Story, Memory and Remembering as Formative to TestimonyIsaiah 51: 1-4
The theme of our upcoming ABCNJ Annual Session is “Testify!” This year’s annual gathering will focus on how the living presence of God is revealed through the diverse stories of our individual journeys. As the Annual Session draws near, and as I reflect more intently on its theme, I was reminded of the devotional meditation that I shared with the ABCNJ ministry staff in early January of this year when we gathered for the first monthly all-staff meeting of the year. I now wish to share that meditation with you.
The context of our Isaiah passage this morning is found around the fall of the Babylonian empire on October 29, 529 BC. The tribe of Judah, Israel, had been living in exile for many generations under their Babylonian captors. The prophet saw signs of the impending fall and destruction of their Babylonian captors to Cyrus, the king of Persia. We see in our text Isaiah exulting in joyful anticipation of exiled Judah’s restoration as a people. In his words to the exiles, the prophet emphasizes the significance of historical events in God’s plan, a plan which extends from creation to redemption, and even beyond. And as he calls the exiles to hope, he also reminds them that sin is blindness to God’s way in history.
“You who seek the Lord; look to the rock from which you were hewn, and the quarry from which you were digged…look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.” God’s word of hope comes to the prophet through the reminder that knowledge of God’s past revelation is a key to our future salvation. In Isaiah’s words, the past is the canvass on which is etched the brush strokes of evidence of God’s faithfulness in our past experience. The prophet calls the exiles to maintain a vigilant curiosity of previous events, not so to ensconce them in the past, but to appeal to memory for the assurance that what God promises, God fulfills.
I have always accepted the reality that human beings are the only creatures on earth endowed with the gift of imagination and memory. Because of that gift, the past, present and the future are not compartmentalizations or separated dimensions of being, but rather coexist in the same continuum of our existence. As we stand at the starting block of another new year, popular culture leads us to believe that the more urgent task is to make new "resolutions" for the coming year - like pushing the reset button on your power strip when the circuit breaker is tripped by an overload. Let's start all over again.
But the experience of the past year, the memory of our ministry - the joys and the sadness, the peaks and valleys, the breakthroughs and the brick walls - are inevitable components of our apprehension of the “now”, of right here. So as an act of authenticity, we simply cannot push the reset button for this new year as if our strivings and struggles in the past year were insignificant because the earth has once again completed 365 days of orbit around the sun.
Yet we are the only species on earth bestowed with a consciousness of the irrepressible and chronological march of time, with a sense of eternity, and an imagination of the future - A soul, as it were. Said another way, not only do we have the capacity to remember the past, but our experience in the present is informed and shaped by what we have previously felt, tasted, learned; and our memory of the past and our experience of the present come together through time to give us a vision of the future not yet realized but only imagined in our spirit and soul.
In the Torah (or the Pentateuch, the first five books of Moses), where the founding of the Judaic faith and the formation of Israel as a people are chronicled, we find numerous references to the call to "remember" God's mighty acts in history and particular events. Those calls to remember now reside in the liturgical and ritual life of Judaism. God's living presence and provenance in our lives is weaved through the testimonies of flesh and blood people before us, mighty stories "not written in stone but in the hearts of people." The spiritual discipline and practice of remembering is vital to our witness!
Each of us is a living story – a product of a complex amalgamation of experiences and encounters, strung through a grand strand of beads stretching across history from the time of our birth. Without the consciousness of that story, we will not have roots; and if we do not have roots, we will be living lives devoid of identity and purpose. Our story is the power that sustains our spirituality, and it is so important for the vitality of our faith for today, more than ever, that it is nourished by the memory of our roots.
At the heart of our faith’s liturgical life is the Lord’s Supper. it is grounded in remembering our fellowship with the messiah, a fellowship that inevitably crowns and at the same time crucifies us. So we begin our ministry journeys as a team on the threshold of a new year through the Lord’s Supper, Communion, where Jesus clearly calls each one of us who participate around the table, as often as we do it, to do so “in remembrance of me.”
And so the faithful question as we stand once again on the threshold of a new year is to ask, “how do we remember the past year, and in that act of remembering, what do we see? How do we see?”
Three days after Christmas last year, I, Lee Spitzer, Vern Mattson, Wes Allen, and Stan Slade went to the Philadelphia Art Museum to see the exhibit of the Paul Strand, arguably recognized as the father of modern photography. Through his pioneering vision and skill in using the medium of the photographic film of his time, he gave us, through his photographs, a window thorough which we can enter and experience what life and the world were like during his time. But while at the museum, I also wandered to adjacent exhibit areas and saw portraits and abstract paintings of the great masters.
Looking at those paintings reminded me of my beloved New Testament professor back in my M.Div. days in seminary, Robert Guelich - one of the most respected evangelical scholars of the 21st century. One of the most significant contributions of Robert Guelich to New Testament studies is his typologies of the broad spectrum of gospel studies and how they are best depicted in terms of three artistic expressions:
- The snapshot - verbal snapshots of Jesus' ministry stemming from eyewitness reports
- The portrait - stands as a mediating position between the snapshot and the abstract
- The abstract painting - instead of a record or historical account, the gospels are an abstractions of Jesus' ministry, painted with the bold brush strokes of the synthesizing community of faith.
Each medium gives its own expression of reality, but each differs from the other in their respective treatment of that reality. In strictly visual terms, one would expect then that we can find a diminishing degree of correspondence to reality in a snapshot, a portrait and an abstract painting. But each of those media has its own standards of reliability by which a final product is evaluated. What determines a good snapshot, portrait or abstract painting differ greatly from each medium. So, according to Guelich, when we apprehend art, we must first take into consideration the medium and then apply the appropriate criteria for evaluation.
So how do we see God’s presence in the past (year)? Do we see it as a snapshot, a portrait, or an abstract painting? Regardless of which medium enables us to see, we “see” only by remembering the story of how God became present in the various events and experiences of our life journeys. Our faith is animated by the nourishing waters of vivid experiential memories of God’s providential presence in the ebb and flow of our life. Each of us is a product of a “story”, and that story is grounded in memory. And if we are to live as individuals who are rooted in identity and purpose, we must practice the discipline of remembering our stories. It is there that we rediscover ourselves in conversation with and being confronted by God.