From memory to presence

Whenever we suffer the stress of living, we naturally reach for ways of coping. Memory can be a healing salve. Not only remembering loved ones and friends from our past. But when it comes to observing traditions and special occasions — at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter for example — we bring the expectations of good times had long ago to bear on the moment.

Indeed, our memory of pleasant past experiences can even act as a narcotic for dealing with current challenges and stresses. We may make it a habit of escaping into our mind’s eye; we linger with a memory until we feel the peace.

While our memories are a key to understanding what is meaningful to us, we get stuck, however, in the rut of our problems if we try creating an exact imitation of the past. Escaping into the past isn’t always the best way for addressing present day problems. The path to healing and wholeness is not about making a simulation of past experiences.

I heard about a man who, in middle age, purchased a Harley-Davidson to try to live in the myth of the youthful, unfettered individual who is free to go anywhere at any time. He felt unsatisfied, however, after his solitary road-trips. Something was missing.

After more reflection, what he was remembering on a deeper level was the positive experience in his youth of the friends he made in a bike shop where he worked a job one summer. The meaning of memory was found in the relationships more so than the motor-cycles. He didn’t sell the Harley-Davidson. But he did inquire about local riding groups of folks his age. His interest shifted to making friends. (1)

Memories of past Christmases, Easters, friendships or treasured experiences can transform each new, present day moment. For example, a memory of a family bike ride on an Easter Monday decades ago can lead to a family train trek through the Rockies. A friendship born from intellectual and emotional stimulation long ago can lead to a rediscovery of a hobby or commitment to personal growth. What’s important is not to re-create the past, but to transform it so it’s meaningful for the present. Not simulation, but translation.

The point, is to recognize and accept the present moment as the most important time and place of our lives. Because even if we are not able to remember any good in our past, or remember anything at all for that matter, God is about the now.

In last week’s Gospel story about Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:5-42), Jesus leaps beyond all boundaries of time to announce God’s intent for humanity is taking place in the present time. Three times in the passage, the words “already” and “now” highlight the importance of now. “Open your eyes and see!” Jesus says. “The fields are shining for the harvest, the reaper can collect his wages now, the reaper can already bring in the grain of eternal life” (v.35-36). Jesus is excited at the possibilities. Why? Partly because it is all happening now! (2)

In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees are interested in formulations of the mind which rest on the past. The blind man provides a focus for their cerebral machinations; they want an explanation for his condition: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). A biblically sound question, since the Torah suggests that the “iniquity of the parents is visited upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-8).

Jesus avoids this kind of biblicism that seeks only to make historical, technical arguments that focus only on our righteousness or lack thereof. Jesus turns our sight away from ourselves and onto God’s work in the present. “We must work the works of Him who sent me while it is day …” Jesus countered (v.4).

The purpose of our lives, including our suffering, is to point to God. If we are to remember anything from the past, it is to remember God’s mighty acts in relation to the people of God, including you and me. When the Psalmist delights in the past, his memory focuses on what God has done: “I remember the days of old, I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the works of your hands” (Psalm 143:5).

God’s vision is expansive and eternal, abounding in steadfast love. Before talking about the iniquity imparted to the third and fourth generations, when the Lord spoke to Moses, he said first: “The Lord is a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7) — which is a lot longer than four!

And as we know, generations ago the world was a lot different than what it is now. Recently I was watching on Netflix a show that I remember watching avidly in the 1990s. One detail caught my attention, when the characters talked to each other holding the old, large, clunky ear pieces connected by a spiral, rubber cord to a hand-dial phone. In one generation, so much has changed and people are doing things in different ways.

And yet, one thing remains: The steadfast love of God. Whatever we do in God’s mission today, and however we do it, we can be assured that God is faithful to us, that God is abounding in love for us. After all, God doesn’t look on outward appearances, our resume, our list of past sins, etc. God looks at our heart. When David was chosen to be king of Israel, God wasn’t looking for the one who appeared to have all the desirable qualities; God wasn’t looking for the tallest, the strongest, the best-looking one to be their leader. God was looking at the heart of David (1 Samuel 16).

We can be courageous, then, and bold to reach out and be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today. After all, it’s not, in the end about us or our past. We find healing and wholeness for our lives by doing the will of God. It is for God’s sake that we throw ourselves fully into life, in the present moment. It is for God’s sake that we are healed and restored.

We come to the Table of Communion each week, a diverse group of people. But we come as equals on a level-playing field feeling together the weight of our past sins, yet forgiven and showered with God’s mercy and grace, as one. We are empowered through the broken body of Jesus to be his broken body for the world, today.

How that memory shapes us today may be different from decades ago. But memory continues to form us, and reform us. In our lives, the Gospel is translated for the world today.


(1) Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren in “Introducing the Missional Church: What it is, why it mattes, how to become one” (Baker Books, Michigan, 2009), chapters 2-3
(2) Richard Rohr, “Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent” (Franciscan Media, Ohio, 2011), p.60-61

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About raspberryman

I am a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, serving a parish in Ottawa Ontario. I am a husband, father, and admirer of the Ottawa Valley. I enjoy beaches, sunsets and waterways. I like to write, reflect theologically and meditate in the Christian tradition.
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