Often 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.
Many years ago, my brother and I went on a backpacking trip in Washington State. My brother had done many such trips, but this would be my first. I was living in Tennessee at the time and had joined a hiking club that made frequent excursions into the Smoky Mountains. I practiced for my backpacking trip by carrying a school backpack filled with water and snacks. I believed I was ready for the more arduous hiking in the North Cascades. But I could not begin to be ready for the thirty-pound pack and the relentless switchbacks climbing a thousand feet or more up the backcountry peaks.
Often 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.
Nostalgia is one such way of revisiting these times. Nostalgia 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.
The writer Frederick Buechner suggests, “There are two ways of remembering. One way is to make an excursion from the living present back into the dead past…. The other way is to summon 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 Asaph, the writer of Psalm 78, to begin with these words:
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our fathers have told us. (verses 1-3)
The psalmist recalls the history of Israel as a means of remembering forward, of bringing the full reality of the past into a place of honest remembrance—and not just for the present generation but also for the sake of generations to come. Asaph exhorts the people to listen, to 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. He says,
We will not hide them from their children,
but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.
He established a testimony in Jacob
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers
to teach to their children,
that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and arise and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments. (verses 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 God made with them, and they began to live in ways that went contrary to all that defined them. They forgot the deeds and miraculous signs that 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 him in the desert” and “did not remember his power or the day when he redeemed them from the foe” (verses 40 and 42).
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 lovingkindness. 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 remembrance that Jesus has in mind when he instructs those closest to him to remember. Jesus tells his disciples during that last supper together, “This is my body, which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).
He is not calling them to bittersweet yearnings or simply to remember events lived long ago. 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, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus was not just a fact they rehearsed; rather, it was 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 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, “Am I seeking to live in a place of honest remembrance?”
Are we remembering forward? What stories do our lives tell? How do our lives enact the great narrative of salvation in our present day and the covenant God made with his people long ago?
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: “But we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise” (Psalm 79:13).
1Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings on the ABCs of Faith (Harper: San Francisco, 2004), 252.