How often do you catch yourself reliving the best days of your life, your “Summer of 69”? Do you miss your old home, “watching the sunset over the Castle on the Hill”? Listening to songs such as these can evoke feelings of nostalgia.
The term was fist coined by 17th century Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer, combining two Greek words: nóstos (homecoming) and álgos (pain) . He was alarmed at the number of Swiss mercenaries deployed in the lowlands of Italy and France who became sick, longing for home. Symptoms included insomnia, fatigue, indigestion, stomach aches, etc. Some doctors suggested this “Swiss ailment” was a neurological disease caused by brain and inner ear damage due to the constant clanging of cow bells in their Alpine homeland.
Today we know that everyone becomes nostalgic at times, that painful pleasure of remembering the good times. Anyone can get homesick. (Apparently 7 out of 10 adults still think of “home” as the one they grew up in!) This longing for a particular time or place leaves a sense of being uprooted, the loss of stability and security, relationship and belonging. And we all instinctively long for love, protection and comfort – feelings we normally associate with home and our childhood days.
How we relate to the past – the degree to which we indulge in or suppress nostalgia – can be helpful or hurtful. For example, remembering the good old days during difficult times of transitioning reminds us that we are loved, cherished and valuable, increasing confidence and drive to push through the hardship of resettling in a new community or company. In this way nostalgia is helpful to cope with the stress of change.
But, as John Piper points out, our relation to the past can be hurtful in two extremes: both the neglect of the past (never going there) and the obsession with the past (constantly longing for it) can wreck your life.
Not surprisingly, Jewish composers also wrote a number of Psalms during spouts of nostalgia, later canonized for reflection and instruction. One such example is Psalm 137, written by exiled Jews after 586 BC, deported as slaves into Babylon. This song gives us insight into the unhealthy obsession of living in the past.
Psalm 137 opens with passionate unveiling of the emotional state of these uprooted people. “1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. 2 On the willows there we hung up our lyres (harps).” They were heart-broken, defeated, without joy and unaware of the surrounding beauty.
But their hung harps were more than a sign of sadness. The sense of uprootedness left these exiles with a loss of identity as captured in the fourth verse: “4 How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” This central theme is the profound theological question these exiles battled with. As the offspring of Abraham, they increased as God had promised, had possessed their own land, and was blessed to be a blessing to other nations. How are they still God’s special people here as slaves in a pagan country? Could these oppressed indeed God’s blessed? How can they be a blessing here in a foreign land? Feeling uprooted left these Jews with a lack of confidence with who they are (identity) and what their role is in this world (purpose).
The Psalm goes on (verses 5-6) to expound the emotional state of these sad slaves, showing their obsessive longing for Jerusalem their (previous) home. Indeed, the writers pronounce a curse over themselves, should they ever let go of the joyful memories they had back home. Jerusalem should always remain “my highest joy” (verse 6). In these verses the exiles reveal what they truly feel: they would never again have goodness and pleasure as they enjoyed in Jerusalem. They believed that those days were the good days, but now it is forever gone. They will never enjoy life like that again. These slaves were without a hope for a good future; all they expected was darkness and gloom.
Not only were the hopeless, but as the Psalm continues, we see that these exiles were angry and full of hateful vengeance. They wished death and destruction for their Babylonians captors in the most violent ways (verses 8-9). They also prayed disaster upon their Edomite neighbours who did not help them in their day of trouble but cheered at their destruction (verse 7). In short, they were angry and bitter at these nations who caused the end of their “good life”. “Our joyful and peace is gone, and it is all their fault!”
But God had not left his people; he never does. To these uprooted people, heartbroken and hopeless, the Lord spoke through faithful Jeremiah:
4 “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
|God impressed on them that they were not there by some demonic triumph, a cosmic coincidence, or even God’s rejection. No, they are there by Sovereign design; the LORD of Heaven’s Armies had sent them there. The Babylonians are merely his servants.|
|5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.||And what should they do as exiles in Babylon? Build, live, plant, marry, increase. Don’t just survive and wait out the 70 years (verse 10) – thrive here! Do what God had commanded mankind to do: be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, have dominion (Gen 1:27-28). Prosper and live life to the utmost, even here.|
|7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
|More specifically, even though you were brought here as slaves, seek the Shalom – that welfare and peace and joy that you experienced in Jerusalem – seek and expect the same here in Babylon.|
God’s invitation to these uprooted Jews affirms the truth that shalom (the fullness of joy, peace and prosperity) is not locked up in a time or place. His sovereign providence leads us in his purpose through the changing seasons, but in every season he invites us to share in his shalomn.
Can you identify with these uprooted, homesick and nostalgic exiles? Do you have a longing for the good old days, fearing that those days are forever lost? I have good news for you: every story in the Bible shows that the best is yet to come as we hold on to God!
How do I deal with feeling Uprooted?
- Allow your nostalgia to overflow in thanks.
Psalm 136 calls Jewish worshipers to reflect on God’s faithfulness, reaffirming 26 times “His love endures forever”. As these uprooted Jews would think back on the defining moments in their history through this song, thanking God for his faithful acts of deliverance and provision, their repeated thanks would affirm the truth that, again here in this present exile crisis, “His love endures forever.”
This is the power of thanksgiving: it reminds us of the loving care and persistent presence of God in our lives. This truth gives us confidence for today, knowing we can bank on his love and goodness here, now – although we have been uprooted.
- Allow your nostalgia to overflow in grieving.
Nostalgia is a sense of loss of that which was good: the painful loss of a pleasant period in a peaceful place with precious people. You remember the good times, but now it is no more. From there the bitter-sweet sensation of nostalgia.
For my heart to be healed, I need to mourn this loss. Neither suppression of the past, nor the obsession with the past will help me to move on. The process of grieving or lamenting allows the wounded heart to acknowledge the pain and trauma of loss, to work through the emotions and consequences of the loss.
I find it significant that more than half of the 150 psalms canonized in the Bible are songs of lamenting. I find it equally significant that the prophet Jeremiah was able to help these Jews find meaning in their displacement, inviting them to shoot new roots and expect shalom even in exile – after he himself had wrestled through his Lamentation, also canonized in the Bible. Once he found healing he could not only move on, but he could also help others grieve their losses.
Grief has many stages, but prayers like Psalm 43 and 137 are good examples of how Biblical authors have poured out their emotions of loss, expressing their emotions of shock, sadness and even anger in their prayers to God.
- Don’t let nostalgia blind you to the beauty of God’s provision and presence: praise Him!
The homesick exiles were blinded by their nostalgia to the beauty of their new homeland. Their belief that the good life was in Jerusalem and is now forever over made them miss the goodness and provision of God around them.
Indeed, every season has serves God’s purpose, “He made everything beautiful in its time.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). There is bliss and beauty in today, and the discipline of praise brings it out and lightens our eyes to see God at work where we are.
- Let nostalgia stir your hope that the best is yet to come.
As for the heart-broken exiles of Psalm 137, the trauma of loss can snuff out our flame of hope, so that we may not expect any good to come. But nostalgia is a reminder that in this life, amidst its pain and trauma, goodness has come. Nostalgia is our way of holding on to the belief that there is goodness, joy, peace, belonging and love in this broken world. And because God had given that in the past, He can do it again.
The Bible is filled with accounts of hopeless situations where people cried out to God, and the Lord turned the situation around for good. It follows the lives of everyday people, often oppressed, who held unto the belief of God’s goodness and power, resulting in the most incredible and inspirational turnaround of events.
These teachings invite uprooted people to believe that the best is yet to come. Like Joseph, Naomi and Ruth, Ester, Daniel and his friends and countless other uprooted people in the Bible we can know that God makes all things work together for your good (Rom. 8:28). God still has great plans for you – a hope and a future secure (Jer. 29:11). And even through the troubling times, God leads us on in victory upon victory (2 Cor. 2:14). You might feel uprooted now, but watch this space: God is always at work.
Feeling uprooted? Feel like hanging up your harp for good?
Don’t lose heart! Embrace your place. Live as though God had sent you there. Let those painfully-pleasant memories of nostalgia remind you of the reality of God’s goodness, and thank him for it. Allow the pain of loss of that place and its people to pour through prayers of grief for your healing. But don’t live locked in the past – open your eyes and praise God for his beautiful provision in your life today. And let the memories of happiness remind you that indeed, there is goodness in God’s gift of life – and the best is yet to come! Watch as He makes all things new (Rev 21:5).