Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. (Luke 17.32-33)
The Processional of Life
Variations in Christian worship are an endless fascination for me. Were it possible, I could spend the remainder of my life roaming from church to church, satisfying my curiosity about “how we do.” From the bare-bones simplicity of urban storefront services to the outsized splendor of cathedral rites, I’m equally intrigued by their vast differences and understated commonalities. I’ve found the most striking similarity to be the processional, because it exists in some form in nearly every liturgy. At its most elaborate, it initiates worship. A retinue of acolytes, singers, laity, and ministers proceeds down the sanctuary aisle in a symbolic approach to the altar. In services where the Eucharist serves as the centerpiece, the entire congregation makes its way to the table, where it partakes of the Communion elements. But even churches that prefer a less ornate, formalized order of service include a processional in their worship. This typically comes near the end of the experience, when the preacher concludes his/her sermon with an invitation for those in need of prayer to “come to Christ.”
Walking plays an essential role in our worship by replicating the processional of life. We are always moving forward, heading toward something we hope will be better, healthier, and happier for us. The future, bright with promise and untarnished by reality, beckons and its call cannot be refused. Yet the moment we step into the future it becomes the present. “Now” is always a moment of evaluation. It’s seldom what we anticipated; there are always nuances and complexities we didn’t—or couldn’t—foresee. Now we’re faced with new things to learn and adjust to. Our comfort level is sharply reduced. Many times, we recognize what’s behind us is much worse than where we are. But the strangeness of this new place sets off longings for “the good old days,” regardless how bad they really were. And this uncertainty raises speculation about the future. Will the next step be just as challenging as this one? Probably. Consequently, we often enter the present and freeze. But the processional of life has tremendous inertia. It pulls us ahead against our will and pries us free of what we cling to. Thinking we can overpower the forward process of time and existence is a dangerous idea that can completely immobilize us. This is what Jesus means by “Remember Lot’s wife.” (Luke 17.2)
We all know the story. Lot, Abraham’s nephew, has settled in the plains of Sodom, just beyond the gates of a corrupt city whose residents enrage God by threatening two angelic visitors. Lot's guests warn that God intends to destroy Sodom and advise him to move his family immediately. (Lot doesn’t realize he’s built his home on unstable soil with large sulfuric, highly flammable deposits.) The day of destruction comes. The ground explodes, sending plumes of blazing minerals into the sky creating a fatal firestorm. As her family runs for safety, Lot’s wife stops to catch one last glance of the city going up in smoke. A white-hot deluge of sulfur pours over her and she’s instantly petrified into a pillar of salt.
The magnitude of God’s wrath and craven behavior of Sodom’s men invite much speculation about what compels Lot’s wife to look back. She’s typically painted as a materialistic woman who can’t bear leaving the riches of Sodom. Since nothing in Genesis suggests she was faithless or shallow, however, I think she gets a bad rap. Her mistake was stopping to evaluate what she was losing, when she should have proceeded post-haste to protect what she had. She exemplifies all of us who get trapped between what was, is, and will be. After mentioning Lot’s wife, Jesus says, “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” Staying where we are is what kills us. Minimizing what we know and possess thus far to gain more knowledge and security ahead saves us. In the processional of life, releasing our hold on what we have is how we preserve it. It keeps us moving forward. It keeps us alive.
In 2 Corinthians 5.7, Paul writes, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” (KJV) This implies two things. First, we trust God’s direction entirely, even when it conflicts with everything that disputes its wisdom. Second, it indicates we internalize what we experience as intuitive knowledge rather than rely on visibly factual proof. In other words, we don’t need to see it to know it. This is a tough discipline every believer struggles to develop—in part because it completely defies our biological instincts. As a species, we are hunters and gatherers. We collect things and build imaginary trophy rooms where we display our holdings: prized memories of triumph and success, as well as despised scars that symbolize survival. We carry these things with us, picking up more and more as we go. That by itself isn’t a problem. It’s when we stop moving to haul out our baggage and look at what we’re carrying that we get into trouble. Digging through the past is what gets us stuck in the now.
Much of what we carry will remain with us always. Memories of every kind linger at will. But much of our collected past also burns off as we move ahead. Stopping to search for what’s lost, hoping to imprint its image in our minds leads to feeling torn about moving ahead. What if that cherished memory gets away from us and we’ll never find anything like it again? What if that scar totally vanishes and we no longer resemble who we were? But must we repeatedly look at these things to retain them? They are part of us; we know them even though we may no longer “see” them. Pausing to revisit the past puts us at war with the inertia of existence. Life pulls us forward. If, like Lot’s wife, we continue to fight the processional of life, we’ll get left behind. What we desperately wanted to fix in our mind’s eye will be lost, and we’ll be lost, too—stranded out of time, stuck somewhere between then and now while life marches on. Keep walking forward by faith. Remember Lot’s wife!
We carry what we've learned and experienced with us. It's part of us. Stopping to preserve past trophies and scars strands us in the now and jeopardizes our future.