Every now and then there’s something from a Sunday reading that sticks with me as I move into the week. The past day has been one of those occasions. And so I’m going to take just a few minutes today to reflect further on yesterday’s reading from Joshua.
To remind you, as they move from conquering the Promised Land to living in it, Joshua asks Israel to decide who and what they will worship, and consequently, who and how they want to be in the world:
Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. (Joshua 24.14f)
The detail that’s been sticking at me the past day or so has been the way Joshua frames the question. Aside from YHWH (here denoted as ‘the LORD’), Joshua doesn’t mention the gods by name, but rather by the lands to which they are connected. Instead of talking about Dagon or Nanna, Isis or Ra, Ba’al or Asheterah, he calls them the gods from “beyond the River,” of Egypt, and of the Promised Land itself.
In a sense, he’s asking not just who has their hearts and minds, but where their hearts and minds are at: ‘You’ve reached the Promised Land, but are your minds wondering how things would be if Abraham had never left Ur? Are your hearts still captive in Egypt? Are you too enticed by the bright lights and big cities of Canaan to do the hard work of settling its land?’
Allegorically, it seems like a very apt question for us too. We all have the stories of our pasts — not only our triumphs, but our grief and loss, and ‘what ifs’ too. We all have our hopes and dreams for the future, and the distractions and immediate needs of the present all vying for our attention. These all make it hard to live with intention in the here and now, where we are. Nostalgia for the past is a kind of dangerous attachment what what was that hinders us from moving forward. Our hopes for the future — if we’re not careful — can rob us of today’s joys. And, as much as we can rightly talk about ‘living in the present’, this too can easily become a tyranny of the immediate, living only in reaction to the various stimuli hitting us at every moment instead of making conscious decisions.
The goal, as I’ve come to understand it, is to live in the present, informed by the past for the sake of the future.
In my own life, even after I’d moved on and was in objectively much better space following the collapse of my faith and life-as-I-knew-it, for years my heart was still in many ways in Victoria, my heart still captive to those old experiences of grief and loss. And, in more recent years, I’ve struggled with a tug-of-war of sorts, between my hopes for my future and the realities of my present. It’s taken time, effort, learning, and lot of trial-and-error to come to a more cooperative and integrated approach. I remember the past with all its joys and sorrows, and I hope for a more fulfilling and joyful future even as I deal with the immediate concerns of the present, but — at least on my best days (and I hope and trust increasingly on my worst days) — my heart isn’t caught up in them.
This is a never-ending process. And I think that’s a big part of why the Covenant is always being renewed and revisited in our Scriptures. Every day we need to remind ourselves of who we are, to bring our hearts back to the present with intention, and ask those questions I commented on yesterday: Who am I? What do I value? Where is my heart?
The last of these questions, which has been the focus of today’s reflection, reminds us to bring our hearts back to where we are now, so we can manage the life we have now with intention and grace.