Mr. Standfast

"Nothing taken for granted; everything received with gratitude; everything passed on with grace." G. K. Chesterton

April 18, 2005

A Tragic Nostalgia: Robert Frost and the Longing to Return

The Israelites always wanted to go back, but God wanted them to go through.

Me, I've never been to the desert. I've never wandered in a dry land, unsure of where the next watering-place might be. Of course, if I'd twice seen God produce water from a stone I might be relatively unconcerned, but then how can we really know whether God will do again what he has done before?

Yes, I'd probably be longing for the last good place. The last place of refreshment, with shade and good clean spring water. That, after all, is most definitely there. But the next spring . . . how do we even know there is a next spring?

Well, that's how our minds work. We hang on to what we know for sure. There is an instinct for going back. A yearning, when we come into a place of dearth, a place of hunger and thirst, for yesterday's provision. The trouble is, as Robert Frost knew well, our "deserts" are mostly within.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
(From, Desert Places, by Robert Frost)

Frost was mostly skeptical about God. His poetry reveals an inclination, a longing, to go back. In his poem entitled Directive he distills this longing into a work that is both sublime and sadly wishful. He begins, "Back out of all this now too much for us." Frost's "back" is the place of his childhood. It's a long-abandoned farm in the hills of Vermont, and more precisely, a stream that provided the water for the farmhouse there. Frost's adult life was one of much tragedy and loneliness, and perhaps that stream was his last oasis, his last place of refreshment. And yet Frost's hopefulness seems fancied, a cover for despair. He says, if you go back to that stream, you'll find hidden beneath the over-hanging roots of an old tree, "a broken drinking goblet, like the grail." Then he ends:

Drink and be whole again, beyond confusion.

That is Frost's longing, and it is often ours. To go back to the last good place. But this longing to return is always tragic, it seems to me; a tragic nostalgia that blinds us to the present provision, and to the promise of the future. In the second chapter of Jeremiah God speaks these words to wayward Israel:

I remember the devotion of your youth,
how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the desert,
through a land not sown.

We see here that God is not against looking back, and encourages us to learn from the past. But God is calling us to go through, not back. Wholeness was never back. Wholeness is ahead, when we will one day drink from the stream that flows from a throne. Each step of the way there is an act of faith, and will seem reckless to some. Yet God is faithful to provide. Thank Him for the last refreshing, and then walk on in confidence to the next, for He has not forgotten His promises to you.


Blogger sabbath day's journey said...

These are lovely words, Bob...and necessary reminders for me. I am one of those folks who often "looks back" longingly, but I believe that God wants me to embrace the present and the future that He has for me. I believe He wants me to get excited about these, and to have a deep longing for the things yet to come. Such a beautiful post this is. Thank you.

9:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Bob! God indeed wants us to trust HIM to bring us HIM...and some awfully incredible stuff ahead yet for those who long for HIS return...Ezekiel and Jeremiah, as well as the other prophets...just awesome!! Only recently have we heard teaching on some of these things. Even some Orthodox Jews know what is ahead...another Exodus and this time (if we are ones who get to go) we better not be complaining and dragging our feet and longing for what we had (how much we complain and refuse to trust HIM who loves us so much!) Have you heard anything about this future Exodus?

10:26 AM  
Anonymous Bill said...


Just Wow.

3:15 PM  

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