The Bittersweet Comfort of the Past

Today is the second post of a 2-part series on Nostalgia by Katha. If you missed last week’s post take a look at “What a computer screen can and cannot do for our nostalgia.” posted last Thursday. This piece is longer than most but well worth the read so grab a cup of tea or coffee and lean into it!


The bittersweet comfort of the past by Katha

“Of all the ways of using history, nostalgia is the most general, looks the most innocent, and is perhaps the most dangerous” – Malcolm Chase

Since early childhood my life has been shaped my movement, transition, and goodbyes. My father’s job as a nurse and missionary has led my family all over Germany and beyond. When I was twelve, my parents decided to move to Uganda to work at a small dispensary; even though I was against it at first, I fell in love with this country as soon as I set foot on its soil. The people, their kind hearts, and their joy despite harsh living conditions became an enrichment and inspiration for me. Quite abruptly we had to say goodbye after only two years and moved back to Germany; re-entry was difficult and exhausting because I had left the country as a child and returned as an adult, feeling completely lost in the German teenage culture. Many times I would go back to Uganda in my dreams and imagine how everything there was so much better than surviving here. Being nostalgic about what I had left behind appeared to be an innocent and very comforting way to escape my miserable present, as Malcolm Chase describes.

The phenomenon of longing for home is probably as old as humanity. One could think of biblical times, when the Israelites mourned the harsh working conditions in Egypt and longed for the return to the Promised Land Canaan. One could refer to ancient literature like the pastorals by Vergil, praising the idyll of simple life in the countryside. People felt melancholic, sad, or homesick – they just never labeled it as ‘nostalgia’.

The term came into being in 1688, when the only 20-year old Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer wrote his medical dissertation about nostalgia and homesickness. The term derives from the Greek ηoστος (nostos: return home) and αλγια (algia: longing), which describes a sad mood and constant longing for one’s native land. Many people at that time – soldiers, students, or servants – suffered from it. Home for these people was a geographical place, and as soon as things from home were missing they became obsessed with one thought only: to return home, the place where they would feel safe and comforted.

In the middle of the 19th century things changed.  Cities became the sites of industrial, transportation and communication revolution. People from all over the world streamed into these new centers to make quick money and get a glimpse of modernity. However, when the first wave of excitement and wonder wore off people realized the downside of modernization: cities were noisy, long working hours drained their energy, and life had lots its quality. People realized that all kinds of praised technology were only technical after all and could not substitute human beings or relationships. They longed for intense and real encounter again, experience instead of knowledge. And this is where the problem began that I still try to wrap my head around today: you cannot travel back in time. People thought if they could only go back home everything would be alright and things were like they used to be. Many did go home, back to the rural areas in the West or even crossing the Atlantic for their home countries, but they often had painful realizations:

“Upon travelling back, however, they found they had not arrived, and never could, for the same technologies that had brought them home had also disrupted traditional ways of life. Home was gone, lost in the past. And while space could be traversed, time could not” (Susan Matt).

Homesickness for a home that could never come back quickly gave way to a sentiment that TCKs are quite familiar with: nostalgia. To cling to what they had lost in an innocent way, people preserved traditions, celebrated their heritage, and promoted culture. Towns hosted Homecoming Weeks for urban residents to return to their homesteads, ancestors were worshipped with a revived passion, and people from the city came to the countryside to experience a holiday in the style of “the good ol’ days”.

TCKs might have to take several planes to visit the places again they refer to as home and their memories might not be linked to one specific location but spread across the globe – nevertheless, they might be able to relate to a few nostalgic notions. Whenever we have to leave a place we say our goodbyes and our brain tells us that no matter when we come back, it will never look the same. We will move on and our friends we leave behind will grow up, too. And yet, our heart seems to take one last snapshot of the places and faces we have come to love – this is the image we’ll store inside of us and bring to life whenever we think of that place. This is how we want to remember it.

Even though I slowly adjusted to German life again, I could not wait to return to Africa one day. After I had graduated from high school I was given the chance to go back, but now something interesting happened: I suddenly hesitated to go back to Uganda because I was afraid I would destroy the perfect illusion I had created over the years. What if everything was so different to how I had preserved it in my mind? What if my childhood memories turned out to be a lot bleaker in reality than in my dreams? Suddenly, nostalgia was not only innocent comfort, but also showed me the limits of remembering.

As much comfort as nostalgia seems to promise our homesick-stricken hearts, there is a bittersweet note to it that we should keep in mind. Have you ever thought about what you remember best about your childhood in country xy, or growing up in place z? Most of our experiences seem to have been positive because our memory seems to be manipulated: it filters out the bad memories and strengthens the happy ones that will create a falsified, beautified, and maybe even simplified, version of the past. Living with or in a past that never existed that way can be rather dangerous. We might be so tied to what has seemingly been that we don’t even see what is right in front of us. The present is just unbearable for us, so we use the past as an escape and comfort. Starting college in a country you have never lived in apart from furlough, struggling with a culture you’re supposed to be part of, or having a hard time opening up to new friends can be just so exhausting – why not take a trip down memory lane and stay there, where everything is known and easy? Well, it’s not. It is an illusion our mind tries to sell us, which will eventually blind us to the see beauty in the present, and even worse, bind us to move on into an exciting future.

So how can we make nostalgia a meaningful part of our lives? The other day I was sitting in a class on African Literature when my professor startled me with the following questions: How do you define yourself? If you only look backwards, do you define yourself only by what you’re missing? I think the feeling of missing is a key element of a TCK’s emotional mindset. It can be a wonderful reminder of the beautiful places and wonderful people who have enriched our lives and shaped our worldview. But it should not hold us back from allowing new places and people to have the chance of having yet another impact on our lives. We’ve been given and have experienced far too much that we could ever define ourselves by everything we do NOT have.

I have lived in South Africa and the United States, made wonderful new memories, and took away things and people to remember. Movement and countless goodbyes have made me question issues like home or rootedness. Pictures, videos, songs or Skype calls help to treasure the people I have come to love or experiences I have made. And yet, I am still struggling to wrap my head around the different worlds I have seen and had to leave behind. How they can all exist next to each other, while I can only be in one. To this day I have not returned to Uganda. But reflecting on nostalgia, its bitter sweetness AND its comfort, have made me want to take that journey.

Have you struggled with living in the past, unwilling or unable to live in the present? How have you worked through this? 

Series on Suffering #2 – “A Container for an Ocean of a God”

Suffering an ocean of a God

Suffering : A container for an Ocean of a God! by Robynn. Find all Robynn’s posts here. Find a quiet spot with a cup of tea or coffee to read this one. You’ll be glad you took the time….


When I was 9 and she was 8, in the quiet of a boarding room, while helping each other make a bed, I asked Amy Jo Inniger if she’d be my best friend. She said no. I was heartbroken but I accepted the rejection bravely. A year later she asked me if I remembered the question I had asked her a year before. Of course I did. “The answer,” she said, “is now yes!”

We were kindred spirit friends of the Anne Shirley and Diana Barry variety. She was the wind beneath my wings. When I graduated from high school a year ahead of her she loyally wrote me each week. When she ended up at Wheaton College and I was in the middle of the desolate Canadian prairies we made a way to see each other. She took the train up. I drove down (twenty-four hours straight with a brother and another friend!). She was in our wedding. I was in hers. She and her husband followed us to India and stayed in our town for nearly six months. Amy Jo was in the delivery room when Connor was born. She sang over him his first lullaby. She crocheted his first blanket and matching hat. Eventually her and her beloved husband found themselves in the slums of New Delhi living and working among the poor. Her house was the size of some king size beds. She cooked as the poor did, over a one burner stove. She washed clothes as they did, under the tap. Every Thursday they’d escape to a nicer part of town and stay one night in their “team center”. Every Thursday she’d call me on the phone.

A prayer letter we wrote in January 2000 tells what happened:

                When I was 29 and Amy Jo was 28, I stood by her hospital bed and watched her enraptured face as she saw her baby daughter for the first time. It was 11 pm, 6 hours after her surgery. The hospital was asleep and quiet. Amy had awakened and asked to see her baby. A nurse and I wheeled baby Kiran Hope’s cot down three floors to the Neuro ICU. When Amy focused on my face she smiled in recognition. When she saw the baby she beamed. “Oh Kiran, you’re so pretty.” She listened with pride as I told her about her new daughter, how healthy she was, how she had scored a 10 on the Apgar test. “Kiran, I’m so sorry that I can’t be with you these first few days,” she apologized, “but I’ll have the rest of my life to make it up to you.”

                Those were some of the last words Amy Jo ever spoke. She slipped into a coma at four the next morning and died four days later.

                The symptoms were sudden and simple: an intense migraine that started on November 11th. After pregnancy related causes were ruled out she was referred to a neurologist. The first MRI was done on November 27th and was inconclusive. Further tests, done on the 28th and the 29th revealed she had a large malignant brain tumor. On November 30th at 1:30pm they began two operations, first a C-section and then brain surgery. Kiran Hope was born at 1:45pm. Amy Jo came out of the OR at 5:10 pm. I had the blessing and privilege of introducing her to the little girl she had longed for years later that night.

                Amy Jo was a loyal kindred-spirit friend. She loved Jesus and wanted to be like Him. All she ever really wanted was that He be glorified. She was convinced that it was more important to Be than to Do. She was frugal and enjoyed simplicity. Little things were Big treats for her. She loved beauty and colour and texture and saw it all around her, in vegetable carts, bright saris and children’s faces. She was a well read, intelligent woman with opinions that would have shocked some! She was extremely uncompetitive and couldn’t hold her own at Scrabble for the world! She was generous and wanted those around her to be happy.

                I loved her. And the missing ache is still quite sore.

Amy Jo died. Even now as I type those words, it’s still so hard to believe.

Understandably, those were hard days. It didn’t make any sense. God had every opportunity to answer the prayers of hundreds, maybe even thousands who prayed. We asked Him to heal Amy Jo, to restore her to life, to give Kiran the mother she deserved. But God didn’t come through. For months afterwards my faith was shaken. I couldn’t understand it all. We had prayed. Emails went pouring out soliciting prayer from literally around the world. Mega churches in South Korea prayed in unison, smaller groups of more reserved people prayed together in the UK. They prayed in Pakistan, they prayed in Canada and the US, they prayed in Germany. And we prayed in India, fervently, sincerely, desperately. But still God did not heal. And Amy Jo died.

Months later Lowell preached a sermon that I hated. He entitled it Who Forgot to Pray for James? The text was from the book detailing the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 12, “About that time King Herod Agrippa began to persecute some believers in the church. He had James killed with a sword. When Herod saw how much this pleased the Jewish people, he also arrested Peter. Then he imprisoned him…. while Peter was in prison, the church prayed very earnestly for him”. Most of us know the story: the prayers of the church swayed God and He arranged for Peter’s miraculous deliverance! But was not the church also praying for James? Is there any reason to think they weren’t? Of course they were. Believers are being persecuted, the faithful rise up with prayer and power to beseech the Great God of the Universe to put an end to it. It’s what the church does! There is every reason to believe that the believers also prayed for James and others who were equally brutally treated, and yet God allowed James to be murdered and Peter to walk free. It doesn’t make any sense. Who can know how God figures these things out?

During that sermon Lowell used an illustration that communicated powerfully to my battered faith. He explained correctly why I don’t like swimming in the ocean: there are living things lurking beneath the surface, the waves are unpredictable and splash my face, it’s cold and deep, there are undertows and pulls that frighten, it’s salty and sandy and alive.  I do not like swimming in the ocean. I much prefer a swimming pool, a heated pool at that. The temperature is controlled. You can enter at your pleasure either the deep end or the shallow end. You can go in as far as you like and then climb back out. Blow up a floating device and float on the top if you choose! The bottom is level and smooth. There are no surprises. Nothing lives in a swimming pool.

And that’s the kind of God I prefer as well: one that is controlled and moderate; a God who I can measure and understand. I can enter His depths but only as far as I am comfortable. However that’s not the kind of God we have. Our God is an ocean of a God. He is alive and dangerous. There are forces at work below His surface. He alone controls the depths, the sprays, the splashes of His personhood. He woos us to the bottom and the water may appear murky and mysterious. Our God is wild and untamable. He is expansive and unpredictable. When we say he is Holy, we mean he is strange and weird and we do well to take our shoes off. The ground is Holy and the Water is deep.

After his horrid sermon Lowell asked that we sing a particular song. The words to that song, now old and rarely sung, still alarm me, “It’s all about you Jesus. And all this is for you, for your glory and your fame. It’s not about me, as if you should do things my way. You alone are God and I surrender to your ways.”

Suffering gives us a container to somehow hold this unholdable God.  Suffering reminds us that he alone is God. There is a humility that shakes our knees, we are overwhelmed by our smallness, our fragility, our mortality in the face of it all. And although we are wiping the Wild Salty Wonder out of our eyes, in some ways it’s never been clearer, we’ve never seen things as poignantly as we do now. It’s all about Jesus, his glory, his fame. Who are we to think that He would do things our way? He alone is God and so we do, we surrender to Him and to His Holy, Weird, Strange, Wild ocean-like ways! Suffering does this for us: it allows us a glimpse at how strange and weird he really is, it lets us see his holiness up close.

Much of this post was adapted from Chapter 9 of Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission written by Robynn Bliss & Sue Eenigenburg

Moving is Hard or This too is India

Moving is hard or This too is India by Robynn. Today’s piece is longform – and you will be glad you read it. Especially if you are in a move or frequently support those that move. You can follow Robynn every Friday in Fridays with Robynn. You can also follow her on Twitter at @RobynnBliss

 moving is hard 2

Our family is moving this summer. It’s the shortest move we’ve ever made but in someways it feels the most daunting. We’re simply moving four blocks away and yet the process of packing and sorting isn’t greatly diminished. I wonder if moving will be hard this time too? Since we’re not really leaving the neighbourhood I wonder if much will change? I wrote this for others whose move involves actually leaving the city, or the state, or the country but perhaps I’ll need to re-read it in a couple of months time.

When we moved from India to the United States, 7 years ago, we were astounded by how difficult it was. Packing up a family of five had been stressful. Leaving one beloved country, travelling through two more en route before unpacking in a fourth was tiring. However, settling in was shockingly hard. I wasn’t expecting it to be like that. This was America. Things were supposed to run a little easier.

Part of our job in India was to welcome new expatriates and help them settle into the chaos of our North Indian city. We answered thousands of important questions, we walked people through hundreds of frustrations, we held their hands, we cried with them as they grieved their losses, we laughed at their surprises and delights and celebrated each of their new discoveries. It was an intense part of our lives there.  During that time we heard repeatedly of their frustrations with the Indian systems. Bureaucracy was a nightmare. Systems didn’t work. Loopholes were deeper, thicker, higher, and impossible to jump through.  Simple errands were complex. Nothing made any sense. The newly arrived were often angry, frustrated and exasperated. India was blamed for most of their troubles.

I’m not denying how agonizing it can be. Original copies of this certificate. Photocopies of that form. Four copies of passport-sized photos. Notarized copies of this application. Signed duplicates of that original. Go there. Get that. Return there. You still need this. The office is closed on Tuesdays. Office hours on Fridays are limited. It was often ridiculous and relentless. But I’ve come to see that very little of it was actually India’s fault.

Those first few months of life here in the US were (equally?) maddening. To apply for a phone we needed an address and a phone number. To sign up for gas and electricity we needed a phone number. We couldn’t get the phone number until we had a phone number. There were, nearly hilarious, systemic loops that we fell into. We couldn’t get internet service until we had a phone number. We couldn’t get a phone until we had an address. We couldn’t get our address until we could meet with the previous owner for him to sign over the deed. But we couldn’t fill out the deed until we had a phone number. Often Lowell and I would look at each other, remembering the angst that our newly arrived friends would experience upon arriving in India, and we’d say, “This too is India”!

Enrolling our children in school was also confusing. We had to have copies of their birth certificates (which birth certificate? Two of our three children have three birth certificates each!) and copies of their immunization records (which were unreadable and confusing and had to be redone by the local pediatrician’s office).  I didn’t have an American social security number at that time. My Canadian social insurance number confused everyone as it didn’t fit into the prescribed number of boxes. It was awkward and embarrassing. It wasn’t just my identifying number that didn’t fit into their boxes….our whole family seemed to be out of place.

I recently read a well written piece by a woman who was reflecting back on moving with her young family to a foreign country. I found the article a little annoying, if I’m being honest. Somehow it felt like the new country, let’s call it Papua New Guinea, was blamed for all their struggles. Her children struggled at settling in. Papua New Guinea was blamed. She and her husband struggled with the guilt of bringing their kids to this new and strange place. Papua New Guinea was blamed. As I was processing it with my friend Marilyn, I wrote, “It’s really an unfortunate piece. The fact of the matter is any move is hard on every member of the family. Just ask Jill about moving their 10-year-old and 6-year-old from Kansas to New Mexico. It’s hard to move. Period. It is a really narrow perspective to blame a cross cultural move for all the troubles you and your kids will have. Life is hard. Parenting is hard. Moving is hard”.

Two years ago, my good friend Jill and her family moved from Kansas to a nearby state, New Mexico. They transplanted their two young children and all their earthly goods to that new place. Both Jill and her husband were familiar with the city they moved to and yet it’s been a very difficult transition for them. They didn’t leave the country. They didn’t need to learn a new language. And yet…nothing is the same there. They’ve struggled to find a new church. The school system seems strange. New doctors, new hair stylists, new rules, new systems, new neighbourhoods, new friends. It’s been hard.

moving is hard

In a major move it’s easy to idyllically reinterpret your past. It was so much easier when we were there. Remember how fun that was? Remember how tasty that treat was at that restaurant we loved? It’s much harder to be present where you are, especially when where you are is new and strange and your responses to it are less than perfect. You aren’t the same person you were there. Your marriage looks different. Your parenting changes. But it’s also true that had you stayed where you were you still wouldn’t be the person you had been. You’d be older. Your marriage would have taken new turns. Your children move into the next developmental stage. They have new growth spurts and hormones and rebellions, new friends, and new circumstances. Everything is constantly changing. Resisting the temptation to blame the new location for the new you, the new (and strange) struggles your children experience, the new pains in your relationships, the new sins that surface in your soul is difficult but necessary.

This new place where you find yourself is a new opportunity to grow. There are fresh beginnings and unfamiliar experiences ahead. Train yourself and your children to be here now. Present and stable. Certainly there is value in remembering….but focus on remembering how faithful God was in that old place. Recall some of the hard things from that last chapter. Call to mind how you managed to get through it. Remember circumstances that were foreign and frantic. Remember how the Peace that few understand melted over your family then. And then be assured that it will sustain you in this new place too. That hasn’t changed.  The mercies of God, which were new every morning there, will also be new every morning here.

I’m not for a minute trying to minimize the pain of a move. It is painful.

There are a thousand losses. Nothing remains the same. None of your previous routines and systems seem to translate. Everything must be relearned. It’s very very hard. And it takes far longer than you think it will to truly settle in and be at home. But there is little to be gained for blaming the place for the heartache and dis-ease you feel. Pain is always an invitation to grow deeper. Jesus meets us in our pain and offers to lead us through it. Through to the other side of settled. Through to a new normal. Through to a new sense of home and being settled.

And who are we kidding….

Through to a whole new series of change and loss and opportunity and joy…through to a whole new invitation to go deeper.

This too is India! 

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