My memory isn’t what it used to be. (Or maybe it is–I can’t remember.) Recently, I had to pack for an overnight trip. I carefully and methodically thought through everything I would need–right down to the dietary supplements–and stowed them carefully in my suitcase.
Then I forgot the suitcase.
Fortunately, my wife caught me on the phone before I got too far from the house.
There are days when the effects of Epstein-Barr refuse to stay quietly in the background; on one such evening recently, I said to my wife, whimsically, “Little gremlins are coming and stealing my brain.” Most of the time, it’s not a problem. But when I do things like forget to turn off the stove–and I have–it’s time to pay attention.
As those whose loved ones are struggling with dementia or Alzheimer’s will attest, memory is a precious thing, too easily taken for granted. We know who we are by locating ourselves in a story of a remembered past that reaches through the present and on into an anticipated future. Losing our memories is more than misplacing a few photos from the family album. Eventually, it becomes a loss of identity, of who I am as an individual and a person in relation to others.
Maybe that’s why God commands us to remember, to hold tightly to the story lest we forget.
In his farewell address to God’s people, on the eve of their crossing into the Promised Land, Moses reminded them of all that God had done to bring them to that place and moment. He described in rich and glowing detail the goodness of the land they were about to enter, for which they would rightly be thankful: “You will eat, you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God in the wonderful land that he’s given you.” (Deut 8:10, CEB)
But how long would it be before they forgot the story of God’s gracious provision, before they would begin taking his gifts for granted? Having painted an idyllic future, Moses immediately issues a stern warning:
But watch yourself! Don’t forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commands or his case laws or his regulations that I am commanding you right now. When you eat, get full, build nice houses, and settle down, and when your herds and your flocks are growing large, your silver and gold are multiplying, and everything you have is thriving, don’t become arrogant, forgetting the Lord your God: the one who rescued you from Egypt, from the house of slavery; the one who led you through this vast and terrifying desert of poisonous snakes and scorpions, of cracked ground with no water; the one who made water flow for you out of a hard rock; the one who fed you manna in the wilderness, which your ancestors had never experienced, in order to humble and test you, but in order to do good to you in the end. Don’t think to yourself, My own strength and abilities have produced all this prosperity for me. Remember the Lord your God! He’s the one who gives you the strength to be prosperous in order to establish the covenant he made with your ancestors—and that’s how things stand right now. But if you do, in fact, forget the Lord your God and follow other gods, serving and bowing down to them, I swear to you right now that you will be completely destroyed. Just like the nations that the Lord is destroying before you, that’s exactly how you will be destroyed—all because you didn’t obey the Lord your God’s voice. (Deut 8:11-20, CEB)
Yes, there is a threat of destruction involved, the warning of a justly jealous God. But Moses isn’t simply saying, “You’d better obey God’s commands, or he’s gonna get you for it.” He’s saying, “Remember the story. Remember the graciousness of the God who led you and fed you, who protected and provided. All that you have you owe to him. All that you are is because of him. If you forget the story, you’ll substitute another: instead of it being a humble memory of God’s grace, it will be an arrogant tale of how clever you were to manufacture your own success. Your obedience flows from your identity, and your identity from a right remembering of all that God has done. So pay attention: don’t forget.”
Those who follow Jesus, of course, have another story to remember: a body broken on a cross, a willing sacrifice of blood, poured out for the sake of God’s new covenant. We take communion at the command of Jesus: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19, NIV). We do it because we know our memories are fickle. We do it because we know that if we don’t, we’ll forget.
And the truth is that we just might forget anyway.
My memory isn’t what it was. But I have always been one who is prone to forgetfulness, to forgetting what God has commanded me to remember, to substituting other tales for the humble remembrance of God’s grace and goodness.
What have you forgotten today? And what do you want to remember?