Pilgrim’s Road Trip #14: On ‘Moving On’

We live as exiles. We’re called to be pilgrims.

I am journeying through Scripture, stopping at a few oases along the way, in order to contemplate our exile experience. I’ll also offer some helpful thoughts about how Christ can reshape that identity and reorient our journey so we live as pilgrims. To read earlier posts in the series, click here.

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If there’s a phrase I don’t understand, it’s “moving on”. When someone says “Survivors are rebuilding and moving on with their lives a year after the tornado destroyed their entire town”, or “She is moving on after the divorce”, the words almost always strike a dissonant note inside my head. I want the guy using the 95db leafblower 20 feet from my office window to ‘move on’.  I believe the notion of moving on wastes how God wants to use loss or transition in our lives. ‘Moving on’ is the language used of exiles, not pilgrims.

Though the phrase implies well-wishes not to become mired in loss on behalf of the person who has been traumatized, George Santayana’s (in)famous quote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” summarizes Scripture’s message about what makes exiles and pilgrims two entirely different kinds of wanderer.

When the whole nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe, and tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, from right where the priests are standing, and carry them over with you and put them down at the place where you stay tonight.” – Joshua 4:1-3

One man from each tribe – one representative who would schlep a wet rock from the muddy bottom of a riverbed God had transformed into a bridge to demonstrate to his beloved people who he was to them, and who he’d been to their now-deceased parents. These small boulders, likely the heaviest rocks each man could lift, were stacked on the western bank of the Jordan at Gilgal.

The first thing God had his people do as they headed into the promised land was to remember. Not that longing look over her shoulder that got Mrs. Lot in so much trouble. But the physical act of hauling rock to pile that describes the kind of active remembering God wanted his children to do in the moment, and to continue to do for the rest of their days.

When we were in Israel a couple of years ago, we took the tunnel tour of the Western Wall that runs deep underground, beyond the public plaza where people come to pray. Our guide repeatedly urged us to touch the stones as we walked. “Touch them and remember!” she told us. The physical act of touching the massive stones built on the spot where Abraham walked, David worshipped, and Solomon and Herod built was one of the most profound experiences I’ve had in Israel. I felt history and holiness and hope. As I type these words, I can feel the sensations of ancient stones again in the palms of my hands, and the memory feels even more real than the couch on which I sit as I type. I am remembering in the same way that God wanted active remembrance of his work and their story from the children and grandchildren of those he’d led into the wasteland desert from Egypt forty years earlier. Those he’d led out from Egypt were very anxious to move on, and their dogged unwillingness to remember all God had done for them had cost them their entire generation, save Joshua and Caleb.

At Gilgal, God prepared his pilgrim people to move forward into the promised land. But he never asked them to move on.

Have you ever been encouraged to ‘move on’ from a life-altering experience in your life? Is it possible to do so? Why or why not? 


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  • Pat68

    I take moving on to be moving physically, mentally or emotionally from a place but taking the lessons learned with me.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      That’s a much better way to look at it, Pat, and a much better way to live. I hear the phrase tossed around in a way that often implies that the hurting person had better simply move. (Often, it is because it is uncomfortable to sit with someone’s pain for more than a few moments/hours/days, as Job’s friends demonstrated.) Moving on well means feeling the loss and remembering those lessons. 🙂

  • Tim

    When the Israelites looked on the pile of stones at Gilgal, they would also be looking back at a river returning to its course and barring their return to the other side. It’s as if God said, “Remember, but you’re not going back.”

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Yes! Great observation, Tim!

  • Ruth

    I’ve wrestled with the idea of “remembering” regarding the Jewish people. I’ve posted about attendeing a Passover Seder and even Bible Study held by atheist Jews and watched as they “remembered” and therefore even “obeyed” on some level. This is a conundrum with no easy answers.

    I love your memory of touching the stones in Israel. Thanks for a great post.


    • Michelle Van Loon

      Hi Ruth! My husband once taught on communion and told those who were present that the word “remember” Jesus used when he told his disciples to “remember me” (Luke 22:19) was the same kind of remembering we do when we get on a bike after not riding it for years. It carries the image of bringing something to active remembrance – just as we do with muscle memory when we get on that bike. We’re participating.

      The image helped me make a distinction between recalling information and being invited into the story.