To be a Christian is to be in love with the past. Our faith is grounded there: on a wooden cross now returned to earth, in an empty tomb. We tote Bibles which—though printed new—are really the artifacts of peoples long gone, the words of dead languages left on dead mediums, scroll and papyrus. Nevertheless, it is the old, old story we love. We love the past, for it was then that the incarnate God tabernacled in the midst of creation, if only for a short while.
Yet, there is a love of the past which is too strong, idolatrous and backward. This is a love of the past which does not let go: the parent who will not let her child mature, the student who refuses to teach, “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.” It is the member who attempts to calcify the church of his childhood, refusing to admit any change into the church as if it were the room of a dead son. The other day I faced my wife and saw on the wall behind her our engagement pictures: the same woman, and not. Do I love who she is or what she was? We gather around the Lord’s table and photographs of God’s presence-with-us file through our memory: Do we love God today? (C. S. Lewis pleaded, “Not my idea of God, but God.”) Do we love the God of today? or only some better memory of him with us?
In the wilderness of living, we go years between oases of divine experiences—at least I do. Yes, there is a constant trust that “God is here,” but that is very different than the way God flooded my heart the night I was baptized or rained blessings on me at the birth of my children. In the dry, numbing days of waiting we are tempted to manufacture the god we want: a god who makes us feel assured every time we want it. We often feel weak, isolated, unsure, angry, and desperate. “Where is God?” we ask, and “Why is God not the God I prefer?”
The biblical character Abraham fires my imagination. Who was this man who moved from all he knew to follow an unknown God? And why did he not turn back after receiving the blessing? It is one thing to leave a homeland (there are any number of reasons Abraham might have been unhappy in Ur), but even after God had blessed Abraham with victory in battle, wealth of land and possessions, and, most of all, a son, Abraham went on. Abraham kept leaving behind everything God gave him. He held all the gifts of God—the experiences of divine encounter, a great name, a family—with an open hand.
In the desert we are faced with the question: Do I love the God of certain moments and memories and blessings? Or do I love God? We are called to courage to follow the living God, often to step into darkness and the dull ache of isolation and unknowing. The God of today beckons us, to leave the safe spaces of our conceptions and start out again, to leave the bronze serpents in Moses’s past: God is no longer there. He is out in front, leading us to another place, to something better. We look up to Christ.