Monday, February 04, 2013

Peaks and Valleys

This is the fourth and final post of reflections from my retreat. The retreat is always a wonderful time to relax. I mean relax in the true sense of the word - to almost collapse in on myself. I think about a lung after you breathe out; it contracts to its smallest size and fewest functions. It relaxes.

I relax on retreat. I'm always asking others what time it is, because I really try to minimize my stimulation and get out of all my routines. I bring books to read and a pen and paper to write, I walk in the fields, pray, and sit in silence. I breathe. I move from one thing to another when the task seems done, not based on any schedule.

Growing up in evangelical Christianity, especially as an already emotional teenager, there was lots of talk of peaks and valleys - it was usually using the scriptural image of the mountaintop. We'd go away to summer camps or youth group weekends, get out of our normal routines, sing songs, listen to speakers and generally have emotional experiences.

While there can be problems with such emotionalism in faith, I don't have ill feelings or confusion about most of those experiences. I believe them to be genuine and I value those times of emotion, because they are often the times God breaks through transformationally in the lives of people.

And usually the leaders and mentors were careful to warn us that the emotionalism of camp is far different than the "valleys" of normal life, where outside pressure and influences can make those mountaintop experiences seem less than realistic.

I've always sort of used this metaphor - peaks and valleys - at least subconsciously to think about the emotionalism and the ordinariness of faith and life.

This week at retreat re-oriented that notion.

You see, retreat, for me, is a valley. It is generally unemotional. It is ultra-ordinary. Much like those peak experiences of camp, retreat is a place of removing distractions and refining life to hear from God - but while the peaks are busy and active, the valley of retreat is calm and restful.

God speaks to me in different ways in the peaks and the valleys, but both illustrate unique places of divine interaction.

The picture, to the right, is one I took from Boundary Peak, NV. It immediately came to mind as I thought about peaks and valleys. We drove up an old mining road to reach the trailhead, then had to walk along a series of valleys before finding the peak itself. The difficult part of the hike was ascending a long, steep scree field; and indeed we did not make it to the top. Weather and poor acclimation, along with further hiking in the coming days turned us back, but I will always remember the contrast.

Climbing up was hard. You'd slide back six to ten inches with every step you took. There was a lot less oxygen at 11,000 feet and we were not used to it yet. My climbing partner sent me ahead near the top, he was done. I walked another half hour and noticed I was only maybe 100 yards ahead of him. I gave up too.

Going down was just as hard, if not harder. You still slid on the scree, but with your weight and momentum behind each step, it took more effort to stop.

I think it's a good metaphor. It takes work to get to the peak and it takes work to find the valley. We were really content staying put, sitting and enjoying the view. That's the danger of everyday life - of settling into a routine and forgetting the peaks and valleys.

Spiritual life, faith, is not about enjoying the peaks and surviving the valleys, it's about making space for both peaks and valleys as a means of shedding our complacency. We need to go up and to go down. In the end, both times of intense emotion and times of immense relaxation help to orient us towards a purpose, a vision, bigger than our everyday lives.

If we had chosen simply to follow the valleys, we would have gone up, but we would have never reached the true heights or witnessed the spectacular views. Of course if we'd stayed on the peaks, well, we wouldn't have really ever gotten anywhere. When climbing mountains, you have to go up to come down and you have to come down to go up.

In life it works the same way. Peaks and valleys. I don't think you can simply have one or the other. You can't hum along with occasional bursts of emotion, and you can't survive with occasional retreats into solitude. We need the up and down to make the space in the middle worth living.

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