Sunday, 16 March 2014

Maybe the good old days really were the good old days

Nostalgia, as the cliche goes, ain't what it used to be. The other week I watched the very charming 2011 Woody Allen movie, Midnight in Paris, in which Gil, an aspiring modern-day novelist finds himself magically transported back to the Paris of his favourite era, the 1920s, and himself befriending, amongst other luminaries,  Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and a beautiful woman, Adriana, at midnight each night. No sooner has he got used to used to the intoxicating exhilaration of his nights in the 20s, than he and Adriana find themselves in her favourite era, the 'belle epoque' of the late nineteenth century. As disillusioned with the 1920s as  Gil is with the early twenty-first century, Adriana's eyes light up at the prospect of staying in the Paris of the Moulin Rouge and post-impressionists.  Gil is less keen: 'Adriana, if you stay here...and this becomes your present then pretty soon you'll start imagining another time was really your... You know, was really the golden time. Yeah, that's what the present is. It's a little unsatisfying because life's a little unsatisfying.' 

I won't tell you how the film ends, or when Gil and Adriana end up. The whole point of the film is, of course, that Gil's right: nostalgia is all well and good, but ultimately, meaning and beauty must be found in the present day, not in an imagined or reconstructed past. Days, Philip Larkin says, are where we live.  We cannot get on an aeroplane to another era. 

We can get on an aeroplane to another country, though, and when I've done that, I've seen another variation on the theme. Deep in the jungle villages of eastern Malaysia, watching people harvest rice and dry pepper berries, I was as exotic and exciting to the villagers as they were to me. 'You're from England?' they'd ask. 'Wow. I'd love to go there.' Everyone's home town, it turned out as I travelled around South East Asia, is parochial, and a bit dull, unsatisfying because life's a little unsatisfying. Everyone else's is exciting, the 'golden place'. 

Of course, there are many people who take great delight in being where and when they are, who relish the lengthening hours of spring and the nervous appearance of bright green buds, but there are many others who look around and say 'it didn't used to be like this round here.'

And what of God in amongst all of this nostalgia? Well, maybe there are lots of things to say, lots more than be squashed into one blog post. But let's start with a few ideas. Maybe the first is that we live in time and space, or 'space-time,' but God doesn't. God is in the early 21st century, the 1920s, the 1890s and every other point of history, all at once. And God is in a jungle village in East Malaysia and here in the Home Counties of England and in every other place on earth. This means that every moment is a 'belle epoque', alive with the presence of the ever-living God, and that every place is holy ground, a tabernacle of meeting with the God of all creation. It means that God, whose very being is life, is constantly 'doing a new thing', as Isaiah puts it. At no moment and in no place can we say that God is less present than at any other moment or in any other place, because to say so is to demote God. 

The second thing to say is that we are not God. We do live in space and time. We get hungry, tired, overworked, unemployed, pained, laid low, distracted, seduced, short-sold, isolated, misguided and all sorts of other things that stop us from perceiving the ever-presence of God all around us.  This should prompt us to ask, as the season of Lent does in humble heart, whether, as Revelation puts it, we have 'fallen from our first love', whether our hearts have grown cold and distant from the God who is ever and always present. We need to face the possibility that, spiritually speaking at least, maybe the good old days really were the good old days. Maybe we were more zealous, more prayerful, more loving, more joyful, and more selfless. Maybe there really was a 'belle epoque' of closeness with God at some point in our lives, and I don't think there's anything at all wring with admitting that and seeking to re-discover the joy and spiritual fulness which may have got lost or squashed or ditched or eroded.  This self-questioning is the start of repentance, of turning from the things which in themselves may not be bad, but which lead us away from our Heavenly Father, and turning to see His face, full of welcome and ever-present love.

As fallen creatures of earth, children of God created for heaven, we are torn between the selfish nature and the God who is Love. This means that true repentance is one of the most radical thing a human can do. It's not just that 'sorry seems to be the hardest word', it's that turning away from all that keeps us from perceiving God's goodness means turning away from much that is within us. It means change, from the very core of our being. Because this is so difficult, we need help and resources, and the paradox is that we find these, inter alia, in remembering our own spiritual 'belle epoque'. As well as encouraging us to perceive the 'new thing' that God is doing, the Bible is full of calls to remember God's presence in previous generations. When we realise that those spiritual  'belle epoques' of old, whether the Exodus, the early church or within our own lives were moments of profoundly perceiving the 'new thing' that God was doing then, it makes it possible to perceive the new thing that God is doing now. So remembering God's presence of old, and perceiving God's presence in the here and now are not opposites but deeply intertwined.  

No, nostalgia ain't what it used to be. But God is what He used to be. And no, maybe it didn't used to be like this round here. But God did used to be like this round here. Maybe it's just that we were better at recognising him in the good old days. And yes, that is a dare.         


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