It is easy for us, when times are difficult and the way forward seems unclear, to harken back to a simpler time, a “better time,” the “good old days.” Were some things better in earlier times? Perhaps. Do we miss things that have gone the way of the dodo bird? Certainly. There were advantages to smaller communities where neighbors knew each other and kids could run the streets till dark without worrying their parents. At least that was true in some neighborhoods.
Human nature, psychologists tell us, is hard wired to remember the good and forget the bad. Jesus even borrows the illustration of a woman who has just given birth to a healthy child – the joy of holding this new infant causes the pain of the delivery to fade almost immediately. (John 16:21) So maybe somethings were better. And maybe we have forgotten how bad some things were. And maybe some things were worse for others than they were for us. Maybe.
Today, just like all the yesterdays and all of the tomorrows, is a mix of good and bad. Or as the prophet Billy Joel says, “The good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”
There is no harm in remembering the ‘good old days,’ so long as we are honest about ‘the bad old days’ too. If all you are looking for is the comfort of nostalgia and a walk down memory lane, then #TBT (Throw-Back Thursday) all you want with photos and stories of yourself and your loved ones in years gone by. But don’t try to relive the past. Some things, like the movies Footloose and Vacation, are best left to our memories rather than remaking them. And lately we’ve been wanting to introduce our kids to some of the movies that we enjoyed at their age, only to recognize that either: a) they really aren’t that good, or b) they really have some pretty bad underlying messages of male privilege, white privilege, misogyny, classism or other biases that we want to move beyond (sorry Bill and Ted, Wayne and Garth, and the cast of Monte Python).
There is something attractive about things from an earlier, simpler time. My son and I spent half a Saturday at a vintage video game convention, and he is longing to start a collection of his own. He has several modern game systems, but still wants this older technology which is relatively slower, clunkier, less realistic. People collect antiques and restore classic cars from a similar motivation. I don’t know if it is universal, but it certainly seems common in the Modern / Postmodern West.
This harkening back to a romanticized past is nothing new. In Exodus 16 we encounter the Hebrew people, only a short time and distance out of their generational slavery in Egypt. Already they are longing for the simpler world they have just escaped. Already they seem to have forgotten all the hardships they endured. All they know is that the present hardship, lack of food, was less of an issue in the past.
The reality: food was still scarce, but they knew from whence it came – from their slave masters. You see, their old life did not require any faith. Work or die. If you work, you will probably get to eat. They had no control over the situation, and were dependent on the capriciousness of their overlords. What they preferred is the black and white world of oppression and violence they have just escaped, because they were less dependent on their own responsibility, and free of a relationship of mutuality and trust.
It is understandable that we should look back with fondness to times in our lives where some of the present troubles were absent. Back when we were younger and not responsible for jobs and incomes and housing and food and medical bills. Back when friends were made easily and the worst arguments only lasted half a school day.
And people are selective about the times to which they want to return. No one says, “Let’s go back to the World War 1 or the great depression.” “Remember the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that killed perhaps 100 million people? Yeah, that was a great time wasn’t it?”
People long for times that were good for them, or they imagine would have been. How about the 1950s, for instance? So many people recall those days as the heyday of the American dream. The US had survived the Great Depression, won another World War and defeated fascism (or so we thought) with the help of our allies. Religious participation was at an all-time high. Prosperity and upward mobility were available to increasing numbers of people.
What if you were a woman who had enjoyed the increased responsibility and freedom of the workplace during the 1940s? Too bad, you’d need to head back to the role of homemaker. What if you were a person of color who had enjoyed the increasing integration encountered in the US armed forces? Too bad, you’ll need to find your place again in your local community.
And what about the fear that gripped the nation over the Red Scare – the rising anxiety over a potential attack from Russia or one of her allies, perhaps from as close as Cuba? How many of you remember practicing hiding under your desks in case someone dropped a bomb, as if that would help. If you were close enough to need shelter from falling debris, then you were likely going to die from radiation poisoning, either immediately or slowly and painfully. Yeah, let’s bring that back why don’t we?
There is something within us, I think, that wants an enemy to fear, and to blame. We rally together and stir up our individual and collective gumption against a threat, real or imagined. If there isn’t a real one, then we will manufacture one, and the spookier and less tangible the better.
We get riled up about “those people” who think and believe differently than we do, and suppose that their private behavior will somehow destroy our way of life, rather than the actual children and old people who are suffering and dying alone around us every day. We decide we need to defend our way of life from people of a different religion, when our way of life seems to include allowing children to be infected by generational poverty.
It has been said, “You can never go home again.” I don’t know if that’s true or not. It seems likely, since the world around us, the people who inhabit it, and even we ourselves are constantly changing. Whoever we were in that place, the person and place no longer exist as they did then in that recalled (or imagined) moment in time.
God will never take us back to the place we were. God is always calling us forward toward something new. In every redemptive episode in the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament, God leads people forward. Even when the Israelites return to Jerusalem from Babylon the place and people are different, new. At the end of all things we envision the Lord of all saying, “Behold, I make all things new.” A new heaven. A new earth. (Rev 21) God will not recreate some idealized slice from the past, but will renew the face of the ground, and us with it. (Psalm 104).
What does all of this mean for me? For you? For this church? Your church?
It means that we can remember and celebrate and give thanks for our past all we want. We can and should learn the names and stories and the lessons they tell us. But we cannot go back to a time that was. All we can do is go forward. And that may be a bit scary, because our recollection is that in the times past our needs were met and the pews were full and the community knew our name and was glad that we were here. Maybe none of that is true anymore.
What is true? God will provide for us on the journey in which God leads us. God calls us to live today and tomorrow depending on holy and divine provision. God calls us to live with hope and to proclaim hope and to offer hope to those around us.
Where are we going? How will we get there? What will happen when we do? I have no idea. Neither did the Hebrews when they left Egypt. What Moses did promise them is that if they would look to God, would listen and follow, then God would lead and guide and provide. God would make a way where it seemed hopeless. God would enable them to overcome insurmountable odds. God would preserve their name and their heritage for generations to come, if they would be faithful and trust and go.
The prosperity of the US came at the expense of enslaved and underpaid labor and the wanton overconsumption of natural resources and pollution of land, air and water. Even today much of our food and consumer goods are produced by underpaid labor that is often anything but free. What would a life be like where everyone in the chain of production made a living wage? I really don’t know, but is there any other ethical choice but to move toward that future?
How long does it take to unlearn generations of ingrained belief and behavior? For some it can happen in one generation, with the right environment and inner resources. For most, we make incremental steps, one generation at a time, like fish crawling onto land and learning to breathe air. Numerous spiritual and psychological theories suggest that most of us can only make incremental advancement toward wholeness in our effort to overcome familial and cultural pathologies. Domesticated cats, dogs and pigs are great examples – it takes several generations to temper their wild spirit, but only one generation for them to become feral again. Spiritual, moral, and cultural advancement require constant vigilance against our darker inner inclinations.
When we come together as a community (congregation, organization, neighborhood, company, city / state / nation) we want things to be good – most people do. We want peace and prosperity for as many as possible, starting with me and mine and extending outward. If I have to choose between my loved ones and strangers surviving a tragedy, I’ll choose mine every time. But what if that is a false choice taught to us by our old slave masters? What if there is a third option, or multiple creative middle roads where everyone can win, or at least most?
Again, God tells us of a dreamed-for future where there is no sorrow, suffering, crying or pain. (Rev 21:4) Why can’t we begin working toward that today? Our old masters told us that the world’s resources were limited and that there would always be winners and losers. We were told that the only way you could get what you needed was to take it by force, to win in a battle, to play the game. They told us that you only got what you earned – good or bad. If you worked hard you would get good things. If you get bad things, there must be something wrong with you.
God tells us all of this is a lie. God tells us that we are to look out for one another, to consider others as better than ourselves. Yes, we are to work – for the betterment of all, not just ourselves. God tells us that if we will hear the divine voice calling to us in the stillness, in the secret place of our heart, and in the voices of the suffering around us, then we will know what to do and will have all the resources necessary to accomplish far more than we can presently imagine. God will give us dreams and visions and the will and way to see them come to fruition.
God always leads us forward.
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Sunday 080215 – God always leads us forward.
Worship Resources for Sunday 080215
Call to worship Psalm 78 (select vs)
Leader: Yet he commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven; he rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven.
People: Mortals ate of the bread of angels; he sent them food in abundance.
Leader: He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens, and by his power he led out the south wind;
People: he rained flesh upon them like dust, winged birds like the sand of the seas; he let them fall within their camp, all around their dwellings.
Unison: And they ate and were well filled, for he gave them what they craved.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION: 36a
Text: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Title: God always leads us forward
Also: John 6:24-35
In Christ God has brought us out of our old way of life and into new life in Christ. At times we may want to go back to the old ways, even though we were in bondage and slavery. God leads us forward.
Loving God, you call us to lift our eyes and look around us at the wonderful world you have made. You invite us to a place of wonder at the beauty and majesty of your creation, where we can feel both humble and honored all at once.
You also show us the suffering of our sisters and brothers, if we will open our eyes and ears and allow the scales to fall away. We do not want to see it, because some of the suffering we have caused, and some we could prevent or heal if we would make changes in our own lives, but we fear what that will cost us.
Grant us the faith to follow you into your dreamed for future and to trust in your provision when you ask us to give sacrificially. Help us to believe that enough will be available for us if we will ensure that enough is available for others. Help us not to store up treasures on earth but to use them for your glory and the blessing of your children.
Lead us into your future with hope. Amen