Between Memory and Imagination
Between Memory and Imagination
Last week we learned that Deuteronomy is a book about transition. The people of Israel are standing on the banks of the Jordan River with the Promised Land in sight. They are no longer wandering in the wilderness, but have yet to enter the land flowing with milk and honey. They are forced to live in between; they are in transition. Our invitation last week was to live along side them in between two places. Whether it is the unknown future of our church, grief, or vocational questioning, we are invited to wait in transition. Deuteronomy is an invitation to live in between; however, it is not without guidance. Our passage today gives us an important suggestion for how to live through our in-between times.
Deuteronomy urges us to remember during the in-between.
Deuteronomy is largely a repetitive book; Moses repeats stories and laws from the previous four books in the Torah. While Israel waits on the banks of the Jordan, Moses repeats a previous sermon on the Ten Commandments originally found in Exodus—nothing new here, same old stuff. At least it would appear that way. However, there is something different. Moses makes a subtle adjustment, and it's easy to miss if you aren't looking for it. There is a little verse tucked in near the end of the fourth commandment, which is the commandment to keep the Sabbath. It is a passage that is easy to miss, considering the magnitude of the surrounding material. It sits like a rose planted in a cornfield—towering stalks of corn obscuring it from view. And yet, if our eyes catch this hidden gem, we discover something. We uncover a distinct and dominant theme that runs throughout the book of Deuteronomy. It is a theme that offers us one of the keys to living in between.
"Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm." There it is, a simple word, the first word in the verse—"Remember." Here, subtly embedded amidst the towering Ten Commandments, is a concept not often noticed until we tune our eyes to look for this word elsewhere. Once you've tuned in, you can hardly escape it. It repeats like waves crashing on the ocean shore. The call to remember echoes over 40 times throughout the book of Deuteronomy. This is one of the distinctive themes of Deuteronomy.
This is what is so striking about it. We already know that Deuteronomy is simply repeating old material found in the previous books. Yet the word "remember" is noticeably absent from these books. When you combine Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, it only appears 12 times across all the books combined. And in nearly every case, the word "remember" shows up as something God does. It refers to God remembering his covenant with his people.
Deuteronomy reverses this. It is by contrast a call for us to remember God's faithfulness in the past. Our passage today is just one of the many times this theme shows up. Listen to its echoes:
- Deuteronomy 5:15: "Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand."
- 7:18: "Remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt."
- 8:2: "Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness."
- 15:15: "Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you."
- 16:12: "Remember that you were a slave in Egypt."
- 24:9: "Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam on your journey out of Egypt."
- 24:18: "Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there."
- 24:22: "Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt."
- 32:7: "Remember the days of old, consider the years long past; ask your father, and he will inform you; your elders, and they will tell you."
Here it is: While we live in between, while we are in transition, we are called to remember God's faithfulness. If you're wondering, What am I supposed to do while I'm waiting for what is next? one answer Deuteronomy offers is to remember.
Remembering gives us identity.
Why is this so important? One reason is, in times of transition we wonder about our sense of self—our identity is at stake. We know who we were, but not who will we be. God shows us something here—he knows that memory determines identity. The things we choose to remember about our past are the things that shape our identity.
One of the things we learn from these passages is that Moses is concerned that the younger generation will forget who they were when they enter the Promised Land. That's why he says, "remember that you were slaves," over and over. Remember where you came from. It is the difficulty in the desert that made you who you are. When you enter the posh comfort of a land flowing with milk and honey, remember that your identity was forged by the pressure and persecution of slavery. In this transition, Israel was getting a history lesson in order to tether them in a time of uncertainty and drifting.
Not long ago, Andrea and I were invited to dinner by a group of older residents in the congregation. We spent the evening getting to know one another. During the course of the evening, the conversation drifted into the past. I heard some incredible stories of members who were conscientious objectors during WWII. I had no idea the kind of persecution these people endured—from getting homes painted yellow to being tarred and feathered. Some even had threats on their life. I had never encountered people who took their allegiance to Jesus over country so seriously. One thing was clear: Their memory of those experiences made them who they are today. As a late convert to the Mennonite tradition, I was able to experience the power of the Mennonite identity by listening to the past. I felt like one of the young Israelites on the banks of the Jordan listening to Moses. They didn't say this, but I heard it—"When terrorism threatens us, or when war seems like the only answer, remember that we were persecuted for our commitment to Christ and non-violence. Remember how God was faithful in the midst of these threats."
It is often said that the younger generation is the future of the church. While that is true, the older generation is just as much a part of that future. They hold our collective past and thus our current and future identity. Their memories and stories of God's faithfulness have the power to both ground our identity and unleash a vital and vibrant future.
For this reason, may we heed Moses' call: "Remember the days of old; consider the years long past. Ask your father and he will inform you, your elders, and they will tell you." This call to remember is not a call to repeat or relive the past. That is impossible. Instead it is a call to know the past so that we might know ourselves in times of transition.
Remembering gives us hope.
If our memory determines our identity, there is one other thing it does even more powerfully. Our memory has the power to generate hope in times of transition. By remembering God's faithfulness in the past, we can better imagine a hopeful future. Remembrance is a faith-builder during times of transition and uncertainty. All of life is lived between our memory of the past and our imagination of the future. Like a rudder on a ship, our memories powerfully shape and direct our vision of the future. This is the second reason Moses calls Israel to remember.
God wants us to dig up memories of the times he has broken into our lives and encountered us in amazing ways. It's strange how quickly we forget these things. God seems to know this about us—we have short-lived and often fragile memories. This is why, over and over, he calls us to commemorate these events—whether it is stones stacked by a river, or tying tassels on the four corners of our garments, Moses exhorts us repeatedly in Deuteronomy to find concrete ways to commemorate these things.
Between advertising and the call to this church, I spent many nights wondering what was next and why God seemed so quiet when I would ask him. During that time, about the halfway point, there was an experience where God gave me just a glimpse of hope. I experienced him deeply and didn't feel abandoned. He didn't tell me what was next, but it was clear that this in-between time had purpose and was not just senseless. It was like water to a parched tongue.
A friend of mine watched me have this experience. And as a way to mark it, she gave me a little stone that says "Hope" on it. She said, "In the days ahead, when the way gets dark again, look at this stone and remember that God met you here.
I kept that stone on my desk. And over the next two years, I would look at it and hold it when I wondered if this transition would ever end. This simple commemoration of God's faithfulness became a profound faith-builder when times were uncertain.
Today, you have an opportunity to commemorate a time when God met you. While you are in between, what you need most are faith and hope. But faith is something that cannot be affected directly; you cannot muster it by an act of the will. It must be nurtured indirectly, like a flower rooted in soil. Nothing can be done directly to the flower to make it grow; all you can do is till the soil. The act of remembering is a spiritual practice that tills our soil. It is through this that the flower of faith and hope grows.
Shane Hipps is lead pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church and author of