In the very early 1960s, at the dawn of my solid memories, there was a TV cartoon show called "Tooter Turtle," a silly little bit of fun about a dopey turtle with dreams of grandeur. Tooter would bring his grandiose wishes to Mr. Wizard, a magical lizard dressed in old-time magicians's robes, who would reluctantly grant Tooter's wishes. After a stint living his dreams --as a pilot, a federal agent, a cowboy, an astronaut--Tooter would invariably get into some jam and beg Mr. Wizard to pull him back to safety. Which he would, incanting "Drizzle, drizzle, drozzle, drome. Time for this one to come home!" Or so it sounded to my five-year-old ears. And Tooter would swirl out of trouble and return to the safety of the present. Somewhat chastened, he would thank Mr. Wizard for his help. But you knew that next week, he would again throw caution to winds and beg to go on yet another Walter Mitty-esque adventure -- going where no turtle had ever gone before.
Ah, happy memories of a simpler time! A paradise compared to the troubles of the present Or are they?
The early '60s had their share of problems. Over the side door of our parish church was a three-lobed, yellow-and-black Civil Defense sign, informing us that in the event an atomic attack, an ever-present possibility during the Cold War, the basement would be transformed into a bomb shelter. The good sisters at our parochial school--when they weren't threatening physical pain or (worse!) telling our parents about our rotten behavior--regaled us with horrifying tales of Hell and the bloody wounds of Christ. There were bullies to avoid, mean girls to endure, bad dreams and nightmares, and an interior mental life stocked full of terrifying bad guys--Nazis, rampaging Indians, brutal Roman soldiers and Mafia goons. Not to mention the possibility of ending up as that poor, crippled kid on the March of Dimes donation card on the corner grocer's counter.
Happy Days indeed!
It's a trick of human memory -- probably a blessed survival tactic -- that makes bad memories fade faster than good ones. After all, who wants to spend their free time reliving the misery, failure and humiliation with which life abounds? But the downside of our selective forgetting is this: it's easy to forget that it's a trick. The good memories that are left, after our brains trim away the bad, leave us with the impression that our childhoods were brimming with joy, an unbroken string of soft and dewy experiences.
Many cultures across the globe (and across time) have a myth of a Golden Age, a time when the men were valiant, the women virtuous and the children well-behaved and orderly. Christians and Jews have Eden; the English have the Round Table; and Americans have the era of the Founders. Since those ideal periods, many would have us believe, manners have grown coarser, ideals have become tarnished, and life generally has become harsher. In the Old Testament, lifespans literally got shorter (Methuselah excepted) with each generation after Adam and Eve. How far we have fallen!
But it might help to remember that in reality, there are no past golden ages. Every era has its problems. The 1950s? Polio, widespread discrimination against blacks, and "jokes" about the perceived defects of women and Hispanics. The 1940s? Worldwide fascism, the Holocaust and talented women being shut out of the workplace. The 1930s? Worldwide depression, poverty and Dustbowl desperation. 1770s? War, terror, political uncertainty, ferocious squabbles about the form of our government.
No question, it's fun to recall the good parts of our youth and the glories of our past. Good things did happen; it wasn't all darkness. But burnishing the halo of our youth can easily become an egotistical exercise, leading us to devalue the present and demean the experiences in the generations born after ours. For every oldster basking in warm memories of Jack Benny, Amos 'n' Andy, Andy Griffith or Howdy Doody, there's a youngster fondly recollecting The Smurfs, Teen Titans, or Sponge Bob Squarepants or Dora the Explorer.
Jesus was never one to stay stuck in the past. He was present and future oriented, preferring to let the dead bury the dead. He understood the perils of his day -- the Herods, Pilates and Caesars who ran the world and inflicted horrific pain on those who stood in their way. His vision was not of a golden past but a golden future -- one in which tears would be dried, the hungry fed, the sick healed and all divisions mended. He took steps to make that future real -- including the outcast, refusing to get drawn into petty squabbles, healing the sick, feeding the hungry. He preached the good news that God's future was already becoming a reality. And he told us how to hop aboard that future -- by forgiving, loving and looking beyond boundaries of nation, faith and gender.
We are privileged to live at a time when we can view the entire globe at a glance -- whether from the vantage point of an orbiting spacecraft or by surfing the Internet for news from abroad. Our ability to see beyond the narrow confines of our families, neighborhoods and villages has never been greater. But our challenges are the same as in Jesus's time: to reach beyond tribe and cult so as to embrace the stranger; to cut off the diseased limb of egoism so as to humbly serve the poor; to cast off the shackles of self-interest and apathy so as to bring justice to a world sorely in need of it.
Our vision is not one of disappointment at falling short of the virtues of a golden age that never existed. It is to "take up our cross every day" (Luke 9:23) -- the cross of our weakness, timidity and passivity -- and to move ahead in spite of our misgivings. Toward a future that is more whole, more just and more true to God's vision of who we are.
Tooter Turtle was stuck in an endless cycle of egoism followed by defeat. Jesus asks us to take the harder, cross-laden slog that lifts us out of our endless cycles of violence and death to one that promises a new creation. Are we Christians willing to follow him?