higher

They spoke in hallowed tones of the mountaintop: the place where you reach a high point of sanctification and Christian maturity, and the presence of God is as palpable as that pillar of fire to the exiled Hebrews of old. We heard, and we believed. That fire was up there, somewhere. We couldn’t see it yet, but sometimes we could feel its heat. So we struggled and strove, with daily devotions and verse memorization and evangelism techniques and constant fellowship; we scrambled up toward that burning mountaintop.

Sometimes we’d reach a peak. At camps or concerts, in groups or alone, we’d revel in community and discovery and truth, and in those moments, we were on fire, on fire for the Lord.

onfire

* * *

When you reach the top, or what you’ve been told is the top, you’re done. You’ve arrived.

As a teenager, I had done all the right things, and I kept doing all the right things, because maybe if I just kept trudging upward and onward, I would reach some higher plateau. Higher and higher, closer to God.

This is true, I believe — faith is a thing of motion and progression — but not in the formulaic way of WWJD T-shirts and timed prayer, of counting swear words in movies and screaming at Newsboys concerts. Those things are fine, and some of them are funny now, but they are not the stuff of flames.

The promise of being on fire was that the light would spread to others, would light up the darkness of a fallen world. The promise of being on fire was that we knew how to control the blaze and wouldn’t burn anyone. The promise of being on fire was that the fuel for those flames could, would be sustained by following these formulas. And the unstated threat was that if you weren’t on fire, you were doing something wrong.

* * *

The last night of summer camp — that camp I loved, I still love — we would gather on the benches around the firepit. After a week with the woods and the lake, the intentional crushes and chapel services, fueled by our heady adolescent fervor, we were on a spiritual summit. We would pull up our hoodies under the stars and share our testimonies and prayer requests and, every year, it was the same:

“Last summer I was so on fire for a month, then school started back up and my devotions got shorter…”

“I’m gonna go home, it won’t feel like this. The high will last a week, maybe two, then I’ll fall back into my old routine…”

“This year we can do it, guys. We can read more and pray more and stay on fire for God…”

There was so much zeal, and so much guilt.

* * *

Mountain and valley. Flame and smoke. The metaphors of my adolescence, the metaphors of evangelicalism. They aren’t bad, not wholly. They are well-intentioned, meant to encourage virtue and perseverance and if not spiritual exploration, at least spiritual map-making. And it works. For a while, at least, these metaphors and ambitions pull us to a peak.

I am not ungrateful for those well-meant experiences from high school. I have seen the churning pillar of fire on the mountaintop, and crouched, barefoot, beside a quietly burning bush in the belly of the Earth. I have seen the flames and the glory — and I remember that heat, that wonder, I do — but I regret that promise of a ceaseless blaze. I still feel lost sometimes, unsure how to be content with the mundane, unsure where to aim if not for the peak.

I still believe faith can be wild and elevated. I still believe in holy flames. But I have let go of the formulas, and I don’t miss chasing fire.

This is part of a synchroblog with Addie Zierman, in solidarity and celebration of her new memoir When We Were On Fire. I’d encourage you to read a few other posts; there is some great writing and deconstructing happening.

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7 comments

  1. Sometimes I think it’s a wonder that we didn’t see the zeal and guilt while we lived it, or that no adults came out to tell us we didn’t have to be so intense all the time!

  2. Dan McDonald · · Reply

    The fire experiences, the times when everything seemed to be special and exciting, I wonder if we misunderstood why God sometimes gave us those times. Abraham Heschel, a Jewish philosopher and Orthodox Rabbi said of signs and wonders that they were given to remind us that all of life is the miracle God has placed us in. The mountaintop experience we thought was the experience we were always supposed to know and feel. But it was simply the experience given us that when we faced the mundane in life, that we could still understand that even in the mundane we live in the miracle of life that God has granted to us and those around us. I think we missed the truth of it all and Heschel grasped it. A thought I think we do well to think about. The burning bush and the monotony the years in the wilderness – all a part of being granted the experience of the miracle of life.

  3. There was so much zeal, and so much guilt. — yes. i remember those camp/conference/mission trip last nights…all the good intention, all the fear of failure. This is a beautiful post Kate. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Juan Carlos Torres · · Reply

    I can relate to this so much!
    I was so on fire it took me 7 years to get my bachelors because I would rather evangelize on campus than go to class. I could go on and on about the things I did and didn’t do for Jesus. But I’ll stop here. Thanks, Kate!

    1. Wow, that is impressive dedication to evangelism!

  5. When I saw that you participated in Addie’s synchroblog I thought I should invite you to participate in a monthly synchroblog that I am a part of.

    It’s made up of a home-grown group of bloggers who like to write on topics of post-modern faith & life. This group is open to anyone who is interested in participating. We value respectful conversation and dialogue while honoring our differences. We share links & try to learn from each other.

    Some of the people that originally participated in the synchroblog no longer blog and I am trying to reach out to people like you who are currently passionate about blogging in order to keep our monthly synchroblog relevant and vital.

    If you are interested in joining us you can join the facebook group and receive monthly invitations to the synchroblog. Here is that link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/114506961937378/

    And you can find our website (which you can subscribe to if you want to receive an email when we post the monthly theme announcement/invitation) here: http://synchroblog.wordpress.com/

    (You can see all of the themes that we have covered in the past on our website in order to get an idea of what we do)

  6. […] all that mattered was how on fire we were, how devoted, how passionate, how in love with Jesus we were, these songs reinforced an ideal of […]

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