Passage: Exodus 16:1-17
There was a famous movie made in the 70's called The Way We Were about a doomed romance between characters played by Robert Redford and Barbara Streisand. Redford plays a writer who doesn’t take himself, or life, seriously. Streisand plays a Jewish left-wing activist who is passionate about everything. (In other words, Barbra Streisand seems to be playing herself.) It doesn’t end well. There was a song that came from the movie that’s since become a classic, and it’s also called “The Way We Were.”
Streisand sings about this fictional romance and reflects on it. She sings: “Can it be that it was all so simple then? Or has time rewritten every line? … Memories may be beautiful and yet what's too painful to remember we simply choose to forget. So it's the laughter we will remember whenever we remember the way we were.”
How many of us find ourselves missing the past like that? Nostalgia can be deceptive, and make us misremember what was really going on.
Some of my most fond memories of Wisconsin are when I would go to a friend’s house to play board games and watch movies. Their names were Shaun and Ashley. I would go over every Thursday and we would choose something to watch. I spent Christmas with them one year. I got into Dungeons and Dragons, animated Batman movies, and learned an appreciation for video games. Their house was like a museum dedicated to everything nerdy. I loved going over to their house to spend time with them.
But the thing is that friendship developed when COVID first broke out. We were both temporarily furloughed from our jobs at the Boys and Girls Club. When I look back at that time now, I don’t tend to remember the fear or the crazy political tensions in my area. I don't remember trying to formulate sermons to speak to everyone's condition during a pandemic. I don’t remember worrying about the kids. I don’t remember being so stressed that I had a terrible sleeping schedule for eight months. I don't immediately remember sitting with my colleagues on Zoom as they processed COVID and the rise BLM in their contexts. All of those things were happening and they were extremely important, but it’s not what my mind clings to. Instead, what I find myself remembering are those cheesy movie nights and laughter.
I reflected on this when I read some past journals, and I realized that what was a pleasant time for me wasn’t so pleasant for everyone else. And it’s a weird feeling to know that the closeness I felt at that house was only because a worldwide crisis was happening.
In a lecture I once had in class under John Perkins, a black Christian activist. He told the story of when someone made a comment about returning to the good old days. John, being the blunt guy he is from a black Baptist heritage, asked the man: “Tell me, are those the days when I wouldn’t be allowed to sit and eat with you? Are those the days when I was a slave? What good old days are you talking about?”
And leave it to John to put things in perspective like that, but that’s what nostalgia tends to do: it downplays the negative experiences to uplift the positive ones.
Nostalgia is often a stress reaction for the brain to look back at the past and idealize it when things are going wrong in the present. Dr. Laurie Santos in her podcast The Happiness Lab points out that nostalgia can often be bad for us, both as people and as a culture. When we think that we had things a lot easier back then, we ignore the struggles and challenges that were there. Our brains tend to forget those moments when we get stressed. It’s a defense mechanism letting us know something is wrong.
In other words, our brains are trying to find a way to soothe the anxieties we feel often when we remember these things. But part of being faithful is believing God’s promise that the best is yet to come, while also recognizing the Kingdom of Heaven all around us. God was present with us in the past, yes, but imagine how much more so He is present for us now.
There is value in remembering the past in how God delivers us. Scriptures always point back to stories of God’s faithfulness in spite of the mess.The point of those passages isn’t to idealize what happened, but rather to show that God will continue to be faithful.
When we try to return to the good old days, we often frame those ideal times to the detriment of everyone else and reality. All the Hebrews could think in that moment was an idealized version of their past. If you notice in God’s response, there is no condemnation. There is frustration that they aren’t noticing the blessing, but He doesn’t hold those feelings against them. Keep in mind these were people who were enslaved. This was probably one of many trauma responses. They were so used to an order of life that God was patient with them and provided for them, regardless of what they’ve said.
When we idealize the past too much, we ignore how God is working today - and that includes how He is working in the marginalized parts of the world and our own communities.
I have a friend who lived in a country when a civil war broke out. She is a French diplomat’s daughter. She talked about this positive childhood experience, right up until things started happening in her own backyard. She talked about riding in a school bus seeing the devastation of the war going on all around her. She said, “I lived this life of comfort and serenity for most of my childhood, only to realize I was living in a bubble and that the people I was friends with were experiencing horrific things that I didn’t understand until I saw them myself.”
Part of following Jesus is learning how to pop that bubble, both in our minds and in our experiences. Because if we don’t pop those bubbles and have a willingness to learn, we miss out on what God is doing now and where He actually is. We miss out on that bread from heaven that he wants to give to us, or we can’t hear the voices that we need to hear.
I’m sure at least most of us can remember hearing a sermon or two or dozens about how the past had everything right. But another danger about idolizing the past is that it seems to isolate the people who need to hear that there is a future. What’s unique about the Anabaptist tradition is that there’s an underlying invitation to live in the present moment in the Kingdom of God that is continually unfolding. It’s an emphasis that we know that Jesus has already had the final word on the things that break our world today.
A dormant faith is a faith that thinks God is absent because things seemed better in the past. And ultimately, that’s what makes so many people miss who Jesus was when His ministry began. We find several times in the Gospels where people didn’t understand the full depth of Jesus’ message because they were too focused on preserving the past instead of letting God work something new.
Something I noticed about working in rural Kansas and Wisconsin was that there is a deep attachment to the past, and in some ways that is a strength. Traditions are important, and history can be a great motivator to keep things going. However, there are some things that should pass away to allow new ways for God to work.
There was a revival meeting back in Kansas I was invited to preach at. I was about 21 years old and I had a regular preaching position at a small Free Methodist church. I thought a revival would look cool, so I decided to participate. There were five other pastors there, all much more fundamentalist than me. But I was given the opportunity to be the one that offers people to come up to the altar to accept Christ. I sat in the background and tried to hid how intimidated I was by all these fundamentalist preachers yelling behind the pulpit. When it came my turn, I gave a short message about grace and God’s forgiveness and then I looked out at the crowd: “Would anyone like to accept Christ tonight?”
There was dead silence. No hands were raised. Nothing was happening.
I sat back down and the last pastor ended with a prayer.
I asked one of them if that was normal.
“Yeah,” he said. “I haven’t seen anyone come to the Lord at one of these things in ten years. We just keep doing them because the community likes remembering the old days when this was more normal. Sometimes a congregant will switch churches though.”
On the drive home, I couldn’t help but think of how odd that was. But isn’t that the way it really is often when we idealize the past to the detriment of what we could be doing now?
So what’s the solution to this? It seems that God offers it later on in this chapter.
In Exodus 16:23-25, it says:
Moses said to them, “This is what the Lord has said, ‘Tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. Bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. But you can set aside and keep all the leftovers until the next morning.’” So they set the leftovers aside until morning, as Moses had commanded. They didn’t stink or become infested with worms. The next day Moses said, “Eat it today, because today is a Sabbath to the Lord. Today you won’t find it out in the field. Six days you will gather it. But on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will be nothing to gather.”
God’s solution to this was to have them remember the Sabbath.
In other words, God was inviting them to rest in who He is and to pause everything they’ve been doing. Rest is often the solution to the anxieties and worries we face in this world. A common thing I’ve heard around therapy circles is that rest is 50% of mental health. If you’re finding yourself in this rut that things can’t possibly get any better, remember what God promises us and also remember that God is with you in the mess and He isn’t judging you for it. But just remember: Jesus has the final word, and there is beauty and redemption to be found still.
The everyday invitation of God to see things differently is always there - to experience Him in a way that is fresh and real. But part of that is accepting that Jesus has already conquered everything you’ve been through and deal with. All of that was nailed on the cross. And in His resurrection, we see a promised future - that even if things may not work out today or in this life, someday God will make things right.
As the author of Hebrews so eloquently puts it in chapter 12:1-2: “So then, with endurance, let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.”
By all means, remember the way we were - the good, the bad, the ugly of it all. But don’t forget to look forward to the way we will be, because that is something that Jesus looks forward to celebrating with us. And friends, what a day that will be - when every tear is wiped away and every injustice made right. A day of rejoicing and peace will visit us, and we can see glimpses of that in our everyday lives. Hold onto those promises, participate actively in the Kingdom of God, and you will see them come true too.