Living In The Past

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A few days ago, I dropped in on 1943 and stayed two hours.

The venerable Saenger’s Theater in downtown New Orleans has been running vintage movies on Fridays and Saturdays–Gone With the Wind, Doctor Zhivago, Rear Window, and such. Recently, I attended the Saturday 3 pm showing of one of my favorites, “Casablanca.”

“Casablanca” was shot in 1941 and released in 1943. It presents Humphrey Bogart at his strongest and Ingrid Bergman at her loveliest, and deals with the plight of refugees fleeing before the Nazis. Its signature music, “As Time Goes By,” has been voted the number one movie song of all time.

That afternoon, I drove downtown, parked on Canal Street–after making certain that the meter maids had the afternoon off–paid six dollars for a ticket, and settled back into the lush red velvet seats to enjoy this movie the way people saw it over 60 years ago. For over two hours, I was transported back to 1943. Consider…


1. Moviegoers in that year sat in these same seats. I know, because people are larger now and my knees kept bumping the seat in front of me. I apologized to that lady three times.

2. The screen was small, the way they used to be. Proportions are similar to our home television sets.

3. The sound emanated from only two places, the sides of the screen. These days, something called “surround-sound” brings everything up close, and has spoiled us forever for the old days. I had a hard time getting some of the dialogue Saturday.

4. The popcorn was served in the same small boxes they used back then. That and a cup of soft drink set me back $4.50. The same thing 60 years ago would have cost maybe fifteen cents.

5. Before the movie began, an organist played selections on the vintage house organ. A Bugs Bunny movie followed. Great stuff, although no news reels.

6. Nazis make great bad guys for us these days, removed as we are so far from World War II. For the original movie-goers they were as terrifying as the Middle Eastern terrorists are for us today.

7. In quiet moments, you could hear the street cars on Canal Street precisely the way people would have heard them in 1943. In the 1960s, they were shut down and the tracks torn up, but recently, they’ve been returned to Canal Street.

After a couple of hours, I joined the exodus emerging into the bright sunshine of a muggy New Orleans late afternoon. I walked in the door at home and heard my wife Margaret call from a back room, “While you were gone, Turner Classic Movies ran ‘Casablanca’ on television.”

That’s all she said. But we’ve been married over 40 years, and I know what she meant. Translation: you paid good money and went to a lot of trouble for something you could have seen on television for nothing. The sound at home is great, the food is free, and the chairs are comfortable. So why did you do this?

I truly don’t know. Maybe it was to capture the feel of 1943 when people rode the street cars downtown to take in this flick and then walk outside discussing the very real Nazi threat. Maybe because of my historical interest. Maybe just to say I had done it. Perhaps I was looking for something.

The next morning, I sat in church wondering if we Christians do something similar every Lord’s Day. I wonder if we drop in on the house of God each Sunday in order to “go back in time,” so to speak, to the First Century and pretend we’re there, that these things are real for an hour or two. To pretend that this all matters, that the subjects presented are true, that this warfare is genuine. I wonder if we do a number on ourselves and, in full make-believe mode, sing our hymns and pray our prayers and read our Bibles and listen to our sermons, knowing full well we shall soon walk outside where none of this matters to us, but feeling satisfied that we have somehow done a duty of one kind or another.

If this is the case, I think I know why half the members on our church rolls no longer come. They can stay home and watch the same thing on television, only done better and in the comfort of their favorite chair.

Anyone doing even a cursory reading of Scripture learns that the Lord is not interested in His people visiting the past when they enter to worship. Everything the Lord does is to strengthen us “for the living of these days,” as the old hymn puts it.

Jesus once promised, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.” (Matthew 18:20) He comes, not as a historical figure to reminisce about the past, important though that may be, but as the Living Lord with an agenda for us today. He comes to equip us, to strengthen and challenge us for the work He wants done. When we leave the worship hour and walk out into the sunshine of the day, He comes with us.

“I will never leave you nor forsake you,” He said. And again, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”

That does not sound like escapism to me. It sounds for all the world like a Savior who is as current as tomorrow’s news and totally involved in today. Which is what He wants of us.

5 thoughts on “Living In The Past

  1. Joe, Great insight. I especially liked the reason why 1/2 of our church roles stay home and watch the same thing on television. Keep em’ comin’

  2. Good writing, Great sermon help, probably will reappear in up-coming sermons, with proper credit to you of course. Keep up the good work. Thanks, David Leon Womack

  3. Good Job as always Joe. What we need is the same thing that Elisha asked Elijah for when God took him to heaven – a double portion of the Holy Spirit. When this happens we allow the Spirit who is always with to be in control and wonderful things happen such as us being used by the Lord outside of the church.