For most of us, the act of remembering or revisiting a memory takes us back into the distant past. We remember people, events, cherished locales and details from days long gone. Of course, not all memories are pleasant, and traveling toward the distant past can also resemble something more like a nightmare than a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Nevertheless, even if we have but a few, all of us have cherished memories or times we periodically revisit in daydreams and remembrances.
Nostalgia is one such way of revisiting these times. It can be defined as that bittersweet yearning for things in the past. The hunger it creates in us to return to another time and place lures us away from living in the realities of the present. Nostalgia wears a shade of rose-colored glasses as it envisions days that were always sweeter, richer, and better than the present day. In general, as Frederick Buechner has said, nostalgia takes us “on an excursion from the living present back into the dead past…” or else it summons “the dead past back into the living present.”(1) In either case, nostalgic remembering removes us from the present and tempts us to dwell in the unlivable past. Without finding ways to remember forward—to bring the past as the good, the bad, and the ugly into the present in a way that informs who we are and how we will live here and now—all we are left with is nostalgia.
It is far from a sense of nostalgia that drives the writer of Psalm 78. Instead, the psalmist recalls the history of Israel as a means of remembering forward, bringing the full reality of the past into a place of honest remembrance not just for the present generation, but for the sake of generations to come. The psalmist exhorts the people to listen and incline their ears to the stories of their collective history; the Exodus, the wilderness wanderings, and the entry into the land of promise in which they currently dwell. “We will not conceal them from their children, but tell to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and his strength and his wondrous works that he has done….That the generation to come might know, even the children yet to be born, that they may arise and tell them to their children, that they should put their confidence in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep the commandments” (Psalm 78:4-7).
Despite bearing witness to the work of God among them, the people of Israel forgot these crucial aspects of their historical narrative. In so doing, they did not keep the covenant and began to live in ways that went contrary to all that defined them. They forgot the deeds and miraculous signs which bore witness to God’s presence. Moreover, they lost faith and did not trust in God’s salvation. The psalmist acknowledges that they all “grieved God in the desert.” There are no rose-colored remembrances here, no bittersweet yearnings to which they can return. Rather, the darker parts of their story are remembered even as praise is offered up for God’s long-suffering and loving-kindness. The psalmist urges the people to think about this God in the midst of their present circumstances. What had God done among them in the past in spite of their own failings? And how might they now live in light of that past?
Perhaps it is this collective remembering Jesus has in mind when he instructs those closest to him to remember. Jesus instructs his followers during that last supper together saying “this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me” he is not calling them to bittersweet yearnings, or simply to remember events lived long ago (Luke 22:19). Rather, he calls them to remember in a way that would shape their living in the present, and for the future. Surely these intimate friends of Jesus could not have understood fully all that was implied in his call to remember him. Yet, they became his witnesses “in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus, was not just a fact they rehearsed, but a lived reality that gave contour and context for their generation, and for generations to come.
In the face of an uncertain future, or perhaps a painful present, we might be tempted to dwell in a nostalgic remembering. We might wish for the comfort of selective memories. Yet, for those who want to follow Jesus we have the opportunity to ask ourselves how we are remembering forward? What stories do our lives tell? How do our lives enact the great narrative of salvation in our present day? As we think about the kind of remembrance that enlivens our present and gives hope for the future, we can join in the song of praise with the psalmist of old: Yes, we your people and the sheep of your pasture give thanks to you forever; to all generations we will tell of your praise!(2)
Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.
(1) Beyond Words: Daily Readings on the ABC’s of Faith (Harper: San Francisco, 2004), 252.
(2) Psalm 79:13.