Perhaps nothing sums up a vision of post-war; I like IKE, middle class America like the “Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”. Some of you are sitting there thinking, “how does he know about Ozzie and Harriet, he’s too young?” Yes, I am too young but I watch re-runs. If we reflect upon what we think America was like from 1952 to 1966 this image comes to mind; even if it’s not entirely true. Harriet is at home. Ozzie is a lawyer. David and Ricky, along with their friends go to a local public school. There is no crime or social problems. By the end of its run, most viewers knew two things, the show was already associated with a bygone era and it was a vehicle for launching Ricky’s singing career.
Toward the end of his life, Ricky Nelson had a hit with a song called “Garden Party”. In the song, he looked back on his life and how his fans were always asking him to look back and sing the old songs, the songs from his hey-day in the 50’s and 60’s. Here’s what Rick said:
Played them all the old songs, thought that’s why they came
No one heard the music, we didn’t look the same
I said, hello to “Mary Lou”, she belongs to me
When I sang a song about a honky-tonk, it was time to leave
But it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well
You see, ya can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself
Someone opened up a closet door and out stepped Johnny B. Goode
Playing guitar like a-ringin’ a bell and lookin’ like he should
If you gotta play at garden parties, I wish you a lotta luck
But if memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck
I want you to hold on to that last line: If memories were all I sang: I’d rather drive a truck.
Nostalgia is big business. It makes money, sells tickets, and generates ad revenue like nothing else in the post-modern, internet driven economy. Besides this, we like to recall the past. If people can make money off our desire to circulate pictures of payphones and floor based head light buttons, why not? Show someone a picture of a vintage “thing-a-ma-bob” and ask them to share it if they too can guess what this thing once did and then what? You get the pleasure of an endorphin release. You know something that someone else does not know. You are aware of something of which perhaps many people remain in the dark. That feeling and $1.00 will buy you a 32 ounce cup of tea at the gas station. It is a feeling. And those nostalgic feelings, as Ricky Nelson recognized at his garden party provide only fleeting happiness. The emotional value from such memories is often illusory. As Rick said, “if memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck“. What’s that mean? Memories don’t provide the long term happiness that an investment in the present offers.
Within each of these nostalgia moments, whether a post on Facebook or a story told about the good old days, there is an implied moral component. Morally tinged nostalgia, like this, asks us to make a value judgment about ourselves and the world. Whether we realize it or not, when we like or send such pictures and laugh at these stories, we’re sending an ethical message: we are better people in the present because of how well informed we are (as opposed to others who didn’t live when we lived, were to young, not even born) about the past. Nostalgia isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The Bible doesn’t really endorse this kind of nostalgia, at all. Scripture says: there’s remembering who you are and that is very different from telling stories about how wonderful life was in Egypt.
Despite God’s provision, Moses’ leadership, and their rescue from slavery in Egypt; many of the Israelites were not happy with their lives. They longed for the past. They romanticized their captivity and bondage in Pharaoh’s concentration camps. Sharing pictures, “Do you remember the axes?” “Do you remember the whips?” “Do you remember the random brutality and murder, if so share and pass it along with a friend?” In their social network, this is the reality Moses encountered.
Numbers 14 begins this way, “That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, ‘If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?”
If memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck…
All of them, the entire community, the whole assembly, says the Torah. Do you get the sense the author wants to convey a sense of totality? The virus called Nostalgia has infected everyone. Despite the reality they collectively experienced in Egypt, the facts to the contrary in their own minds, the certain death which awaits, they are more than willing to choose a version of the past at odds with God’s plan for their future. What’s amazing is how quickly they make such a radical choice to abandon God’s ideas for a vision of uncertain nostalgia. Here’s another dangerous reality check about nostalgia: a little bit makes people hungry for more.
The fear of the present feeds their nostalgia for a past which didn’t exist. God isn’t enough to get them through the night, to paraphrase the philosopher Kris Kristofferson. The freedom of the present is too much to handle. Freedom, the space God has made available for them to exist in this moment isn’t enough. You see, that’s what this is all about. It’s not about how they really want to go back to Egypt, they miss being beaten by Pharaoh’s guards, or despise and want to trade Moses in for a new leader. It’s about freedom. Again, to quote Kristofferson, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left lose.” The Israelites didn’t understand they were playing with fire. They had a great deal to lose. There’s one guy in the Bible who understands this idea of freedom like Kristofferson sings in Me and Bobby McGee: to be truly free from your past, it means having nothing else to lose. His name is Paul.
In the beginning of the fifth chapter of Galatians, Paul makes a simple and yet profound statement that resonates across the centuries of time; to the Israelites and to us, to anyone addicted to back to Egypt nostalgia. Here’s what Paul says, “For freedom Christ set us free.” Those are six words you need to remember. For freedom, Christ set us free. For the sake of freedom itself, Christ releases us from the pitifully small, confined spaces of back to Egypt nostalgia which we hold on to and claim we won’t let go of-until we taste forgiveness, we savor grace, and see the dramatic possibilities of a life drenched in grace filled freedom.