The Spiritual Practice of Remembering (with a capital R)

Psalm 77; Job 29:1-8, 30:16-17,19; Luke 22:14-19
November 3, 2013
Mary Hammond

As the Tuesday Study Group completed its discussions on Diana Butler Bass’ book, Christianity after Religion, we got to talking about Spiritual Practices. In her closing chapter, Butler Bass offers several suggestions for moving forward with the spiritual life. One of these is to try out a new Spiritual Practice. That got me talking to the group about Remembering (with a capital “R”) as Spiritual Practice.

I tried to explain Remembering, but I quickly realized there was so much more I could say and so I’m going to try to say it here, today.

Remembering took many forms in our lives after our daughter, Sarah, took her life. In the burial of Sarah’s ashes, the dedication of her gravestone, the Celebration of her life, and the pilgrimages Steve and I have made to her second home in New Haven, Connecticut, Remembering became a communal, liturgical act of love, solidarity, and support. Throughout the ages and cultures, Remembering is a way we keep our stories alive.

There is another way that Remembering is important. It can become an act of intercessory prayer. We did some of that Remembering in Sharing Time today. About 15 or 20 years ago, I was really struggling with all the goodbyes Steve and I had to say as pastors of this church. I got to the point where I didn’t even want to invest in newcomers if they wouldn’t be around for awhile. That is seriously not good for any pastor and particularly not for a campus minister.

One day, the book “Praying Our Goodbyes” nearly jumped off the shelf of a bookstore Steve and I were visiting. Slowly working my way through this book inspired me to develop a simple spiritual exercise that in fact, became transforming for me.

I combed church and home Guest Books, Church Phone Lists, newsletters, and my memory. I wrote down every person, down to the smallest baby and oldest senior, who had come and gone from the church since we began our time here in 1979. When I finished, there were 250 names on the list. Some had lost jobs and relocated; others had graduated. Some had simply disappeared, quietly slipping out; others returned to former traditions. Some had passed away. Every leave-taking was unique.

Over three months, I prayed through that long list of people, about three a day. I Remembered each one by name before God. I Remembered the good times and hard times Steve and I shared with each person. I Remembered the gifts these folks offered within the church. If I knew, I Remembered what took them away from this community. After all that Remembering, I said, “Goodbye, thank you” and I released them to God. Day by day, week by week, my heart was slowly healing. Since that time, I have purposed to “pray my goodbyes” intentionally whenever and wherever possible, sending people on to the next stage of their lives with my love and blessing.

Remembering can be a powerful form of prayer.

Remembering helps to remind us that God has been with us in the past. When the psalmist in our reading today is downcast, Remembering becomes a way he speaks to his own soul. He recounts the acts of God throughout the history of Israel. This Remembering shores up his hope and trust amid a time of despair and questioning. This is a pattern we see again and again in the psalms.

For the ancient suffering saint, Job, Remembering is initially too painful to bear. As his journey continues, his Remembering is replete with nostalgia and longing. Amid the Silence of God, it is hard for him to remember God’s closeness. Amid the pain of loss, it is hard to remember God’s blessings. In the searing agony of disease, it is hard to remember God’s renewing touch. Job’s world has become very small.

When God finally speaks, Job Remembers something else. He Remembers the morning light and the crashing ocean waves. He Remembers the fawn, the ostrich, and the eagle. He Remembers Mystery and Majesty. In the midst of his suffering, Job rediscovers life.

Beth Peachey graduated from Oberlin College in 2005. After a year with Americorps in Oberlin, she spent four years in Guatemala City where she started a music ministry with survivors of genocide and their children. It was based out of three Mennonite churches. When Beth returned to the States, she told me that there was one particular sentence of my commissioning sermon that came back to her again and again. It helped her deal with the suffering, poverty, and violence in Guatemala. What I had said was this: “When you can’t find God where you are looking, look somewhere else.”

This is what the psalmist did. This is what Job did. Remembering offers us this opportunity, whether it is Remembering the beauty of nature amid the ravages of human suffering, Remembering the witty and goofy things Sarah did, Remembering the powerful works of God throughout human history, or Remembering the lives that touch us day to day.
As we prepare to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we will hear again Jesus’ words, “When you do this, remember me.”

At this table, we Remember with a capital “R.” We Remember the Way of Jesus that he taught us to practice. We Remember the gift of Jesus, offered so freely. We Remember the stories of Jesus which we repeat from generation to generation. We Remember why we are here, and what that means to us when we leave this place.

I asked Allie Lundblad to write some reflections of her own on Remembering as Spiritual Practice. Allie accompanied me and Steve closely through the intensity of the months after Sarah’s death. At age 21, she possessed a remarkable gift of Remembering. Here are her words:

“Remembering for me started as listening. It started in the simple act of trying to be present with Mary and Steve in the wake of huge (unspeakable?) tragedy. It started with listening to the stories of Sarah Hammond, stories about her struggles, about ridiculous things she did, and about her incredible wisdom, empathy, and insight. I didn’t know Sarah–I only met her twice—but I learned so much from the stories of her life. I learned about the way that pain and goodness can be all mixed in together, the way that the brightest light and deepest darkness exist side by side. I learned about passion, about drivenness, and about the way that it can give blindness as well as sight. And I learned about family and how deep those ties go.

“At some point, I found myself doing things that reminded me of Sarah. As I took notes in class and made notes in the margins, it reminded me of the witty notes that Mary and I had found in Sarah’s notebooks. When I packed my car with boxes of books or when I accidentally wore a blue sweater over a blue shirt with blue jeans [I told Sarah growing up that “three blues do not make a match”], I thought of Sarah. Every once in a while I would find myself doing something because it reminded me of Sarah. These small acts were a way of connecting back to the story of Sarah’s life, and the meaning we were searching for there. They were a way of honoring Sarah, and a way of being present with Mary and Steve. They were a way of Remembering.

“It wasn’t until I learned to Remember Sarah that I understood what Remembering Jesus might mean. It’s easy, I think, to abstract the story of Jesus from the life of a real human being with a body that needed food and clothing, and a heart that needed community and love. It’s easy to forget that Jesus was a real human being with friends who grieved for him as a real human being, whom they could no longer touch and talk to and laugh with. I would imagine that in the absence of Jesus, his friends would have found comfort in being able to do the things that Jesus did because Jesus did them. It honored his life and connected them to the meaning they found there.

“I didn’t know Jesus–at least not the flesh and blood Jesus of 2,000 years ago–but I learned so much from his life about darkness and light, about passion, and about community. When I do the things that Jesus did, I am connected to Jesus the human being, who had a body and life and community like I do. When I do the things that Jesus did, I honor his life, his physical presence on earth, and the meaning that I find there. When I Remember Jesus, I remain connected not only to him but also to all those who have Remembered before me. At the same time, Remembering the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus teaches me how to hold the stories, the Rememberings of all others–with a great and powerful hope.”