While modern Christianity has done a great job of crafting its narratives about both Heaven and Eden, about the future that is to come and the past we so gravely wounded, both of these narratives create a significant problem for the theology of our faith: they create a distance between ourselves and God, one that is not easily overcome.
This is a problem because we love and serve a God whose entire story is that He is present with His people. He walked with them in the Garden as soon as He created them. He met Abraham on the mountain, bearing with Him a ram. He walked with Israel through the wilderness, parting the Red Sea and meeting with them in cloud and fire. He stood in the furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He even came in the womb of a virgin, born in a manger, walking the same dusty, dirty streets of Jerusalem that the Jews who were in great anticipation of Him walked. And then, when it all seemed said and done, when the Romans had finally put His body in the grave and, to turn a phrase, put the final nail in this coffin, He walked out to walk among His people again.
And here we are, 2,000 years later, talking about the "one day" - the one day in the extremely distant past when God was present with us until we ruined it or the one day in the extremely distant future when we will come to be with God again. And we say that this is the best theology we have. This is it. This is God.
It's entirely not.
This is not our best theology. This is not it. This is not God. Our best theology is a theology that reminds us that God is still present with His people. Our best theology is a theology that tells us that God is still immanent. Our best theology is a theology that doesn't settle for the distance between today and "in the beginning" or today and "forever and ever amen" because our best theology knows that today is our beginning and is our forever because the God who made a story out of walking with His people walks with us still. Even now. Even here.
I'll confess it - it's by no means an easy theology. There are a lot of questions that come up if God is both who He says He is and present with us in a world that is so much less than He intended. There is a lot of incredulousness, even among Christians, that God could be near and life could still be such a mess. It's much easier to say that our God is the God of yesterday or tomorrow because it frees us from having to grapple with today.
The truth is that we are no better than Israel when they wandered in the wilderness, every day asking, "What? Did our Lord bring us out here to die?" Every time something goes wrong, every time something goes bad, every time something is incomplete, we grumble. We think about what the other peoples are going to say when they see that our God, the God that even they can see in cloud and fire, has not made everything perfect for us.
But let's not confuse perfect with present.
And yet, that's exactly what we're doing. We don't want our God to be messy. We don't want our God to be difficult. We don't want our God to be unimaginable. Which means we don't want our God to be present. Because present is, and always has been, all of these things. It's much easier, much cleaner, much safer to have Him in the beginning or the forever and ever and not here in this wilderness where, we're pretty sure, we die.
The problem is, that's just not God's story. God's story has always been the wilderness story. God'd story has always been the messy story. God's story has always been difficult and unimaginable and a stretch of the best of our imaginations because God's story has always been a story of presence. Right here. With us. When we're not getting it right. When we're getting it super-wrong. When we're left wondering and forever wandering and when we can't help but think about what all these other peoples might say if they, too, see the cloud and the fire and we're still such a mess.
Maybe, though...maybe they'd say there's still something to it. Maybe they'd say there's something special going on here anyway.
Maybe they'd say, whoa...look...their God is with them.
If only we would remember that ourselves.