Don’t Forget to Remember

            Last Sunday, we finished our study through the Old Testament, and after the first of the year, I plan for us to begin on the books of the New Testament.  But, this morning, for the first time in a long time, you don’t have a video to watch, so you’re stuck with me for the next 30 minutes or so.

            I want to begin by sharing a couple of memes that some of you may be able to appreciate.  This one sounds just a little too familiar:  “I would write it down to help me remember, but there’s a good chance I’ll forget where I wrote it.”

            Or this one: “My ability to remember song lyrics from the 80s far exceeds my ability to remember why I walked into the kitchen.”

            We all know how important memory is.  But there’s a sense in which our culture is placing less and less value on memory.  In ancient times, the ability to memorize was a prized skill.  Whole cultures were passed down through the centuries by those who remembered the stories, the legends, the history, and the laws.

            The invention of the printing press launched a new era of “looking things up.”  And today, the Internet — and Google in particular — seems to be making memorization irrelevant in the modern world.  We aren’t concerned about remembering things because if there’s something we can’t remember, we just look it up.

            Schools have generally abandoned requiring students to memorize poems, famous speeches, multiplication tables, and all sorts of academic material that used to be an important part of the curriculum.

            But, despite the fact that we aren’t required to remember as much, memory is still vitally important.  Oscar Wilde once said, “Memory… is the diary that we all carry about with us.”  Memories help us to recall past events, teaching us important life lessons that we can use and apply in the future.  By having memories, we can remember where we made our mistakes and learn from them.

            But, more than that, memories are what shape us into who we are.  Think about it this way.  Who you are is the sum total of everything that you have experienced.  Where you went to school, who your friends were, all the things you’ve done. Whether you prefer chocolate or vanilla ice cream, action movies or comedies, spicy food or mild.  All of that is part of your story, but the way you know what those preferences are is through your accumulated memory, and that’s what defines you as a person.

            And so, if you lose your memory, in a sense, you begin to lose your identity.  And that’s why it’s so heartbreaking when someone we know gets Alzheimer’s.  Someone has said, “If we have no memory, we are adrift — because memory anchors us to the past, interprets the present, and charts a course for the future.”

            In his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat, neurologist Oliver Sacks tells the story of a 49-year-old patient of his who came into his office in 1975 – his name was Jimmy.

            Jimmy remembered his childhood home, friends, school, and the Navy, which he had joined in 1943.  He was stationed on a sub and he could still remember Morse code.  He recalled vividly his service in the Navy through the end of the war in 1945, but that’s where the memories stopped.  Completely stopped.

            Jimmy couldn’t remember anything from 1945 to the present (which was 1975) — 30 years was a complete blank.  In fact, Jimmy thought he was still 19 years old.  When Dr. Sacks showed him a mirror, and Jimmy stared at a middle-aged man with gray hair, he was shocked!  He thought someone was playing some sort of practical joke on him.

            And then, when Dr. Sacks left the room and returned a few minutes later, Jimmy had no memory of ever meeting the doctor!  He had to introduce himself again.  And over the course of nine years, Jimmy was introduced to Dr. Sacks time after time after time because Jimmy did not have the ability to store short term memory.  He couldn’t remember what happened five minutes ago.

            Dr. Sacks said, “I had never encountered, even imagined, such a power of amnesia, the possibility of a pit into which everything, every experience, every event would fathomlessly drop.” 

            Another downside to this condition is that Jimmy is not really able to feel emotion. He may feel happy or sad in the moment that an event is occurring but a few minutes later, he forgets that event and any emotion he was feeling with it.  He doesn’t form long term memories so he can’t form new opinions. He may have a fleeting feeling that he dislikes something or someone, but he can’t remember why, or even remember that he’s ever met them.

            Dr. Sacks wrote that Jimmy was “isolated in a single moment of being…. he is a man without a past (or future), stuck in a constantly changing, meaningless moment.”  The staff at the convalescent home where Jimmy lived spoke of him as a “lost soul.”

            And it’s true.  Without memory, we are lost souls.  Because, in the Bible, memory is more than just cognitive recall (such as remembering the dates for a history test or remembering where your car keys are).  In the Bible, memory includes the mind, but it also includes emotion and the will.  There are many passages in the Bible where God tells us that we need to remember.

             In Exodus 13, for example, Moses said to the people of Israel, “Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand the Lord brought you out from this place.” (Exodus 13:3)

            In Numbers 15, God told the Israelites to put tassels on their garments, and then he said, “It shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord.”(Numbers 15:39)

            In Deuteronomy 8, as the Israelites were about to cross over into the land of Canaan, Moses said, “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God…lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt….Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’  You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.” (Deuteronomy 8:11-18)

            “Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you.” (Deuteronomy 32:7)

            And when we get to the New Testament, the admonitions continue.  In Ephesians 2, Paul said, “Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh…remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (Ephesians 2:11-12)

            “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel.” (2 Timothy 2:8)

            In Revelation 2, Jesus said to the church in Ephesus,“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.” (Revelation 2:5)

            And, of course, we can’t talk about the importance of remembering without mentioning what Jesus said when he instituted the Lord’s Supper, “He took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’” (Luke 22:19)

            Remembering the past is important because our lives are all shaped by the past.  I am who I am because of the things that I have experienced over my lifetime.  But, to some degree, I am also who I am because of the things that my parents did, and they were influenced by their parents, so what my grandparents did influences who I am today, to some degree.

            The same thing is true of us as Christians.  All of our lives have been shaped by the things that we have done over the past four years here at Cruciform.  But, going back even further, the way that each of us was raised in the church (or not raised in the church) has helped to shape us into who we are today.

            Going back even further, what Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone did in the 1800’s has helped to shape who we are as a church today.  Going back even further, what the Christians of the early centuries did has shaped who are.  Our collective past is part of what makes us who we are today.  And one thing that I haven’t always appreciated is that there is great value in looking back to learn about some of those ancient influences in our lives.

            Whether we’re aware of it or not, the things that happened to Christians in the past continue to play out in our lives.  The writer of Hebrews makes mention of these saints from past generations.  He spends all of chapter 11 showing the faith of these great men and women in the Old Testament. 

            Then, in chapter 12, he says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses….let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

            The writer uses here the illustration of running a race to describe our Christian lives.  More specifically, he used a picture of the Grecian athletic games that were held in that day, which were very similar to our modern Olympic Games. 

            In the Grecian Games, those who ran in these races were surrounded by people watching from the grandstands, cheering them on.  So, here in Hebrews 12, the writer says, in essence, “All of these heroes that I’ve just listed here and all the other believers who have ever died are watching us from the grandstands in heaven as we run our spiritual race.”  We’re all connected.

            Time and time again, the New Testament writers use people from the Old Testament as examples for us.  Because events from the past are not there just for the sake of recording history; they’re there to help us to make good decisions in our lives.  As Paul said in Romans 15:4, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction…”

            And what has been passed on to us, we take and pass on to others.  And so, the Bible calls us to remember because memory is an important part of our spiritual identity and formation.

  • Without memory, we wouldn’t be able to grow spiritually and mature as Christians. 
  • Without memory, we couldn’t be thankful, because gratitude assumes that we remember the gifts that we have received.  
  • Without memory, we would lose our identity, because we can hardly know who we are or why we are here if we have no memory of where we’ve been.  
  • Without memory, we wouldn’t be able to repent, because how can we be sorry if we don’t remember our past sins? 

            And finally, without memory, we wouldn’t have much hope for future.  That may not seem to make sense, so let me describe it this way.  I have a hope of what my life will look like when I retire.  It is a hope that I will be able to spend more time with Sueanne, do more things with Sueanne, and go more places with Sueanne.  But that hope is built on past experiences.  I have a hope for those things because I can remember the times in the past when we spent time together and did things together and went places together.  Those memories help to shape what my hope for the future is.  So, if I couldn’t remember any of those past experiences with Sueanne, I wouldn’t be able to have much hope for the future.

            People with strong memories have a strong hope for the future.  They know that their present condition is not the only option.  Memory of God’s faithfulness in the past is a great source of encouragement whenever trial or disappointment comes our way.  People with good memories can say: “Things can be different.  I’ve seen it happen”

            But again, it’s important to understand that memory is not simply a private or individual thing.  In fact, as ancient Israel and the early church understood, memory is formed and sustained in a faithful community.  Walter Brueggemann has said, “The church is the community that gathers to remember.”

            Now, there are several things that we can do to help us remember – not the least of which is studying Scripture.  In fact, the Bible teaches us that we should not only remember, but that we should help others to remember.  You could even go so far as to say that the Bible is a book of memories that are meant to be shared from one generation to the next.  And it’s not enough for just one person in the community to remember. The whole community needs to be devoted to passing this story of faith on to the next generation.  

            It’s interesting to me that people who live in less developed cultures often lack some of our modern conveniences – not only advanced technology, like computers, but even things that we take for granted, like books and libraries.  Yet, strangely enough, those less advanced cultures are usually better at preserving and sharing their cultural memory than more “advanced” cultures are.

            Traditional cultures understand why those stories are so important to their well-being, and they remember how to transmit them from generation to generation.  It’s important for us to do the same thing.

            And part of the way we do that is by understanding that we are all part of a story that has been going on for centuries.  For example, with the Jews, the story of the Exodus from Egypt was not just shared as piece of history to be learned.  Jewish boys and girls were taught to see themselves in that story.  And when they recited the story of the Exodus, they always did so in the first person, as their own personal story:

            “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.  And the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes.  And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers.” (Deuteronomy 6:20-23)

            God said to the Jews, “When you tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, don’t talk about what happened to them; talk about what happened to you.”  And as the Jews shared this story from generation to generation, the story became their own.  What could have been just a stale textbook account became a personal story, embedded in the hearts of each and every member of that community.

            Something similar happens in our worship when we come together and we share the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.  When we take the Lord’s Supper and we remember what Jesus did for us, what he did for me.  It’s our story, and we remember it together.

            But I think it’s important for us to share these stories not only here with each other, but also in our homes.  Notice that, in the Old Testament, God didn’t give the Jewish leaders the responsibility of teaching the children about God.  He didn’t tell the prophets or the priests to tell the story of God’s goodness to the children.  That was a job he gave to the parents.

            “Be careful never to forget what you yourself have seen. Do not let these memories escape from your mind as long as you live! And be sure to pass them on to your children and grandchildren.” (Deuteronomy 4:9, NLT)

            “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

            It’s important that our children not only hear Bible stories from their Bible class teachers, but they hear them from their parents. As the song we sometimes sing puts it, “Tell me the story of Jesus, write on my heart every word.”  Parents, share that story, and help your children to understand that they are part of that story.

            But there’s something else that we can do to continue to remember who we are and where we’ve come from.  One of the most ancient and effective ways of helping to remember is through a shared meal.  

            Meals play a prominent role in the Bible – Abraham prepared a meal for the three strangers who stopped by for a visit, Moses ate a meal with the seventy elders on Mount Sinai, Boaz invited Ruth to join him for a meal. 

            There’s Jesus feeding the 5,000, Jesus eating with Zacchaeus.  Jesus eating with the other tax collectors and sinners.  Jesus eating with Mary and Martha.  Jesus eating with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Jesus eating with Peter and the other apostles by the Sea of Galilee.  The early church breaking bread in each other’s homes from day to day.  The love feasts of the early church.  

            And it’s worth noting that at the very center of the spiritual lives of God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments, we find a table: the table of Passover in the Old Testament and the table of Communion in the New Testament.  N. T. Wright has said, “When Jesus himself wanted to explain to his disciples what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal.”

            Jesus often used the meal as a symbol of spiritual harmony and union with God.  In Luke 14:15, he said, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”  In Revelation 3:20, Jesus said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

            The truth is that among the early Christians, there was a mysterious blending of food and faith that we don’t quite understand because we want to try to separate the sacred and the secular.  Darryl Tippens, in his book Pilgrim Heart says, “I remember as a young Bible reader trying to distinguish between the meals mentioned so often in the New Testament. Which ones were ‘secular’ meals and which ones were ‘sacred’?  I had to give up my flawed project because, in the Bible, food talk is really God talk.” 

            For the early Christians, a meal was not only a time to share food, but prayers, Scripture reading, and singing of hymns.  While sharing a meal together, all of our senses are involved — listening to conversation and story, the aromas and flavors of food and drink, the sights of smiles and gestures, the holding of hands in blessing.  

            No wonder feasts were prepared when people in the Bible wanted to celebrate an important occasion, such as when the father welcomed home his prodigal son. We need to recognize that meals shared together have the same power today to stir our hearts and our memories just as they did in ancient times. 

            Meals are an important part of our story, because eating is closely related to memory.   Enjoying your food is not only the taste at the time, it’s also the memory of the other times you enjoyed the same food.  If you ate something as a child and didn’t like it, chances are you don’t eat it today, because of the memory.  On the other hand, you may go out of your way to purchase a specific food item because you’ve had it before and you want it again. You may travel a great distance to dine at a certain restaurant because of the memory of the food that was served to you years ago.

            Think back to your childhood.  Think of the very best times that you shared with your family, and I’m going to guess that there was a table involved that had food on it.  Maybe a Thanksgiving meal, maybe Christmas, maybe a family reunion.  Maybe a pig pickin’ or a fish fry.   And you can remember the smell of the kitchen, because our brain remembers odors and smells and scents better than just about anything else.

            If meals shared together are filled with such emotion and memory, then any community (whether church or family) that wants to be serious about the transmission of its values will give special attention to meals.

            In an article by Barry Jones, he writes about how when he and his wife got married, they bought a small pub table.  About ten years later, they needed something bigger.  But Barry said, “We could not bring ourselves to get rid of it. After countless meals together, often shared with family and friends, that table had become an icon of God’s grace and goodness….The people we loved most sat with us there.  Meals were shared.  Stories were told.  Sins were confessed.  We laughed together and cried together. Together we remembered where we’d been, and we dreamed of where we might one day go.  We prayed at that table. And there we experienced God’s nearness, God’s kindness, and God’s love.”

            It seems such a shame that most families have gotten away from the practice of sitting around the table at dinner, and I think we’ve lost something.  The sharing of that meal together is an opportunity to do more than just eat.  It’s a time a to remember, a time to tell the story of who we are and where we’ve come from, a time to tell the story of God.  It’s a time to create memories, memories that will shape who our children will become in the years ahead.

            And I believe that one of the most important biblical practices for us to recover in the 21st century is table fellowship. In our fast-paced, tech-saturated, attention-deficit-disordered culture in which we find ourselves, Christians need to restore the art of a slow meal around a table with people we care about.

            “Table fellowship” doesn’t usually make the list of the classical spiritual disciplines. But there is something very important about the way that sharing a meal together nourishes us both physically and spiritually.

            And so, in the weeks ahead, I hope that you’ll all spend more time remembering – remembering what God has done for you, remembering who you are and how you fit into God’s story.  And not just remembering, but sharing that story, passing that story on to the next generation, helping your children and others to remember as well.  And may you find plenty of opportunities to do that seated around a table.


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