Nostalgia

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“If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” - Numbers 11:4-6

The Israelites have been tramping through the desert for a long time. They are tired and they are getting very testy. Moses delivered them from slavery, but it seemed that any promised land of milk and honey was nowhere in sight. And that’s when nostalgia set in.

Remember back when we were slaves? Ah, those were the good old days, right? We had so much food for free! We had fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic! Back then we were strong and well fed - unlike now here in this wasteland. We’re going to just dry up and blow away out here in the desert - and all we get to eat is manna, manna, manna. I’m so sick of manna!

It may be a human characteristic to only remember the best parts of the past. Once I was called by a funeral home to do a funeral for a man who they warned me had been a notoriously abusive father and husband and what little money he earned was spent mostly in the local bar. When I sat down with family to plan the service, they acknowledged that he’d had some serious flaws, but what they really wanted to talk about was his sense of humor, his friendliness when he wasn’t drunk, and his talent with woodworking. In some ways, I think this tendency we have to look back at only the positive is a wonderful defense mechanism that helps us move forward. But nostalgia can have a way of putting a certain sugar coating on things sometimes, and can lead us to be in denial about the past, and to have blinders on about what is happening in the present.

That’s what’s happening with our ancestors in the desert. Not long before, when they were slaves back in Egypt, Pharaoh was so threatened by the Israelites that he kept assigning them extra work and withholding more rations to intimidate them and keep them in their place. The Israelites were being broken by Pharoah’s cruel yoke. But that’s not what they remember in their current state of suffering. They’re getting nostalgic about the variety of delicious foods they used to get to try for free. They are dreaming about how much better off they were back then than now with all this stupid manna.

The problem with this is that in their nostalgia, they are forgetting that God has delivered them from slavery. And God is sustaining them in the wilderness with water flowing from improbably places like dry rocks, and has sent a steady supply of food - manna appearing every morning - in a terrain poorly suited for produce, and has send flocks of quails into their camp. Instead of noticing the things they could be grateful for now, they’re comparing the now to the sanitized, nostalgic past and finding nothing but things to complain about in the present moment.

Be careful of nostalgia. It is a way to discount the suffering of the past and a way to overlook the gifts of the present. We are called, every day, to be present to this day - both the joys we can celebrate and the suffering we must address. We do not live in the past, nor do we live in the future. This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

This Sunday’s readings are HERE. Note that in Ordinary Time, we are using “Track 2”