This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/7/16 and looks at the impact nostalgia has on our sense of selves.
A few weeks ago, we took a trip down to DC. My husband had a non-profit work conference and I decided to tag along. While he was in workshops, I was visiting our national museums, and the national zoo. We only got to see three museums together, since he was in meetings all day. The Air and Space Museum, the American History Museum, and the Natural History Museum. There were some awesome exhibits, and there were some extreme disappointments. The IMAX movie about gophers would have been more riveting than the summer blockbuster, Independence Day II, not even the IMAX in our nation’s capital could save that rotten tomato. I wanted to show him the Star Trek Enterprise that I remember hanging from the ceiling; but sadly it was smaller than I recalled and tucked away in a corner. But my husband is an Air Force baby (born on one of our bases), so getting to see the history of air flight, and much about our armed forces, was still rather amazing.
But the American History museum was my prime goal. I used to visit the Smithsonian twice a year throughout most of my twenties. In my college years, in addition to religion, I studied Anthropology, Archaeology and World Art History. I couldn’t get enough of seeing the things I read about in person. But contrary to all that, the most engaging exhibit in my memory was the section on TV History. Cultural relics from the small screen ensconced behind glass for the generations. Maybe it didn’t make a lot of sense, but Archie Bunker’s and Edith’s chairs – Kermit the Frog – the Ruby Slipper from the wizard of Oz. All those small pieces of culture stood out as amazing to me twenty years ago when I finally got to see them in person.
I remember visiting it twenty years ago, and the exhibit circled round and round, with artifacts from the golden years of Television. You couldn’t get through it in less than 3 or 4 hours if you took the time to read it all. But this Summer, we get to the museum, and the whole layout is so different. Everything looks more polished, but I don’t recognize much of what I’m seeing, beyond maybe the steam engine on one floor. Good museums change their exhibits regularly, so there’s not an issue there. But soon we’re circling and circling and can’t find the TV History section. We ask guides, and I’m starting to think we’re in the wrong museum; that maybe there was a museum that was entirely dedicated to TV and Radio. But one more guide insists that’s not the case and points us in another direction. We double back three times, before Brian spies the ruby slipper.
…It’s just not the same. There’s a lot less there. The lighting is dim, and all the relics from that era can fit in a room that’s maybe only a little larger than our social hall here at our Fellowship. This isn’t a three hour exhibit, it’s more like 15 minutes. We never found Kermit, though Edith’s and Archie’s chairs were there, as were the ruby slippers. It felt a little ironic that I was pining for a time when our yesteryear relics shined a bit more than they do now. How we remember how things once were, has less glamor than it once did.
I know it has more to do with the reality that as time rolls on, the shows that I remember from my childhood – even if some of them were already in repeats – may not even be known by the generation that came after me. I think I saw every episode of Lassie three times, and anyone born after 2000 won’t even know that’s a dog. Time rolls on. But it struck me. At a time in our nations’ life, where many of us are pining for nostalgia, as all too often things feel like they’ve gone off the rails, losing the relics from yesteryear felt more like a punch to the gut than maybe was all that rationale. The wrestling with nostalgia may be counterproductive, or even misleading. Shows change, cultural reference points change – that doesn’t mean we’re worse off – just that history is making room for those who come after us.
…July was another rough month for our nation as we heard the tragedies in Dallas and throughout our country. A black man shot in his car over a broken tail light. So many police officers, and transit cops, gunned down by a US war veteran – while they were peacefully doing their duty protecting civilians who were protesting the earlier police shooting. That’s a police force, at its finest, doing the most American Civil service we can imagine – protecting free speech – and their lives are lost….
This month we’ll be reflecting on the spiritual discipline of rootedness. Where do we find grounding in times of crisis; how do we find connection in an era that feels like we’re further apart than ever; where does upheaval help us to find our footing again. At the mid-point of this season of sun, I want to reflect on the lessons of this time of year – what it would mean to be a people of Summer. It’s been my favorite season more at least 20 years. You look forward to it for much of the year, and then in a blink – half of it’s gone away. I’ve recalled before from this pulpit about childhood summer days that seemed to stretch on to eternity, and as the years go by, and we get older, finding those never-ending days in the Summer sun seems more and more elusive. And I don’t mean, whether you can get the time off, or the time away. Even on long days at the beach, as we age, I think time-spreading out seems more elusive than in yesteryears. We are so often, more a people of nostalgia, than a people of summer; living into what was as some mythic time of ease and perfection, rather than living into the day that is before us – which we should rejoice and be glad in it.
We hear so often, folks lamenting how things once were and why can’t we go back to that. Well, that’s nostalgia speaking. Things aren’t worse these days, we’re just hearing and seeing more of what always happened, through the advent of cell phones, and cameras in every hand, and Twitter poking national media’s attention. There are regular tv newscasts now that follow what Twitter says, because posts on Twitter often are the first sign of a news story. With all the instant access news, it feels like things are much worse than they once were.
Police deaths are actually at a historic low. Despite partisan politics, every president – every single president since Reagan, every single president, has presided over a period of history where police killings were less than their predecessor. Yet, there’s a story that says we’re at our most violent. Every death is tragic, and we need to reach no deaths. That’s the truth, we need to. But we’re also not getting worse, we’re getting much better. But that’s not how we feel. We feel like it’s worse. There’s a way in which that’s real for some people, especially anyone who has lost a loved one, or fears for the loss of a loved one. That’s very real. And there’s a way in which that’s a form of nostalgia that makes it harder for us to do the work we need to do, in order to make it better for those who are serving and living today in this world. We can’t fix something that’s broken, if we don’t address it as it is – as it really is and not as we think it is.
Communities of color have had to face this reality since their first days in our nation, whether they were born here, immigrated here, or forcibly taken here, or were kicked off their own land. Waves of white immigrants have experienced challenges like unwelcome signs, housing and employment bias, and so on. But within a few generations, white immigrant families integrate and dodge the bias by being known as white, rather than Italian, or German, or Irish. But beyond us simply being more aware of the violence on our streets because of cell phone cameras and Facebook poking the attention of newscasters faster than they can follow on their own, there’s a sense among white communities across our country that somehow whiteness is under attack. For a long time, I mostly saw it the pains associated with having some of your privilege taken away and confusing that with oppression. But a July 25th New Yorker article had an interesting story about the advent in popular culture of putting real and mocking faces on what we derogatorily call “white trash”, and compare that to “proper” elite whites. Urban centers are taken seriously, rural communities are taken as a joke. Enough decades of that, and we have a problem in our national identity. If whites in urban centers advance, and whites in rural centers stagnate, it gets worse. Maybe we’re starting to see that in some parts of our suburbs as well, right? And when we live into our identity of a people of nostalgia – we remember back to all the black and white TV classics, where middle America seemed to be the best of us – we want to go back to how things were then; with a vibrant middle class, a one family income, and no cell phone cameras showing us where the fire hoses, and the shootings, and beatings are happening in real time. From the fire hoses that lead to Selma, to any story we hear about daily in our news feeds today – They’ve been there all along – now we’re just talking about it more – or maybe I should say all of us are talking about it more; because communities that have lived through oppression have always talked about it.
When we live into being a people of summer, we don’t stick with the notion that the days only stretched out into eternity when we were children. That’s a trick of our monkey mind. We’re letting the part of ourselves that are weighed down with responsibility and obligation rule our down-time even when we don’t have those obligations – we keep them with us, and our days become shorter and more fret with anxiety. It’s the classic trap we’ve all done. Sunday comes along and you lament you have to go back to work on Monday so much that you lose much of the joy of the day off because we’re already living into our next day of work. Rootedness is a spiritual discipline. Being rooted in what’s right before us – for good or for bad – is the most spiritual way to live. When we work, we work; when we rest though, we get to rest. Nostalgia for what was – even knowing in all likelihood it never really was like the way we like to remember – only keeps us from rejoicing and being glad in every new day.