(This sermon followed the 3-part Job series… so you may read those at some point too:)
Before venturing out 2 weeks ago, we wrapped up a series on Job; a book not particularly known for its joyfulness, but in a world not void of suffering, it is an essential writing to lift up as we develop our faith. We kicked off the series looking at Job’s placement as the first of four books in the Jewish Canon that are together referred to as “Wisdom Literature.” Though these books function independently, teaching specific lessons, their messages unite to help guide us in our larger quest for understanding. After starting with Job, a discourse on how to suffer faithfully; the series moves on to the Psalms, a demonstration of how to pray; then it continues on to Proverbs, a book that guides us in how to live life; and finally Ecclesiastes, a book best summed up as how to enjoy life. We are going to bookend the series today and leap from the suffering of Job to the enjoyment and fulfillment of Ecclesiastes, peering into our pasts to do so.
I left on my little 12-day journey this past week seeking a piece of my past, and throughout my journey, it became increasingly evident just how influenced, how guided we are, by the memories that we hold. I was blessed to spend the first several days of my trip, before venturing out to the location of many of my own memories, with Ginny, David, and the kids at Massanetta camp; hearing about the influence that the retreat had in their lives throughout the years and the memories they hold of it in their heart.
That’s where we are today, in our memories… a pleasantly safe place to visit, but a shelter where we cannot live, and to guide us through we turn to Ecclesiastes and the words of the writer fittingly referred to simply as “the Teacher,” or Quolet.
Eccl. 7:8-11 The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.
Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.
Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.
Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun.
“This is game is absolutely impossible!” shouted my frustrated mother while looking down to the wi steering wheel… “It just doesn’t feel right, I keep wanting to steer the opposite direction!”
Now let it be known, I have never been incredibly impressed with my mother’s driving skills, so I didn’t grant her statement validity nor attention…
“HAHAHAHA… Grandma’s going the wrong way again!” my nephews giggled as the little koopa troopa character floated on a cloud across the screen during our epic family Mario-cart battle.
We don’t do too many family things anymore, and given some of our past attempts to do so, it seemed fitting that we choose hurling virtual shells at one another via gocart racing as our median for this past weekend’s impromptu reunion.
It all started by my being “blessed” with a “surprise” visit from my family during a not so solitary, solitary weeklong beach sabbatical… but the visit in reality was a beautiful gift and provided the opportunity to relive some memories.
What memories does summer strike up in your mind… take a second and drift into one of them…
“Mommy are we there yet??” I’d call from the trunk of the car… yes as a kid I loved riding in the trunk of our red Jeep Cherokee and I was obnoxious enough on long car rides that my family accepted the safety risk of trunk-traveling in exchange for an extra 2 feet of noise buffering, so in the trunk they stuckme alongside our monstrous Poodle named Scruffy.
“No Ryan, we just left the house…”
“Well, are we going to go to McConnells?” (this is actually not a mispronunciation, though I did have a very difficult time with certain syllables as a kid… McConnells was an ice cream shop and half way point in route to Ocean City)
Memories. I can still taste the ice-cream cone… and the poodle hair topping provided by my traveling co-pilot!
Memories. I can still feel the intoxicating excitement leading up to a vacation, still drift away hugged by the feeling of having my family all together, and still experience the invigoration of that first breath of the saltwater infused breeze that snuck in our jeeps windows as the vegetation outside shifted from evergreen to sea-grass as we inched closer to the coast.
I love memories and the indescribable nostalgic euphoria that travels with them deep into the pit of my stomach; and on occasions such as this past week, my inner yearning drives me to embark on a pilgrimage to relive them.
Ecclesiastes calls to us, “Say not, ‘why were the former days better than these?” but that’s a hard command. Afterall, have you ever noticed that when looking back, we often remember things much as more pleasant, much more perfect, than they were?
I left this past week to travel into the past. I left Louisville exhausted and homesick; I left yearning for the “former days.” Ever been there?
I don’t know what I was planning on finding. A part of me kinda expected my father to be at the doorstep of the beach house, smoking his pipe, and got teary eyed when he wasn’t. I kinda anticipated that all the old shops would be the same, and was taken slightly off guard by the neon signs that replaced them. I even expected Mariocart on my Super Nintendo to be waiting, but my nephews had long since replaced it by the aforementioned ‘’wi.”
…When I get tired, I like to hide in my memories; when I doubt, I yearn to go back to the unquestioning trust of my youth; and when the world starts moving too fast, I want to travel back in time and breath in the salt air of my childhood… and when I cannot recreate them, it hurts.
Ecclesiastes is famous for another line that seems to contradict the book’s call to move away from the past. “There is nothing new under the sun;” the teacher writes in some form or another some 20 times throughout the book. Well if there is nothing new under the sun, is it really that bad to ask, “Why were the former days better than these?” Why is it bad to yearn for our past when the present is difficult and the future scary?
“Stop living in the past!” Has anyone NOT heard that before? That can mean two different things really. When tied into the Job series that we wrapped up two weeks ago, it can be a call to stop letting past sufferings shade our present vision and dim our future dreams. Memories, in this sense, can be painful and imprisoning. That verse can also be a call to stop trying to relive the past and recreate joys of our youth and embrace the joys of the present.
In my first undergraduate religion course in Tennessee, we read a book by a man named Richard Foster. Foster, recollecting his personal faith journey, speaks of the years he spent as a question-filled young adult searching for the God he knew as a child; moreover, his frustrations in not being able to find him.
Instead of growing closer to God and stronger in faith, Foster was feeling increasingly lost and growing fatigued because he couldn’t recreate the simple trust and innocent faith of his youth.
Faith was simple as a child… we haven’t (or hopefully haven’t’) experienced the pain, stress, or doubt of the world yet. Yes, the “former days” sure seem easier, if not better, than the present.
Paralleling my journey to the beach, Foster sought to recreate a past that brought him joy and warmth as a child; not particularly an ice-cream cone, poodle, and super Nintendo, but his own nostalgic childhood memories. That was until he was stricken with the enlightened words of Epicurus, “You cannot step into the same river twice.”
“There is nothing new under the sun…” It doesn’t mean that there is no newness or hope in the present or possibility of fulfillment of our dreams in the future. “Under the sun,” in rabbinic literature, is a common phrase meaning there is nothing new “in this world.” Thus the warning that Ecclesiastes makes in Chapter seven, to not place the past above the present, is simply a call to embrace the everyday blessings of our lives in the here and now. We are not “of this world,” but risk chaining ourselves to it by living in the past. I’ve referenced this verse before, but its as Paul writes to the Philippians, “Too many set their minds on earthly things… but our citizenship is in Heaven…”
So after a couple mariocart races, watching and giggling as my very “special” mother attempted (quite unsuccessfully) to steer through the virtual world of mariocart, my nephew finally grew bored with the comic relief of the moment and said, “Grammy… it’d be easier to drive forward if you stop holding the steering wheel upside down.”
Oh childhood wisdom… The rest of us had brushed off my Mother’s earlier comments about the difficulty of driving forward, and simply laughed as we watched her drive the course in reverse. The track wasn’t made to be driven backwards; the little bumps are on the wrong side of the crevices so you fall into the holes instead of leap over them, the other drivers bump you as you try to dodge head on traffic, and steering is virtually impossible when trying to force your cart in the wrong direction. See, its impossible to stay on track in the present if you are constantly steering towards your past; and as I found this past week, if you are seeking to relive the past, to “step in the same river a second time,” your going to be disappointed. The waters of the river, of this world, are always moving forward. Even if you seek out the same exact spot, wear the same bathing suit (if you still fit in it,) step in at the same time of day, it is new… and that is beautiful.
I didn’t find the “home” I remembered on my journey “home” this past week, but that was okay. The boardwalk funnel cake still tasted great, the sun on my back still felt amazing, and the sand still hugged my toes in its own lovingly beautiful way.
Don’t neglect the nostalgic memories, for as verse 11 alludes, the inheritance of our past is wisdom; instead, embrace the blessings God has given you over the years and feel the warmth they bring. The present isn’t for re-creating memories; it’s for making new ones.
Just the same, don’t let the sorrows, hurt, and fears of your past steer your life, restrict your dreams, or mute your voice… move on, move up, and know that you are beautiful, loved, and free to follow the dreams that God has instilled on you in the here and now.