Perpetual Pursuit of the Rainbow’s End
“You must keep this ordinance at the appointed time year after year.” Exodus 13:10
We have a hard time understanding permanent traditions, don’t we? We even have difficulty with an infrequent observance of the Lord’s Supper. Many churches once announced ahead of time when they would observe it but stopped because attendance went down. It worked better as a surprise. People don’t want to spend the extra few minutes. They don’t want to be inconvenienced with all the dead time waiting between the wine and the bread. I was visiting a church recently where they gave us the square of bread and a small cup of grape juice to serve ourselve on our way out before we hit the front door. Another time the wafer and the grape juice were in a small sealed container together so you didn’t have to wait for them to be served separately. Better yet, they were only ten cents for each packet which saved on expense. Who says the Church is lacking in innovation?
As New Testament people we have to borrow our value for tradition and the sense of generations from the Old Testament. We have been shaped by the anticipation of the end of the world and our eyes are not on permanence but the end being nigh. Publishers know the most popular books, movies, and Bible studies are on the end time being any moment now. Mike White, the writer and director of the latest Ben Stiller movie, “Brad’s Status” confessed in a recent interview that as a young boy he was sent to a conservative Christian camp that practiced “rapture drills” where they stood in rows raising their arms toward heaven making it easier to ascend when the time came. Yes, the early church anticipated the imminent return of Christ and being ready for the end of the world that was soon to come. As a result, it’s hard for us to think about long futures, isn’t it?
As American Christians, we tend to distrust tradition and looking back. We want everything made contemporary or relevant to where we are this moment. While we are more interested in the future than history, even then, our fascination is the near future and predictions about it. Writer Anne Lamott, when asked what the world would look like one hundred years from now, said, “Hundred years. All new people.” How many books and magazine articles do we see every year about future trends and signs of significant patterns we should recognize? We even have people titled “futurists” who keep us always thinking about the future and often at the expense of enjoying today – and certainly from paying attention to the past.
C.S. Lewis in “The Screwtape Letters” had a wonderful description of men and women who were constantly thinking about the impending future and its uncertainties:
“The Enemy’s ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity (if that is his vocation), washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him. But we want a man hag-ridden by the Future—haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth—ready to break the Enemy’s commands in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other—dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.”
The Old Testament lived with a long past and a long future. They prepared themselves for the future out of the past. “In the future when your children ask, tell them..” is repeated over and over throughout the Old Testament. They were rooted in the past but not chained to it. It gave them meaning and a sense of belonging. But it is not just history. It is the history and reminder of the direct intervention of God time and again.
I love the quote from Alexis de Tocqueville as he described the vitality and enormous prospects for the new America he visited. With all of the benefits of the putting away of binding traditions he still had a concern that we should honor today. “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.” We need traditions and observances and remembrances that are not just ceremonies but give us a genuine sense of identity and purpose.