Memorial Day is a good time to reflect on the fact that Christians should be a people of a long and shared memory.
People remember many things: moments of joy and triumph, despair and defeat. Traumatic memories, in particular, may make us wary and defensive, sometimes debilitatingly so. Those who have seen war, those who have lost loved ones to war, may feel like they have no choice. They will remember, even if they don’t want to. They cannot forget.
God has made us in such a way that our memories shape who we are in the present and guide our choices for the future. We are historical beings, a storied people. We are to remember the story of what God has done, because that is the context that gives our own personal stories meaning.
We may be familiar with the Old Testament text known as the Shema (Hebrew for “hear”): “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut 6:4-5, NIV). But the context of the commandment (indeed, all the commandments–see Deut 5) is a recitation by Moses, on the eve of the people’s entry into the Promised Land, of the long story of their rebellion and the faithfulness of God.
Throughout the story, the repeated refrain is “Don’t forget”:
Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. (Deut 4:9, NIV)
Immediately after the Shema, Moses warns the people of the danger of taking their new life for granted and forgetting the One who brought them there:
When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. (Deut 6:10-12, NIV)
Don’t forget. I wonder: as Moses told the story, as he recounted the military victories they had won by the hand of God, were there mothers in that audience who had lost sons in those battles? Were there men who had survived war but seen friends and brothers die?
No, these are things they would never forget. For them, and perhaps for us, it’s not a question of if but how.
Brain researchers tell us that memory isn’t like watching a movie from your DVD collection; it’s an active moment-by-moment reconstruction, rebuilt from the traces left by experience. If so, then we might ask whether there is such a thing as faithful reconstruction–not merely in the sense of historical accuracy (did X and Y really happen the way we remember?) but in terms of fidelity to God’s story.
That, it seems, is what Moses is telling the people to do. Remember the story of what God has done. Remember his faithfulness to his covenant promise. Remember how he rescued you time and again. Remember the blessings that come to you as a gracious gift, not as something you earned. Remember. Don’t forget. Everything else about how you understand and live your life depends on it.
And Jesus, knowing what he must suffer, knowing the trauma of loss and failure his disciples are about to experience, sets the bread and cup before them and says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The cross and resurrection set us squarely in the ongoing story of a faithful, powerful, gracious God. We remember, and in so doing, we faithfully reconstruct our other memories.
I would never ask anyone who has suffered trauma to simply forget about it and move on with their lives. But I would ask believers to remember the whole story, the one in which the covenant God is both author and main character. And on the days in which the memories are too painful, we may need the support of a faithful community that will gently hold the story in trust for us.
Don’t forget. Instead, remember well.