This time of year, I’m seeing double. I view things as they are and as they used to be. The school bus up ahead flicks out its stop sign, and there I am, disembarking as a child. But really, I’m driving an SUV, impatiently waiting for it to move. The apple crisp I eat for breakfast tastes like it did last year, and five years ago, and 20 years ago. There is again that familiar desire to institute routines, buy clothes, and cut my hair.
But something about that desire is different. I’m not a kid or a student anymore, embarking on a new curriculum or moving into a new dorm room. I know more about what to expect. And I understand how unexpected—sometimes terribly unexpected—this life can be.
Times were simpler then, when I didn’t know what was coming and didn’t believe it could possibly be difficult. I just knew sheets washed by someone else. After-school celery spread with peanut butter. The happy uncertainty of what to be for Halloween.
Beware, believer, of becoming nostalgic.
Our faith is about the future. We look to the Resurrection and the life of the world to come. We remember, yes, but largely because remembering is essential to testimony. Our story doesn’t stall out in the past but takes us right up to the present. What God has done becomes what God will do, and that promise provides evidence of impending blessing . We are located in the “already but not yet,” and the “not yet” is somewhere up ahead. The best is yet to come.
Yes, I want that newness. I want the “not yet” right now. But I also want the old: scratching a pencil down a column of algebra or folding the corner of a chapter book. A roommate making brisket the last fall before either of us are married, the smell of brine so strong that it might have reached the barges on the Hudson River we glimpsed through our narrow windows. Now I’m older, with other obligations, living alongside other people in another place.
Some of the people have left altogether. As my friends and I get acquainted with death—grandparents, great-aunts, neighbors, even parents—our memories become impossibilities, in part because they’re shared with people we have lost. The person who brought the marshmallow-orange salad to the fall feast, or the person who came to the concerts and even those tedious cross-country meets, braving the drizzle and the mud. They were glimpsed and appreciated as I rounded the corner to the finish.
Now, I look ahead and they’re not there. At least not yet.
Yes, not everything back then was good. I know that. Nostalgia has its dangers, and I’m prone to fall into them: failure to see what God is doing today, failure to hope for what he’ll do tomorrow. Cynicism. Regret. My belief in what God will do should rid the past of its sting. Why waste time being sad?
But I also don’t think nostalgia is “spiritually dangerous” or an “enemy of the faith.” At least, not entirely. Not any more than other postures of the heart. Really, nostalgia is only human. It’s essentially human. When practiced rightly, it’s not just a temptation but a gift.
What kinds of blessings would they have been, after all, if they weren’t missed? Nostalgia makes us grateful for what God has done, even aside from what he’ll do in the future. In a world that rushes us forward to the impending deadline, the growth goal, or the five-year plan, a moment of bittersweet recognition reminds us of what we’ve already had.
Autumn came, all those years, and I did nothing to earn it.
“Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other,” the Lord commands (Isa. 46:9). Be in awe of what’s occurred; remember his “miracles” and “judgments” (1 Chron. 16:12). Scripture itself dwells on past marvels, treasuring the past for just a moment before anticipating God’s future provision.
Look back. But also, nostalgia tells us: Look closely.
I’m rarely wistful about “achievements.” I don’t remember the grades I got on the algebra homework, or my race time at that cross-country meet. Instead, I think about rituals and routines. Everyday graces—tastes and scents and temperatures, conversations and patterns of community—are what I long for, not past triumphs. This indicates what I should notice now, how I might be discipled and cared for in the mundane and particular.
It’s undeniable: In this world, much has been lost. In this world, much is yet to come—not better or worse, just different. A new child doesn’t replace a lost father. A friend’s joyful wedding doesn’t replace the hours spent whispering together as teenagers under a chilly set of stars. Things change.
And that change points us toward the kind of prayer that feels not sinful but essential, unavoidable, and even good. Those prayers say, Thank you, God and I miss it, God, all at once. They say, Life is short, God, a withering of grass, and I need you, God, in my grief.
How else do we cope with the brevity? This kind of prayer precedes anything like hope and makes that hope more honest.
I’m thankful this season that the promise of our God isn’t a wholesale rejection of what came before. In Jesus there is rejuvenation, a great recovering. The old things are made new. Childlike faith is restored. Lost people are found. Sickness and death will be no more. Indeed, they might even be forgotten.
Kate Lucky is senior editor of audience engagement at Christianity Today.