Remember, remember: a talk for Guy Fawkes Night

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I see no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

(Traditional rhyme)

Remember, remember… how can we not remember, with the fireworks going off around us?

I want to take that old rhyme as a starting point, not for talking about Bonfire Night, but about the act of remembering. I want to suggest that this time of year is a season for remembering. It begins with All Saints Day on the first of the month, followed by All Souls, which is a time for many people of reflection and commemoration of those who have died in the faith. It continues through the very secular celebration of Bonfire night, which has its origins in a particular historical event, and through to Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day. This season of remembering has even been given a name – it is Remembrancetide.

So tonight I want us to think – on the one hand – about remembering – and on the other – forgetting. And I want to begin by talking about the human experience of memory.

Here’s a scientific definition:

“memory is an organism’s ability to store, retain, and subsequently retrieve information”

Our ability to remember is essential to our survival and our normal functioning day by day. We learn from our experiences and build on them. Imagine if every time you walked from your house to the bus stop you had to learn the route all over again. Imagine if you woke up in the mornings and couldn’t remember the names and identities of other people living in your home. Imagine if you couldn’t remember how to do the regular and routine tasks of every day – boiling a kettle, tying shoelaces, getting dressed.

Of course this is exactly the experience of many people who suffer from dementia. I’m sure that many of us here have direct experience of this through seeing family members and friends trying to cope with memory loss.

Listen to the experience of Altzeimer’s sufferers Cathie, Jill, Alan and Barry, as they describe events from a typical day:

4.30 am
Did my stretching exercises on the bed to try and wake up my body! What day is it? No idea! Haven’t got a clue! Not sure how I feel as my eyes and brain aren’t working yet but feel disorientated.

5.45 am
Where is everyone? I seem to have been sitting alone for so long! The day starts badly – just trying to get dressed. I end up throwing things about in my frustrations. Sometimes I can’t even get my underwear on right.

8.30 am
I can’t remember where I am meant to be going today. I know how irritating I am. I keep on asking and feel as though I’ve done something wrong just because my brain won’t function properly. I think I’m in trouble – someone put the kettle on and it’s boiled dry! Can’t you smell it? Smell what?

10.00 am
I think I must have fallen asleep in my chair. I think I had better have some breakfast. What do you mean breakfast, you had it a long time ago! Don’t remember that…

7.00 pm
Had salad for dinner with chicken or it could have been tuna. I can’t remember! Not much on TV then bed. I’ve asked 3 – 4 times in a matter of moments if I had my tablets after dinner. I wish I could remember. Sometimes I lie awake and worry about saying or doing the wrong thing.

(Stories from MHA.)

To appreciate the importance of memory, we only need to look at the quality of life for those whose memory has failed.

So the first point I want to make is – remembering is important.

If that seems obvious, the second point I want to make is more surprising. Forgetting is also important.

For those of us who find that we increasingly have difficulty remembering what we did yesterday, the idea of being blessed with a perfect memory seems like a dream come true. However, the reality is quite different. Listen to this news report, entitled “The woman who can remember everything”:

“A woman who has baffled doctors with her ability to remember every detail of every day has broken her anonymity to speak of her condition. Jill Price, 42, can remember every part of her life since she was 14 but considers her ability a curse as she cannot switch off.

She described her life as like a split-screen television, with one side showing what she is doing in the present, and the other showing the memories which she cannot hold back.

Every detail about every day since 1980 – what time she got up, who she met, what she did, even what she ate – is locked in her brain and can be released to come flooding back by common triggers like songs, smells or place names. Mrs Price, a widow who is a school administrator, sometimes struggles to sleep because the vivid memories crowd her mind and stop her relaxing.

Her condition is so rare that scientists had to coin a term for her condition – hyperthymestic syndrome from the Greek thymesis, for remembering, and hyper, meaning well above normal.

Mrs Price said her memory started working overtime after her family moved to Los Angeles when she was eight and from the time she was 14, in 1980, she can remember absolutely everything.

Neuroscientists say a trauma such as moving the family home can trigger major, lingering changes in the brain, especially in children who cling to memories of how their life had been. Mrs Price said: “Some memories are good and give me a warm, safe feeling.

“But I also recall every bad decision, insult and excruciating embarrassment. Over the years it has eaten me up. It has kind of paralysed me.”

“My memory is too strong. It’s like a running movie that never stops. Most have called it a gift. But I call it a burden. I run my entire life through my head every day and it drives me crazy!”

Mrs Price, who has written a book called The Woman Who Can’t Forget, blames her vivid memories for many years of depression.”

Daily Telegraph online

These days we are increasingly aware of the effects of memories on our emotional wellbeing. Victims of trauma, such as sexual abuse, may remain a prisoner of bad memories if these are not properly addressed through counselling or therapy. We need our memories but normally our minds are selective in what they choose to remember.  Many of us have done things or made mistakes that we would rather not remember – if they were constantly before us we would be paralysed by guilt or embarrassment or regret. This is exactly the problem faced by Jill Price.

So remembering is important, and surprisingly enough, so is forgetting. But there is one more thing we need to say about memory.

All that I have said up to now of human memory could equally be said of other animals. It is famously said that goldfish have very short memories; on the other hand elephants never forget! The fact is that all animals have some sort of memory, and share our experience of remembering and forgetting. Those of you who have pets will know what I mean – if you can house train a dog or a cat it is only because are able to commit the training to memory.

But there is one aspect of human memory that is generally shared by other animals. To illustrate it try to answer some simple questions:

  • What was the name of the British general who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo?
  • What was the year that William the Conqueror defeated the English king Harold at Hastings?
  • What was the name of the disciple who denied he knew Jesus after his arrest?

How do you know these things? You weren’t there at the time!

We have a collective memory – or what is usually referred to as cultural memory. The most obvious form of cultural memory is our history books, but it is also passed down through traditions and folk culture.

One of the great strengths of human beings is that we are able to share our memories with others and pass them to the next generation. Generally other animals cannot do this – I say generally because there are examples of some mammals and birds that use simple tools, such as a stick or a stone to access food and seem to learn this skill from others. So we might talk of a very basic culture of tool use. But this is far surpassed by human cultural memory.

Generally cultural memory is a good thing; a shared memory promotes social cohesion. The government knows this, which is one of the reasons for growing emphasis on teaching citizenship in schools and requiring applicants for British nationality to learn basic facts about British culture and history. But it is not always helpful; just as individuals can become trapped by the past, so can communities and nations. Alan Falconer, writing a number of years ago, gives an interesting example:

One of the courses given at the Irish School of Ecumenics in Dublin concerned “the Irish situation”, in which an analysis of the history, politics, socio-economic and religious dimensions of Irish societies was undertaken by an English sociologist. Invariably the Irish students found this problematic. One such student eventually became so angry that he articulated his frustrations and as a final seal to his statement produced from his wallet a certificate. “This certificate”, he said, “was given to my family at the time of the Famine. It is a certificate separating then from their land. I carry it in my wallet with me all the time.” That memory had imprisoned the student. Undoubtedly the famine was a tale of human disaster on an immense scale. Unquestionably the Famine had political repercussions in Ireland. Yet that event of one and a half centuries ago seemed to determine the way that Irish student acted today. He was not in a position to enter any positive relations with people from England.

Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland; Turks and Greeks; Hutu and Tutsi; Israeli Jews and Palestinians – behind many of these deep seated conflicts are long memories of conflict. Does there not need to be considerable forgetting before there is a possibility of reconciliation?

So: remembering is important. Forgetting is important. And remembering and forgetting is not just an individual phenomenon; there are cultural memories, collective memories; indeed isn’t this what remembrancetide is all about?

And it is this cultural memory, this collective memory of a people, which becomes particularly important when we turn to scripture and read there what it has to say about remembering.

Firstly, the Bible affirms that remembering is important. Israel was commanded to commit the Torah, the OT Law, to its collective heart. A key text is Deuteronomy 6:4-9:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.* You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem* on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:4-9

For Israel, this shared memory was an essential part of its self-definition as a people. In other words, who they were, what they should believe, how they should behave was tied up with the remembrance of God’s covenant-promise and his mighty acts. Later in Deuteronomy we read:

Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.

When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this. Deuteronomy 24.18-22

It is hardly surprising that when we move to the NT, the focus of this remembering is Christ. So Paul writes to Timothy:

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel. 2 Timothy 2:8

Perhaps the most familiar passage about remembering is the text which is read at every communion service.

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for* you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 1 Corinthians 11:23-25

At the heart of Christian worship, then, is an act of remembrance. In fact, for many Christians in the Protestant tradition this is the primary understanding of Holy Communion. Communion is understood primarily as a symbolic, memorial meal; a doctrine known as memorialism.

Finally, for Christians as well as Israel, the sense of a shared memory is a powerful tool in forming a group of individuals into a community, a people. So Paul tells the Ephesians to remember who they were, and what they now are through the reconciling ministry of Christ:

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth,* called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. Ephesians 2:11-13

But we cannot end this quick review of Bible texts without noting an important fact: God himself is characterised as a God who remembers. The theme of remembering and forgetting seems to have been particularly important for Isaiah:

But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’
Can a woman forget her nursing-child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me. Isaiah 49:14-16

I particularly like that last image. Does anybody ever write a note to themselves on their hand? Isaiah says that God does too – he has written our name on his hand.

Elsewhere God, speaking through Isaiah, connects the people’s remembering with his own:

Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant;
I formed you, you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.
I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist;
return to me, for I have redeemed you. Isaiah 44:21-22

The message is, basically: ‘remember that you are remembered’. And this same message is echoed in the words of Jesus:

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. Luke 12:6-7

It is hardly surprising to find so many Biblical references to ‘remembering’. In fact the word, and its derivatives, occurs over three hundred times. Perhaps more surprising are those texts which command us not to remember, but to forget. Again, this seems to have been a favourite theme in the prophetic writings of Isaiah:

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Isaiah 43:18-19

God’s word is the answer to that common complaint of churches facing change: “But we’ve never done it that way before!” God says, forget the old way of doing things; I’m going to do something completely new! But as we noted earlier, forgetting is also important if we are to be freed from the baggage of the past. So God says to a restored Israel:

Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed; do not be discouraged, for you will not suffer disgrace; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the disgrace of your widowhood you will remember no more. Isaiah 54:4

Once again what we are commanded to do is rooted in God’s own action. Can God forget anything? Our gut instinct might be to say: ‘no, of course God can’t forget! He’s God!’ But remember that forgetting is not always negative!

So God says:

I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins. Isaiah 43:25

And

No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. Jeremiah 31:33-34

“I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” That last phrase sounds very much like that well worn phrase “forgive and forget”.  It seems that God is prepared to forgive and forget, but what about us? Forgiving is pretty difficult – but forgiving and forgetting? Isn’t that just being naïve? A recipe for allowing past mistakes to revisit us?

  • What do you think? How important – or even how possible –  is forgetting?
  • Think about the examples I gave earlier of communities and nations in conflict, fuelled by memories of mistrust and violence. Why do people base their current views about current questions on events of fifty or a hundred or more years ago? What has to change for reconciliation to take place?

Recognising that forgetting is actually very hard, I often hear people say “I can forgive but I can’t forget”. But in fact, if we are to truly move on, there has to be some measure of forgetting.

Doctors James and Constance Medina set out the importance of forgiving and forgetting in human relationships in an article called “Handling Forgiving and forgetting”. They suggest:

Forgiving is the highest form of human behaviour that can be shown to another person. It is the opening up of yourself to that person to be vulnerable to being hurt or offended in the future, yet setting aside this in order to reopen and heal the channels of communication. Forgetting is equally as high a human behaviour; it is letting go of the need to seek revenge for past offenses.”

In other words, if we are to live in community with others and indeed if we are to live with ourselves, there are times when we need to acquire the ability to forget; to set the past aside.

“Remember, remember” says the old rhyme. Except sometimes we need to forget. But deciding when to remember and when to forget isn’t always easy! What we need, to borrow a phrase from Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer, is “the wisdom to know the difference”.

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About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
This entry was posted in Bible, Theology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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