On Nostalgia

Lutherans are ordinarily not a triumphalistic people, unless we’re at an event with the word “district” or “synod” in the title, so when we hear more news about how the world around us is falling to decay and degeneracy we know what’s going on. We know the world will end and Christ will return in glory and judgment. We know things will likely keep getting worse; we know not to expect a postmilennial time of glory before Christ’s return. We know that the faithful have been persecuted in all ages. We Gen-Xers and also Boomers remember a time when so much of what is wrong now wasn’t wrong then. We remember when those we’ve lost were still alive, when our own bodies worked better, and we get tempted to nostalgia. To us, the Holy Spirit speaks through the hand of His servant Solomon:

Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. (Ecclesiastes 7:10)

Having just preached the Gospel lesson for Trinity IX, I can appreciate that there are parts of the Word of God that are difficult to hear, and even harder to understand. Lots of passages from Ecclesiastes fit that bill. In this verse, which should be memorized by all Christians (it’s even short), Solomon is warning us against nostalgia. Words that end in -algia tend to deal with pain, like neuralgia (nerve pain) and arthralgia (joint pain). An analgesic is a medicine designed to relieve pain. Nostalgia, then, is the pain of not being able to go home. Nostalgia is homesickness.

So what’s the problem, Solomon? We could all probably give good reasons why the former times were better than these. Our grandparents were alive. People knew what marriage was. The days were more carefree and we had fewer responsibilities. Of course, as Billy Joel reminded us in 1983, the good old days weren’t always good. But that’s not the chief problem.

Solomon says that the real problem is that the question at hand does not come from wisdom. Simply put, we are beings locked in time and we cannot go back. So why torture ourselves by lamenting how much better things were then?

If nostalgia is homesickness, then it reveals another problem. St. Peter says, by the Spirit, that we are “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11). That’s a good thing for us to remember, because we are not fully at home in this life and in this world. If we are to be homesick, let’s at least long for our eternal home in the resurrection of the body.

A quote often attributed to composer Gustav Mahler is “tradition is the handing down of the flame and not the worshiping of ashes.” It’s not a bad thing for us to remember. The music was better back then. Okay, so do we sit and lament or do we make new music that is good again? Most modern art is an affront to the senses — do we accept that the only good art man will ever make has already been made or do we try to make new art that is actually good? This is the chief problem with nostalgia: It solves nothing and only increases misery.

Instead of merely lamenting that things were once better, why not bring what was good about the former days into the current days and bless those around us? Let us give thanks to God for the good He did for us in the past, for the unappreciated good He does for us now, and for the eternity He has prepared for us when nothing will be lacking. To answer Merle’s rhetorical question, the good times aren’t really over for good. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

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