Memory and Faith: A Thanksgiving Thought

remember"... don't you remember?" [Jesus’ question to the disciples, Mark 8:18b] In a rather enigmatic and subtle conversation about bread -- having enough bread, what the yeast of the Pharisees might mean, the multiplied bread for the multitudes -- Jesus asks his disciples: “Don’t you remember?” (Mark 8:18b).  He is amazed at his friends’ short memory, their inability to hold on to key pieces of the story.

Jesus’ question is his way of reminding his disciples that they will never understand their present moment if they fail to remember the past.  Hold everything together, Jesus says.  Without memory, one cannot live the life of faith.

Its likely you have had the experience of reading a novel or watching a movie only to find yourself suddenly lost in the details.  Too many parts of the story have escaped you; nothing now makes sense.  What happened?  You simply forgot the pieces of the story you needed to keep in mind.  Your disconnect is a failure of memory.

In the Biblical view of life, remembering is a spiritual necessity.  We remember in order to understand.  We are a scriptural faith, which means that in order to understand our own lives we remember the words and works and ways of God.  Forgetting is more than just a mental oops.  Without the conscious and determined remembering of the story of God we get lost in the un-interpreted details of everyday existence.

How can we do this better?  How can we practice spiritual remembrance?  Let me suggest something quite practical: rest.  We remember well when we take time to rest, when we stop and do nothing for a bit, when we allow time for consolidation of all that has happened in our life’s journey.  Thanksgiving is one of those gift-days in our calendar when we can remember what should be remembered.

A few years ago I discovered how sleep impacts memory.  Sleep provides the context for something experts call memory consolidation, the process by which our memories are sorted and made stable.  When we sleep we sort through the various pieces of information from that day, letting go of the inconsequential in order to preserve things that really do matter.  And that is why a challenging day affects our sleep: we are doing the hard work of incorporating new and significant pieces.

I have thought about memory consolidation in my life with God, the various ways I need to hold on to, and internalize, the things God says and shows.  I have found that, along with my regular practice of receiving spiritual direction and journaling, that rest days and seasons are important for spiritual memory.  Like sleep, rest days provide more than a means to regain energy.  Rest is the context in which the meanings of my life are sorted through.  I find that if I am always busy, always stimulated, always bombarded by happenings, I fail to gain perspective.  Only through regular rhythms of rest can I sort through the trivial to find the meaningful.

This year, at our Thanksgiving table, I am going to do some remembering with my family.  I am going to rehearse our family story and remember God’s story as well.  In our remembering we will give thanks.  When we remember well, we live so much more wisely.

I will admit that, as I age, my ability to hold onto details is not what it was.  Details slip past me from time to time.  But that doesn’t mean I am not practicing the importance of remembering.  In some ways, remembering is becoming more important to me.  I see it more clearly than ever: only in the fullness of our life’s story can we understand the meaning of any particular day.

The next time you read a novel and suddenly find yourself lost in the details, remember how easy it is to do that in your own personal life.  You might need to go back and review what has happened.

Bob Osborne

questions:

  1. What is the relationship between busyness and meaning?  How do you sort through the trivial to find what is important in your life?
  2. What methods or means do you have for remembering your life?  How often do you rest and consolidate?
  3. What spiritual memories anchor you?  What means do you have for remembering the story of God?
  4. What opportunity might this Thanksgiving season provide for remembering, with thanks, the whole way God has led you?