Recently my family and I travelled ‘home’ to Queensland for some holiday time with friends and family. We thoroughly enjoyed our short visit, catching up with many whom we know and love, enjoying some beachside camping, and soaking up the Queensland sunshine, having had quite enough cold, rainy days in Tassie over the last couple of months.
While we were there we visited our old home town, and reconnected with the faith community that has meant so much to us over the past few years. While we still feel part of the community, going back to visit reminded us of the difficulty associated with looking back. The inescapable reality is that in the 18 months since we made the move south, much has changed…both for us, and for the community we left behind. New faces we don’t know have emerged within the community, new traditions and ways of being have developed and the broader community has continued to change. While we may often sadly miss our community, and our way of being, there is no going back….for the past is past, and what once was, is and can be no more. Even if we packed up and moved back to our old house, with our old friends, it would not be what it was. Everything is different. Life always has a way of changing….never staying the same.
Exodus tells the story of the Israelite nation escaping the clutches of the Egyptions and heading off into the wilderness in an attempt to escape Egypt and find the land they believed God has promised them. The tribe travelled through inhospitable desert, wandering aimlessly at times on a long and arduous journey. At times they too, were tempted to look back. At times some wondered aloud whether life as a slave nation in Egypt might just be better than this wild journey. At least back there, they said, we had food and shelter. Out here….we have nothing. As the Israelites took their eye off the destination to focus on the past, I think its fair to say that they lost their way.
How often today, do we yearn for the past? Those times when churches were full? When Sunday Schools were bursting at the seams? When the church was at the centre of society? Remembering the past fondly is one thing, but forever wishing we could recapture it? The challenge for the church is not to recapture past glories….but to constantly ask what does it mean to follow in the way of Jesus today. What does it mean for us to be engaged in mission in this time, and this place? The answer to those questions, one suspects, will be very different in 2009 and beyond, to the answer as it might have been in the 1950’s or 1960’s.
There are those who point back at attendance data over the past three decades for churches like the Uniting Church and announce that the future of such churches is bleak, that in another 15 or 20 years, we will have all but ceased to exist. I can’t be sure that isn’t true….but I can be sure that spending all our energy wishing for what was is a sure fire way to help us continue to be lost. We must, must, must be looking forward, following the pillar of fire by night, and the column of cloud by day as we forge our way through the wilderness. And we must continue to remind ourselves of who it is that we follow on this crazy journey anyway.