February 22, 2008
“Well, where are we going today?” I asked as we took down the tent and loaded up the car.
“I don’t know,” responded Joe, my father-in-law. “Let’s all look at the map and make a decision together.”
After spreading out the map on the hood of the car five intrepid explorers hunkered over the colorful document that gave our adventure the only semblance of order. Once we all agreed on a destination and the most scenic way of getting there, our journey would resume. It was a daily routine which greeted us every morning on this impromptu, purposefully unplanned camping trip through western Colorado. As newlyweds my wife and I had opted to spend our summer vacation visiting her family who lived near Denver. It seemed like a good way to get the most out of our travel budget. Together with her mom, dad, and sister we had pooled our money, packed up their car and headed into an unforgettable adventure. Every day we chose a new location to explore amongst the numerous national parks and monuments which dot the map of this beautiful and diverse section of our country. Every night we would choose a campsite and pitch our tent being careful not to unpack more than necessary so we could make a quick getaway in the morning.
Coming from a family atmosphere where everything was well thought out and planned months in advance, it took me awhile to adjust to this haphazard, unorthodox way of vacationing. But after a few relaxing days of having no real agenda to accomplish other than seeing what beautiful scenery lay beyond the next hill, I began to have the time of my life. It was somewhat disconcerting crawling into our sleeping bags at night not knowing where we would be camping the next evening. But at the same time it was marvelously exciting waiting for an unknown adventure to unfold with each new day.
The memories of this unique camping trip came to mind this week as I read about another such adventure, one which took place long before we dreamed up our impromptu vacation. Some three and one-half millennia ago a God-ordained camping trip turned into a forty year pilgrimage. Hoping to escape the perils of civilized life and find a permanent home, a large group of related families struck out into the wilderness pitching their tents together each evening. I’m talking, of course, about the Israelites and their desert sojourn on the way to the Promised Land. Like our Colorado adventure, no one knew until morning what each new day would bring. The very first item of business in the morning for each family was to open up the flaps of their tent and look in the direction of the tabernacle. Above the large tent of meeting the pillar of cloud, representing the guiding presence of the Lord, would either remain stationary or begin moving. If the cloud remained in place, the Israelites knew they would be staying in that location for at least one more day. But if the cloud was moving out, it was their signal to quickly pull up the tent stakes, pack up their belongings, and get ready to fall in line with the huge caravan of pilgrims as they headed out to the next campsite.
For those who were accustomed to a much more ordered existence the uncertainty of where they would be the next day must have been enormously frustrating. Yet at the same time, it would have been marvelously exciting waiting for an unknown adventure to unfold with each new day. They would never be able to fully unpack all their possessions or become too comfortable with their surroundings. I’m sure they learned to travel light and refrain from driving their tent stakes in too deeply. Imagine how it must have felt needing to be ready at a moment’s notice to throw all your belongings into an oxcart or sling them over your back and head out to some location known only to God.
“Whenever the cloud lifted from above the Tent, the Israelites set out; wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped. At the Lord’s command the Israelites set out, and at his command they encamped. As long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. When the cloud remained over the tabernacle a long time, the Israelites obeyed the Lord’s order and did not set out. Sometimes the cloud was over the tabernacle only a few days; at the Lord’s command they would encamp, and then at his command they would set out. Sometimes the cloud stayed only from evening till morning, and when it lifted in the morning, they set out. Whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud lifted, they set out.” – Numbers 9:17-21.
The tabernacle itself was built to be totally portable. Rings of pure gold were affixed to most items of furniture so wooden poles overlaid with gold could be inserted through them allowing the appointed men to carry the items to the next campsite. The poles for carrying the Ark of the Covenant were left permanently in place continually ready to be hoisted upon the shoulders of the Levitical priests charged with moving it properly. The message was obvious. God Himself was wandering with His people, pitching His tent in their midst.
The entire congregation of Israel was perpetually on the move. There was no permanent residence, no settling down, no getting used to their surroundings. Life was to be a continual journey until they reached the Promised Land. Not until they had lived in the land of Canaan for hundreds of years did God allow them to build a more lasting structure for His earthly home. And even in Solomon’s temple the poles were to remain inserted in the Ark of the Covenant symbolizing impermanence. Just in case the Israelites forgot the lesson of daily following the Lord wherever He led, God prescribed a yearly celebration during which the entire assembly would once again camp out in tents. The Feast of Tabernacles was a seven-day observance commemorating the journey from Egypt to Canaan and reminding God’s people that their true home consisted of dwelling in the presence of their heavenly Father, not living in some building constructed by human hands.
Unfortunately, the message which was constantly drilled into the minds of the Israelites has been largely forgotten and ignored by God’s people today. We have become a kingdom of holy temple dwellers intent on erecting elaborate, stained-glass edifices as a sign of our permanence. “This is our church home,” we proudly proclaim gesturing toward the building of our choice where we congregate for worship observances. But what if the “cloud” has lifted and moved to another neighborhood? If the “cloud” settles over a community of rat-infested slums, or a group of homes where a language other than our own is spoken, or a neighborhood where lifestyles reflect an entirely different set of values than ours, are we capable of pulling up stakes and following our Lord? Or have we pounded our tent stakes in so deep as to make relocating nearly impossible?
I wish I could tell you the house church movement is the answer to this problem of immobility, but I’m afraid such is not the case. Sadly, we can become just as encamped upon the couches in our living rooms as those in the institutional churches are ensconced in their pews. Somehow the forward journey of God’s people has come to a halt far from the land of promise. Instead of following after the “cloud” we have pulled out of the caravan and built permanent settlements. We have allowed our tents to be transformed into towers, our tabernacles into temples, and we wonder why we so seldom feel the presence of the Lord in our midst. How could it be that we have so easily lost sight of the “cloud?” Have we accumulated too much baggage to dump into our carts or sling upon our backs in order to quickly follow after the Lord? Have we become too comfortable in our permanent dwellings to risk the uncertainties of a nomadic lifestyle?
“Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” – Luke 9:58. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” – Luke 9:23.
How could we have settled for a mud home in the wilderness when a gem-studded, gold-paved, pearly-gated mansion is waiting for us up ahead? How could God’s people erect such elaborate, immoveable dwelling places when the only truly permanent temple is waiting for us in Heaven? How could we exhibit more faith in our own structures than in God’s ability to lead us safely where He wants us to go?
“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” – Hebrews 11:8-10.
I recommend we begin every day like those Israelites did in the wilderness by opening up the flaps of our tent and looking to see where the “cloud” is located. When it moves, we move with it; when it settles, so do we. For those of us who like to have our lives carefully planned out months in advance it may take some time to adjust to this haphazard, unorthodox style of ministry. It can be a little disconcerting crawling into bed at night not knowing where we may be camping the next evening. But at the same time it is marvelously exciting waiting for an unknown adventure to unfold with each new day. So jettison that excess baggage, keep your suitcases packed, and don’t drive your tent stakes in too deeply. The wilderness is calling; an adventure of a lifetime is waiting. Let’s go camping!
Bill, a child of God looking for the cloud