Several months ago I mentioned the tremendous parallels between our story and the story of Israel. The journey of City Beautiful from its birth over two years ago to last fall was certainly one of fluctuation and of shifting a great many things. Just as Yahweh ushered Israel through a time of nomadic discovery into the Promised Land, so too our community has had to learn what it means to be faithful to the Lord and follow Him in times of uncertainty, all the while testing and reinforcing our identity as His people in relatively uncharted territory. As 2013 came to a close we found some stability brought to our tender community, both in establishing location at SAK Comedy Lab and in definition of leadership. In that grounding, I have been so very blessed to be invited into this journey over the past eight months as your co-pastor, a foreigner who has become friend. I have been blessed over the years from a distance by what this community is, and to be woven into that story in this new chapter has been an honor.
Perhaps by examining the story of Israel we can unearth some truths for our own story. I have been trudging through a few heady theology books as of recent, and I came across a quote by Victor Maag in reference to Israel’s nomadic beginnings. In it he speaks of the forward movement of history as a journey towards God’s promises for mankind: “The goal gives meaning to the journey and its distresses; and today’s decision to trust in the call of God is a decision pregnant with future. This is the essence of the promise in light of transmigration.”
Decisions pregnant with future. What a fascinating and beautiful phrase.
Allow me to give a little backstory to Israel’s evolution:
Israel -at its inception- was a nomadic culture uprooted from slavery by YHWH and transposed over several generations to an agrarian land. Recall their beginning itself was a promise to the old man Abram of a great nation who would be instrumental in God’s redemption of all mankind. From there we follow the patriarchs to Egypt, closing the Genesis account on a rather high note. When we step in to Exodus, however we find disaster has fallen Abraham’s children: their identities and livelihoodstripped from them, made slaves by the Egyptian empire. Through his servant Moses YHWH rescues his people from oppression with another promise: their establishment in a land and a path back to intimacy with him and a reacquaintance with their divine vocation as his royal priesthood to all nations. Thus begins their journey into God’s future reality.
The compelling factor in most religions of nomadic peoples is how their gods are present in migration, always hinging on the promise that invites them to move forward towards a goal. God’s arrival, then, is not seen as an event unto itself but rather as an indicator of an unrealized future reality. In an experience such as Moses had with the burning bush, the promise is spoken back into the present in order to cultivate a divine encounter that draws the people forward on the path. When God moves with his moving people, it is in the service of reaching the goal. Primarily agrarian societies, by contrast, find their faith centered around the seed-time and harvest. God[s] and their religions are found in rhythm and cultivation, growing something through cycles of presence and petition; they have a location-specific authority over the growth and well-being of the land, and so the petition is for the momentary appeasement of the faithful. Religion here is about a return to and a commemoration of something that happened in the past with the expectation for something in the present. Humans placate the gods in order to make sure they stay true to their agreements for good crops and safe borders. Cue the child sacrifices and golden altars.
There is a tension in these two seemingly opposing perspectives on how the gods operate:
Exploration with the expectation of fulfilling a promise. Building and cultivating in consistent rhythm for the here-and-now based on the past.
Always moving forward. Returning again and again.
Already and Not Yet.
Past, Present and Future all folded in to one another.
YHWH walked Israel from being primarily a nomadic culture to one rooted in a specific place; but the peculiarity of their faith which differentiated them from all other local people groups was the qualities they retained from their nomadic ways even as they became established. In contrast to the local gods of Canaan (ba’als and asherim and the like) they maintained belief in a God who moved them forward in history on the basis of a promise; this God was not bound by territory or season but His with-ness at all points of the process. YHWH held His people in this creative tension between two seemingly conflicting ways to pursue relationship with the divine, because in that tension they remain close to Him.
Does this not beautifully echo the tension our own community finds itself in quite frequently? Like the Israelites, we have the temptation to run to one way of believing and pursuing or the other. Some of us are so obsessive about looking forward to what God has in store for us that we miss what He’s already done and what He is currently up to. This can lead the nomadic heart to be one that is never fully present in the moment, caught in despair that things aren’t as they should be or where they should be. Others of us are so content to tend the soil in front of us that we forget to lift our heads to gaze at the horizon. We hold tight to the God who is faithful to our immediate needs yet we can’t allow him to show us the Not-Yet as a promise of what is to come.
We want to pick a tribe and settle in it, but to do so would rob us of what God desires to accomplish within us and through us. By tipping the scale in order to avoid tension we will splinter and close ourselves off to new experiences and new possibilities. Our church needs nomads and pioneers. We also need growers and cultivators. Trust in that creative tension, because it is good. It keeps us always attentive to the presence of God and His patient faithfulness.