It's been said that in the journey of faith, we don't need to be instructed as much as reminded. Holy remembering runs as a thread through our tradition. The people of Israel are called to remember Abraham, a wandering Aramean, to remember the Exodus, to remember God's provision in the wilderness. When we gather for eucharist, the prayer over bread and wine always includes reflections on God's goodness expressed in the past, a section called anamnesis. Not amnesia. Not forgetting.
I often find in my own life that the best way to move forward is to check out the spiritual rearview mirror, recalling how God has acted in the past. As a community, we need to reckon with ways we have fallen short and done great wrong, in the spirit of truth and reconciliation. There is holy remembering for sure.
But there is also holy forgetting. As we leave a particularly challenging year, I'm mindful of what we need to leave behind. These thoughts were triggered not only by the calendar, but by a lecture I read given by Walter Brueggemann (awesome theologian and biblical scholar and wise human being) in 2015. The talk was one in a series on memory. The title of this presentation: Nostalgia and Obligations to Forget.
He speaks of a mandate to forget old wounds, noting that most of us are masters at nourishing old wounds that we do not ever want to be blotted out. He cited a pastor named Janos Pasztor who at a gathering of clergy was given 90 minutes to tell his story, to talk about his engagement with the Hungarian Church. After his time was up, he had only gotten to 1300 AD. He required more time. Nothing had been forgotten in that church.
Brueggemann then spoke of a time he was in Macedonia with a friend who said "I wish all Albanians were dead." When asked why, he said that in the year 938 AD, they burned his church down. Brueggemann cited the Lost Cause narrative of the Old South, a matter of remembering too much too well. He noted that we are all tempted to locate our deep hurts and to dwell there.
I visited one church which over 100 years earlier had merged two congregations, one for wealthy folks, the other for less affluent workers. Upon merger, each church had brought a processional cross, one grander than the other. 100 years later it was still the case that the grander cross from the more prosperous church always, I mean, always, came first in procession. Try to change that and trigger a big old church fight.
When my mother, now departed, was in her early 60's, she received a letter from a friend she knew growing up. My mother hadn't seen her in four or five decades. Out of the blue, this woman wrote a letter and said: "I want you to know I forgive you for how you hurt me when we were growing up." My mother had no idea what she was talking about, and so had not been troubled by it. Clearly this woman had been letting this injury swirl around in her head for years. I ached for that wasted energy, the damage to her poor spirit. I wished for her release.
For me, each year brings a New Year's Resolution to let go, to give up resentments, to practice forgiveness towards others and myself. Let's just call it a work in progress. I resolve to embrace the wisdom of Anne Lamott who says forgiveness is giving up the hope of a better past. I need that freedom, so I often pray Psalm 51: Create in me a clean heart. I can hold on to resentments with the best of them. It's a perilous loop. I can live in the unreachable past of how I might have been a better parent, child, pastor, friend, boss, employee, citizen. I pray now for our over-heated political system as we lurch from one injury to another, animated by a partisan spirit of retribution. "We're doing this because your party did that." Is there a way to break the cycle?
St. Paul wrestled with his own history of persecuting the church, in an ongoing struggle. He occasionally talks about his past, his sins and successes. In one of his most helpful passages, he says that forgetting what lies behind, he presses on toward the goal of knowing Christ. He keeps his eyes on that prize.
I want to try to do that in 2021. Any interest in joining me in that adventure? Ask yourself as the new year begins: What do I need to remember? What do I need to forget?