If we have no memory, we are adrift—because memory anchors us to the past, interprets the present, and charts a course for the future.
Consider the case of Jimmie, who had the rare neurological disorder called Korsakoff syndrome. This disorder affects the memory. His story is told in the book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Dr. Oliver Sacks, who met him in 1975. Jimmie walked into the doctor's office with a cheery "Hiya, Doc! Nice morning! Do I take this chair here?" He was cooperative and answered all the questions as Dr. Sacks checked his memory. He remembered his childhood home, friends, school, and the Navy, which he had joined in 1943. He was stationed on a sub and could still remember Morse code. He recalled vividly his service in the Navy through the end of the war in 1945, but that's where the memories stopped. Completely stopped.
Jimmie couldn't remember anything from 1945 to the present (1975)—30 years. He thought that Truman was president, the periodic table stopped with uranium, and no one had been to the moon. He had no recollection of anything that happened more than a few minutes in the past. He thought he was 19 years old, not his actual age of 49 years. Dr. Sacks showed him a mirror, and Jimmie gazed at the middle-aged man with bushy gray hair. He was shocked! In Dr. Sacks' words: "He suddenly turned ashen and gripped the sides of the chair. 'What's going on? What's happened to me? Is this a nightmare? Am I crazy?'"
Sacks calmed him by taking him to a window to watch a ballgame in a park below, and he removed the bewitching mirror. Sacks left him alone for two minutes and then returned. Jimmie was still at the window gazing at the kids in the park. He wheeled around.
"Hiya, Doc! Nice morning. You want to talk to me—do I take this chair here?"
"Haven't we met before, Mr. G.?"
"No, I can't say we have."
Over the next nine years, as a patient, Jimmie and Dr. Sacks were introduced and reintroduced. He stayed in the convalescent home where Sacks worked but never learned his way around the halls. He was good at rapid games of checkers and tic-tac-toe, but got lost at chess because the moves were too slow. Sacks said, "I had never encountered, even imagined, such a power of amnesia, the possibility of a pit into which everything, every experience, every event would fathomlessly drop." The staff at the home spoke of him as a "lost soul."
Without memory, we are lost souls. You see, in the Bible, memory is much more than cognitive recall (such as remembering the dates for the history test or remembering where your car keys are). In the Bible, memory includes the mind, but it also includes emotion and the will.
In the Bible, "remembering" is "re-membering": re-attaching something that has been amputated. It is a whole-person activity where the past comes alive in the present and suggests action for the future.
Consider the thief hanging on the cross in Luke 23:42: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
Consider Hannah's vow in 1 Samuel 1:11: "Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant's misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head."
Consider the exhortations about the Sabbath in Exodus 20:8: "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy."
Consider Paul's words in Galatians 2:10: "All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along."
Even our English word has some of those connotations. At the birthday party, when the host hands out treats, the little girl squirms and raises her hand and says, "Remember me."
"Favor me. Let my reality come before your mind in a vivid way so that you will act toward me with grace." That's the kind of memory that anchors us to the past, tells us where we are in the present, and charts a course for the future.
We need that kind of memory; we need an anchor, because we tend to drift. We tend to slide, go astray. "Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love."
"We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away" (Heb. 2:10).
Do you sense within yourself the possibility, even the tendency, of drifting? I do. I'm a seminary professor, and I feel the need to guard myself so I won't drift. I've seen it happen far too often, and if you think you are immune to drifting, I humbly ask you to think again.
The Lord gives us repeated warnings:
"Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them" (Deut. 4:9-10).
"Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden" (Deut. 4:23).
"Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day" (Deut. 8:11).
We must pay careful attention so that we do not drift.
The faith journey of Charles Darwin comes to mind. He was brought up in a conventionally Christian home in Victorian England, accepted the truthfulness of the Bible and the church's creeds, and for a while, he thought of going into the ministry. While traveling the world as a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin became convinced that species developed by chance over vast epochs of time. That belief eventually led him to reject the Genesis account of Creation, and eventually the whole Old Testament. Then he rejected the Gospels because of their miracles and the discrepancies in the supposedly eyewitness accounts. Then a severe personal storm caused him to drift further—the death of his dear daughter, Annie, who was 10 years old. Although the great scientist never became an outright atheist, his belief in God slowly evolved into a kind of deism. Commenting on this slow drift, Darwin said: "I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. … Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress."
The Bible warns us: "Be careful; do not forget." In contrast to our drifting and forgetting, God remembers us. His eye is on us, his face is toward his, his ear inclines to us, and his hand is on us.
One thing he remembers is our trials.
(Read Psalm 56:1-8)
Archeologists have discovered, from the ancient world, small vials. They are made of glass and can be ornate. The top of the vial is shaped like a trumpet. These vials were used to collect tears. A person weeping would hold the vial to his or her cheek and guide the tear into the bottle. Then they would put a stopper in the bottle and preserve the tears as a memorial of the trial or the person they mourned.
Read the verses again—notice that God puts our tears into his bottle. He remembers. Thus, we sing: "He knows my name; he knows my every thought, / he sees each tear that falls and hears me when I call."
He remembers our trials because he has made a covenant with us. He has made a solemn promise, a binding oath to be our God if we will be his people. God remembers his covenant.
(Read Exodus 2:23-25 and Isaiah 49:15-16)
God saw a married couple, far from their home country, resident aliens. He had written their names on his hands: Abraham and Sarah. God saw a young man whose brothers hated him. They threw him into a pit and sold him as a slave in Egypt. God had written his name on his hands: Joseph. God saw two ladies, a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, both of them widows, childless, and destitute. He had written their names on his hands: Naomi and Ruth. God saw the first martyr, Stephen. He wrote his name on his hands. And he has seen the tens of thousands of martyrs since Stephen; the believers behind the Iron Curtain in the 1950s, '60s, '70s; the believers in the Middle East today; the believers of this church. He has made a covenant with you, and he will not go back on his word. Your name is written on his hands.
God remembers his covenant by bringing it to completion in Jesus Christ. The covenant that began with Abraham continues to this day in God's Son: his only Son, the Son whom he loves. Through him, God will save his people from their sins. Through him, all nations on Earth will be blessed.
Walking in hope and joy
He has remembered us through Jesus, therefore we walk in hope and joy. Christians walk with a kind of buoyancy, an optimism grounded in the character and promise of God.
Our bodies decay, but we remember that God has remembered us in Jesus Christ—he was raised and we shall rise. We walk in hope. When Satan haunts us with past sins and failures, we remember that God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ.
When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within, Upward I look and see him there who made an end of all my sin. Because the sinless savior died, my sinful soul is counted free, For God the just is satisfied to look on him and pardon me.
We are secure in Christ, so we walk in hope and joy. Of course, this doesn't mean that we have no trials. This doesn't mean that tears never roll down our cheeks. But it means that if God is for us, who can be against us? It means that nothing can separate us from the love of God. It means that he will never leave us or forsake us. In Christ, we find strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.
I want to tell you the parable of the tipping bird. The bird is made so that its natural position is head-down. Its center of gravity makes it tip. But when the bird is placed next to water, so that its beak contacts the water, the water is lifted by capillary action past the fulcrum. Then the bird tips up. With the beak now lifted high, the water begins to evaporate and the center of gravity shifts again so that the bird tips down.
What does the parable mean?
Natural position is head-down. In this world, our natural position is often bowed under trials. This is a fallen world. In this world, you will have tribulation.
When bowed low, the bird finds water, and the center of gravity shifts. In our trials, we remember his grace and covenant. We drink deeply. We strengthen ourselves in the Lord and keep ourselves in the love of God.
Then the water evaporates and the bird tips over again. We forget. We dry up. We bow again under the weight of this world. But when we bow low, we are more likely to …
Find water, drink, stand tall. The process repeats. When trials bring us low, we are more likely to find water. We drink again and again.
When we remember how God remembers us, we walk in hope and joy.
Let's conclude with some concrete action steps on how to keep memory alive—how to avoid the slow drift. Here's my advice: Speak, listen, eat and drink.
Speak. Rehearse, recount, recall, repeat, recite, review, remember, tell and retell the old, old story.
One way we speak is with music—"teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit" (Col. 3:16). And if your grief is too heavy, if you feel that God has forgotten you, if you cannot lift your hands or voice, others will sing for you. You just listen, and let our confession of faith be yours. We're in this together.
Listen. Listen to the Word, listen to songs, listen to sermons, listen to each other, listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit reminding us of all things Jesus taught.
C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:
One must train the habit of Faith [by making] sure that … some of its main doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day. That is why daily prayers and religious reading and church-going are necessary parts of the Christian life. We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed.
Eat and drink. On the night that he was betrayed, Jesus instituted a covenant. In some ways, it was a continuation of the previous one, but in some ways, it was new. The new covenant would no longer require the sacrifice of a lamb. Jesus became the Lamb of God. He started that covenant with a meal. It was his last supper. And we continue the same meal to this day. He told us that as often as we eat and drink to remember him. When the bread is broken, remember that his body was broken so we could be made whole. When the wine is poured out, remember that his blood was poured out for the remission of our sins.
And that takes us back to Jimmie. He spent his days wandering the halls of Dr. Sacks's clinic, drifting. The staff spoke of him as a "lost soul." But then the doctor happened to observe Jimmie in chapel, receiving Holy Communion. He was, for a time, transformed.
Here is Sacks's description:
Fully, intensely, quietly, in the quietude of absolute concentration and attention, he entered and partook of the Holy Communion. He was wholly held … There was no Korsakoff's then … for he was no longer at the mercy of … meaningless sequences and memory traces—but was absorbed in an act of his whole being.
That's biblical memory. It connects us to the past, shows us where we are in the present, and charts a course for the future.
Don't forget to remember. Speak, listen, eat, and drink in remembrance of Jesus.
Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.