On Nostalgia, Faith, and Worship

As part of my job in childcare this summer, I’ve spent the last few days furnishing a classroom in an old abandoned private middle school, getting it ready for 5th and 6th graders to learn and have fun.

I noticed that last month many of the old students (from as far back as 1990 even) had visited the old school and its classrooms and left messages on the chalkboards.  Now… I may be a bit cynical, but I honestly don’t know of anyone (especially in their 20’s and 30’s) who would characterize middle school as “the best time of my life”.  And yet there was not a negative message on the board, and most of them read things like “this was and always will be my home”, and “all my best memories are here”. Now…maybe I’m wrong and there’s actually an entire generation of people who enjoyed middle school (and of course I know that anyone who hated the school wouldn’t have showed up to commemorate it), but this sounds like “nostalgia”:

“A sentimental longing for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.[and/or] The evocation of these feelings or tendencies, esp. in commercialized form.”

So nostalgia is an emotion that colors our perception of something… It gives us a longing for something past that we’ve perceived to be good in contrast to a current state that we perceive to be not as good. This may be contrary to the actual case, and often times it keeps us from remembering the not-so-good that may have formed our character. In other words, the grass is always greener in the past when we wear nostalgia glasses.

There’s definitely a detriment that can come with this– primarily it distracts us from being grateful for our current blessings and state of life in preference for something that we really can’t get back.  Secondly, in nostalgia we feel to acknowledge (or even move on from) sufferings and inconveniences that have formed our character and given us virtue.  If we ignore these events in our lives we are not using them for our benefit and they, in a sense, beat us and trap is in the past.

Is Nostalgia good for our faith? Does is serve a purpose in worship or drawing us closer to God?

The Hebrews were nostalgic for the kingdom days while they were exiled in Babylon. Psalm 137 shows how the Israelites would not sing or celebrate the old days in gratitude but rather looked on them with longing. They forgot that the reason they were exiled was because of their own disobedience. Instead of learning from the exile, reflecting on how to become more righteous because of it, they only sat and wept. Furthermore, they hung up their harps and refused to sing and worship the LORD. They were trapped in the past, rather than using the current situation to move forward.

Where I most often see nostalgia present in my faith is through Worship music. When I hear certain songs (most often cheesy P&W songs that were written when I was in High School), I think back to the “good old days” when I was first really passionate about my faith, I had a very strong community that I saw many times a week, and when I was really enjoying ministry and learned what it meant to be a leader. Sometimes… I long to go back to those days, to have that type of faith.

But then I realize–God has brought me to where I am in my faith for a reason. I know what my vocation, and probably my occupation, are supposed to be. I’m more educated and able to defend and express my faith. I am ready to raise children in the faith. And I have a deeper understanding of how God works in my life through providence and grace. Those days of past faith were essential in bringing me to where I am now, but they’re not where I’m meant to stay, and I should seek to grow and move forward in my faith, even if that means changing how that faith is manifest and expressed, and even if it means embracing suffering.

I think that nostalgia CAN be acceptable if one does not get trapped by it, if it doesn’t preoccupy one from one’s current situation, and if it motivates one to pursue correct happiness. However, it is a hard thing to do, so perhaps outside of the occasional and brief relapse, nostalgia is best avoided.

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