Quite often, over the course of numerous conversations unfolding inside the circled wagons of wounded American Evangelicalism, there develops this almost liturgically repetitious refrain amongst the faithful:
our best years are behind us.
Whether it’s wistfully recounting the size of Sunday morning audiences, the commitment levels of “the young people” to something named “Sunday School,” or the central place religious institutions held in the life of community members interested in finding a mate, a friend, or maybe just a job interview only a few decades ago.
our best years are behind us.
However, surprisingly, it isn’t just amongst the decidedly religious set where we encounter this sentiment. We find it in the eternal flame burning in the hearts of every Republican waiting on the second coming of Reagan, or Democrat longing for FDR’s great society. We trip over it on the cracked sidewalks of neighborhoods long cut-off by the interstate bypass overhead. And yes, we even happen upon it in the waxy irony of a well-groomed mustache perched upon the upper lip of some bespoke suspender-ed saloon worker piloting the espresso machine of a Williamsburg coffee shop.
(WE DON’T HAVE DRIP COFFEE HERE, WHAT DO YOU THINK THIS IS, A GAS STATION IN ST. PETE’S!?)
our best years are behind us.
And, quite honestly, the era many folks spend their waking hours longing for, while, I admit, famous for allowing people the enviable luxury of leaving their front doors unlocked all night, ALSO had segregated water fountains, lunch-counters, school systems, and some other comically specific thing all humans should be able to enjoy jointly.
For the record, I’ve seen like half a season of Mad Men, and pregnant women chain-smoking cigarettes in order to escape a loveless marriage are, generationally speaking, the least of your problems.
I know, I know, the 80s weren’t much better, and the 90s were just one really long jam-band concert at Red Rocks (THIS LIVE VERSION OF ANTS MARCHING IS 4 DAYS LONG!!!!)
For the 1,000,000,000th time: THERE. ARE. NO. GOOD. OLD. DAYS.
There are only old ones.
Which, obviously, reminds me of an ecstatic vision a gentleman named Simon Peter had on a rooftop in ancient Joppa halfway through the 10th chapter of Acts:
While attending to his noonday prayers, Peter is greeted by this repetitive vision of a giant sheet unfolding itself from heaven. The sheet, mind you, is filled with bugs, and birds, and livestock, and shellfish, and even reptiles (all of which, for Jewish believers and people not enjoying monkey brains in the Temple of Doom, aren’t kosher). Following his vision, Peter hears a voice “from heaven” commanding him to take and eat. This happens 3 times and concludes with a request for Peter to join some men from Caesarea and accompany them to the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion.
Seems straightforward enough, as far as Biblical noonday visions are concerned.
Each time Peter hears the voice, he rebuffs with the words: “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean,” not because Peter isn’t a good sport, but rather, because he’s Jewish and understands his identity, his faith, and his politics, through the grumblings of his stomach.
Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin, once famously remarked about the role kosher plays in the life of Jewish believers:
“The laws of kashrut elevate the simple act of eating into a religious ritual. The Jewish dinner table is often compared to the Temple altar in rabbinic literature. A Jew who observes the laws of kashrut cannot eat a meal without being reminded of the fact that he is a Jew.”
For the 1000 or so years leading up to this rooftop vision, Jews have been punished, tortured, killed, rooted out, and oppressed simply because their culture and faith presented a challenging (and occasionally dangerous) novelty to their ancient contemporaries. So, for Peter to be invited by the very God in who’s name he had ordained his diet, to reject these practices in the face of a widening and more inclusive spirit of hope and redemption in the world, it would be, in a word, hard to swallow.
Then, as now, a predominating belief was that the voice of God has already said its peace when it comes to how we are to live and move and have our being in the world. We have no need of fresh words, fresh interpretations, or fresh expressions.
There’s nothing new under the sun.
Or, if you like, our best days (and words and ideas) are behind us.
But then we encounter a mystical sheet filled with BBQ, or hear a voice, or learn a name, or fall in love, or move away, or find truth, or lose someone close to us, all of which have a way of confusingly reminding us that:
“what God has made clean, you must not call profane”.
In the recovery community there’s a phrase that helps addicts find structure and footing in a newly sober world where they’re constantly bombarded by the fact that who they were and what they did has left a wide scar on the universe. Instead of being mired in and paralyzed by the depth and width of the pain they’ve left behind, they are invited to repeat a phrase over and over in order to bring necessary healing (and sobriety) to the day in front of them:
“what’s the next right thing?”
The past is what it is. It shapes who we are, how we are, and sometimes where we are, but one thing it isn’t, is the future. And when we effectively close ourselves off to the continually widening, deepening, and including love of God in this world and the world to come, we are participating in the most ancient and insidious form of heresy:
Which is simply an unwillingness to keep asking: “what’s the next right thing?”
Because, friends, contrary to what you may have heard, your belief in God isn’t a cemented position of certainty (sometimes myopically) clung to in the face of ever-changing realities in order to secure a place in the great beyond. Instead, belief is a militantly selfless trust that God shows no favoritism when it comes to redemption, and in response to this divine generosity, neither do we.
Put another way: God is always ahead of us, pulling, prodding, pleading, and preparing us for a world where love, even if it’s ignored, rejected, oppressed, alien, weird, gay, executed, feminine, republican, black, middle-class, or covered in pork,
wins at the end of this story.
So, until that world is this one, keep eating, keep asking, and keep listening, because, Biblically speaking, our best days are ahead of us.