This psalm is about the power of memory. God remembers Israel and not just Israel, but also the relationships God had with Israel’s forebears – with Abram who heard God while in the city of Ur, with Sarai who laughed in delight and shock at the news of children beyond all hope, of Moses who trusts God enough to return to the land from which he was exiled, of Mirium who dances to the Lord before the Red Sea singing her bold prophecies. God remembers God’s relationship, renewing God’s covenant anew with each generation, with each person.
A part of discovering the promise in such a relationship, a relationship the Bible calls “a covenant”, is by our remembering.
I see the power of remembering each day as a chaplain. Sitting by the bedsides of the suffering, the dying, I see how remembering is not just something that happens. It is instead a discipline or spiritual practice like prayer. For so many patients and their families what gives them the courage and strength to face the uncertainty of what lies before them is the fact they take time to remember: to remember the experiences shared with people like their spouses, children, friends, and parents who have been sources of hope through life’s storms, and to remember the many ways they have encountered God through their lives. This type of remembrance does not just happen but is cultivated.
In Scripture we see this cultivated through hymns like this Psalm which invite us to take time to remember God’s hand both in our personal lives in the history of God’s people across all ages and lands. We are challenged read and to rehearse to our children this story, which is a part of what Bible study is about. Yet in the Hebrew Scriptures this is also one of the roles of worship. The feasts of Israel are days in part set aside to remember holy times in the history of the people of God found in Israel. The times at temple invite people to reorient their lives not around the business of chronos, the unending avalance of years & activities, but Kairos, time as experienced as the unfolding of living relationship with the Source of all life and with those people whose lives God knits together with our own. As these occur in tune with the cycles of the seasons in Palestine in Scripture, they frame Kairos as including time as include the unfolding of our personal and collective relationships with the land, the air, and the water that makes what Pope Francis calls our ”common home” in his recent encyclical Latudo Si and with the many other living creatures it includes. Even prayer is framed in Scripture in terms of remembrance for prayer is not just the speaking of the heart what first comes into one’s mind, although this extemporaneous prayer is a life-giving practice found in Scripture. Yet Jesus prays the words of Psalm 22 as he hangs on the cross. The apostles are quoted in Acts as praying the words of other psalms, and Christians through the ages have recited the words “Our Father” as an experience that grounds them in life. The tradition of liturgical prayer, prayer that uses ancient words of the people of God as a framework to guide our own prayers and breath prayer, using these words of Scripture and words of God’s people down through the ages to inspire contemplative meditation, not only helps us find words when our words fail and to center our minds and hearts but also invite us to remember. To remember the many ways God is at work in us we would forget. To remember too our connection to all God’s people in all lands, times, and faiths. To remember our connection to those who went before us. To remember our connection to those who come after us. To remember our connection to nature and all creatures. To remember our connection to the One in whom we live, in whom we move, and in whom we have our being.
I see as a chaplain and as a pastor people returning to such memories of their own lives, the stories their parents told, the experiences of faith, and see such remembrance give them strength to not just survive another day of illness or suffering but in fact at times even to thrive, radiating a hope, joy, serene acceptance, resiliency, or stubborn “I will not give up” which inspires me.
It would seem that individuals facing dementia would lose their capacity to remember, but I wonder about this fact. So often when I discover the words of a prayer that drew together their family or church community, the words of a Scripture they often quoted, or especially of a song that gave them hope, when I use that with the patient with dementia I find a light twinkling in their eyes and them mouthing the words to the prayer, Scripture, or song even when a moment before they acted disconnected from me and their environment. On some level, these practices of faith help them remember, if but for a moment, whom they are and whose they are. I hope in those moments in their own way they hear the whisper of the Almighty “You, dear one, are my child. You, dear one, are the one whom I love. In you, dear one, I am ever well pleased as a mother is ever to her child or a father to his own”.
In my own life, in addition to the practices of meditation, liturgical and breath prayer, Scripture reading, and joining in Christian worship that celebrates our common history, I find the following practices help me remember:
Journaling. There is a power to writing out to God, to myself, and to others what I have experienced of God, of doubt, of faith. By writing things out and, time to time, returning to what I have written, I am able to see the ways in which God continues to walk alongside me causing my life to unfold. In fact, this blog in many ways is an act of journaling. Most of what I write begins as a spiritual journal which I edit, screen for things I don’t need to go public, touch up, and share with you.
Gratitude Practice. I try every day to take time to list of to God and another person several things that happened which are concrete which I am grateful for, including both answered prayers and unexpected joys as small as seeing a red cardinal on a tree to as big as getting a job I worked toward. I also try to take time to thank people for the blessings they’ve bestowed on me in my life, although I am perhaps not as good at that as I wish I was. In fact in our family, Kat and I have begun the practice before saying grace for a meal to ask those at the table with us to each list one or two things for which they are thankful, incorporating those into the prayer of thanks.
Reading spiritual biographies and histories. When I can, I like to read spiritual biographies or books about the history of spiritual leaders & movements. I say “spiritual” because it includes Christian leaders and role-models, but also recognizes people of spirit of other faiths than my own. I am more and more convince that where justice, mercy, compassion, service, and life breaks out, it is a result of the Holy Spirit whom Hildegard of Bingen describe as the bringer of veriditas, the greening life-giving energy in which all things thrive. And so I see figures like Hildegard, like Dorothy Day, like Deitrich Bonhoeffer, like Sojourner Truth, like Rumi, like the Dalai Lama, like Gandhi, and many others as people whose stories can help me remember how God has worked through the ages and connect up with whom God is & how God is working in my life and world today.
Pilgrimage I don’t do this often, but I do try to practice a bit of pilgrimage – no, I don’t mean heading to holy sites like Jerusalem or Mecca. I really don’t make the money for such long trips. But when I can, I do try to make pilgrimage to holy sites in my own life – to the ocean where I was baptized, to the hills I would visit in my childhood, to a retreat center where I renewed faith. By visiting for spiritual enrichment such places I revitalize my own sense of where God was at work in my life and my eyes are opened to where God might be at work now.
How do you take time to remember what God has done in your life? In your family? In your community?
How do you take time to experience your connection with those of faith and of spirit whom have gone before? With those of spirit and faith in other lands, cultures, and faiths? With our common home and its many creatures?
Let us take time to remember, knowing in doing so we renew our relationship with One who will never forget us.
And I ain’t whistling any Dixie today,
Your progressive redneck preacher,