…the amnesia of romance…

And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Exodus 16:2, 3

The term “romance” dates back to the 1300’s. At that time it referred to a story of chivalry and adventure. Throughout the centuries, as with most words, the prevailing idea was redefined and shifted to accommodate author’s tendency to stretch the usage of words. This type of vocabulary movement is a natural process that allows language to become three dimensional and rich (though at times it does tend to rob some words of their original power and meaning).

It wasn’t until early in the 20th century that the idea of “romance” received a negative context. Leave it to the bloodiest, most informed, and fastest moving century in history to attach negativity to “romance”. But, it was at that point that “romance” began to be used to describe the human tendency to selectively remember parts of a story and to conveniently forget other parts. This “whitewashing” of history is more clinically called revisionism, but we can also say that some people have romanticized the past.

To look, for instance, at America’s meteoric rise to world power status in such a short time is a source of pride for us. However, the fact that a significant part of that rise, early on, was based upon the heinous mistreatment of an entire race of people through slavery is the filthy underbelly. To remember the economic rise without the moral plummet is a form of romanticizing the American story.

This convenient selectivity is exactly what motivated the Hebrews to make such ridiculous claims to Moses like the text above states. They literally retold the story of 400 plus years of slavery under the oppressive Egyptian regime as if it were a multi-generational, all expenses paid holiday at a resort on the Nile River. I have to wonder if they didn’t gloss their daily treks back and forth to draw water for their brick-making duties as “leisurely strolls on the river-walk”.

Romanticizing the past is a dangerous thing. It creates an unrealistic view of both where we’ve been and where we are. The farther we move away from a problem, or dark season in our life, the more our minds have a tendency to hold tightly to the things that helped us get through those difficulties. While that practice is an engrained human response to momentary crisis, and truly a beneficial function that helps us keep hopeful perspective, it has a tendency to become exponentially problematic the more removed we become from the situation. We easily forget the struggles and difficulties that we faced and the hard decisions that we had to make and the disciplined approach we were required to adopt in order to persevere. So while we indeed ought to praise the Maker for His masterful work in delivering us from those hard times, we do that deliverance a disservice when we fail to acknowledge the true gravity of the darkness of the ordeal.

A song by Sarah Groves about this very text has always stick with me in it’s ability to capture the essence of this problem and I wanted to share some of the lyrics. It’s a beautiful description of exactly what we tend to do, following in the footsteps of the Hebrews:

I’ve been painting pictures of Egypt
Leaving out what it lacked
The future seems so hard
And I want to go back
But the places that used to fit me
Cannot hold the things I”ve learned
And those roads closed off to me
While my back was turned

The past is so tangible
I know it by heart
Familiar things are never easy to discard
I was dying for some freedom
But now I hesitate to go
Caught between the promise
And the things I know

If it comes too quick
I may not recognize it
Is that the reason behind all this time and sand?
If it comes too quick
I may not appreciate it
Is that the reason behind all this time and sand?

– Sara Groves, “Painting Pictures of Egypt”

There is a line in the chorus that says, “the places that used to fit me cannot hold the things I’ve learned”. Isn’t that the truth of the matter? That is why the romanticizing of the past is so un-fulfilling, because inside we know what actually happened. Paul instructed the Ephesians to make sure that they didn’t forget who they were and where they came from. Perhaps he was adamant about this because redemption without context is far too easy to write off as non-essential. To often we take for granted what God has done not because He didn’t do it, but because we are remembering a romanticized version of who we were and where we were at the time. We will find great strength to move forward in the walk of faith when we are able to daily acknowledge our great need for Christ. This can only happen when we look at the true story of our lives, not the one that makes us the hero. The story of our life is a hero story, and the tale is an epic romance of chivalry and sacrifice, but what we must remember is that we are not the one fighting the dragons, we are the ones desperate for a Savior to come slay the forces that have taken us hostage.

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
Ephesians 2:11-13

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