real to my heart. Those 12 inches between our heads and our hearts can be the longest journey that some of us will ever undertake, and it was on my Walk to Emmaus in 1990 that I found a way to faithfully navigate it for myself. A story that Martyn Lloyd Jones of the Westminster Chapel in London in the middle of the 20th century told describes what happened to me on my Walk to Emmaus perfectly–

 boyA little boy was walking down the road beside his father. He knew that his father loved him.  He knew that this was true and just knowing it was enough for him.  But then his father suddenly reached down and swept his little boy up into his arms.  He hugged him tightly, kissed him on the cheeks and whispered in to his ear, “I love you so much!” And then looking his little boy straight in the eye, that father said to his son with all his heart, “I am so glad that you are mine.” And then the father put his boy down and they continued walking down the road.

 That’s the difference between knowing that something’s true and knowing that it’s real, and this is exactly what happened on my walk to Emmaus 26 years ago. The Christianity that had long been true for me suddenly became very real to me as well.

And so I am very excited about this weekend, but, if the truth be told, I am also a little apprehensive because for all of its spiritual promise and potential, an experience like that which a Walk to Emmaus facilitates in people is not without some spiritual dangers. It’s just so easy to get spiritually manipulated, to get caught up in something before you know it.

paperI remember being in the Hollywood Bowl at a Jesus People Rally back in the early 1970’s, getting real amped-up spiritually by the music and the crowd, when a chant suddenly broke out, a kind of spontaneous call to worship. “Get high on Jesus!” one group yelled, while another group answered back, “Jesus is better than hash!”  And I can distinctly remember thinking to myself that I’d never heard this in church growing up.  It wasn’t in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer – 1945. And I recall wondering, or was it worrying, about whether or not this was really something that we should be saying about Jesus and what He does for us as Christians?  But all of that quickly passed.  I mean, here was this group of really enthusiastic fellow Christians who seemed to be saying that this elevated state of emotional euphoria that we were experiencing was what Christianity was all about, or at least one of its better benefits for us as believers.  And, to be sure, I was feeling it – the rush of that place and that moment, and it felt good.  So much so that it eventually swept me up in the commotion, and it carried me along so that soon I found myself chanting right along with the rest of the crowd –“Get high on Jesus!” and “Jesus is better than hash!” even though I had never been high and I wouldn’t have known what hash was if it had come up and shook my hand!  Looking back on it all now, it all seems so silly.  But it was sure powerful in the moment, and that’s what I worry about on spiritually intense weekend retreats like Emmaus, and in spiritually intense setting like summer camps and conferences, and at spiritually intense events like revivals and evangelistic “crusades.”  We can get caught up in these moments and wind up in places we never intended to go.  That, and we can get addicted to the feelings of spiritual elation that they generate in us. We can become dependent on them.  It’s real easy to become a spiritual experience junkie, having a “moment” once, and then spending the rest of your spiritual life trying to replicate it, thinking that these emotions are the surest sign of the Spirit’s presence and work in your life, rather than the fruit of the Spirit that the Scripture explicitly names (Galatians 5:22-23).

frannyIn J. D. Salinger’s novel Franny and Zooey, one of the main characters takes up a spiritual practice detached from any kind of real faith commitment, constantly saying the “Jesus Prayer” because of the affect that its repetition produced in her.  Eventually the other character in the story names and condemns this practice as a blatant example of “spiritual greed.” He says –

As a matter of simple logic, there’s no difference at all, that I can see, between the man who’s greedy for material treasure—or even intellectual treasure—and the man who’s greedy for spiritual treasure. …(But) treasure’s treasure, …and it seems to me that ninety per cent of all the world-hating saints in history were just as acquisitive and unattractive, basically, as the rest of us are.

This is what I worry about when it comes to intensive spiritual programs like Emmaus that provide their participants with powerful spiritual experiences. As important as my Walk was to me, and as glad as I am to be able to periodically facilitate it now for others as part of a prayerfully formed team, I do so with my eyes open wide. I affirm the spiritual benefit that special spiritual experiences and events can produce in a person’s life, while at the very same time being fully aware of the way that they can actually get in the way of real spiritual growth if they’re allowed to become ends in themselves. The most balanced perspective on these exceptional spiritual “moments” that we are given that I have ever come across is something St. Augustine said – “I do not seek them, and when they are present, I do not reject them, but I am entirely prepared to do entirely without them.”

Now, that sounds to me very much like the same kind of spiritual advice that is given in the last Emmaus talk of the weekend. That’s when the Lay Director gets up and tells the pilgrims not to make Emmaus the object of their devotion or the content of their witness when the weekend is over, but rather to focus on the Christ whom they have come to know better because of the weekend.   The question that needs to be asked as the Fourth Day begins, the Lay Director says, is not how can I get more involved in Emmaus, but rather, how can I get more meaningfully involved in my local church? The best fruit of a Walk to Emmaus that I have ever seen as a local church pastor was the pilgrim who came into my office the week after his Walk with a letter in his hand that was the spiritual equivalent of a blank check. He told me that that letter was his prior acceptance of any task that I might need him to undertake for Christ and His church, right then and there, or at any time in the future. It was a remarkable gesture, the perfect “fruit” of a Walk to Emmaus. And he kept that commitment.   Later when I asked him to chair a task force that was going to require both time and effort to do its work, he accepted the assignment with enthusiasm and guided its work to completion with great wisdom and real grace.

It’s not on the mountaintops of exalted emotion and spiritual euphoria that the measure of what’s going on in our hearts will be taken, but rather in the valleys below where life is “daily” and the demands are unrelenting. The language of “mountaintop” experiences to describe the experiences of spiritual intensity and insight that we are given from time to time as Christians comes from the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration.

Jesus“Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain” (Mark 9:2) is how the story begins. On that mountaintop those three disciples saw and heard things that are astonishing for us even now to consider. Who could blame Peter for wanting to stay right there on that holy ground? He wanted to build three tents to keep the experience going. But just as quickly and unexpectedly as the whole experience began, it was over. And “as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus charged them to tell no one what they had seen” (Mark 9:9) is how the story ends. They couldn’t stay on the mountaintop. What happened on the mountaintop was to inspire them. What happened on the mountaintop was to inform them. What happened on the mountaintop was to sustain them. But their lives and their work were in the valley below.

I expect that the Walk this week will be a mountaintop experience for me, for my partners on the team, and for the pilgrims who will be participating. I expect that it will remind me of my first love (Revelation 2:4), and that it will restore to me the joy of God’s salvation (Psalm 51:12). But the measure of this weekend will not be what happens this weekend — it will be what happens next Monday, and what happens on the Monday after that, and then what happens on the Monday after that. The spiritual life is not about a burst of enthusiasm and intensity on a mountaintop, as welcome and valuable such an experience may be. No, the spiritual life is about “a long obedience in the same direction” through a valley that can be dark and winding at times, but that finally leads us home. DBS+

 

When I think of retirement, I don’t think about playing golf, or taking up a hobby, or taking lots of trips. No, I think of my study at home and the time that I’ll finally have to read and ponder Thomas Aquinas’ Summa, Karl Barth’s Dogmatics and Carl F.H. Henry’s God, Revelation and Authority word by word and cover to cover. This is just how I am wired, and because I am, I also know its dark side.  I know that it’s easier for me to read a book of dense theology than to feel an hour of God’s presence.

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