If you found your way to the Google main page yesterday you were treated with a wonderful animation celebrating the birthday of Claude Debussey (1862-1918). The animation - which Google calls a "doodle" - recreates a moonlit trip down the Seine while Debussy's most famous piano piece, Clair de Lune (or "Moonlight") plays as background. You can watch it here.
A riverside view from the period scrolls along with lights and rain synchronized to DeBussy's familiar sweet melody. The evening sky is clear and star-filled. The moon is full. The boardwalk is lined with gas lamps. A man wearing a cap is riding a penny-farthing. A Dutch-style windmill silently turns. Little rooftop chimneys puff smoke into the air. An old Model T jostles along and a covered riverboat chugs by all lit up with little white Christmas lights.
It is a charming scene. So charming, in fact, that it got me thinking about the power of nostalgia.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the term Nostalgia as "a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition."
Nostalgia is that strange ability all humans have of remembering the past without remembering the dirty and devilish details of it. In our most nostalgic moments we exclude details that are painful and disappointing. Of course we all have thoughts about the past that include the dirty details, but those thoughts are not nostalgia. In nostalgia we are remembering all the good of an event, of a person, of a season of life. Why? Because we are longing for goodness. We are longing for the world to be good. Thus nostalgia, though even about the past, is a kind of hope.
Blaise Pascal, 17th century philosopher and mathematician, said: "Do you miss something you’ve never had? Do you grieve the absence of a third leg, or the loss of a second pair of eyes? No. We ache only when something we once knew, held, tasted, goes missing. We sorrow over the eyes or legs or arms we once had and then lost, not over those we never had. So why is it that our hearts feels this harrowing absence, this desolate sense of loss? What are we missing?”
Our English word nostalgia comes from two Greek words: nostos, which is "returning home", and algos, which is "pain." Nostalgia most literally means homesickness.
Nostalgia is that pain you have for simpler times when there were only three channels on television and everything was rated G. Nostalgia is that pain you have for those safer times when your kids could be somewhere in town on their bikes and you didn't worry. Nostalgia is that pain you have for those great family vacations of your childhood when the whole family sang along to the 8-track, looked at the passing scenery and read books while the station wagon rolled westward. Nostalgia is that pain you have for those long and leisurely family dinners when no one was in a hurry to go anywhere. Nostalgia is that pain you have for a world less crowded, less noisy, less cluttered, less complex, less dangerous - the world recreated for two minutes in the Google doodle.
Nostalgia is powerful. It is powerful because it is a kind of hope. In fact, nostalgia often feels like the most solid hope because it recalls a life passage through which you have already safely lived.
But as Merriam-Webster hinted, nostalgia has its excesses and thus its dangers. And its greatest danger is this: that we would hope more for a return to a sanitized memory than to the future God calls us to in our heavenly home. The danger for Christians living in America is that we would amend the gospel with this codicil: "Come, believe and obey Christ with us and we can all go back together to an America we once knew and loved."
No Christ following will take us back to an America we once knew and loved. Following Christ will take us somewhere better. Following Christ will take us to where He is - to our heavenly country, our true home. "But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city" (Hebrews 11:16).
Those words the Spirit gave the apostle for us speak to our life as pilgrims. Those words speak to our homesickness, which is real and palpable. Those words speak hope. The most solid hope. For we see that Jesus, though hated in all the world, has safely journeyed home to the Father's right hand. So shall we be with him.
The Google doodle combined with Clair de Lune is a lovely thing. I have no complaints. But may it, and all earth's pleasant things, not leave us hoping for the past but longing for the blessed hope that lies ahead.