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What follows is a sermon by an Oxford Group member named Ebenezer Macmillan. Macmillan served as Minister of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Pretoria, South Africa, and was Head of Department of the Philosophy of religion at the university there. This sermon, from his book Seeking and Finding, outlines the hidden dangers of powerful spiritual experiences. Not that these are experiences are bad, but we have, says Ebenezer, a habit of trying to hang on to moments of high spirituality, and our hanging on can cause us problems.“It is good for us to be here; let us make . . . tents.”—St. Luke ix. 33.
Of course, it was good for them to be there. It was a great experience, an experience which none of them would have missed for the World; although at the moment they did not realise how great and wonderful it was. We never do enter into the full meaning of an experience as we pass through it. It is only afterwards, in reflection, that we realise all that has happened to us, and can see it in all its bearings; not as something isolated, but as something that has relation to our former experience of life and of God. “When the Lord turned the captivity of Zion we were like them that dream.” It was only as they reflected on the experience that the full meaning of it broke upon them. “Then was our mouth filled with laughter and our tongue with singing.” It was then they realised the great things the Lord had done for them.
So here, when the disciples were passing through this great experience on the Mount of Transfiguration, they were like them that dream. We read that they were heavy with sleep. They were dull and insensitive to spiritual reality. They were not seeing things clearly. And it was only when they were fully awake that they saw the glory that was Jesus. It was a supernatural experience, an extraordinary manifestation of the presence and power of God, an experience of the highest spiritual exaltation. Even Jesus had never had such an experience. The disciples were only on the fringe of it, and saw at most only reflections of the glory that shone round about them, yet even they knew that something tremendously great and real was happening, something thrillingly and unforgettably wonderful. The heavens were opened; they had a glimpse into the unseen glory of the spirit world.
There was no doubt at all about the greatness of the experience. It was more than human flesh could stand for long. The intense nature of it may be gathered from the fact that they could not speak about it afterwards to anyone. It was so absorbing in its reality that while they were passing through it nothing else seemed real but it. The outside world, with its troubles and tragedies, was so remote that for the time being it was forgotten. This is the first element of danger that attaches to a great mystical experience. We are apt to lose touch with the world of actual fact, the world of human relationships, domestic and social responsibilities. “It is good for us to be here: let us make tents.” It was as if he said, “Let us camp out on this experience and settle down here. There is a fine prospect; it is a Delectable Mountain, peaceful and quiet, far from the madding crowd. We can do some quiet thinking here, undisturbed by this lunatic or that leper or those blind and maimed folk bursting in upon us.” “Let us make tents.” Of course, Peter did not know what he was saying. “He wist not what he said.” But it is often in those unguarded moments, when we do not know what we are saying, that we say the very things that are most characteristic of us. Peter thought he wanted to settle down on the mountaintop, though I suppose he would have been the first to complain of the dull isolation of the place if his wish had been realised.
There is no region of experience into which we can be uplifted, no matter how rare and exalted its atmosphere, which will give us permanent retreat from the intrusion of the pressing needs and claims of the actual world and the common life which we share with others. If there were, it would not be a Christian experience, an experience in which Christ is paramount. The extraordinary fact about Jesus is that His own mystical experiences, His nights alone on the mountain, did not tend to withdraw or isolate Him from the common life of this earthly plane, but rather to help Him to enter more deeply and tenderly into its need. He came out of those experiences pent up with pity and radiant with power, so that as many as touched Him were healed. In this instance, He was the only one who was ready to deal with an emergency. Any experience, mystical or spiritual, that tempts us to lose touch with actuality, we are justified in regarding as highly dangerous. We need not question its reality. Nothing could have exceeded the reality of what the three disciples saw on Mount Hermon. Not even the terrible actuality of the scene that faced them at the foot of the hill—the epileptic boy, the distracted father, the discomfited disciples—could compare for sheer reality with what they had seen when they were awake to spiritual reality and had a vision of Jesus in His transfigured glory. That was reality. In afterdays it came back to them, and they were able to write it down as a transcript of real experience.
The high experiences of our lives are the great realities; but we can endanger them by pinning them down to the region in which they happened, and by refusing to move out of that region, as if we expected this to be the limit of what God can do for us. “Let us make tents.” The suggestion is that this is the only region in which the supernatural is possible or available, that we must not move away from it, that we cannot afford to go down to the plain, to be involved in scenes of sordid and humiliating tragedy. To do so is to run the risk of losing what experience of peace and power we have had. “Let us stay where we are; let us make tents.” It is not possible. For two reasons.
(I) No one can remain where he is in the spiritual life. He is either moving on or moving back. The more exalted the experience, the more dangerous it is to camp out on it. You remember how Faust tried in vain to do it.
“Then dared I hail the moment fleeting;
Ah, still delay, thou art so fair!”
It is a physical as well as a spiritual impossibility to stay long at a great elevation. The greater the altitude, the greater the difficulty. It is true that even at the highest known altitudes men have become acclimatised to the rarefied air conditions. But no one has ever enjoyed fullness of life and vigour. It is only with the greatest discomfort that it is possible for a short period, and the least exertion to help another completely exhausts one’s own strength. Which things are a parable.
In the spiritual life it is, fortunately, not necessary to camp out on a great experience in order to preserve the reality of it, or to translate the power of it in terms of the life we live together. On the contrary, it is those who try to stereotype it who are likely to lose all sense of the spontaneous thrill and reality of it. A man of this sort once said to Moody: “I am always living on the mountaintop.” “Indeed,” replied the great evangelist, “you are, are you? And, pray, how many souls have you won for Christ up there?” Surely the test of the reality of an experience is its touch with actuality. Surely its truth is measured by its availability. Can we say that we have had a real experience of Christ if no human life has felt the impact of it, if we are living out of touch with our surroundings, insensitive to the need of those with whom we have to do? The mystical, ethereal experience on the mountaintop ought to fit us, as it fitted Jesus, for more vital and effective personal work on the plains, ought to make us more and more responsive to what men and women need and demand of us, not to unfit us for any kind of helpful service or to isolate us from our fellows.
(2) The second reason why we cannot camp out on a great religious experience is that only by propagating it can we keep it alive. There is no other way of preserving the reality and radiance of an exalted experience than by translating it in terms of the need of others. As a Group leader said the other day: “Giving Christianity away to another is the best way to keep it.” It is certainly not by making a cosy corner for ourselves on some high peak of vision, remote from the jostling crowds, but by coming down to the plain of everyday toil and temptation and letting folk in desperate need of help and succour see the difference Christ can make, causing them to experience at close quarters the reality and radiance of all we have felt and seen and heard. It is only in the lives of others that our religion can be realised. If we think we can keep it to ourselves, we shall find it to be a perishable luxury.
“Let us make tents,” said Peter. It is what we all are tempted to do—to settle down permanently in the region of a great experience, a thing impossible to do without fatal results. What was once a glowing reality becomes like an extinct volcano; there is nothing left but the memory of it. Many Christians would admit, if challenged, that they are living on the memory of an experience. It may be years ago that they pitched their tent there, and nothing has been heard of them ever since. They have never been of spiritual use to God or man. They do not suspect, and would resent the suggestion, that they are spiritually dead, though they admit that they cannot make the experience real to themselves, after all those years, or communicate any breath of the reality of it to anyone else. If they could do even that, the whole experience would be revivified. It would be like another transfiguration, and Christ would be glorified in them. D. L. Moody, in his mission to Scotland, was always challenging Christians to make sure that they were not living on the memory of an old experience. A man resented the challenge and protested: “I would have you to know, sir, that I was converted twenty years ago.” “Yes,” said Moody, “and what have you been doing since?”
Such a question brings us down from the air to the earth, brings us down from the mountaintop to the plain. It is not what we have heard or felt or seen up in those exalted regions that counts; it is what we can do with it when we come down into close quarters with our fellows, who are in need of some supernatural power to lift them above the drabness and dullness of life, out of the grip of some bad habit or moral helplessness. It is not what you could do years ago that matters, but what you can do now, out of a present sense of power and victory, to help change the lives of others. We may have to recount past experiences, but unless they are true of our moral and spiritual condition at the time of speaking, our witness cannot be with power. It must be a living experience; it must be a growing experience of Christ. “The sea grows always greater.” We must set no limit to the power of the Holy Spirit of God, if we believe in Pentecost. That is the meaning of Pentecost, the flooding of the whole life with the sense of God, the power and presence of God, so that no part of it is left untouched.
For Peter the experience was the greatest he had ever known. It might be the greatest he would ever know. That was why he wanted to camp out on it. But if he were asked on the day of Pentecost, when his life was so flooded with the Spirit that through one sermon of his three thousand souls were swept into the Kingdom, if he still wanted to have that tent pitched on Mount Hermon, he would have smiled and said, “I never knew what spiritual power was until now.” Even Pentecost was not the limit of what he was to know of God, or of what God wanted of him. Peter, with the rest of the Apostles, came into even greater power after Pentecost. They went from experience to experience, from power to power, from grace to grace. There is no limit to what God can do if we are willing to go all the way with Him, and not settle down and make tents when we think we have gone far enough.
Let me repeat, we do not need to think that we can recall the reality of an old experience just by talking about it. We may have to talk about great past experiences in order to bring to other souls the thrill and inspiration of what we ourselves have felt and heard and seen. We believe that any such experience can be used by God, whether it is a story out of the Bible or out of the book of our own lives, provided it is instinct with life and power. He can use past-day experiences of ours when told under the guidance of His Spirit. But we must not assume that what was true of us then is true of us now. We must also make sure that we are not trying to get back by artificial means to the region where we had a great experience, or trying to prolong our stay in it, instead of moving on with God to something new and greater and much more wonderful than ever we dreamed of. Some talk of Pentecost as of an event that can never happen again, or as if by talking about it they can help to repeat it. God alone can repeat it. I believe that what happened at Pentecost will one day be even eclipsed. A time is coming that will make Pentecost itself seem parochial! Days are coming that will more than match the rapture and thrill of the first century. These things will happen when we strike our tents and are ready to go all the way with Christ, to embark upon a really adventurous crusade, to go all out to win victory for Him.
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