The Power of Nostalgia

Remembering the past and looking towards eternity

I was recently driving through some neighborhoods in Lake County, Illinois where I used to live. These are the places where I spent the first thirty-five years of my life. It’s amazing to me how certain sights evoke evocative memories of life gone by—of chapters and seasons and moments.

I was never that nostalgic of a person. I typically dismissed people who talked longingly of the good old days. But that’s probably because I was too young to be nostalgic. You need a few years on your life in order to build up the layers of memory, to get past the bravado of your youth enough to appreciate the parts of your past that grow warmer with maturity.

Nostalgia isn’t all good. As a primary guiding principle, it can be paralyzing. Nostalgia can keep organizations from changing and growing. It can blind us to parts of history in a way that doesn’t help us see and tell our story fully. Weaponized, it can whitewash injustice.

But nostalgia can also be a gift. When I drive past my old home, the place in Wauconda, Illinois where I grew up, when I eat dinner at my Aunt Pattie’s house, when I drive past my old church, a surge of good memories flood. I had good years there.

When I sit in the auditorium in Grayslake, Illinois where I pastored, when I meet up with old friends from past seasons, when enjoy a dinner with my wife at a favorite restaurant, I am brought back to good days.

Memory is interesting. It can be a blessing and a curse. Sights and sounds and smells can trigger trauma of awful days. Memory can also be a gift, a storehouse that helps us remember past blessings, especially of times in which we were too rushed to enjoy them. On this last trip home I kept telling my wife, God was good to us here.

Yes, he was. There’s a weird thing that happens. Over time you pile up chapters in the story of your life. But you don’t really appreciate these chapters while you are in the midst of them. So my richest veins of writing are often from the season I was just in. For instance, when I left the pastorate of my small church, I had several years of writing, in places like Christianity Today, about the beautiful rhythms of small church life and pastoring ordinary people.

Another weird thing happens. The older I get and the more complicated my life becomes with parenting and career and overlapping pressures, the more appreciative I become of the hardships my parents faced. In my twenties I thought I was so much more spiritual, so much more on top of things than my parents and the leaders around me. But alas I’m one of these parents and one of those leaders, and while I probably do things differently than what I saw as a child, I appreciate the messy struggle of life in this world so much more. It’s a cliché, but I feel it: my father and mother become more precious, more wise, more steady with each passing year.

I’m getting a bit more sentimental as I get older. This can be a vice, something that has us longing for and trying to create a mythical personal golden era that never existed. But in the proper place it can also be a way in which God speaks back to us about his faithfulness in directing our steps. It can be a way of being thankful for those who shaped us. It can be a catalyst for worship.

I believe humans were made with certain longings for home. The gospel story tells us that we have left what was familiar. Actually, in Adam, we were violently kicked out because of our rejection of God. So much of our wistful pining for that past golden era are rooted, I believe, in the knowledge that we’ve lost our home. This is why place matters more than we think. This is why people, in this past, most difficult year of our lives, moved from their dislocation and went back to where they were from, to farms and rural communities, to familiar sites with roots and stories.

The Bible seems to employ nostalgia at times. So often the psalmists and the prophets urged the people of God to remember the rescue from Egypt. They are implored to pursue the old paths of faithfulness. And when in exile you can hear the ache and cry of what has been lost. In Psalm 137:4, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Yet you read the tension in the prophets, especially Jeremiah. Nostalgia won’t save them. There isn’t a going back. There is a going forward, a kingdom that will be better even than what was before. The people of God also employed nostalgia in ways that were harmful, when they rejected the promised land for an airbrushed, mythical desire to go back to Egypt, which was better in their remembering than in reality.

Ultimately these longings will be met, not by going backward, but by looking forward to that city whose “builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:10).” When Jesus says to his disciples and to us, “I go to prepare a place for you.” I sense that he’s less talking about mansions and more about a place, a room, somewhere that will be new and yet so familiar in all the best ways. We will be where we belong with the One to whom we belong.

Until then, these feelings of nostalgia can be sweet snapshots of grace, whispers back both to the goodness we had in Eden and forward glimpses of the joy we will see in the New Jerusalem.

This Week on The Way Home Podcast

In this episode of the special Easter series in conjunction with my book “The Characters of Easter,” I am joined by my friend Dean Inserra, founder and senior pastor of City Church in Tallahassee. In this conversation, we talk about what it’s like to preach on Easter. He talks about the importance of not shaming people who only come to church on Christmas and Easter and advises pastors to make Easter simple.

Listen now

Interesting Links

  • Susan Olasky encourages Christians to avoid rushes to judgement online, especially in response to tragedy. This is a very, very important read.

  • Andrew Walker surveys the attitudes of evangelicals about religious liberty and is nervous.

  • An Asian American pastor offers his personal view of both the rising attacks on Asian Americans and his experience at a church so many rushed to judge in the wake of the Atlanta tragedy. 

  • I loved this profile of Oral Roberts University coach, Paul Mills.

  • David Leonhardt of TheNew York Times assesses the perverse incentive for negative coverage of COVID.

  • Matthew Hall writes on the kinds of fear that can strangle organizations.  

What I’m Reading

  • I am working my way through A Time to Build by Yuval Levin while also reading some fiction.  

  • My friend Chris Fabry has a new novel, A Piece of the Moon that captures the sights and sounds of his native West Virginia.  

  • I also snuck in Camino Island by John Grisham that I picked up at a used bookstore last week. It was a fun, quick read.  

  • I’m listening to The Reagan I Knew by the late William F. Buckley that chronicles the relationship between the President and the conservative leader.  

Personal Projects

I’ve been doing a ton of media for The Characters of Easter, including a fun appearance on Fox and Friends. I also have a few pieces out there, including this encouragement for pastors on Easter at For the Church and this word for Christians on unity in a callout culture.

I’m doing a ton of writing at the moment, with a curriculum due for The Gospel Project and a couple of projects due by the fall.

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