I was out walking last week, and there was a moment, between the sunlight, the temperature, and the smell of the lawn I was passing, that I was instantly transported back to the high school soccer field.
I have great memories of the excitement of the competition, of seeing my skills improve over the years, of scoring a couple of goals from my position on defense, of the close bonds between the 4 of us seniors who formed the back-up defensive line. (There were 3 juniors and a senior who started ahead of us, who called themselves the Iron Curtain, so we called ourselves the Venetian Blinds.)
In that moment last week, I thought how nice it would be, to be back at soccer practice, with Coach Ziogas running us through drills, to be joking with Eric Chamberlain while we waited for our turn, to experience the simple thrill of kicking a soccer ball as far as I can in the direction want it to go.
I thought it would be nice, because it was an incomplete memory. My body cannot make my mind recall the fatigue, the gnats, the taste of the hose water (well, that one, I think my mind can bring back). I certainly don’t want to go back as a 46-year-old, and if I am truthful with myself, there is a lot my 17-year-old self didn’t enjoy either.
Nostalgia is a dangerous obstacle to living as we should in the present. It offers an incomplete view of the past that damages our perspective of the present. As soon as the Israelites were out of Egypt, they had a nostalgic view that made them see the present as worse than it was. Instead of moving toward the promised land, they wanted to re-enslave themselves in a world that was worse than they remembered.
It is ironic that the church, who holds as a core belief that the best (Jesus Christ’s return) is yet to come, is so often caught in the snare of nostalgia. It’s ironic, but not surprising: we can easily edit to the past to make us comfortable, but we can’t do that as well with the present. So, we look back with longing, remembering the bread, but forgetting the chains.
Jesus says “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.” (Luke 9:59, CEB) You cannot look back and look forward at the same time.
We have to look back to learn, but we cannot move forward by moving backward. Nostalgia provides easy fuel for our racism, sexism, anti-immigrantism, homophobia, and pushes all of us not closer to God, or even closer to the past that we think we miss, but farther from the kingdom of God that we are called to build.
If you want to look back, look back with clear eyes and see not only the sunshine and the winning goals, but the cold rain and the injuries. Then you will see that the present is not so bad, and offers kingdom-building opportunities that you couldn’t have imagined in the good old days. The way to God’s bright future is through the present, not the past.