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When Your Present Seems Worse Than A Terrible Past
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
The rabble has stirred up the people of God. Oh that it where like the days when we were in Egypt. The food was so much better. Can’t you just taste it? We had meat? Look at our diet now we had cucumbers, leeks, onions, garlic and melons. Manna is not a very tasty stew! That is what happens when your present seems worse than a terrible past, you complain. Let me remind you that these desert bound people are living out the freedom that God has given them from the harsh lash of slavery.
Although our current situations are not as dire we often look back on a past that is glorified in our minds. Many of have sat with the relatives and remembered how much better yesterday was. We look at them dumbfounded, but we sit and listen. I remember in my first pastorate I encountered this quite dramatically. It was a small south Louisiana church with mostly elderly members. There had been a time when there had been more in the church, but it had never been a huge church. Day after day I would encounter the sadness of another 70 year old pining for the days when the church was so much better. Yet, when I suggested changes there was defiance.
“We tried that before and it wont work.” “We have always had our Bible study during the day, young people should get their priorities straight.” “We can’t throw away that Sunday school material. It was good enough for my children and grandchildren.” “She has always done that job, the young don’t do it right.”
I found myself not wanting to do anything new, feeling that I would be stopped or stifled of any new idea. What was the most depressing for me was listening to the weekly complaints. It was a litany of reminiscence over the glory days. There were obviously sad thoughts of children who had now moved miles away. It got to the point that I made the walk down that hallway to my office and intentionally looked away from the bulletin board with the historical time line that ended ten years before my tenure there.
What changed this? It was when I climbed up into the rafters and took down the Christmas pageant lights and set that had conspicuously been placed so that everyone who entered the building had to look at them. When these mementos of yesteryear were put into the closet the pain started to recede. It didn’t mean that it went away, it just made living in that moment as a community much easier. Something about putting away these items from yesterday gave them permission to let go.
Yet, one of the most amazing things to me was when I studied the notes of old meetings from those years that held so much nostalgia, they were tough years for that church. There were fights, deaths and economic strife. They seemed like a church on the verge of implosion, and they even fired a pastor. When those beloved children would return they did not remember those years so wonderfully either. They talked of youth groups that had no say and beloved ministers gone. How could the memory be so far away from the reality?
It is a human propensity to try and create a better past. Alcoholics in recovery call it “euphoric recall”. I always think that it is a lot like denial, but takes much more unconscious creativity. The church’s past attendance multiplies like the fish and loaves, the minister was always knew exactly what the church needed, the children were better behaved and the people’s faith was much more authentic. The only problem is that these grand memories of the past are generally a figment of our imagination. Don’t get me wrong, there may have been more in a relative sense, but I would guess that they were so great because they make us remember times when we were happy, when we felt accepted and when we felt secure. Plus, it is my experience that our human conditions do not change and no matter what time period it is we still experience the same joys, tragedy and grace in any generation.
My question has always been: “How can a people that have been set free from the lash of slavery complain about freedom that God has so obviously given them?” Oh I can identify with Moses’ predicament. “I am not able to carry these people alone, for they are too heavy to carry.”
Yet, isn’t that missing the point? God does respond. God gives Moses the strength he needs and raises up helpers to prophecy. Joshua says, “stop them, you are our leader.” And Moses says one of the most instructive things for any community wanting to thrive. “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”
They opined for the days of slavery because their perception was that times were much better than they really were. Yet, through the prophecy of Eldad and Medad God shows that God is free to talk and work through whomever God chooses at any given time. Moses is not jealous but wishes that everyone could prophecy and that the lord would place the Spirit in everyone. Often we opine for past times that were bad because they don’t represent change and instability, but God wants us to all move forward in recognize how the Spirit is prophesying in our current communities.
It is time for us to live in this moment, not the moments of the past. Then we can fulfill our possibilities and not fuel our regrets. Walking while looking backwards will always trip us up and cause us to fall. If we keep a steady vision on the path ahead of us we are much more likely to enjoy the world surrounding us.
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