“I think that’s just a thing where you grew up,” Holley said. Of course my wife was right, growing up in two different parts of the Eastern US showed us time and again that we had very different “hallmarks” of our respective childhoods. Unique nostalgia, so to speak.
We were talking about a breakfast cereal I used to eat, but only at my grandmother’s house. For whatever reason, either I don’t recall or never knew, we didn’t have it at home. It only took a few minutes with a search engine to find the cereal again: King Vitaman. (Which is still in limited production)
The King Vitaman cardboard box from the ’60s can be purchased all by itself for $30. That’s strange to me.
A full box can be purchased for $25. “Can you imagine how stale that must be? From 1962?”
As you could imagine, this Saturday morning post-pancake nostalgia took us deep into the inter-webs.
We eventually landed on YouTube watching old music videos from Geoff Moore & the Distance as well as the one and only Carman.
“These aren’t half bad,” Holley said. “Kinda.”
“Sure,” I nodded. I put the maple syrup back in the pantry.
We gave our daughter a chance to see these tokens of our childhood, hear the jingles of our favorite cereals, and witness the time-constrained devices of our teenage and early-college faith.
“What is this?” my daughter said. She watched as if the videos themselves might lead to some incurable disease, or at least the inescapable urge to wear bright neon colors.
Perhaps you have had the same experience of nostalgia?
It doesn’t take much for us to revisit a time in our lives that now seems so palatial, so easy. Teenage and early college years (and of course the King Vitaman years) are filled with identity quests, doubts, and pains. However, a shield exists between our minds and the details held in retrospect.
Nostalgia is always a clean, enjoyable enterprise. Regardless of course of whether the good old days were actually good old in the first place.
We have the luxury of seeing our history from the perspective of distance, place, and accommodation. Sometimes we implicitly make space for difficult things by remembering differently later in life.
“That wasn’t his fault, it was mine,” we say as we look at our childhood.
All kinds of challenge, beauty, pain, and potency is swept up in the grasp of nostalgia. The memories we carry are cured and sanitized for our digestion, but in the process they lose their power to create hope. Character. Resiliency.
All memories, well before they become nostalgia, matter.
Our past experiences, archived carefully in our ever-shaping brains, form the story that provides context for our knowledge of God, our self, and others. I say “our self” not because I’m ignorant of grammar, but because the self is a thing that is knowable. While we don’t know it objectively, with the help of community and of course time we begin to honestly assess the story line that makes us us.
Pure nostalgia is a way of blinding ourselves to that which was difficult. We long for the goodness of the past but without the counterbalance of the past’s natural souring process.
We want King Vitaman but not the fights around the table.
The music of our early faith is wonderful, but not the story of God we hear within the lyrics. The story to which we can no longer subscribe.
Words of a favorite counselor, guide, or even our parents are sweet and wise. They remain so, but now require the asterisk of our spiritual hero’s failure and falsehood.
Nostalgia isn’t helpful to the spiritual life because our memories are messy, and we need the mess.
Jesus drew his disciples to a table, one that was familiar to them. In our quest to Christianize the meal that has become “communion” or “Eucharist,” we have nostalgia’ed out the Passover story in its entirety.
In other words, none of the disciples were surprised by the meal. They expected it.
Every year, stories are being told of the great Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 3ff) and hope is cultivated in the hearts of the attendees. My family and I attended a Passover seder, similar to the meal we find near Luke 22, and at the end of the Haggadah (Seder liturgy) everyone shouted, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
But they didn’t mean “Jerusalem as it is now.” They didn’t mean divided, war-torn, and tense Jerusalem. They were looking forward, away from a challenging story. What I didn’t tell you is that we spent the majority of the night up to that point looking at the hard edges of history. We grieved the exiles, the Holocaust, the distance and isolation.
The Seder meal is not a moment of nostalgia. It is a moment for reality.
So it makes sense that Jesus would not take the Feast of Unleavened Bread and turn it into a rose-colored jaunt into nostalgia, Christian-style. Instead, He presented a way that united the disciples and generations of Jesus-followers yet to come with the beautiful and the brutal story of life fully lived.
Henri Nouwen in his book Life of the Beloved calls out four movements within the Eucharist passages and attaches them to people like you and I. People who hunt for nostalgia. During the meal, Nouwen says, Jesus asks the disciples to eat the meal and “Remember me.”
My question has always been, “What specifically do we need to remember?” Or, a second and equally relevant question, “How do we remember it?”
Knowing death was imminent, Jesus understood this was not a time for “good old days” or the golden tales of better times. Instead, he invited the disciples into something different.
He took the bread. (You are chosen to be here, to be part of this.)
He blessed the bread. (You are not merely tolerated; instead you are spoken-well-of.)
He broke the bread. (Your stories and your selves carry deep fractures. I now know how that feels. You are not alone.)
He gave the bread. (Only broken pieces can be given away. You are a gift to the world, fissures and all.)
In this invitation, we’re called away from the “good old days.” The days when church and Christianity was the dominant, respected cultural organization.
Maybe we are invited to leave behind our way of believing certain things, holding to them as if they are God Himself? Instead, we remember that even the Passover meal was a signpost. It pointed away from itself to something bigger.
I don’t know what the “good old days” look like to you – what your Saturday morning YouTube rabbit hole consists of – but what I do know is that there is no formation without our memories.
Beyond that, if we have edited our memories for public consumption the kind of formation we can expect is lifeless and impotent.
Only when we remember that the good old days weren’t good for everyone will we be able to grasp fully our taken, blessed, broken, and given vocation.
*If you’re interested in more on this idea, check out my book As I Recall: Discovering the Place of Memories In Our Spiritual Life.