Note: I’m a little late getting this Memorial Day Message posted, but remembering whose we are and who helped get us where we are is not a seasonal activity.
Remembering is a funny thing isn’t it? I have no trouble remembering who won the 1975 World Series but I constantly forget where I left my glasses 5 minutes ago. I have to put lists in my smart phone to remind me where I’m going and what I’m supposed to buy – but I have to be smart enough to take the phone with me to make that work. I remember laughing a few years ago at an older friend who walked into a meeting and pulled up the calendar on his phone or whatever that thing was that came before smart phones. When I asked him if he was looking up where he was supposed to go next, he said, “No, I’m trying to figure out where I am now.” Not as funny when it happens to me.
One of my favorite authors and theologians, Frederick Buechner, tells of a dream where he was in a hotel room where he experience pleasant memories that gave him a deep sense of peace and joy that he had never experienced elsewhere. As his dream went on, Beuchner said he wandered off to other places and adventures and then returned to the same hotel but was given a different room where he felt uncomfortable, dark and cramped. So he went down to the front desk and told the clerk about the wonderful room he had earlier. He said he would very much like to have that room again, but he had failed to keep track of where it was and didn’t know how to ask for it. The clerk said he knew exactly which room it was and that Beuchner could have it again anytime he wanted it if he would ask for it by name. The name of the room he said was “Remember.”
Memorial Day is a good time to visit the room called remember. When I was a child living in a small town where all my relatives lived and most of my ancestors were buried, we called this holiday Decoration Day – because it was a day to go visit cemeteries and decorate the graves of loved ones with flags and flowers. We’ve lost that tradition for a lot of reasons – families are spread out too much geographically and we’re all busier than ever. But some of our reluctance to visit graveyards is because we don’t want to face our own mortality. Not too many generations ago there were cemeteries next door to most churches, and it’s too bad they’re gone. Walking by a graveyard on your way to worship is a great way to put life into perspective.
I actually like cemeteries – they are peaceful, quiet places, like the room called remember, and like that room, they are important places to visit, but not a place you can homestead – you can’t live there.
Our text from Deuteronomy 8 is a call to remember. The Hebrew people are at a crossroads, a time of great transition, a time of joy as they are about to enter the long, long-awaited promised land after 40 years of wandering and suffering hardships in the wilderness. The verses we read today are part of a long lecture/sermon that Moses gives to his people in preparation for their new life in the Promised Land. He gives them the 10 commandments in chapter 5 and then goes on at great length to remind them and warn them about why they should not only remember God’s commandments but actually keep them, especially in the midst of their new-found prosperity. Moses knew how humans tend to call on God a lot when things are desperate, but when life is good, not so much. He repeats the refrain for emphasis, “Remember the long way the Lord has led you;” Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God;” “Remember the Lord your God.”
Sometimes we don’t visit the room called remember because there are painful memories there too. The old Frank Sinatra song says, “Regrets, I’ve had a few.” I think old blue eyes was using his selective memory if he only had a few regrets. I knew a woman once who lost her adolescent son in a tragic car accident, and one of the ways she dealt with her grief was to keep his room as a shrine – to the point that she refused to change anything about the way the room looked the day he left – even to the point of not picking up the dirty clothes he had left on the floor. This went on for years. Getting stuck in the past is like driving all the time looking in the rear view mirror.
A precocious 8 year old in a Sunday school class was waving her hand eagerly to make a comment after that day’s Bible lesson on the story where Lot’s wife disobeyed the commandment not to look back as they were fleeing from the destruction of Sodom. When the teacher got to the point where Lot’s wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt he asked little Sally what she wanted to say. She said, “I understand this story.” Not knowing enough to quit while he was ahead, the teacher asked, “And how do you know about this story, Sally.” “Oh, she said, “My dad was driving down the street the other day and he looked back, and he turned into a telephone pole.”
We need times to look back and remember – holidays, anniversaries of significant events, past mistakes and accomplishments – we need times and places, sanctuaries, safe places to remember the history of God’s saving grace, but we can’t dwell in the past.
George Santayana is famous for saying that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We sometimes forget that Memorial Day is not just a holiday to celebrate the beginning of summer, but is a time to honor those who have made great sacrifices to preserve our freedom and in Lincoln’s famous words at Gettysburg, “gave their last full measure of devotion.” For me the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington is one of the most awe-filled, sacred rooms called remember I’ve ever visited. Honoring veterans is more than just remembering with flowers, flags and white crosses, however. It means providing for the emotional and physical needs of those damaged by the ravages of war so we know longer have homeless veterans suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome living on the streets and under bridges. Honoring veterans means learning the lessons of history that teach us that violence and war have rarely ever led to real peace. Honoring our Vets means rededicating ourselves as Christians to be followers of the prince of peace so God’s vision of a time when we can beat our swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks is more than just a vision.
The room called remember is a place for reflection and mid-course corrections. When a space craft is launched toward the moon or Mars or some distant planet just an error of a degree or two can result in missing the destination by thousands of miles or even light years; so mid-course corrections and adjustments have to be made regularly. Remembering who we are and whose we are and adjusting our life goals and directions regularly to keep our purpose in focus is a critical part of discipleship.
One of my mentors gave me some priceless advice several years ago that brings remembering down to the bottom line practical level. He was leading a personal growth workshop and the topic was dealing with regrets and forgiveness so we can move forward. I’m sure you don’t do this, but some of us do – when something goes wrong we want to find someone to blame; or when we succeed we’d like to take all the credit. My mentor said there are only three questions we need to ask to evaluate a situation, no matter how good or bad the outcome may be. The three questions are simply these: “What worked?” “What didn’t?” And “what next?”
Try them out – those three little two-word questions are priceless ways to learn from our past experience, let go of baggage that keeps one stuck in the past, and finding direction for the future. And as well as they work as simple human questions, they work even better as a prayer.
Frederick Beuchner says one of the reasons we don’t visit the room called remember very often is that we are escape artists. We are masters of distraction – turn on the TV, play video games, surf the net or social media on our many electronic devices. We do that sometimes to avoid painful memories. Barbra Streisand sang the theme song from an old movie called “The Way We Were.” The song appropriately is called “Memories,” and part of the lyrics say “What’s too painful to remember we simply choose to forget, for it’s the laughter we were after, whenever we remember.” Selective memory is sometimes a useful thing but we may learn more from painful unvarnished truth, and the good news, contrary to what Jack Nicholson says, is that with God’s help we can handle the truth.
Memorial Day is often a time of remembering not just veterans but other loved ones who are no longer with us. Katrina talked last week about finding the Paul in our lives, our mentor, and remembering is a great way to honor those who have helped us get to where we are today. The Hebrews got thru the wilderness to the Promised Land because of God’s guidance but also through the leadership and persistence of Moses and Joshua and I’m sure countless other women and men. Take time this weekend to remember and give thanks for your guides and mentors.
One of the advantages of having lots of years of life experience is that we have more memories to draw upon. Another old song from my memory bank is one by Helen Reddy called “You and Me Against the World.” In part the lyrics say:
“You and me against the world, sometimes it seems like you and me against the world.
And for all the times we’ve cried I always felt that God was on our side. And when one of us is gone, and one of us is left to carry on, then remembering will have to do, our memories alone will get us through.”
That’s part of Moses’ message to the Hebrews and to us – when the going gets tough and the memories are painful, remember that God is on our side and our memories of God’s mercy and the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us will get us through.
There’s was another holiday unique to United Methodists just yesterday– Aldersgate Day. Does that ring any bells from confirmation class? May 24, 1738 – John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, found himself despondent because his enthusiastic gospel message had been rejected by his Anglican church, of which he was a priest. He had made a failed mission trip to America; the love of his life had broken up with him. His faith was at low ebb. His journal entry for that May 24 says, Heavy-hearted, he went to an evening society meeting on Aldersgate Street in London “very unwillingly.” It was there, while someone was reading from Martin Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans that he felt that his heart was “strangely warmed.” He describes it as: “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
The room called remember for Christians is full of those kinds of stories about God’s redemptive love. The God who led the Hebrews through the wilderness is the same God who turns Saul into Paul, who redeems the adulterous murderer named David, who blesses Sarah and Deborah, Ruth and Mary. I had a young person in a Bible Study one day who had discovered some of those juicy stories in the Hebrew Scriptures about incest and deceit, polygamy and pomposity – you know the stories you don’t usually hear about in Sunday School. The ones that tell us old Jacob had his 12 sons by 4 different women and was only married to two of them!!! This young woman looked at me rather skeptically and said, “Steve, what are those people doing in the Bible? They aren’t very good people!” I ask myself that question many days when I look in the mirror. It’s like asking why Jesus ate with sinners – because if he didn’t he would always have to eat alone.
Remembering the history of God’s redemption of the flawed, fallible human beings in the scriptures and in church history is good news because it means God’s amazing grace can forgive even us and use us to carry on the work of Christ. The God who led the wilderness wandering Hebrews to the Promised Land is still going before us to show us the way if we remember who we are and whose we are. It may feel some days like “it’s you and me against the world,” but it isn’t. We are never alone. Not in the wilderness or the grave yard. Not on the mountain top or in the valley of despair.
So I invite you to make time this weekend, whatever your plans for this holiday may be, to visit the room called remember. It is a place of peace that passes all human understanding. Give thanks there to the God who has brought you through whatever twists and turns your life has been, through times of hardship and prosperity, joy and pain. Give thanks for those who have gone before us, sacrificed for us, and loved us when we didn’t or couldn’t love ourselves. Draw eternal strength from both the good and painful memories, and then trust the creator and sustainer of us all to lead you onward to create memories and new paths for others to follow.
Memorial Day, 2014, Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio