Wednesday, February 01, 2017

The Gift of Memory

This morning I woke up feeling grateful for the gift of memory. I think my gratitude is at least two-fold.

On the personal side, there is my utter gladness that my brain surgery last October was successful. I'm not sure there has been a more frightening moment in my healing journey so far than the moment I first learned that the cancer had reached my brain. The struggles I'd been having to find the right word suddenly loomed crystal clear.

It turned out that the tumor that the neuro-surgeon could, thank the Lord, fully remove, was located near my brain's memory center. When I think how close disease came to trying to take the gifts of language and memory, it still can make me catch my breath. Thank you, God, that these gifts are still with me. Help me to treasure them every day and not take them for granted.

On the more communal side, I've been thinking a lot lately about how important memory is to a community or culture. One of the things I think we are seeing in our broken, angry, and anxiety- ridden national culture right now is a lack of appreciation for memory. We either truly forget, or sometimes choose to forget, the very ideals and experiences that have formed us as a culture and a people. Because of that, we sometimes find ourselves making the same mistakes our forbears did (and then some). I think we would often rather forge ahead as innovators, pretending that what we do is the best thing possible and conveniently forgetting that we stand on the shoulders of others who helped to get us where we are, forgetting too the mistakes we've made in the past as well as the good things we've accomplished when we've managed to get our priorities in order. Our lack of compassion for those who are hurting and displaced and our lack of compassion for each others' woundedness seem linked, I think, to the fact that we forget who we are and who we are called to be. "To whom much has been given, much will be required" is something our power-hungry, resource-rich culture seems to have forgotten.

Of course, we're not the only community of people who have ever forgotten our past. In the Scriptures, time and time again, we see the people of God forgetting who they are and whose they are. They forget God's deliverance; they forget they once were slaves; they forget who they were called to be. And so they stumble in the wilderness and lose their way, falling into the trap of idolatry and becoming what the cultures around them want them to become instead of keeping their eyes on God and his bigger, fuller vision for them.

That narrative continues in the New Testament too. In my morning readings, in Mark 8, I see how Jesus tries to prod his disciples' memories so that they can manage to keep their eyes on him instead of on the anxieties produced by their seeming lack. They are worried because they don't have enough bread to eat that day, and he has to remind them that, only recently, he provided bread for thousands when there was hardly any bread at all. In fact, he'd done it twice, and he patiently prods them to remember both instances and how many leftovers they had counted when he was done providing for the crowds in the name and the power of the Father.

When Jesus did this, he seemed to be reminding them, not only that he himself was the bread of life and that they could count on him to provide for their needs (and in abundance!) but that life isn't always just about our concerns for what we put into our bodies, as important as they may be, but what we allow into our hearts, minds, and souls. Part of the reason the disciples started fussing about bread in the first place was because they heard Jesus warn them about the leaven (yeast) of the Pharisees and Herodians. He wasn't talking about actual yeast; he was using a metaphor to describe the fast-spreading, fast-acting poisonous ideas floating around them. He didn't want them to give into the definitions of the surrounding culture and how that culture would try to tell them to live. He wanted them to remember who they were and whose they were.

Isn't this why we remember Jesus' life and death every time we go to the communion table? We re-enter the story of who he is and what he did for us in part so we can stay on the path to which he has called us, our eyes firmly fixed on him, the author and finisher of our faith. When we remember who he is and what he is done, we remember too who we are and what we are called to do as we follow in his footsteps as closely as possible. Right now it seems to me that the church is often forgetting that we are primarily citizens of God's kingdom (which beats our allegiance to any earthly realm) and that we are called to be salt and light to the nations. 

These are important things for me to remember right now, especially as I spend a lot of time feeling isolated and frustrated and tired. As I spend more and more time focused on what my body needs (medicines, doctor visits, fluids, special foods, treatment options) and as my body continues to grow more tired and more strange to me as it changes and goes through my ongoing struggle against disease, I am sometimes tempted by the enemy to think all these external changes means there have been internal changes. But I am still who I am, regardless of how I look and feel on the outside. I am still God's beloved daughter, called by him to be and do what he wants me to be and do, called to keep my eyes firmly fixed on Jesus as I walk the road he's asked me to walk. I am called to remember who he is and what he has done.

Memory matters. It matters so much that I think I am about to embark on a couple of memorization projects this month, words I can fix in my mind and meditate on. I'm going to start easily with a short passage of Scripture and also a short poem.  After thinking a while this morning, I decided that I am going to memorize John 14:1-3 (in the ESV translation). I also plan to memorize the poem "The Peace of Wild Things" by Wendell Berry. In all honesty, I have read both of these so many times for so many years that I have big parts of them well memorized already, but this month I am going to try to focus on them by writing them, reading them, and reciting them often so I can commit them to memory even better.

Want to join me? You can pick your own passages, of course.  Memory is a gift, and remembering who we are and whose we are is one way to keep our equilibrium and our peace in difficult times. And to stay on the path of life, our eyes fixed on the God who made us, loves us, and sustains us, fully committed to doing what we're called to do.

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