contemplative spirituality

Chasing the Fading Glow

While some people’s midlife crisis leads them to buy a motorcycle or start running marathons, my midlife crisis led me to stop chasing the fading glow of a typical Sunday worship experience. The weekly routine of singing songs and preaching sermons was falling far short of the intensity of a Spirit-infused life and intimate communion with God described in the pages of the Bible. I want more for myself, and I want more for community I lead.

The Sunday worship service. A weekly pick-me-up. A weekly sing along. A weekly social hour. A weekly Bible teaching. For others, a sacred tradition, a holy liturgy, or an obligatory hour of sacrifice to ease a guilty conscience for 6 more days. Or, in larger, more savvy churches, a big weekly production that engages all the senses and leaves one beaming with inspiration and a glow that may even last into Tuesday if the skit was creative enough, the worship band loud enough, or the message delivered cleverly enough. But why settle for a weekly ritual or temporary emotional experiences, when the Living God wants to give us perpetual inner communion through the indwelling Spirit?

I’m a Bible guy, and am more at home in the world and sensibilities of Abraham and Moses, Peter and Paul, than in our 21st century church milieu. So I have to ask: How come the faith of the ancients was so deep and resilient, without any technology or special effects, while our faith today is so flimsy and weak despite having the greatest teaching and most engaging Christian media of all time? Perhaps, because all we really need is for God to show up, and undivided hearts ready to receive what He has on offer to us—whether it be in corporate worship or in our secret place of personal communion.

The closest thing we come to smoke machines and LED stage lighting in the Scriptures is the smoke and fire of Sinai and the dazzling glow radiating from Moses’ face after his encounters with God on the mountain. In Exodus 34:29-35 we read of this fading glow, and the veil Moses would put over his face when he returned to the people—either to protect their eyes from being overwhelmed by the glow, or perhaps to make the glow last just a little bit longer. Skye Jethani compares this temporary, fading mountain-top experience to many of our modern worship experiences:

Both church leaders and laity have come to believe these external experiences are the primary vehicle for encountering God and growing in faith. Like Moses who had to climb a mountain to meet with God, we assume God must be met through an external, mountain-top experience. We still think his glory is only accessible to those who put forth the effort to attend a service on the weekend. It’s worth remembering that as glorious as Moses’ encounter with the Lord was on the mountain, the moment he descended the glory started to fade. The transformation Moses experienced, while real, was only temporary.

In the New Testament, however, Jesus and his Apostles do not copy the old covenant’s model of mountains, temples, and external events. Instead, their focus is upon a mysterious communion with God made possible through the indwelling presence of his Holy Spirit. Contrasting the fading glory that Moses experienced on the mountain, Paul says that we are being transformed “from one degree of glory to another.” It is an ever-increasing change, and this power is not conducted through a sermon, or song, or service. It comes from the Spirit. In other words, for those who belong to the new covenant in Christ, God and his transforming glory are no longer found through external events, but through internal communion.

While it is embarrassing to admit, I found my own faith largely consisting of heady convictions and expanding Bible knowledge, but seriously wanting for more transformative experiences of inner communion with the living God and holistic formation. I was feeding my faith with  a non-stop diet of Christian teaching, books, music, and more, but ignoring God’s patient presence and still quiet voice waiting to get a hearing amidst all the noise. To paraphrase Jesus, “What does it profit a man if he should gain tons of Bible knowledge and attend lots of church activities, but lose touch with his soul-in-communion-with-God?”  

So, my midlife crisis has led me not to a skydiving adventure, but to a two plus year plummet into the depths of the contemplative tradition of Christianity where I have been exploring the Desert Fathers and the Mystics who pursued direct communion with God above all else. And I’ve barely scratched the surface. What am I searching for? I want to learn how to remove all the various “veils” I have grown accustomed to wearing that keep me from being “transformed from one degree of glory to another” through the mystery of inner communion with the indwelling Spirit. 

Recently, I’ve been transfixed by the words of Jesus in John 14: 21-22: “Those who accept my commandments and obey them are the ones who love me… And I will love them and reveal myself to each of them… All who love me will do what I say. My Father will love them, and we will come and make our home in each of them.” I want to have my eyes open when Jesus passes by my window, longing to reveal himself. I want to clear out the clutter in my life and soul, so there’s room for the Living God to take up residence.

Skye Jethani explains how this truth should change our expectations of the church:

It means we don’t find communion with God by attending a church service. Instead, we express our communion with God by attending a church service. Sunday morning is when Christians who have been living with God all week gather to outwardly express that reality together and to encourage those for whom it’s been a struggle. And rather than expecting the preacher or musicians to mediate God’s presence to us each weekend, that responsibility belongs rightfully to the Holy Spirit who abides with us every day and everywhere we go. Maybe if we expected more of God Monday through Saturday, we might be content to expect less from the church on Sunday.

At MainStreet, we are moving toward this vision with our monthly Ekklesia worship gathering. We are stripping away the flash and flare, and inviting attenders to be participants in what the Spirit wants to “cook up” when we gather rather than being passive spectators watching the clergy “bring the goods.” But do we really want God when we gather? Or are we content with the externals of church worship we have grown to love? Do we want to be transformed from one degree of glory to another, or are we content to sing a few songs and hear another pep talk? 

I want to spend more time “contemplating” the glory of God, and letting that glory fan the flickering flame in my soul until it becomes a holy fire capable of bringing a bit more light and warmth to our dark and cold world. But first we must remove the veils and stop chasing the temporary buzz and fading glory of short-lived religious experiences. Let us ponder these profound and mysterious words this week, and may they stir up a hunger for something more:

We are not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so the people of Israel would not see the glory, even though it was destined to fade away… But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can contemplate and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. 

(2 Corinthians 3:12-18)

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