The Center

By Paul Koch

Old Book. Selective focus

Our home is an insane whirlwind of activity. It is never quiet, never without constant motion, and never dull. I have an ongoing joke with my wife where she has fallen into the habit of saying things like, “Once I get this (whatever it is) done, then things will be a little slower, a little easier, a little more predictable.” And I used to come up with witty sayings – you mean after the next thing, and the one after that… Now we just have a good laugh about it. This is our life. But what always adds just a little more fuel to the fire is that we have a few kids who can’t seem to focus on the task at hand. In the midst of the commotion, they will be distracted by almost any shiny object that comes into their line of sight.

Actually, I would like to rephrase that. I don’t think they lack focus. Instead what they haven’t learned yet is the ability to ignore things. Their world is one where everything is of equal weight: from the task they are given, to the dog walking by. What we’ve learned to do as we grow older is to prioritize some things over others. This helps us get things done. It helps us to stay focused by being able to ignore. But this selective choosing of what we are going to focus on and what we are going to ignore can cause great trouble when we move from our present actions to our memories of the past. When we think about the past, when we reminisce about the good ol’ days, what we ignore can be detrimental.

Israel demonstrates this danger for us in Numbers 11. Now we know the story of Israel; we’ve heard the story of their bondage in Egypt. We remember how they were brutalized and crushed under their oppressors. We have not forgotten the story of when the Pharaoh began to fear their great numbers, so he instituted the slaughter of the children that sent Moses into the very household of Pharaoh. We remember how it took more than one plague or two plagues to release the chains of slavery; rather it took ten plagues ending in the death of all the firstborn of the land just to set the Israelites free. Oh and it doesn’t end there. It goes on through the Red Sea on dry ground and a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. And here they are, the delivered Israelites, the children of God, thinking back with their selective memories. And what do they remember? “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”

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Because of this selective memory of her past, Israel fails to see that God is still at work in their midst. Their memory of the past is a form of coveting. Instead of coveting the neighbor’s new car or great job, they are coveting a memory of the past. They long for it so much that it distorts the gifts that are currently given. God is miraculously providing sustenance every morning but with their memory of Egypt’s food they say, “Our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” Now we may think that they are simply foolish. After all, how could they ignore all that God had done? But our memory is often just as problematic.

In fact, one of the Lutheran Church’s favorite pastimes is to long for the good ol’ days. We remember the times when our church was busting at the seams, when we needed to add chairs to the back of the sanctuary and direct parking outside just to get everyone in a Christmas Eve service. We remember when the Sunday School was packed, when we had a thriving day school, and we begin to covet those days. Remember when we had two services and they were both full? Remember when we had proof, year after year, of the impact of God’s Word because the youth group was large and our confirmation classes were growing? I know people who define their whole understanding of the church based on selective memories from their past. They had a certain pastor that none other could match, so they stopped going to church all together. Or it could be the exact opposite; perhaps they were hurt by the church or betrayed in some way so they figured it would always be so.

The pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spoke about this in his little book Life Together. There he speaks about our love for an ideal, what he calls a wish dream. That memory of what the church ought to be. We have our wish dreams of what this community ought to be, a dream formed by the memories we’ve happened to embrace. As we see with Israel herself sometimes that wish dream can pervert the very work of God, so that they forget their bondage and remember the free fish. Bonhoeffer puts it this way, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”

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God does not turn a deaf ear to the cry of his people. He doesn’t ignore the selective memory of Israel and His judgment is important to see His grace. As Moses is fed up with a people who ignore the right thing and remember the wrong thing, and he is at his wits end trying to deal with them, God responds with great abundance. For starters this abundance comes in the form of meat, and it comes as judgment. Israel wanted meat, so He gives them meat. He brings quail in from the sea that fall beside the camp. It is such an abundance that it makes them sick. As God said, “They will eat it until it comes out their nostrils and becomes loathsome to them.”

But this small refocusing of their remembrance isn’t the thrust of His great work. No, the center of His response to their sinful coveting of the past is an abundance of the Word in the present. He gives them an abundance of hope, an abundance of forgiveness, and abundance of His presence in their midst.

Moses is told to gather together seventy elders and bring them to the tent of meeting. He says that he will take some of the Spirit that rests on Moses and place it on them. They will thus be enlisted to help serve the children of God. So there around the tent of meeting, the place that stands at the center of their life of faith, God meets them and they begin to speak His word. God’s Word is multiplied beyond Moses through these other men. Now we find out the Spirit doesn’t stop there. Eldad and Medad, who were handing out in camp, began to prophecy.

prophecy

So from the tent of meeting to the outskirts of the camp the Word of God explodes in abundance. But notice what they immediately want to do; they want to tell Eldad and Medad to quit it. After all they don’t fit in with their wish dream, their ideal of how this ought to work. But the center of our faith is never our wish dreams, it is never our selected memory of times gone by. The center of it all is the living and active Word of God. A Word proclaimed from our youth, a Word proclaimed even now. So Moses speaks his hope that what began in the camp will only continue to grow.

And it has.

The Word of God is not a dead memory that we can ignore or embrace as we see fit. The Word of God is a mighty and living thing. And because it is alive you cannot simply covet the past, for He is at work here and now. The Word of God is at the center of our life together. The Word of God is at the center of your hope and endurance. For the Spirit still moves men to speak, so into you ears you still hear that incredible Word, “I forgive you, I love you, I will never forsake you!”

It ought to come as no shock that when this event is recalled in the book of Deuteronomy, the hearers are encouraged to remember what remains at the center, that “Man does not live by bread alone but by every Word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

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One thought on “The Center

  1. I suppose there is “selective memory” at work when we look back at times of the past in which things seemed better……even when they weren’t…..and we realistically struggled through such times. There is nothing wrong with such memories, although we cannot be transfixed on idealized experiences. Life is dynamic, not static, although we are often more engaged in remembering the good times, allowing our minds to drift between the past and the present realities. Maybe this feeds our human longing for security and continuity, our desire to control our destinies. I remember being in an old Christian non-denominational church. With white clapboard siding and old fashioned shutters, and a bell to announce worship services. It had a belfry and peak which seemed to reach towards Heaven. It was constructed in 1900 and as the population grew and the area developed, folks moved in to the area and flocked to other churches. The pastor was in his eighties, and I often saw a sense of melancholy in his face, as the congregation, void of young, was reduced to a few gray heads each Sunday. No ministries and no people to run them. No children to run and play in the old playground in the back. The pastor had been there long enough to remember when the pews were filled, a choir sang, and some ministries existed beside the Wednesday evening Bible study. Eventually, the old pastor moved away….but did not retire. He attends another church as a member and occasionally preaches. I suppose he still remembers when he once had a congregation……and we can’t blame him for looking back.

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