by Martin B. Copenhaver
Both Judaism and Christianity are fundamentally religions of remembrance. In these religions, people come to know God, not through a set of abstract philosophical principles or even religious rituals, as much as through the nitty-gritty realities of human history, a history that needs to be remembered.
When Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt, his first word was remember: “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 13:3)
When King David brought the ark of the covenant into the holy city, he lead the people in singing:
Remember the wonderful works the Lord has done,
His miracles and the judgments
Remember his covenant forever,
The word that he commanded
For a thousand years. (1 Chronicles 16:12, 15)
Many of the psalms include the injunction to remember:
“Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And do not forget his benefits” (103:2).
We Christians are heirs to this way of encountering God. Jesus tells stories — memorable ones — and even his actions are meant to be an aid to memory: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
So it is fitting that, according to Matthew, Jesus’ last words before ascending into heaven were these: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
We remember because we cannot tell the story of our faith — or our own story — without remembering.
But how are we to remember faithfully? That’s a question I have been pondering a lot these days. After all, there are different kinds of memories and not all are equally valuable or equally faithful. Not all ways of remembering serve us — or serve our God.
For instance, nostalgia is a persistent temptation in our time. I call nostalgia a temptation because it can make us idealize the past and in ways that make the present pale by comparison. If we are not careful, nostalgia can rob the present of delight and deprive the future of hope. And nostalgia does not always tell the truth. Sometimes nostalgia can be nothing more than a longing to get back to a time that never was.
Nostalgia is a particular temptation for older people — like me — who care about the church, and see the church changing, and in ways that can look a lot like diminishment. The church is not what it once was. The church used to be stronger, more vital, the best days are behind us — or so nostalgia whispers in our ear.
Nostalgia can be our response to what I call “the narrative of decline.” The church is not what it once was. It is in decline. We hear this narrative all the time these days, but I, for one, am weary of it. The narrative of decline is not only a boring narrative that does not draw the best from us, it is also not a faithful narrative.
As Christians we are assured that the good old days, no matter how good, are nothing compared to what God has in store for us. Remembering faithfully does not make the present pale by comparison. Rather, remembering faithfully helps make the present come alive and allows the future to expand and glow with promise.
The Apostle Paul quotes Isaiah to remind the Corinthians, and perhaps also to remind himself: “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” So look back, yes. But lean forward. God is up to something new in our time. It is up to us to discern what that is, and to get with the program.