Mountaintop Experiences Are For The Birds

In my work with youth and young adults, I hear a lot about mountaintop experiences. […]

Connor Gwin / 5.3.18

In my work with youth and young adults, I hear a lot about mountaintop experiences. These experiences are moments when the daily grind of life comes to a halt, the busy world is hushed, and you can experience God and community to the fullest.

I often hear about mountaintop experiences at summer camps or youth retreats. The final talk will generally feature this line from the fauxhawked youth pastor, “As you go back into the world, how will you take what you have experienced here with you?” The implication is that the time away is unique and different, both figuratively and literally set apart. It is in these moments and places, the thinking goes, that you can reconnect with your faith and renew your discipleship because “God is there.”

Some may say that these mountaintop experiences are where you can be born again. Or born again, again as the case may be.

This phenomenon carries into adulthood as well. Retreats are on the rise as people seek to get away from the monotony of their daily existence to refocus, reconnect, and practice some (no-doubt) well-deserved self-care. Contemplative prayer and yoga groups are popping up everywhere as people seek a moment on the mountaintop glory and peace.

The problem is that there is no such thing as the mountaintop.

The problem is that the real world is everywhere, even on a retreat.

If you are a dipstick when you go away to camp (or the retreat or the yoga intensive) you will be a dipstick when you return home. Your relationships will be the same, the bills will be the same, your problems will be the same. You may see them differently for a few days or even weeks, but the same patterns of sin will sneak right back in.

Life is much easier if you accept that the potential for human beings to change dramatically on a deep level is rather overblown. This is why New Year’s resolutions never work. (See also: diets, exercise routines, social media fasts, prayer practices, “no cursing” pledges, and the repeated commitment to be nicer to Steve at work)

We have a wonderful example from scripture. When Jesus is transfigured on the mountaintop, the first thing Peter (the stand-in for all of us dipstick disciples) suggests is that they freeze time and set-up shop.

“It is good that we are here,” Peter breathlessly says, as he hammers the tent pegs into the ground, but Jesus tells him that they cannot stay on the mountaintop. The glory of that place is not sustainable, nor was it meant to be. Who is Jesus if he stays there on the mountaintop? Where is the Church if Peter, the Rock, plants himself in one place?  

The Living Water will always flow down the mountain to the lowest possible point. The Good Shepherd will always leave the fold in search of the one that is lost. The Father will always go outside and stand on the porch waiting for the wandering child, which is each one of us.

It doesn’t take long after a mountaintop experience to realize you are deep in the “valley” again. The wisdom of mountaintop experiences is to realize that Jesus is in the valley with you. The power of a “thin place” is the acceptance that everywhere is a “thin place” because in Christ God is with us here and now. The place of the disciple of Christ is where Christ is: in the middle of the monotony and mess of everyday human life.

It is worth noting that Jesus did not pull a Rajneesh and build a commune in the backwoods of Oregon. (Fun fact: Rajneeshpuram is now a Young Life camp.)

Jesus did not plop a folding chair down next to the Sea of Galilee and wait for people to come to him. He did not keep an arm’s length between himself and the mess of humanity. Jesus went to people’s workplaces, homes, and watering holes to find the least and the lost. Once he found them, he kept walking.  

I have very little time for mountaintop experiences in general. It is great if you meet Jesus (or run into him again) at a retreat or camp or time away, but the life of faith is not about meeting Jesus. The life of faith is about leaving the mountaintop and letting Jesus carry you on his back, just like in that tacky Footprints poem.

The life of faith is letting Jesus pick you out of the ditch you have dug yourself into. It is not about building a condo on a mountaintop but seeing Jesus standing next to you in line at the DMV. Even better, the life of faith is realizing how often you fail to see Jesus and end up flopping in the mud of your own sin. Jesus, in all his transfigured, mountaintop glory, is right there in the dirt with you already welcoming you home.