I heard it suggested that, between our experience of the here and now and the appropriate mix of fear and expectation that often shapes our consideration of the future, we find a human tendency to immortalize the present while neglecting our past. This is especially true in times of struggle or crisis, where personal failures and encroaching hardship, or encounters that alter our view of the world can sometimes work to disassemble us from the voices of our past.
When we set this same tendency into the context of faith or religious conviction, as I have found myself doing lately, being disassembled from our past only heightens the struggle that this failure, hardship and existential crisis becomes, which also limits our ability to reconcile our day to day experience of this world with the hopeful promise of our faith and religious conviction.
I think this is why we find the Divine answer to this human tendency being represented in the Jewish and Christian scripture often through a single word or concept: the call to “remember”.
Remembering: A Purposed Response
For the ancient writers, the practice (or process) of remembering allows us to anticipate the ways God can (and will) speak into the uncertainties of this world, not only into an unknowable future, but also into our limited perception of the present.
As Doug Ward puts it in his article “The Biblical Concept of Remembrance”,
“The Semites of Bible times did not simply think truth, they experienced truth.”
For this “zakar, the Hebrew word for “remember”, is both “thought” (literally rendered “think”) and “deed” (to record, or literally act in faith).” For Ward, the act of “remembering” in the Bible usually leads to or results from purposeful action.
And we see this all over the Biblical witness. We see it in the command to remember the Sabbath and the promise given to Jeremiah to write His name on our hearts, both of which position us in such a way as to remember or consider our creator, as the teacher of Ecclesiastes so wonderfully puts it in chapter 12.
We also see it in the Biblical narrative itself, from the call to remember the Exodus to remembering Jesus. From the exile and forgetting God and forgetting the language of scripture in Nehemiah. From the practice of carrying the ark to the making of alters.
One interesting story that Ward points to as another example is Numbers 15 and the thread to the temple that coincides with “the forgetting of the language, to the exile and the forgetting of God.” He mentions that “the tzitziyot (tassels) that the Israelites were commanded to attach to the corners of their garments (Num. 15:37-41) are another form of remembrance that God designed for His people, (with God saying) ‘You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord that you may obey them….”
Ward goes on to point out that “it eventually became customary for each tassel to consist of eight strands and five double knots. According to one Jewish numerological tradition, the numerical values of the Hebrew letters for the word for tassel (tzitzit) totalled 600. Fittingly, six hundred plus eight plus five is 613, the traditional number of biblical commandments.”
So this act of remembering is clearly important to the God/human relationship. When we fail to remember we find pictures of exile. And in remembrance God’s people find pictures of freedom and grace. And the powerful thing is, in scripture this act of remembering moves both from God to us and from us to God. We hear cries for God to remember us in our struggle, and we see praises to God in remembrance of what He has done in our lives. We also see God calling us to remember His works, and God remembering us in our time of trials. And as a recent study through the book of Ecclesiastes instilled in me, this practice of remembering is what reminds me of just how fleeting the present moments of our lives can be and how important it is to remember our Creator in the moments we have been given, as these are the things that speak meaning into the “vanity”, hope in the hopelessness.
A Personal and Communal Transformation
There is little question that this process of remembering remains a deeply personal and intensely subjective exercise. And yet, as spiritual practice, the ancients saw it as more than individual meditation. For them it was also seen as the outward expression of our shared human experience. Even for the teacher in Ecclesiastes, whom bears a name that can translate between that of an individual speaker or an assembly, or one who “assembles” a community, each of us is a bi-product of the outside forces that shape our worldview, the stuff that intersects with our lives and give it meaning, purpose. These forces, the stuff that shapes us, is typically what also defines the community to which we belong. And our worldview, or who we are, is being shaped and reshaped by the experiences of our past, our present and the unknowns of our future that happen within the context of these communities.
The act of living then, or in religious terms, the act of faith, or the act of meaning (as the Teacher would put it), is about the ways in which we are personally transformed through a shared human experience.
The more we live the more we experience, and as our experience transforms us, it our ability to remember that connects who we were to who we are now and ultimately towards the person we are becoming. It is when we disconnect our present from our past that we become blind to this transformation, unable to engage with ourselves or the world around us, and thus what disconnects us from ourselves also ends up disconnecting us from our community. This is why this process of self-reflection, of remembering is such a necessary part of our common humanity- our community, our shared human experience. To consider what shapes us, to consider the forces of our lives, we must also then consider the shape of our community.
The Stories That Make us and Bind Us
In the book the Londoneer’s, one of the true to life characters bemoans the product of London’s multicultural existence by suggesting that what is perceived as a positive means of co-existence has actually appropriated a culture with no identity at all. The answer to bridging the diversity of human experience with a common humanity- a communion of saints and sinners, is not the absence of faith and conviction or the stuff of personhood. Rather it is the ability to remember. It is our story which we know best and which remains ours to tell, and so this is where we must begin- by remembering our story and considering the ways in which our story, the stuff that makes up our worldview, is able to cross paths with another. In other words, we remember our story not only to remind us of ourselves, but we tell our story so that we can hear and recognize the story of others. And in this act we are given a better reflection of who we are, of who God is, and who God is shaping us to be as His sons and daughters.
As we enter the season of Advent, a time of waiting and anticipating and ultimately remembering I have been encouraged to heed the words of the Teacher from Ecclesiastes, to take up the cause of remembering the one who entered into my story all those years ago. The one who wrote His name on my heart and called me by my name. The one came into this world to share His story, the story of God, the story of our Creator, so that we might have hope, that we might have life. For this I am forever grateful. And as I consider this, I hope to continue to remember all of the ways that God has showed up in my past and my present and ways that I continue to wait on Him to shape my future in the midst of this Advent season.