I have always liked the idea of the Christian as wanderer, as expressed in the sonnet for the fourth Sunday of Advent (the previous post). I believe I was in Junior High school when the romance of a totally unencumbered life was first planted in my mind. We would occasionally sing “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through …” in the Sunday evening service. Those words came to me as an image of a nomadic life in which I was free to go here or there with little to slow me down. This would have been the early 70s, and I suppose it was a leftover bit of the hippie movement which had unknowingly captured me.
My adolescent idealism was also attracted, not only to the freedom from things, but freedom from self. In Sunday school I was taught about the European Moravian missionaries who were willing to sell themselves into slavery so they could preach the gospel among the Caribs and African slaves who populated some of the Caribbean islands. During that time the islands were, for all practical purposes, privately owned by often brutal sugar producers and thus completely closed off to the outside world (including missionaries and the gospel). These Moravian missionaries’ vision of God as the Unencumbered Wanderer allowed them to see beyond what appeared to be insurmountable odds and find a way to reach these people by giving up all encumbrances of things and place.
But I have become aware more recently that my initial attraction to the unencumbered life was mostly rather different than what scripture was talking about. Even though Abraham was a Bedouin, he was not a wanderer in the sense that he just wandered from place to place. Rather he was on a journey with a starting point (the city of Ur in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley) and a destination (“the land that I will give you,” in the words of God).
Even though that wandering seemed … well … like mere wandering much of the time: Joseph’s family wandering into Egypt; the Children of Israel wandering in the wilderness for forty years on the way back to the Promised Land, etc, there was always purpose in their journeys.
In contrast, I am attracted to wandering for the sake of wandering. The first time drove through the state of Washington I was enthralled and thought, “I would love to live here for a while just to explore this place.” And then I drove through Utah and was similarly enthralled. I drove through western Pennsylvania and thought, “I’d love to explore this place for a year or two.” Not surprisingly I’ve had the same response to nearly everywhere I’ve visited.
I’m also aware that I’m a product of culture and I therefore must admit that my attraction to wandering is almost certainly a product (at least partially) of my American aversion to relationship and community. This remarkably widespread and fundamental character of the American psyche has created a bit of cottage industry for pop sociologists. In seminary I studied Habits of the Heart written by the graduate students of Robert Bellah. Some years later Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone, exploring the same phenomenon. In a word, we Americans are unattached from other people and as a result we tend toward loner lifestyles. As a result, our (my) attraction to wandering is the fruit of our (my) lack of attachment to other people, not vice versa.
And with this in mind let’s reconsider the Wandering God. The biblical prophets (Nathan being the first but certainly not the last to make this point) said that God wasn’t necessarily attached to a building or a specific plot of ground not because they believed that God would be happy dwelling in any old place. No, the point is that rather than a building, God is attached to a people. So God is the Wandering God only to the extent that the people he has called are a wandering people.
But given our cultural proclivity to wander precisely because we are unattached, we need to clarify. We probably need to avoid that word “wander” altogether. Whether it’s Abraham, or Joseph’s family, or Moses, or Jeremiah, or the disciples, or the church scattered about the earth, God’s people aren’t just wandering about; they are on a journey. Each step along the way (if we are following God) is purposeful. To the extent that we are living as God’s people, we don’t travel to western Pennsylvania (or wherever we wander) just because it’s pretty and interesting and it would be a good place to stop and explore for a year or two. Rather, we travel to our next destination because it brings us one step closer to the Kingdom. Rather than wanderers, we are pilgrims.
And as pilgrims we do indeed have a place and our place is alongside the other pilgrims in this pilgrim church. And why is this people our place? Because this people is precisely the place that God has chosen to make his home. As John the Evangelist says in the Prologue of the Gospel: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth …” (v. 14).
The Wandering God …
It sounds rather lonely, and given how we Americans are likely to hear it, it also misses the point. God didn’t come to earth to be out and about, he came in order to be in and among the ones he loves.