Many of us identify as progressive Christians. Probably, were we polled, each of us would flesh out what that means in different and wonderful ways. Some might talk about political commitments, like caring for and protecting the poor. Others might speak of freedom from dogma, of not being backed into a corner by any creed. For me, to be a progressive Christian is, in some sense, to be progressing, that is, to be logging miles, to be living with heart and with eye ever set on the far horizon where heaven and earth touch, where, more and more, we hope and we pray, God is making heaven and earth to touch. To be a progressive Christian is to hear and to heed the calling of the open road – the road from what-has-been to what-will-be, which runs through this very moment. Probably, not everything from back-then is going to make it to out-there; what will we cast off? What will we keep with us as we carry the faith forward in time? To be a progressive Christian is to throw off everything that would hinder or entangle and to hasten on. To be a progressive Christian is to travel lightly. It is to strap on our backs the stories and assurances and rituals and songs we need for the journey into tomorrow. It is to take with us not so much that we stoop and fall under the weight of it but not so little that we starve and fail for lack of soul-food.
You can see that this will not be for everyone. It is a scary thing. It is, quite literally, unsettling to leave behind the comforts of tried-and-true religion. Some people cannot bear to say goodbye to old ways of thinking about God or old ways of talking about God or old ways of singing to God. Some people seem to need God to be a bearded grump in a toga. Some people seem to need God to be a boy. Some people seem to need to see themselves as washed and soaking wet, dunked in and dripping with Jesus’ blood, like they’re dancing in the fountain in La Dolce Vita. Some people seem to need the thee’s and the thine’s and the thou’s. Some people seem to need doctrines to be set in stone. Some people seem to need answers. Some people seem to need beliefs they can take to the bank. Some people seem to need worship to unchangingly be whatever it is they want it be to. You know, some people are going to try to stuff the five points of Calvinism and 3000 organ pipes and all the pews into a suitcase; and, God bless them, but that is going to make for tough slogging. Some people are going to try to travel on with the entire tradition in tow, and they will be burdened down, barely eking out baby steps. In effect, some people are going to park and stay put.
But here is what Joshua says, what Joshua says the word of the Lord was to the people of God when they pulled off the road and put down roots. Recall: they had spent centuries sparring with the GPS; their children had tormented them with Are-we-there-yet?’s by the thousand. Decade by decade by decade, they drifted through the desert, tossed and blown about like a tumbleweed. So you would think, after all this, they deserved to plop down and pop off their shoes. But this is the word of the Lord Joshua delivered just as the pressures on the people of God were easing – you know, finally no more scrambled quail eggs and toasted manna for breakfast, no more quail-egg-salad-on-manna sandwiches for lunch, no more quail egg and manna casserole for dinner, day in and day out, finally no more hiking hither and yon through the hinterland, finally no more camping out in harsh country – this is the word of the Lord for the people of God, no longer nomads and wanderers but now living and prospering in the promised land: There’s no surer way to lose your faith than to put your feet up. So beware the dangers of the settled life. Look out that the predictable and the comfortable don’t turn you into spiritual couch potatoes. Joshua warns that the idle turn to idols. Joshua says, Your ancestors, the ones who had it good, the ones who had made their homes and had it made, your ancestors served other gods. And Joshua says, Your neighbors here, the ones who have long been living on this land, the ones who have been living large, your neighbors here serve other gods.
Joshua points to these plopped down, these parked, these sunk in, these stuck in place, these stayed put, and says Don’t be like them! Instead, Joshua invokes Abraham and Sarah, the ones who would be father and mother of the people of God, the ones to whom God said, said before anything else – Go! Leave! Get up! Get on! Before the people of God start hanging the drapes and relaxing into easy and routine religion, Joshua bids them to remember Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Leah and Rachel and Aaron and Moses and Miriam, to remember the great throng of wayfarers whom God had dared to venture out into the unknown, whom God had drawn out of the same old, same old daily grind and sent questing. And not only were they to remember Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Leah and Rachel and Aaron and Moses and Miriam, not only were they to remember the generations of gypsy-spirited dreamers, not only were they to remember their travailing and their trekking out from the region of the River Euphrates, up from Ur, down to Egypt, over the Red Sea, through the wilderness, into Canaan, they were to remember the God who would not be cooped or corralled, the free, wild God who accompanied them on the way, the God who fired their souls with holy wanderlust, the God who Herself spent darn near the entirety of the Pentateuch roaming from place to place.
Joshua begged the people: Choose this God! This God is not tied to the status quo! Choose this God! This God will untether you from the humdrum you are resigned to. Choose this God! This God will lift your low gaze. Choose this God! This God will not wall you up! This God is the way out. This God is the way forward. This God is the Way. This God is the Life. This God wants you to leave behind the old certainties. This God wants you to forge new truths. This God wants you to forsake everything you think you know, and everything you think you need, and sleep under the stars and surrender to life on the move. This God is jealous that you lose your way and that you find your way. This God is jealous that risk and danger and escape and survival and adventure would be yours. This God is jealous that you not be entombed by what is safe or by what is sure. This God is jealous that the grace of the pilgrim rest upon you – that as you entrust yourself to strangers and to beasts and to what cannot yet be seen and to what cannot yet be understood, that, in this, hope would grow in you, and fear die. This God is jealous that your soul be caked in dust. This God is jealous that you be spent and hungry. This God is jealous that even when you arrive, even when you arrive, you not settle down; for to settle down is to settle.
We are progressive Christians. We are progressing. We are logging miles; we are living with our hearts and with our eyes ever set on the far horizon where heaven and earth touch, where more and more, we hope and pray, God is making heaven and earth to touch. We owe this to those forebears of ours who scraped by, who worshipped on the edge. We owe this to those who will come after us and who deserve from us more than a dinosaur bone, but a growing, evolved religion with lungs and breath in them. We owe this to a world that thinks the way things are is the way things have to be. We owe this, we owe it to ourselves to hit the road, to travel lightly, to risk it all, to sojourn and to share life on the move with the pilgrim God, who is always adventuring out ahead.1
1The notion that God Herself is on a pilgrimage, moving through time and space, and inviting us to partake of this wayfaring life, comes from Brother John of Taize’s beautiful book, The Pilgrim God. I am indebted to Old South member Lauren Berk for pointing me to it.