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QUESTIONS TO PONDER: WERE THE GOOD OLD DAYS BETTER THAN NOW?

February 22, 2009

2-22-09

 

Questions to Ponder:  Were the Good Old Days Better Than Now?

Ecclesiastes 7:10; 7:4

 

            We have an interesting conclusion to the series of sermons we have been following, Questions to Ponder.  You notice that all the questions we have considered have come from the Old Testament, a section of the Bible that is full of questions.  Many others exist.  We have not even scratched the surface.  We come to a question today that seems especially appropriate for the times in which we live, a question posed in the book of Ecclesiastes:  Were the good old days better than now? 

I decided to look up what is available on the Internet regarding this topic by typing in the question, Were the good old days better than now?  Using my Google search engine, I got 65,500,000 websites.  I did not go beyond the first couple of pages, but can you imagine that many people being interested in that topic?  It is amazing, but this question comes right out of the times in which we live.  It has been around a long time, and it is right here before us today, as well. 

            I found some really interesting answers from professionals in the medical field.  A group of doctors who have a website devoted to pediatric medicine answer the question with, “Absolutely not!  The good old days are not better than now, at least as far as pediatric medicine is concerned.  We have diagnostic methods that are so far advanced.  The infant death rate is down, and we have better ways of treating sick children.  They can be strong and healthy because of the advances that have been made in pediatric medicine.  No, the good old days were not better than the days we live in now.” Another website summarized an interview with a group of nurses.  They responded that yes, the good old days were better.  In contrast to the physicians, the nurses said that in the old days, they could practice medicine.  Now, they must deal with an avalanche of papers that must be completed on every patient.  They favor the days when they could have time for a more personal relationship with their patients.

            Then I found several websites devoted to the response of sports fans.  Fans of Major League baseball declared, “Yes, heavens, yes!  The good old days were better.  Back then, you could really count on the statistics being untarnished by steroids.  Baseball players did not make as much money as they make now, and you could count on a player to tell you the truth, especially if he appeared before a grand jury or was subpoenaed to appear before Congress.”  Major League football players also agreed that the good old days were better.  One reason given was that in those days the quarterback was not protected the way he is now.  I looked to see if quarterbacks might have a website.  I am sure they, too, would think that these current days are better than the past.  Now, the defensive lineman and the linebackers believe those days when you could really hit the quarterback were better.  In another area, NBA basketball fans appreciate the days of former athletes like Julius Erving and Michael Jordan. 

            I found two websites that are really blogs that offered surprising responses.  When teenagers chimed in on this question, it is interesting that they said, “Yes, the good old days were better.  Back then, parents did not use drugs; and child abuse was not so rampant.  Children could count on parents to do what was right, to show children the right way, to make them complete their homework.  Now, parents have become lax and lenient.”  The site for senior adults presented a contrasting reaction:  “No, the good old days were not better.  The days that we live in now are better.  We realize that we live in a time when technology has made so many advances.”  I was surprised by these responses.  I assumed that the teenagers would have thought that now is better and that the senior citizens would look back to days of old.  It was just the opposite. 

            Our question for today originates in the book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 7, Verse 10:  “Do not say ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.”  I suppose that the writer of Ecclesiastes would say to me, “Look, preacher.  You have no business raising this question.  This is not wise.”  That is exactly what this verse of Scripture says; but people are interested in this question, as evident in the 65,500,000 websites that address the issue. 

Ask a basic question like, “Do you really think the moral values of this society are better than they were in the good old days?”  The answer is, “No, the good old days were better.” 

Ask the question, “Do you feel safer from harm and danger in the days in which we live than you did back in the good old days?”  Some would answer, “I remember living in a neighborhood where we did not have to lock the door to our house.  Neighbors trusted each other.  Children could go outside and play with neighborhood kids.  If the children did not come right away when Mothers called them home at suppertime, a network of mothers would help.” 

One man told me, “When I was growing up in my neighborhood, I did not have just one mother.  I had about twenty mothers.  They all knew where I was and what I was doing.  Any one of them felt the liberty to correct me at any time.  A kind of community child-rearing system was in place.”

            Ask the question, “Did you really feel safer in a day in which there were not so many terrorist threats, not much talk about countries having nuclear weapons?”  You may hear, “The good old days were better.  We did not have to worry about those kinds of fears.  People could trust each other in ways that they do not trust each other now.”  Others would reply, “The good old days were not better.”

            I would like to tell you about a woman I call Miss Maude.  I want to give a little background so that you will know how I knew her.  My mother’s side of the family had a rather strange history.  My mother’s mother died when my mother was only six weeks old.  My mother’s father handed her across the grave to his brother and sister-in-law, asking these two, my mother’s aunt and uncle, if they would rear her as one their own.  Both families had the name Hudson, so they brought this little girl to Spartanburg.  Here, my mother was the youngest of six children.  She was also the youngest of six children in Barnwell County.  She remained close to those older brothers there, and we often visited that home. 

            After my grandmother died, that grandfather remarried a woman named Maude.  Soon after that, my grandfather died.  Miss Maude, as we called her, lived in that house and married a man named Creech.  We talked about Miss Maude and Creech as if they were my grandmother and grandfather when actually they were no relationship to me at all.  We certainly had a fondness for them.  It was as if they were our grandparents.  We visited their home, a big old farmhouse made out of heart pine.   

After the house was destroyed, my father and I drove a truck down to Barnwell County and loaded some of that lumber onto the truck and brought it home.  Dad made some furniture out of the massive lumber.  The house, never painted, had 2×12 baseboards made from that heart pine.  If Miss Maude had had a fire in her bathroom, the house would not have been in danger.  The bathroom was about 100 yards from the house.  Some of you remember those good old days. 

I told this story in the first service, and Mike McGee said that some Amish friends in Pennsylvania have indoor plumbing.  On the wall of their bathroom is a needlepoint piece stitched with a picture of an outhouse and the words, “On cold, cold nights in a rainy haze, I am so glad I don’t live in the good old days.” 

            If Miss Maude wanted to boil a pot of water, she had to go outside, dip a bucket in a deep well, crank that water, pour it in a pot, go inside, and heat it on a wood stove.  That well water was mighty good, but it was a lot of trouble to get. If you want to think about whether the good old days were better than these days, just think about plumbing.

            Consider dentistry.  Some of you may remember the days when you did not go to the dentist for a check-up.  You only went when you had a problem.  Think about the time when anesthesia was either unavailable or not very reliable and the time when going to the dentist was put off at all cost.  The good old days may not be as good as some of our reminiscences. 

Why does the book of Ecclesiastes tell us, “Don’t even go there.  It is not a wise question to ask”?  Why does Ecclesiastes tear us away from this topic?  Why should this not be our focus?  Clearly, many people are very interested in this subject as evident in the astonishing number of websites.  Ecclesiastes calls us to do exactly what we find throughout the pages of the Bible in the Old Testament, in the teachings of Jesus, and in the writings of the Apostle Paul.  The wisdom of the Bible says, “You cannot live in the past.  You cannot borrow from the future.  The time that you have is here and now.” 

Clare and I enjoy a song by Carly Simon entitled “Anticipation.”  A line repeated three times at the end of that song is, “These are the good old days.”  The times in which we live right now are the good old days.  This is the only time we have.  It is the time God has made available to us.  It is so important for those of us who are Christians to pay close attention to this truth from the Bible. 

Lonesome Dove is a cowboy movie about two good buddies, Woodrow and Augustus, who are retired from the Texas Rangers.  Their personality types are very different.  Woodrow is a cold-hard man who seems to have very little feeling.  Augustus, on the other hand, feels very deeply the joys and sorrows of life.

Augustus has been in love with a woman.  After she dies a slow and painful death, Augustus sits by her grave, grieving.  Woodrow encourages his friend, “Augustus, don’t take on so.  She was just lingering.” 

Augustus curses him and laments, “Woodrow, we’re all just lingering.” 

That statement has so much truth in it.  None of us is going to get out of this alive unless Jesus returns.  Life is going to have an end.  We can spend a lot of time looking back, or we can be really anxious about the future.  The truth is that our attitude as Christians should be to make the most of now, the time we have now.  We find this message all through the Bible.  Paul encourages us to redeem the time.  “Make the most of every opportunity,” he says in Colossians 4:5.  Within the book of Ecclesiastes is that wonderful Chapter 3, where we are told there is a season for everything, a time for everything under the sun.

Consider the first six chapters of Ecclesiastes. The author appears quite cynical, writing only about vanity and the difficulties people have.  Chapter 7, however, offers some wise teachings we all need to hear.  We see a contrast drawn between a good name that is more precious than ointment, a contrast between a good reputation and the desire for wealth.  He even says that a funeral is better than a party.  I am not sure I agree with that idea, but I do know this:  St. Augustine pointed out that we should look into a newborn’s cradle and think to ourselves, “He won’t get over this.”  The Bible tells us in I Peter 1:24 that life is short.  It is like a vapor.  It is like grass or flowers that wither in the field and dry out from the blowing wind.  We are all moving toward what one theologian calls an Omega Point, an end time. 

Recently, I have received many negative e-mails, some with political overtones and others with a focus on the economy.  Some e-mails express concern over how people will use the stimulus package.  Many e-mails are just lament after lament after lament about the terrible condition of life.  If you listen to enough of that cynicism, it will change the way you think.  You will become pessimistic and begin to think that life is horrible.  Sometimes people play a game called “Ain’t It Awful?”  I see that game being played in my e-mail inbox.  “Ain’t it awful?  Ain’t it awful?  Ain’t it awful?”  I want to encourage you not to pass on negative e-mails like that to others.  I have made that decision.  I treasure that delete button on my computer.  It is a wonderful gift. 

Ladies and gentlemen, let me remind you that we are the people of God.  We are God’s family.  It is so important for us to remember that as we go through this time of difficulty, those of us who are Christians have a particular responsibility. A part of our responsibility is to be light in darkness.  A part of our responsibility is to bring hope where there is despair.  A part of our responsibility is to bring faith where there is doubt.  We are to be agents of love in a world that turns too quickly to hatred.  We do not need to buy into this negative mindset.  I realize life is hard, and I am not advocating a Pollyanna attitude.  We should face reality; but as Christian people, we must live in the here and now, live in this age. 

Has God ever forsaken His people?  God promised, “I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you.”  That is the way I read the Scriptures.  Is God now going to abandon us because times are hard?  No.  Christians, above all people, have a responsibility to set a different tone, to create a different attitude. 

One more verse I would like to consider is Ecclesiastes 7:4.  The writer is saying that when the times are good, be happy.  When the times are bad, consider the fact that God has made the one as well as the other.  Think about that statement for a minute.  Some of the problems we have now in this economy are really the consequences of the way we have lived.  We can only live on debt for so long as a nation, as individuals.  Sooner or later, we have to pay the piper.  Sooner or later, we must tighten our belts.  Sooner or later, we must face up to what we have done that was not wise.  A part of the process we will go through as a country and as individuals is returning to treasured values.  Doing so will not hurt us a bit.  That part of the past needs to be recovered. 

Today is Transfiguration Day, the day we remember Jesus taking his inner circle – Peter, James, and John – to the top of Mount Tabor.  There before the eyes of the disciples, Jesus became a shining radiance.  Moses and Elijah appeared with him.  I have really tried to figure out why those two appeared with Jesus.  I have come to the conclusion that perhaps it was because Moses was the great lawgiver and Elijah was the first of the prophets.  Jesus came to fulfill the law and the prophets.  When the disciples had that incredible experience, they wanted to find a way to put it under glass, to hold onto it, to keep it.  Jesus would not allow it, telling them, “We are not going to build a monument here on the mountain.  We are not going to build booths here.  We are going down this mountain so that we may do what God has asked us to do” (Matthew 17:2-4). 

When they came down the mountain, the very first person they encountered was the father of an epileptic boy, a father so distressed about his son.  That story is dear to my heart.  In a conversation with Jesus, that father gives an affirmation of faith, one that all of us can give, “Lord, I believe.  Help Thou my unbelief.”  If we are really honest, we are pretty much between belief and unbelief.  As Christian people, we are not to be phony.  We have a responsibility to affirm our faith. 

The Greek word transfigure is interesting.  It is only used one other time outside of the Transfiguration of Jesus in the Gospel accounts.  The Apostle Paul uses the word when he writes to the Roman church, “I beseech you, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.  And be not conformed to this world, (Do not let the world squeeze you into its mold.) but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is the good and acceptable, and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:1-2). 

As Christians, we are called to have a different mindset, to think differently in times like these, to help ourselves, our families, our church, each other, and this community to live in the here and now.  We are not to pine for the good old days, not to be so anxious about the future.  We must understand that God is sovereign.  He is still in control.  He has promised, “I will be with you always, no strings attached.” 

Years ago when I was in seminary, I read a book by Lewis Sherrill, The Struggle of the Soul.  Sherrill says that we can live this life in one of three ways.  First, we can live life as if we were on a treadmill.  Boy!  I hate treadmills.  You have probably been on one if you have ever had a stress test.  Some people use a treadmill as a form of exercise.  I have tried that; but if I am going to move my legs and break a sweat, I want to feel as if I have a purpose, as if I am getting somewhere, as if I am headed somewhere.  I would much prefer to walk.  Sherrill claims that those who live their life in this manner look at life as if it is the same old grind, the some old dull and boring routine.  They feel caught, trapped in a life that is basically going nowhere.  That type of person tends to look back and remember when life used to be good.

Sherrill says some live as if they are on a saga, trying to get all the pleasure they can get.  They do not really have a sense of direction; they are just going wherever they can find adventure.  Life has no real meaning, no purpose.  I think about an old Schlitz beer commercial:  “You only go around once in life, so you have to grab all the gusto you can get!”  Those who follow this lifestyle squeeze as much pleasure out of life as possible.  They have very little awareness of the past and very little awareness of the future.  They are not living in the present.   They are living in a fantasy.

The third way to live life, living on pilgrimage, allows us to have a sense of where we have come from and a sense about where we are going.  We live today.  The psalmist says, “This is the day the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).  God has made every day, even the days that are really hard.  Believe me when I say that I know about hard days.  If you live believing that God has made every day, every day has some joy and some gladness.  Others will take notice.  You will be a witness to the sovereignty and faithfulness of God.

Paula played a wonderful prelude for our service today, “How Firm a Foundation.”   Listen to the words:

 

Fear not.  I am with thee.  O be not dismayed!

For I am thy God and will still give thee aid. 

I will strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,

Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

 

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,

My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply; 

The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design

Thy dross to consume, thy gold to refine.

           

God never abandons us.  He never breaks His covenant.  He never breaks His promise.  He counts on us to be salt in a world that needs a little spice, to be light in a world that is struggling in darkness, to be love where there is hatred, to be faith where there is doubt, and to be hope where there is despair.  God is counting on us, not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed and make a difference.  He has called us to live in this present time.  He expects us to live up to our end of the covenant.  That begins when you accept Christ Jesus and acknowledge him as your Savior.  Once you do that, you will begin a pilgrimage that will make all the difference in your life.

 

Kirk H. Neely

© February 2009

 

 

 

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