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Sacred Memory

Thomas Whitley

The following are the remarks from my leadership in chapel at Gardner-Webb University on Monday, 9 November 2009. Our chapel was "Worship Through Psalms of Lament and Thanksgiving.


Remembering is tough for me; not remembering facts and history and theories, but remembering people and moments. Maybe I actually mean not that remembering is tough, but that memory is tough. It has been understood in my family for a long time that I don’t typically remember events and moments. I remember the stories that are told about them, but that is only because they are told often. I’m not sure why I have to be reminded of things like what Trinity and I did on our first date and it’s not just because I’m a guy. It may have something to do with memories that I’d rather not have, but can’t seem to get rid of or it may just be that I’m lazy. I’m not particularly proud of that fact that I don’t easily remember people’s names or what I got for my birthday last year, but I have been working on it because I learned one of the lessons that I think this psalm teaches.

Memory is sacred.

I learned this lesson from Dr. Goodman when studying the Holocaust.

Memory is sacred.

Now memory is not just comprised of the good events that one wants to remember, but of the bad as well. If the Psalmist chose only to remember the good, then it would mean nothing to remember the deeds of the Lord. Remembering God’s deliverance isn’t very meaningful if you don’t remember from what you were delivered.

I’ve worked hard to remember better since Dr. Goodman taught me this lesson and even harder since his death. For, it was not only meaningful to Dr. Goodman when I remembered that he thought that R.E.M. was the greatest rock band of all times, but it continues to be meaningful for me. Whenever I listen to an R.E.M. song now I think of Dr. Goodman and think of how God used him in my life and in the lives of so many others.

But does it really fall into the category of “sacred memory” to remember some one’s favorite rock band, you may ask. I think it certainly does, but it doesn’t stop there. Sacred memory is individual and it is corporate. We not only remember things about ourselves and other individuals that we know, but we remember things about our community, both our physical community and our spiritual community. We remember the fear that Mary are Martha had when they discovered an empty tomb and we remember the trail that Martin Luther blazed for us, but we also remember the horror of the Crusades and the inaction of Christians during the Holocaust. We all know the adage that “history repeats itself,” but that doesn’t have to be so. When we are actively engaged in remembering we, as individuals and as a community, can make sure that the good remains and we can work to keep the bad at bay. As soon as we forget the freedom of religion that others so vigorously fought for us to have, we will become complacent about others’ freedom of religion and will begin to think that they ought not be able to practice their religion or lack of religion. If we forget that true faith is helping orphans and widows, then we will become arrogant about our faith and think that it was somehow meant to benefit us.

You see, memory is a funny thing because it is only one side of a coin. The other side of the coin is hope.

Because we remember, we can hope.

Because the Psalmist remembered the deeds of the Lord, the Psalmist hoped for a better future. Hope has long been meaningful for me, but never as meaningful as it was when I realized its relationship with memory. Because I remember the good works of God, I hope that God will continue those good works in the future. Because I remember war, I hope along with Micah for lasting peace.

Let it not be said of us as it has been said of others:

There is no memory of those who have gone before, moreover, there will not be any memory of those who come after by those that come after them (Eccl. 1:11)

Let us remember those who have gone before and let us live our lives in such a way that those who come after remember us.

This day let us affirm that like the psalmist, we remember. Let us realize that memory is sacred; my memory, your memory, our memory.

The psalms that we read responsively express lament and thanksgiving, two ubiquitous aspects of life. In a well-known passage, the author of Ecclesiastes says:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep; and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

There is one couplet that may have been nice to see included: “there is a time to remember, and a time to forget.” But that wouldn’t actually be accurate, because all time is the time to remember. Every matter under heaven is to be remembered. How else do we know to trust God but that we remember when others have trusted God? Why do we cry out to God in times of trouble, except we remember the works of God?

Our darkest nights, we remember. Our brightest mornings, we remember.

It is true that some memories we cannot forget, but today we also choose to remember.

To remember is a sacred and holy act. This we must never forget.

When we remember, it means that we remember the past, the good and the bad, but above all, when we remember, it means that we hope.

We hope for the future.

We hope for a future that is better than our past and better than our present and we work intentionally to bring that future about.