Nostalgic for the tough times

Nostalgia is meant to be about warm fuzzy feelings.

Memories of harmonious family days out, or streets safe enough to play on, or TV with only four channels to choose from and everyone settling down to Blind Date. It’s meant to be about home cooked Sunday roasts and board games and laughing till it hurts. Or at least, that’s what I feel like nostalgia should be.

So it was strange to notice, as I walked home on a cool, sunny evening last week, that I felt strangely nostalgic as I listened to old songs on my iPod that reminded me of difficult times and difficult feelings from when I was a teenager. They took me straight back to walking my paper round route, at a similar time each evening when I was 13, 14, 15.

As I walked, there was always something on my mind. It was my time to process whatever was going on at home and at school, in my friendships, in my relationships. I used to hardly notice the houses I was delivering papers to or the roads I was crossing, because I was playing over old conversations in my head, playing out future scenes as I thought they might go, wrestling with questions and coming to few conclusions. Some of the things I thought about were situations beyond my control – they were family problems, things that happened to me and around me, without my permission and without my input. I wanted to think through how best to react, and how to do good in a bad situation. I tried to figure out which of my feelings about it all were justified, which were helpful feelings and which I should bury completely. I spent a lot of time feeling trapped, feeling powerless.

Some other situations that I used to think about were brought upon myself. I made mistakes as I tried to work out how relationships worked, I struggled to understand myself or other people a lot of the time. Sometimes I hurt people by accident, sometimes I felt like I knew what I was doing and did it anyway, which confused me all the more. I hated that I did things I didn’t want to do, I hated how little control I seemed to have over the parts of my life I should be able to control. I used to talk things through with my youth worker sometimes, and we’d have the same conversation over and over. I’d make decisions and go back on them in a day, I’d have new start after new start, determined to get things right this time. It was exhausting and apparently fruitless.

And somewhere in amongst it all, there was a faith growing in me. I’ve given my testimony a few times now, and tried to work out each time which were the significant points where God showed me I needed him, or that I could trust him, or he did things and used people to bring me a step closer to him – and there were those significant points, plenty of them. But actually, I think a lot of the time in those years, faith was growing in the background, quietly. Or not so quietly. As much as through the people who spoke to me and the sermons I heard, faith grew through the songs I listened to on my old Walkman, from Dad’s old worship CDs and from bands I’d heard at Greenbelt and Spring Harvest. It was the words of other people, singing about the God they knew in difficult times as well as good ones, which helped me to connect up the crap going on at home and in my relationships with the message I knew about a God who loved me, and sent his Son so I could know him. They gave me words to articulate that crap, not just as load of stuff to deal with, but as stuff that God could use to help me depend on him. They gave me words to start understanding the habits I couldn’t shake and the parts of me I didn’t like as things that God could transform, to see in myself potential rather than hopelessness.

A South African band I saw at Greenbelt called Tree63 had a song that seemed to sum up my frustrations at my own behaviour. Overdue went like this:

Struck by lightning once
You conceived a flame
Now every waking second
I’m waiting for the blaze
But is it ever going to come?
What am I supposed to do
When everything I could become is overdue?
Out of frustration
Comes a patient man
I’m on the verge of something
End of what you began
But is it ever going to come?
What am I supposed to do
When everything I could become is overdue?
It told me my experiences of frustration with myself even after those significant moments with God, weren’t unique to me and didn’t mean I couldn’t be a Christian. They didn’t make me a failure in God’s eyes. But it encouraged me to keep up the struggle. The final words of that song went: Just the smallest spark, it set my world on fire. I see you in my dreams. In hearing other people voice my frustrations, I learnt that I had potential to be all that God made me to be, and that was worth struggling for. 
There was another sort of song too which challenged me a lot as a teenager. It was the sort that told me no matter what my circumstances, God was still God, still reliable, still faithful, still in control, and still worth living my whole life for, whatever the cost. Another Tree63 song, I Stand for You (hear it on YouTube) taught me that. I remember listening to it through tears and with gritted teeth as I sat on a park swing struggling with the implications of being a Christian. I thought about the need to commit to unconditional forgiveness, and experienced the cost of that where I was being hurt again and again. I thought about the rejection following Jesus might bring, and felt the sting of it. But I got to the line that said “Guilty of disgrace, but you took my place. So Jesus, I’ll always stand for you”, and was convinced it was worth it.  

Perhaps the songs that most grew my faith in the difficult places though were the ones that spoke of God being right in there with me, of his nearness in suffering as well as in in joy. There was an old Matt Redman song from the 90s called The Friendship and the Fear, and it spoke of God as one who whispers in our ear as we try to live for him. It said, You confide in those who fear you, share the secrets of your heart. I learnt of a God I could know, really know, and who really knew me. It made all the difference. It didn’t stop crap times being crap. It didn’t change the situations going on. But occasionally, it gave them profound meaning. Often I forgot to turn to God with difficulty, but the times that I did were special, and they’ve stuck with me. I have no idea who it was (please take credit if it was you!), but someone  said to me very recently that worshipping God in times of suffering is something we’ll only get to do this side of heaven. It doesn’t mean that suffering is a good thing, but part of the privilege of being human is that God can profoundly meet us in it, and that changes us. 
So why nostalgic? I’m not entirely sure. It’s not that life is perfect now, although so many parts of it are in fact brilliant. Maybe it’s that I don’t tend to listen to those old songs much any more, and old music has a way of making you feel nostalgic. But more than that, I think there’s probably something in the way I handle both the general difficulties of life, and the frustrations that I still have with my own bad decisions and habits, which is different now to when I was 14 or 15. At 22, I feel like I should be self-sufficient. I’ve worked a few more things out. I’ve leant therapy-language to work through my emotions. I know how to talk to people about what I feel, I know how to cope with some situations that were overwhelming as a teenager. And I’ve gained a kind of pride which means those parts of me I used to struggle with and really fight with, because I knew God could transform me in to who I was meant to be, well I don’t struggle with them so much any more. The sense of my own potential I used to have has become a sense of pride that I’m fine just as I am, and it means I make excuses for myself. 
There’s a line from the rhyming genius that was my 15 year old self, from a poem I called Lilac Walls, which said “I wish I could go back there, though life could be pretty crap there.” It’s not that I want those same circumstances back. But I’m nostalgic for the dependence on God that I used to know, the knowledge that however hard the circumstance, I needed him all the more. I’m nostalgic for the vulnerability of singing those songs through the pain, with no idea what to do about it except bring it to God. I  miss the Saturday afternoon walks to Wesley Owen to buy a new CD, ready for my whole perspective on God, life and myself to be grown and challenged through a few songs. I’m ready to shake off some of the pride and cynicism, some of the dependence on myself and other people that I’ve collected over 6 or 7 years, and go back to the struggling with God through suffering when it does come. I don’t want to give up on believing I could be more than who I am, that God has big plans, that he wants to change me through every circumstance of life. C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Perhaps its time I learned to pay attention again. 
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About Claire

@claireylegs Keen on Jesus. Keen on justice. Ministry assistant in the Great North East. Blogger. Find me in: coffee shop / church / pub / bed.
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4 Responses to Nostalgic for the tough times

  1. Adrian Jones says:

    🙂 Claire I think you're so right about the deep need to find words that express our transforming struggles, and how these words can be a gift to each other ….perhaps the change for you has been moving from the place where other people's words are their gift to you, to the place where your words are now a gift to others …do you think?

  2. Claire Jones says:

    🙂 You're biased, but a lovely thing to say, thanks Pa x

  3. matt2801 says:

    I can relate to almost all of this post, apart from the songs, as I've never heard them. This is good stuff.

  4. Claire Jones says:

    Thanks Matt. We should swap blast from the past songs sometime, what did you used to listen to? x

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