Olu Brown: The Good Old Days

There is a phrase that is often used, and it sounds like this, “I remember the good old days.” Typically, when this phrase is spoken, it is not negative, but is a reflection of a person caught in the euphoria of nostalgia and reminiscing about the past.

The Israelite community, led by Moses, had been journeying through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land that God had in store for them, and got trapped in a moment of nostalgia. Moses was following God’s directions that he received at the burning bush and faithfully attempted to lead God’s people to the Promised Land, even when they wished for the good old days back in Egypt. There were ups and downs, but the Israelites persevered and provided the world with a tremendous story of hope, perseverance, and faith. Although the story reads like a modern-day movie series, it is an accurate account of God’s people, the Israelites, and God’s love for them that covered and protected them over their 40-year sojourn through the wilderness.

In the text, they reached a point on the journey where the people were upset and frustrated with God and Moses. It is an example of what happens in leadership when we are called to lead people towards a vision and a promise, then suddenly we encounter roadblocks along the way.

You may not think of yourself as a leader and may not compare yourself to Moses, but you are a leader. And as a leader, you will experience the “Good Old Days” conversations with people you know and love, and no matter how much you want future visions for them, they may choose the past. This often happens with family and friends and with children who choose a different path than the one that their parents or loved ones desire for them, or when a friend is certain about a decision that their circle of friends feel may not be the best path. While these types of scenarios are often encountered in leadership and friendships, my hope is that you don’t become discouraged and that you stay focused on the promise and vision God gave you.

There were so many times along the way when Moses could have gotten off track or forsaken the promise that God gave him, but he persevered. And because of his perseverance, today we have the beautiful story of the Israelites and their journey through the wilderness. Don’t be discouraged and don’t be afraid, because God is with you; God promised to never leave nor forsake you - even in difficult times. It reminds me of the words of one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, Langston Hughes, in his poem “Mother to Son”:

Well, son, I’ll tell you:

Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

It’s had tacks in it,

And splinters,

And boards torn up,

And places with no carpet on the floor -


But all the time

I’se been a-climbin’ on,

And reachin’ landin’s,

And turnin’ corners,

And sometimes goin’ in the dark

Where there ain’t been no light.

So boy, don’t you turn back.

Don’t you set down on the steps

‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.

Don’t you fall now -

For I’se still goin’, honey,

I’se still climbin’,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

[Arna Bontemps, American Negro Poetry (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 67.]

The Israelite community said to Moses, “We remember.”

Verse 4 opens with the good old days’ most popular and most frequently used words, “We remember….” The Israelite community was on their way to the place of promise but before they could make it to the land flowing with milk and honey, they had to live in the wilderness; the wilderness did not have the latest quick service food franchises offering Uber Eats delivery. They were upset with the daily food menu of manna, which is similar to a present-day bread, rice, or loaf cake. They complained to Moses about what was being served and said, “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost - also the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” What is interesting is that the food they craved and desired was served and eaten while they were slaves in Egypt. It is worthy to mention that they recalled the food they ate but not the captivity in which they ate their food. This is the trouble with recalling the good old days using selective memory that allows one to pick and choose what and how they remember.

As we navigate life and people tell us their “good old days” stories, we have to consider that what they remember may be selective and the good old days may not have been that good at all. Does this mean that we discredit people’s stories and journeys? No. We take the time, like Moses, to hear what they are saying, empathize with their concerns, and understand where they are coming from. Ultimately as leaders, we must know that it is not about us.

This wasn’t the only time Moses faced the Israelites’ complaining or remembering what they had in the past. In Numbers 32, the Reubenite and Gadite tribes, two of the twelve tribes of Israel, told Moses that they didn’t want to go to the Promised Land but wanted to stay in what was geographically known as the Transjordan.

In my book, Leadership Directions from Moses: On the Way to a Promised Land, I gave the following reflection: “Leadership is all about showing people the future while knowing deep down that they may not choose the future we see for them. This reality is painful to face.” [Olu Brown, Leadership Directions from Moses: On the Way to a Promised Land (Nashville: Abingdon, 2017), 47.] When we read Moses’ story and the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness, there were many points along the way when Moses became upset and disappointed with God’s people. Whether it was their complaints about the food or two of the twelve tribes deciding against going to the Promised Land, the situation was very disappointing at times for Moses.

Some of the best advice I have received that is most helpful when we are in relationships with people who seem to be stuck in the not-so-good good old days is not to take it personally and know it is not about you.

They said, “We want.”

Not only did the Israelites remember the good old days in Egypt differently, they also wanted to return to Egypt. Wanting to return to Egypt was even more dangerous than how they remembered their bondage in Egypt. In Chapter 14 of Numbers, after the people were frustrated with Moses again and feared for their lives, they said, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt” (Numbers 14:4 NIV). Not only did they remember Egypt, but they also wanted to go back to Egypt. Essentially, they were saying we would rather be slaves again than trust in the brighter and more hopeful future God has in store for us.

It may be easy for us to read the story of the Israelites and place judgement on them for having such a spectacular opportunity to live in the land of promise while at the same time struggling with wanting to return to a place of bondage and slavery. When we think about our lives today, we aren’t much different.

For the Israelites, returning was physical, but for many people returning today is emotional and mental. We find ourselves selectively remembering the past and reverting back to ways of thinking and feeling that aren’t healthy and good for us. Returning to fear and believing we don’t have enough of what it takes for God’s vision to come to pass in our lives. Returning to leftover and re-warmed conversations that don’t give life and joy to the current moment we are living in. Or returning to certain careers and behaviors that we left behind that didn’t fulfill us or fully utilize our potential because we chose the known of the past over the unknown of the future.

On the surface, the complaint was about food but, below the surface, the concern was much deeper. It was all about faith. They lacked the faith to trust that God had something better for them. Therefore, they were willing to trade the unknown possibilities of God for the known bondage of slavery.

I am not here to say that I would have been much better than the Israelites and that I would not have complained. In my own life, I complain to God about things that are much easier and simpler than the cause of the Israelites’ complaints. I am saying that the source of their complaining was their struggle with faith, and after years and years of wandering through the wilderness, failing to see that God really had something great in store for their future.

Not only is it easy to get trapped in the past, but we can also get trapped in the frustration of now. It often sounds like the following: Life is not working out now. My family is in trouble now. My debt is mounting now. I am not sure where God is now. Today can be just as difficult to manage as the past because we have a tendency to feel trapped and isolated in our todays. In these moments, we may feel God has forgotten about us and the promise God gave us will not come to pass.

The Israelites had journeyed for a long time and had become discouraged. The superficial complaint was food, but the actual issue was wanting to turn back to the known since they were afraid of the unknown.

They said, “We remember.” They said, “We want to return.” But they **also said, “We wish.”

Like the Israelites who wanted to return to Egypt, we have places, people, and experiences that we want to return to. They may not be the best for us, which leads us to existing in a state of “wishing.” The same way the good-old-days phrase begins with the words, “I remember,” wishing typically begins with “I wish I….” You can fill in the blank for yourself. Whenever I want to return to places that aren’t good for me physically or emotionally, I tend to say, “I wish for a certain time and place.”

What are you wishing for right now? Is it something that will enrich and bless your present and lead you to your future, or is it the good old days that weren’t really that good? What if we transformed what we wished for in light of the promises of God in our lives?

As we are coming through a pandemic and experiencing so many other tragedies, we can’t forget the promises of God. Each day we have to remember that the unknown of God’s future for us is far greater than the known of the past we have already lived.

For us, it means that we work to focus less on those things that are temporary or momentary challenges and look beyond where we have been and where we are, to where God is taking us. At the beginning of the pandemic, I had to make this pivot for myself because the challenges of leading in a pandemic were difficult, and still are. I found myself talking about the Church and the world before the pandemic and longing to go back until I realized the world and Church would never be the same again. Through faith, I have been able to trust God in the midst of a pandemic and to look forward to the future when there will be no more pain, sickness, disease, bloodshed, war, poverty, brokenness, and fear.

Go ahead, label me as a hopeless optimist if you want to; I will accept the label because I refuse to go back to the past that is known. I am moving forward into a future with God that is unknown. Come with me today; together with our faith, we will hold fast to God’s promises for our lives and live the advice of Langston Hughes in his poem “Mother to Son”:

So, boy [girl], don’t you turn back.

Don’t you set down on the steps

‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.

Don’t you fall now -

For I’se still goin’, honey,

I’se still climbin’,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.