lest we forget

Lest We Forget

On this Memorial Day holiday, those who forgot the value of our heritage and the source of our blessings, it will become very easy for us to take for granted all that we have and all that we are. Then in our wrong-headed self-confidence we will lose our way. For this reason it is crucial that we remember. God says, “Behold I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.” Isaiah 49:16

Lest We Forget

There is a song known well and sung often among our African American brothers and sisters, written by a prominent black author named James Weldon Johnson. It has been referred to as the African American National Anthem. I believe it captures the sense of freedom that God has given us:

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty; let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us; sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on till victory is won God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who hast brought us thus far on the way; thou who hast by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray. Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee; lest our hearts drunk from the wine of the world we forget thee; shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand, true to our God, true to our native land.

It seems that every news outlet of our time is obsessed with articles and pictures of war. In everyday life, you will hear so many people expressing ideas and opinions about war. There is the Iraqi War, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, War on Terror, War on Crime, War on Drugs, and the list goes on and on. It would appear that our solution to every challenge is war!

Many of us have friends or family members who have had to leave their jobs and families to enter the military because of the war. These are difficult and confusing days. Why do wars happen? I think that wars happen for the very same reasons that children get into fights on the playground:

Someone has something and someone else wants it.

Someone said something and someone else didn’t like it.

Someone is different and someone else doesn’t like them.

Someone is hurting others and someone needs to stop them.

That isn’t the way God meant for it to be, but that’s the way it is and that’s the way it will always be until Jesus comes again to take us to heaven to be with him!

In order to maintain the memory of this nation, Memorial Day was established to honor the fallen men and women of this nations’s wars. It has been established by Congress in 1971, that on the last Monday of May, this nation would pause to remember the great sacrifice by men and women for freedom and the American way of life. The President has requested that at 3:00 pm on Memorial Day, the population observe a moment of silence in honor of fallen soldiers.

In the later years of his life, the great 19th century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson suffered from an increasingly faulty memory. When things would slip his mind, he complained of his “naughty memory ” as he called it. Sometimes Emerson would forget the names of different objects. In order to speak of them, he would refer to them in a round-about way. For instance, when he could not think of the word “plow, ” he would call it “the implement that cultivates the soil. ” More important was the fact that he could not remember the names of people who were quite familiar to him. At the funeral of his friend, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Emerson commented to another person, “That gentleman has a sweet, beautiful soul, but I have entirely forgotten his name.” (copied)

There is a certain tragedy to forgetfulness, and to be sure, the loss of memory is a sad thing. While cutting us off cut us off from days gone by, it steals from us the treasure of recollecting times in our lives that we want to preserve in our memory banks. Forgetfulness erases certain personal history and leaves us void of understanding.

Recently in a conversation with Martha Kadle, a delightful older woman, she would start to tell me something and pause for a moment and say, “Well, I forgot what I was going to say!” Other times she would say” What was I saying?” After this happened several times she confessed, “Well I’ll be, ain’t it awful?”

Time has a way of desensitizing things, and sometimes we forget because we don’t want to relive painful memories. Other times we are just inattentive and don’t really care to stop and pay respect. We are told in Romans 13:7 to “give honor to whom honor is due.” We don’t remember because we are so focused only on our own time and place. We act as though the present is all that matters and the past is some shabby thing that can be safely cast off and left behind like a worn-out pair of shoes.

Here we are with Memorial Day upon us. On this occasion we are called upon to remember and respect those who have died, those whose days are gone. It is no surprise to us that many people do not reflect upon the past during this holiday any more than they do on any other day. In our age of ever-accelerating change, we don’t tend to look to the past to find our wisdom. We view what “has been” as largely irrelevant to what is now. The ancients are not our models. We place little value in traditions and inherited customs. And so when Memorial Day rolls around, our thoughts do not automatically turn to the past and to the departed. Most people appreciate Memorial Day largely because it is an extra day off work.

This holiday is not expressly religious. It is secular. Nevertheless, You see, we are instructed not to forget! A failure of memory is not just something which leads to personal inconvenience or social embarrassment, it is a spiritual danger, for lack of memory can result in faltering faith. The tragic consequences of forgetfulness erodes the foundation of our relationship with God.

Throughout the scriptures we find references to monuments, memorial feasts, and ritually repeated stories, all of which serve to reinforce the sacred memory of the people of God. In various ways the great saving acts of God were rehearsed and re-presented so that the people would not forget what God had done for their sake.

The old testament text, Joshua 4:1-9, stands as one example of this practice. The biblical narrative which leads up to this text tells the story of the Israelites’ long-awaited entry into the promised land. After forty years of wilderness wandering the people finally reached their destination. The swollen Jordan River blocked their way into the land but they did not stop.

When the priests were carrying the ark of the covenant began to place their feet in the river, the water ceased flowing and the people crossed over on dry ground, just as their forebears had when they escaped the Egyptians. When they all finished passing over the Jordan, the leader of Israel, Joshua, had a simple monument built to commemorate the wondrous event. This served to remind the people that their progress – indeed, their very existence – was in the hands of the living God.

The Passover feast which Moses instituted was to serve a similar purpose. It was to remind the people that it was God and not they themselves who brought about their liberation from slavery in Egypt. “Remember your history”, God says.

With pounding insistence the call to remember is repeated throughout scripture. Remember that God called your father Abraham in his old age and promised him many children. Remember that you were in bondage in a foreign land and were freed by divine power. The Psalmist summed up the message well when he wrote:

Remember the wonderful works that God has done. God’s great deed and the judgments the Lord utter, O offspring of Abraham God’s servant. Psalm 105:5

Those who forgot the value of our heritage and the source of our blessings, it will become very easy for us to take for granted all that we have and all that we are. Then in our wrong-headed self-confidence we will lose our way. For this reason it is crucial that we remember.

I suppose that every  culture and country has its memorials. The best memorials lift our sights above the mundane affairs of the moment in order to focus our attention upon the highest aspirations and accomplishments of those who have preceded us. When we visit the Lincoln Memorial or Washington Monument, it is natural to begin meditating upon the impressive deeds and high values of these forebears. Visits to such places can help stimulate us to embrace more noble and exalted goals.

Sometimes we are tempted to glorify days gone by. Consequently some people, who are disappointed with the present and distressed over the future, tend to live in the past. Their memories are highly important to them but they do not have hopeful memories.

You see, hopeful memory does not tell us that the best of life has already come and gone. Rather it thrusts us into the future. When the prophets of old called upon God’s people and told them to remember the works that the Lord had done in the past, this was to prepare them for the future. They were not called upon to remember the past for its own sake. The practice was not a self-indulgent diversion. Rather they were to remember the wonders of the past so that their lives would be open to the even greater wonders God would do for them in the future.

The Lord’s Supper is a hopeful memorial. It does not falsely glorify the past. When we partake of the bread and cup we remember the broken body and blood of the Lord. Images of deceit, betrayal and cruelty impose themselves upon us. The memorial feast confronts us with the disquieting fact that we humans are all too capable of striking out against true holiness and supreme goodness and treating it as demonic if it does not work out to our advantage. That is not the kind of memory we hold dear. But the Lord’s Supper does more. It reminds us of the sacrificial love of God. It speaks to us of a love that will not let us go but which reaches out to us, despite our evil.

Yet in the Lord’s Supper we see even more than that. We also see the promise of Jesus Christ that He will come again and that we will eat and drink anew with our Lord in the kingdom of God (Mark 14:25). The Lord’s Supper points us not only to the past but toward the promised future as well. The past and the future are made into vital contemporary realities for us by the presence of Christ. The meal is a memorial that reinforces a hopeful memory.

With Memorial Day upon us it is proper to think of the the past and of those who have gone from this world. But for those who are Christians, this is not exclusively and exercise in looking behind and dwelling upon what has been. For we believe that more wondrous things are yet to come for those people of faith who have already died. We live in light of the resurrection and we believe that death will not be the end.

In 1969, Clarence Jordan died of a heart attack. As some of you know, Jordan was the author of the Cotton Patch Version of the Bible and was the founder of Koinonia Farms, and interracial community and innovative ministry in rural Georgia. His work had faced vicious opposition from many of the racists in his area during the 50’s and 60’s. In fact, when Jordan died, the local coroners and undertakers were of little help. Jordan was buried in a plain cedar box on a hillside on his farm. Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, officiated at the funeral. Just after the casket was lowered into the ground and the grave was filled, and unexpected thing happened. Fuller’s two-year-old daughter stepped up to the grave and began to sing the only song the little girl knew.

Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Clarence. Happy birthday to you.

Happy birthday at a funeral? How strange and yet how truly appropriate. For when a Christian dies, it is a birthday of a sorts because death is not an ending but a new beginning. And so when we think of our dead, let us do so with a hopeful memory for an amazing future still awaits them, and the rest of us as well.

God’s Memorial:

Isaiah 49:15-16
15.Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee.
16.Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.