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I Choose Encounter

Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

I Choose Encounter

Tom Elenbaas

I do a fair amount of weddings every year. Interestingly, I've noticed there are two distinct kinds of weddings. 

  1. The first is the kind of wedding that is all about the wedding. The focus is on what people will experience (guests or the bride and groom), what "wow" factor there will be, and if all the little bows and flowers and presents and children are where they are supposed to be.
  2. The second is the kind of wedding that is all about the relationship between the bride and the groom. This one is focused on the love encounter between a man and a woman, the spark between them, the love affair that turns them into mushy, sentimental, blubbering and beautiful humans.

One is about the experience. The other is about the encounter.

I've been backpacking and fly-fishing and canoeing and kayaking and rock-climbing and mountain-biking in some pretty cool places in my life. I've taken the arduous journey up the mountain to the mouth of the Chattahoochee over hours only to scream down in a matter of minutes on a mountain bike from summit to base in a screaming, windblown, flurry of craziness. I've enticed beautiful trout from their cool hide-outs under the banks or in the flowing eddie of an amazing stream. I've stood on the edge of coral blue glacier lakes that look like a photoshopped postcard from a friend. I've hiked up the summit of a mountain during a storm, afraid in the open air to be struck by lightening and capped the journey in a song with friends flung to the almost spatial air. I've canoed through silent waters to sit under a white pine and listen to the whisper of solitude in the trees. There have been times when the moment has been all about the experience, but when it's good, I'm in the midst of an encounter with something... or someone greater than myself. 

One is about the experience. The other is about the encounter.

 I've walked into St. Peter's Basilica, ducked down into an underground sanctuary carved out of the tufo in the Italian catacombs, stepped silently under the ageless brush-marks of Michelangelo, and climbed stone steps literally worn down by the constant penance of saints in prayer on their knees. The awe of these unique moments are experiences I'll never forget, but there was a deeper encounter at the core that transcended the purely experiential high into an existential moment that's difficult to grasp or describe. 

What is worship?

I'm the pastor of a church, and have been a pastor now for almost 20 years. (Yes, I'm getting that old.) One thing I've noticed is that there are two ways to approach the waiting world when it comes to worship. Whether it's entering into the wild wonder of the natural world or the sacred space of the cathedral sanctuary or the precious moments of a marriage ritual or the time-stopping crying of newborn baby or the clock-ticking passage of time at the bedside of a dead relative, we choose either experience or encounter.

Experience is that thing we grab onto that makes us want to tell the story, brag about where we've been, and share the once-in-a-lifetime event. But encounter is something more. Encounter is that moment of interacting with a divine personage. It's the feeling that you're not alone and that this moment is pregnant with the presence of a person who transcends and fills the moment all at once. Encounter is the deep heart to heart power that I see when I'm standing so close I can see their breathing from a couple gazing deep into one another's eyes and saying words they cannot yet comprehend, promises for a life-time of loving service til death does them part. It is in moment's such as these that we encounter a God who is so holy that the experience itself in all of its wonder and splendor cannot contain his majesty. Clives Staples Lewis called it "the weight of glory." When the divine bears down on the now with an infinite kick in the gut that takes our breath away and we are stunned into silence and awe.

When is the last time you entered your church with the expectation not of experiencing a good event, powerful performance, good singing (or good songs), or a helpful message, but instead expecting an encounter with the living God who is and who was and who is to come? 

I have a hunch most of us are hopping from experience to experience. When the experience waxes or wanes from our preferential expectations or our preferred experiential check-list, we move to the next theatre show down the road we call church. The better question I think we should be asking is not where I will get the experience I like the most (or that's worth my offering-ticket of consumption) but how I can prepare myself for an encounter with a "God with us" who walks the earth in the presence of his people. You can have an experience with someone in which both of you have an interaction with the event and make memories. You can also have an encounter with someone in which the relationship deepens, widens, broadens, and opens you both to a depth of reality neither of you truly knew before. Maybe, just maybe, this one is about the love relationship between the bride and groom as they lose their composure because they are so in love with one another, and maybe that encounter matters more than pomp and circumstance of the surrounding experience. Maybe.

One is about the experience. The other is about the encounter.

I choose the encounter.

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