Nostalgia is a powerful drug. Like other narcotic epidemics, it knows no geographic borders or socio-economic boundaries. Anyone of us, given the right circumstances, can overdose on nostalgia. We’re often led to believe that nostalgia is a problem confined to the older generations. That’s not so. I know from my own experience that young people are as susceptible as anyone else. I’ve heard seniors in high school talk wistfully about their time in fourth grade. College students will remember their high school years with fondness. So it’s not just old timers sitting around on the porch talking about the good old days; when Cokes were a nickel, moon pies were a dime, and courtship rituals were pure and wholesome. We all become nostalgic in one way or another. It’s part of the human experience.
The Bible talks a lot about nostalgia. In fact, nostalgia is one of the dominant themes of the first five books. The writers keep coming back to this one idea: there is a holy way to think about the past and there are unholy (unhealthy) ways to remember. Depending on which course you choose, you’re going to live differently in the present.
This is it in a nutshell: how we remember and recall what happened to us in Egypt (wherever our Egypt is) will determine how we live in relationship with God today. What we find, throughout Exodus and Deuteronomy are calls by Moses for the Israelites to remember rightly. Moses doesn’t condemn memory, reflection, or nostalgia. The most important question is this: are we remembering the details, events, and actions correctly? Is God at the heart of the story we’re retelling? Have we become the hero of a story that’s wasn’t really ours to tell? In our retelling, does Egypt sound like a wonderful place?
Life, the simple things we take for granted, used to be much harder. You know that. Many of you grew up in the depression or in the era immediately following. Perhaps you lived through rationing in World War II. Yes, you were happy. It might have been all you knew but as my mother and aunt tell me, if they’d had the option of indoor toilets, they’d have gladly gone inside. Now that you’ve got access to antibiotics, indoor plumbing, electricity, and heat; you don’t pine for the days when those things were luxuries you never knew existed or were the stuff of dreams.
From the moment they’d fled from Pharaoh’s armies, the Israelites developed a habit of looking back at Egypt through rose tinted lenses, with an unhealthy nostalgia, and a distorted view of the life they’d left behind. At the first sign of difficulty, they would complain, “If you’d only left us to die in Egypt, Moses. At least in Egypt we had food, shelter, steady work and people who cared about us.” Never mind that they were slaves. Forget that their lives had no value. They were a commodity. In these moments, as they journeyed through the wilderness toward the Promised Land, their time in Egypt became the “Good Old Days”. You see how ridiculous that sounds.
This kept happening. In one way or another, this urge to circumvent the reality of God’s present blessings was upended by their desire to wallow in memories of the past. How does Moses short circuit this unhealthy nostalgia?
The problem is not that we’re nostalgic people. It’s not “that” we remember the past. It is “what” and “how” we’re remembering. It’s the emphasis and context we’re placing on our memories.
The Torah (the first five books of the Bible) is full of transactional stories. From the moment God speaks creation into existence, there are exchanges; darkness for light, water for earth, slavery for freedom, and death for life. Where there is nothing, God creates something; whether it is a plant, a cloud, or a people. Ultimately, this is what we are called to remember. When we remember rightly with God, we recall not how things “were” but how things “are”.
Moses begins the eighth chapter of Deuteronomy by describing the Promised Land. He wants them to imagine the life that lies ahead. It is “a land with streams of water, springs, and wells that gush up in the valleys and on the hills; a land of wheat and barley, vines, fig trees, and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and hone; a land where you will eat food without any shortage-you won’t lack a thing there.” Do you see the transaction? You have traded a place of barren wastes, shortages, no food, no resources, no abundance, and daily scarcity for a place where you will not lack for anything. God is taking us from nothing to something.
Then in verse fourteen he reminds the Israelites, “Don’t become arrogant, forgetting the Lord your God: the one who rescued you from Egypt from the house of slavery; the one who led you through this vast and terrifying desert of poisonous snakes and scorpions of cracked ground with no water; the one who made water flow for you out of hard rock; the one who fed you manna in the wilderness.”
Do not forget is another way to say, “You better remember rightly”. Yes! This transaction has come at great cost to you and to others. Egypt wasn’t a pleasure cruise and this walk through the wilderness wasn’t a hike so we’ll all be able to put a sticker on the back of our Subaru’s one day.
Why is Moses so stuck on them remembering God’s role in their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land? Why is it important for them to acknowledge God’s integral importance to their journey?
Remembering rightly is the first step toward thanksgiving. If you remember wrong, if you’re nostalgia is all out of whack, you’ll never be grateful for what you have, where you ended up, and how you got there. Moses knows this. When your gratitude train goes off track and that’s proceeded by a screwed up sense of nostalgia, you eventually end up crowning yourself God of your own little world. That’s the real danger of unchecked nostalgia. We can easily end up believing, “Look at what I did all by myself!” “If I remember rightly, I pulled myself up by my bootstraps with help from nobody and now look at me. At least that’s how I remember the story of my success.”
Go back to verse seventeen. “Don’t think to yourself, my own strength and abilities have produced all this prosperity for me. Remember the Lord your God! He’s the one who gives you strength to be prosperous in order to establish the covenant he made with your ancestors—and that’s how things stand right now.”
If we remember how we got here and who brought us here, (not how great the bad old days were), we’re in a better position to recognize our blessings and then see them for what they are: gifts from God. We should thank God for where we’ve landed. As hard as you’ve worked, none of us would have anything, if it had been for those subtle transactions God has made on our behalf. We can be thankful for the nothing that’s become something in our lives.
Egypt was a dump, a dive, and a disaster. Your Egypt, wherever and whenever it was, was the same way. God led you out of some kind Egypt. You may still be on your journey this morning. As we approach our yearly Thanksgiving holiday, I want to challenge you to remember rightly. Be wary of the self-serving nostalgia traps. They lead to emotional indigestion, spiritual heartburn, and worse yet-ingratitude.
Remember God’s promises and look at what God provided. See where there was once nothing and then survey the something growing around you.
Hear the Good News: the God who brought you out of Egypt is always doing a transformative work in your life, in the present tense. Remember that gift and live into the life giving future in which gratitude is not compelled but thankfulness is the only possible response in a world where the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and the dead are raised. Welcome to the Kingdom. I’m grateful you’re here.
Richard Lowell Bryant