3/19/17: Learning How to Remember, Exodus 17:1-7
Learning How to Remember
Second in the series: Learning How to Love
First Lesson: Romans 5:1-12
Second Lesson: Exodus 17:1-7
Rev. Scott Dickison
Every night before I go to sleep
I say out loud
Three things that I'm grateful for,
All the significant, insignificant
Extraordinary, ordinary stuff of my life.
It's a small practice and humble,
And yet, I find I sleep better
Holding what lightens and softens my life
Ever so briefly at the end of the day.
Sunlight, and blueberries,
Good dogs and wool socks,
A fine rain,
A good friend,
Fresh basil and wild phlox,
My father's good health,
My daughter's new job,
The song that always makes me cry,
Always at the same part,
No matter how many times I hear it.
Decent coffee at the airport,
And your quiet breathing,
The stories you told me,
The frost patterns on the windows,
English horns and banjos,
Wood Thrush and June bugs,
The smooth glassy calm of the morning pond,
An old coat,
A new poem,
My library card,
And that my car keeps running
Despite all the miles.
And after three things,
More often than not,
I get on a roll and I just keep on going,
I keep naming and listing,
Until I lie grinning,
Blankets pulled up to my chin,
Awash with wonder
At the sweetness of it all. (1)
We began this 40-day lenten journey of “Learning How to Love” last week by considering the hard work of learning to confess, learning to stand before the truth, and how it opens up our hearts in such a way to make room for life, room for our neighbor, room for God. We turn our attention this morning to the less painful, but just as neglected work of gratitude, which—as this poem from the singer-songwriter, Carrie Newcomer, reminds us, is another way of saying, “learning to remember.”
Confession, too, is a work of memory: we look back and say, “I did that,” and thus create a way forward through our guilt. But in gratitude we look back and remember the times and the places in which God has been present to us. So much of living a life of faith is learning to remember—learning to call to mind the ways in which God has been faithful in our lives in the past in order to open our eyes to the ways that God is being faithful in present, and even more, to spark our imaginations to consider ways in which God will be faithful in the future.
But living in this way is hard because we’re a forgetful people—or at least, we are forgetful about certain things. Our memories aren’t uniformly bad, only selectively so. There are certain things we remember all too well: the times we’ve been wounded or disappointed, by loved ones, by institutions, by life, by God. These memories we hold onto, we protect and pet and nurse, to where they become our core memories—memories that shape our impulses and expectations, our understanding of how the world works—at times in ways we’re not always fully aware.
This tendency to focus on and remember negatives seems to be a general human trait—there’s even research to suggest this is true that I won’t bore you with because it tells you what you already know, which is that bad experiences or feedback or memories or parents or what-have-you stick with us longer and more intensely than good ones. As someone noted, most people will be more upset about losing $50 bucks than they will be happy about winning $50. (2) This is, unfortunately, how we are wired.
And Scripture attests to this. It’s why the Israelites can be a month removed from their miraculous deliverance from the armies of Pharaoh, and say things to Moses like, Why did you bring us out of Egypt only to kill us with thirst?! Is the Lord among us, or not! One month and it’s like the Exodus never even happened. And as we looked it downstairs this morning, this would happen other times along the way, with the Israelites doubting the God who delivered them, wondering if God is still there, even turning to other gods of their own making to sooth their fears and anxieties.
Which is why over and over in their journey through the wilderness God tells the Israelites: Remember.
This appears in Scripture almost like a refrain: Remember, remember, remember.
Remember how I delivered you from slavery.
Remember how I was there for you, how I provided for you.
Remember, when you get to the land that I’ve promised you, this rich land where you will prosper—you must try hard to remember, for as it’s been said, “prosperity breeds amnesia” (2)—you must remember how I made food fall down from the sky, and water flow from rocks—how abundance was revealed when you were convinced that there was only scarcity. Remember these things.
Remember, too, how it was in Egypt, living in slavery under Pharaoh. Remember how it was to live in fear as strangers in a foreign land. Remember how it was to work anxiously and without end making bricks—more and more bricks. Remember this, so you can live differently in freedom.
Remember this so you can ensure that others, the vulnerable among you, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, may live differently, too. Remember that you were once just like them
Remember these things, God tells them, so that those old patterns may be broken.
We are a forgetful people. We remember what we should perhaps let go, and we forget what we should remember and recall and rejoice in every morning—or perhaps every night before we fall asleep.
Walter Brueggemann writes,
Do you, when you wake up in the night, remember what you were supposed to have done, vexed that you did not meet expectations? Do you fall asleep counting bricks? (Those lesser things to which you have committed so much of your life.) Do you dream of more bricks you have to make yet, or of bricks you have made that were flawed? We dream so because we have forgotten the exodus! (3) We have forgotten the story of God’s deliverance—which of course continued far beyond that time in the wilderness.
If we dream so, if we dream so, about the failures in our life, about the disappointments, the set-back, the tough breaks, even the real sorrows, the piercing losses, if we dream so about the darkness and death and defeat we have known, it is because we havebecause we have forgotten the gospel—God’s promise of presence, of comfort, of redemption and wholeness in the end.
It’s this gospel—the good news of what God is doing in the world and in our lives—that compels us to have have a wider view of the way things are, a more complete memory of how they have been. Not a naive optimism, a whitewashing of the pain and the suffering we see in the world or feel in our own bones—no, we are simply called to be vigilant in seeking out the good, faithful in remembering our promise that a loving God is at work in this beautiful, broken world. That this loving God is at work in us. We’re called to remember the story; to remember the whole story of Scripture and of our lives. So much of faith—so much of faith—is an act of memory.
I heard a story once about a little girl, maybe about 3 years old. She was the firstborn in her family, and her mother was expecting again, and the little girl was very excited about having a new brother or sister. And soon after her parents brought their new baby boy home from the hospital, the little girl made a request: she wanted to be alone with her new brother in his room with the door shut.
Now, her parents were a bit uneasy with her insistence about being alone with the baby with the door shut, but they remembered that they had a baby monitor, so they figured they could let their daughter do this, and if they heard the slightest indication that anything strange was happening, they could be in the baby’s room in an instant.
So they let their daughter go into the baby’s room, helped her shut the door, and hurried over to the monitor. As they listened through the faint white noise, they heard the little girl’s footsteps moving across the room, imagined her standing over the crib, and than they heard her say something to her three-day-old brother that left them amazing and bewildered. She said, Tell me about God—I’ve almost forgotten. (4)
What if learning how to love is really “relearning.” What if learning to be faithful, learning to trust in a loving God, learning to love our neighbor as ourselves, learning to give, learning to let go, learning to hope—what if all of it is really about learning to remember.
What if it’s true, and faith is an act of memory—not just remembering back into our lives all the ways in which God has been present, but somehow, and in ways that we can’t fully understand, remembering to a time that exists now only in God’s imagination, and the imaginations of the youngest among us—the ones whom Christ calls us to imitate.
What if learning how to love means remembering who you are; remembering whose you are and where you come from. What if this Christian journey we’re traveling together through these 40 days and beyond, in the end, will be revealed as nothing more and nothing less than a journey home. Amen.
(1) Carrie Newcomer, "Three Gratitudes," https://www.onbeing.org/blog/three-gratitudes/
(3) Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying “No” to Our Culture of Now, 37
(4) Ibid, 42
(5) As told by Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 113-114.