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.
* * *
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.