Only Home With Him: A Meditation on Sehnsucht and the South

By Cade Campbell

I love Mississippi. And some of you may be curious as to why that is.

Is it because I think Mississippi is better than any other state in the country?

Not necessarily. It very well may be, but I’m sure there are lots of places all over the globe that would make just as good a place as any to call home (even Louisiana or Alabama as painful as that is to admit!). Mississippi, after all, does have a tragic history of trailing dead last in almost everything. So it can’t be because “my state can beat up your state.”

Is it because I don’t love my adopted state of Indiana that has been my home for five years now?

Of course not. I fall more in love with Indiana every day. I’m constantly thankful for the people here who have welcomed me as one of their own.

So why do I love Mississippi so much? Is it just because we have the best southern writers, food, and college football teams? As true as all that is, that’s not why I love Mississippi.

I love Mississippi because it’s home.

It’s where I’m from. It’s my grandparents house on a dirt road off Route 4 Liberty, Mississippi. It’s the creek where my Papa would take me riding on his 3-wheeler. It’s a kitchen table filled with my mama’s cooking.

It’s where I grew up. It’s the center of all my childhood memories. It made me who I am, and by “it” I mean the history, culture, food, family, friends, and neighbors who make up those little dots on the map that have made up my life. It’s where I met Jesus. It’s where I spent time with my grandparents. It’s where my parents loved me and taught me and raised me. It’s where I fell in love with my wife on the Natchez bluffs overlooking the river. It’s where our love story began. It’s where we were married. It’s soil contains the earthly remains of friends and family members whose voices I can still hear in my mind. As Sophie Hudson said, “It’s where my people are.”

And so it’s not so much that I love an “it,” or a vague sense of “place,” but I love them. And I miss them. And I should.

We have that in common, don’t we? We all find within ourselves these deep longings for people and places, oftentimes people and places in our past. We might call it nostalgia. Sometimes we just call it a memory, but whatever we call it, we all have within us this deep desire to return to where we used to be and to go forward to something we can’t quite seem to grasp. We recognize this longing when we think of the friends and family members we’ve lost to death. Every Christmas we look at pictures, talk about yesterdays, and feel a very real vacancy, a dulled ache. There is loss there, almost like an amputation. We know someone should be at the table, but they aren’t. And so we hurt, and as we hurt the pain also creates within us a yearning, a longing, a longing tinged with a melancholy joy.

Sometimes it’s not even the past that we find ourselves longing to hold. It could be that we have a deep yearning for a future that is just out of reach. Maybe we want a husband or a wife. Maybe we are single and we desperately want the touch and intimacy and relationship with another person. Maybe it’s for a child. My wife and I have been struggling with infertility, and we know that it is an especially painful form of future-focused grieving. We want to hold a little hand that is not there to hold. In the middle of the night we strain to hear the soft patter of tiny feet that cannot be heard.

However that longing is felt, whether in your memories of the past or in your hopes for the future, it’s there nonetheless.

There’s a German word that describes that experience. It’s called sehnsucht. Sometimes the word is translated as “longing” or “desire,” although that doesn’t really do it justice. It’s far deeper than that, and there isn’t any one, good, corresponding English word that really gets down to the very heart of what it means. This one little word may best be described as an intense stab of joy mingled with sorrow that you experience when a sight, smell, or sound makes you think of your grandparents or parents who have died.  All at once their memories flood back, and all at once you feel both the intense happiness at their memory, and an intense sadness at their absence, and an intense longing for their presence once again.

That’s sehnsucht, and that’s why I love Yankee Candles. For me, scents are some of the strongest triggers for those stabs of joy. If I smell a Cape Jasmine (and please don’t call it a Gardenia!), then I’m able to close my eyes and for a moment be back on my Memaw and Pepaw’s front porch. If I smell pipe tobacco then I’m transported to my grandfather’s house where my uncle would sit and smoke a pipe in the afternoon, or I think of my wife’s grandfather who smoked a pipe daily. There’s a candle I was given recently called “Barbershop.” If I light it in my study, then it’s far too easily trick myself into believing that I’m seven years old again on a Saturday morning and my Papa has just walked into the room after shaving and wants me to sit in his lap. It has the fresh scent of shaving cream, water, aftershave, and grandfathers. My grandfather.

And it makes me miss him. I love it because I loved him. And I still do. That’s my own experience with this elusive and fleeting emotion, and as I’ve come to recognize that happy-aching, I’ve discovered that it serves three gospel-aims. Sehnsucht, that “stab of sorrowful joy” is a gift, a good gift from God that serves three primary purposes: They make us cherish God’s blessings, they make us ache because of sin’s curse, and they make us crave a future with Christ in his new creation.

First, sehnsucht make us cherish God’s blessings in the present. They daily convince us that all the moments we have with all those we people we love so much are fleeting. Both are passing away, the moments and the people in them. In response we are called to honor them, be grateful for them, and to enjoy them. We are reminded to live in humble gratitude for this day’s blessings, for as Etienne de Grellet wrote, “I shall not pass this way again.”

Second, the losing and the longings should make us hurt under the burden of the world’s curse. We simultaneously experience joy and sorrow in our memories because deep down inside us there remains a trace, the faint whispered-echo that reminds us that all the pain and death and loss we see around us are not natural. We were not made for temporary joys and relationships that come stamped with an expiration date. Hillsides were not created to be turned into cemeteries. Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that God “has put eternity into man’s heart.” We know, deep down we know, that death is an enemy. He is an intruder. He does not belong here. The world is not as it should be. We revolt against the loss of family members, friends, and our youth because we still have that nagging sense that it really shouldn’t be this way.

Ever since our first parents stumbled their way out of Eden’s green shade there has been an emptiness in all of us, a hollow cavern in our hearts that makes us want to go back. No wonder God placed a fiery angel at the garden’s gate to prevent us from returning. He knew we’d want to, and that longing to return is part of the curse itself. We are overcome with the fracturing of creation, the fallenness of the universe. J.R.R. Tolkien was on to something when he wrote, “We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most human, is still soaked with the sense of exile.”

But as powerful as that sense of exile is, there is a third gift that sehnsucht brings us. It doesn’t merely remind us of our mortality or make us miss the world as it once was. There is a greater purpose that these experiences serve. They make us long for Home, Home with a capital “H.” As much as they convince us of the creation’s curse, they also birth within us a deep longing for a redemption, a reunion, for a renovation, a re-creation, for the renewal of all things. Yes, they make us miss Eden, but they also make believers sweetly long for the source itself, the fountain of all joy, the wellspring of all pleasure, the presence of Christ in the New Heavens and the New Earth. Surely this comes mysteriously close to what Paul says is the sehnsucht of all that has been and is or will be when he writes in Romans 8:18-23 :

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

That’s the truth. We’re groaning inwardly. We wait eagerly. All of our longings, all of our losses, and all of our missing and being missed is ultimately and intimately bound up in the deeper desire of all things, the culmination of history as it will one day be swallowed up by eternity in the unending reign of Christ.

We long for what we do not have as a faint echo of a longing for what we can only have in Christ. He alone is the true reality. He is the source and substance. He is the river of all pleasure. He is Eden personified. He is the new and better garden, and it is only in his presence that, to reference Tolkien again, “everything sad will come untrue.” And in everything sad coming untrue in Christ, everything lost will suddenly be found. Everything missed will be unmissed. Everything dead will be made undead.

That is the great and glorious reality glimpsed that sad and dusty afternoon at Lazarus’s tomb all those years ago. His sisters, Mary and Martha, missed him, and they were mourning. They were overcome with longing. They were heartsick with sehnsucht. Then Jesus walked into town. And he said something strange. He whispered to Martha, “You will see your brother again.” Martha, with maybe more than a bit of subtle sarcasm and biting bitterness replied, “I know I will, in the resurrection on the last day.” Martha was beside herself. Her life had just come undone and it seemed that Jesus just wanted to talk about the end times. She was still at the funeral and Jesus wanted to talk about the end of the world.

But that’s not what Jesus was doing at all. Poor Martha, she had already consigned herself to living with the irreversible longing, not realizing the most unbelievable truth in all the world. The one who is able to reverse death itself had walked through the graveyard’s gate. Eternal life with skin on was quite literally blinking back at her behind his squinting and sweat-beaded eyelids. And Jesus simply whispered, “I am the resurrection…and the life…”

That, is good news. Jesus isn’t merely the resurrection on the last day. He is the resurrection today and every day, and all of our longings find there “yes, amen,” and fulfillment only in his presence. All of our longings are meant to make us love him more and long for his appearance.

That’s a truth C.S. Lewis knew well. He understood that as prevalent and pervasive as sehnsucht could be, it could also be tragically deceptive. It could trick us into believing that the source of our longings could somehow be found in a created thing. Sehnsucht could be seduced by the serpentine lie that we would be happy if only we had those things or those people back in our lives once more. Lewis knew that even if we had those times back, our youth back, our lost loved ones back, then we would still be left with that same old sense of longing if we didn’t have something else entirely. We would still want something more. We would still be humming the words of U2, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

Ultimately our hearts weren’t made to be fulfilled by anything  or anyone other than Jesus.

He is the one about whom the hymn writer spoke when she sang, “Hallelujah! I have found Him, Whom my soul so long has craved! Jesus satisfies my longings; through his blood I now am saved!”

That’s the heart of what Lewis meant when he wrote these words in, “The Weight of Glory:”

“In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

And so I invite you to join me in longing for the thing itself. We’re longing for a home we have not yet visited, a country we have not yet explored. As wonderful as Mississippi is, it can never be the New Jerusalem. As much as I long for my grandparent’s house, it can never satisfy the longing that is only quenched in Christ. I’m only home with him.

_____________________________________________

Cade Campbell is the Associate Pastor for Preaching and Discipleship at First Baptist Church, Henryville, Indiana. You can follow him on Twitter at @DCadeCampbell.

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