Daily Proverbial, from Ecclesiastes, 6 September 2012

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions. Ecclesiastes 7, verse 10

Happy Days: do you remember that TV show? When I was a kid, it was one of my favorites. The stories were simple, the Fonz was cool, things seemed easier. I have a romantic attachment to the 1950s even though I never lived in the 1950s. The doo-wop music, the cars, the clothes and style: it’s interesting to me, and attractive. Popular culture portrays that as a simpler time, yet as it often is, pop culture is disingenuous. Such an attachment is somewhat foolish. It’s crazy to think that, just because things used to be a certain way that they were better. I mean, the 50s were the era of bitter racial segregation, the Suez Crisis (that nearly blew up into war), expanding Soviet domination in Europe, red scares in America, greatly expanded poverty in Africa and Asia, and a host of other problems that were anything but insignificant. Perhaps what seems simple in reflection wasn’t so simple after all.

Take my grandmother’s time. My grandma was an amazing woman. She lived in the time that transcended the age of horse and buggy into the age of space travel. When she was born, Teddy Roosevelt was president; she died when Bill Clinton was in office. My grandmother wasn’t a great cook, but she was a good one and some things that she made were downright wonderful. Sometimes, when I smell bacon frying or get a whiff of fresh coffee or even cooking vegetables, I go back to her kitchen in central Minnesota where I spent so many times in my youth. I think life might have been simpler back then, back when she was a young woman.

And then I think that those were the days when your house was quarantined if someone contracted scarlet fever. Those were the days when you had to hand-crank the engine block to start the car; my grandmother broke her arm one time doing this on a Minnesota winter day with two small children in an unheated car. The early 1900s were the days when laundry took all day to do between boiling the water and scrubbing on a washboard. Those were the days when a cut on your finger could quickly go into gangrene if you weren’t careful; if you weren’t careful, things like that could actually kill you.

Here in America, those ancient cares need not bother us any longer, at least as long as the lights are on. Technology is progress, and progress is a gift from God. It is a blessing to have appliances that make life convenient, medicine that cures disease, and technology that makes all kinds of information available for little more than a mouse click. I’m thankful to live in a place and time where things are plentiful and easier than they have ever been in history. It doesn’t take more than a few hours ride to another part of the world to see how tough things can be, how people still live in squalor and primitive conditions not much unchanged in the last five thousand years. If you spend all your time reminiscing about how great things used to be, don’t forget to temper those memories with the reality that living in those days wasn’t all easy street. If you think they were, take a trip to Kampala, Quito, or maybe just out to the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. That’s quite a reality check.

But there’s another reason why the verse cautions against longing for the past. “Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.” I think that focusing on the past is like thumbing your nose at God. It’s little more than an act of selfishness. If I’m sitting on my plush sofa, watching my big screen TV (where I’m flipping between two channels) in my air conditioned twenty-two hundred square foot home and all I can think is ‘woe is me’ about how bad things are and how they used to be better, well, I’m a fool. All those things, then and now, are blessings from God. They are the fruits of my hard work and the result of using talents God gave to me. More than that, they are gifts from Him, things I don’t really deserve but things with which He has blessed me anyway.

Here God gives me a wonderful life full of wonderful people, wonderful things, and plain and simple wonder and the best I can do is wish for something I used to have…or something that never really was? Yep. Selfish. Completely self-centered. Focusing on what we don’t have or who we aren’t instead of what we do have and who we are is like denying God’s blessing and providence in our lives. It’s like telling Him, “yeah, but it’s not good enough.” Recently I’ve been reading the book of Numbers, about how the wandering Israelites kept grumbling to Moses “why did you lead us out here, out of Egypt where we were fed, thriving and happy?” How quickly they forgot that, in Egypt, they had been slaves, brutalized, starved and beaten. They forgot that they had cried for four hundred years for deliverance. Fools.

Sad to say, though, I’m not much different. I still replay old scenes in my mind. I still wax nostalgic over things that are better in memory than they were in fact. Maybe it’s because we choose to remember the good or important things while discarding the rest. In doing so, we’re picking and choosing which of God’s blessings we’ll hold to, then choosing the memory of those blessings instead of the obvious blessing of things right in front of us today. When we do that, we are sticking our finger in God’s eye, insinuating “you’re not good enough for me” even though He provides much more than we could ever dream. I do this all the time; do you?

Perhaps a better way would be to remember we are gifted to live each day of our lives as who and where we are, and that this is for a reason: God’s good reason, even when we don’t understand it. There is good to be had in every day; there is good to be made by living out our faith every day. The past is gone for a reason and we do better to appreciate today as the gift it is. When we do that, we realize that we can live in the Happy Days here and now.

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