Love and Memory

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Just under two years ago I was at a family reunion, visiting with cousins that I hadn’t seen in years because of our move from the East Coast to Minnesota. One of my cousins brought greetings from her father, a favorite uncle on mine. He is in the far stages of dementia, lives with the support and care of the staff of a long-term care facility, and was not able to come to this reunion. His daughter brought this greeting: “Tell my family that, although I do not remember them, I still love them.”

That has stayed with me ever since, creating each time it comes to mind both a poignant grief and quiet gratitude. The grief comes from my childhood memories of a beloved uncle with a quick wit and deep and generous wisdom who now has so few of his memories left. Yet I can’t help but feel a measure of resilient, even defiant gratitude that some emotions, like love, live even beyond our memory. And even though he may have forgotten much — including even the members of his extended family — he nevertheless remembers that we are still bound to each other in love.

I thought of my uncle again when reading this week’s passage from Jeremiah. It is one of my favorites, describing the new covenant and God’s intention to take the matter of Israel’s relationship with God fully into God’s own hands:
this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 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 (Jer. 31:33-34a).

This move arises from both God’s heartache at the inability of Israel to keep faith with God and God’s relentless determination to preserve God’s beloved people:
It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord (v. 32).

This covenant differs from the last in several ways, but perhaps most significant to me is that it is brought into existence, ratified, not by a sacrifice or any ritual practice but by God’s decision to forget — to forget Israel’s sinfulness, betrayal, and infidelity. God does not just pass over, absolve, or forgive this time around, God also forgets, erasing even the memory of the breach in their relationship:
for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more (v. 34b).

Which is when I think of my uncle. Because it sounds like God, out of love for Israel, has developed amnesia, selective amnesia we assume, but amnesia none the less. And, truth be told, this is a slightly uncomfortable thought for me. Memory, you see, is so central to who we are, which is of course what makes dementia and Alzheimer’s so terrifying. If we lose our memory, we wonder, are we really ourselves? If we lose our memory, what do we have left? If you have a family member who has suffered memory loss from disease or injury you know what I’m talking about.

And yet it sounds like the God of Israel, the One who neither slumbers nor sleeps, chooses to forget. What are we to make of this? Is this a metaphor, a dramatic play of words? Has God really forgotten their sins? The whole “golden calf” incident, just forgotten? And the worship of foreign gods — entirely wiped clean? Can God really forget? And, if so, what else might God have forgotten?

It is a startling, unexpected, and even a somewhat uncomfortable way of talking about God. We are normally so afraid of losing our memory that it’s almost unthinkable. And yet if I’m totally honest there are things I wish I could forget. Indeed, a number of things. Like, for instance, every minor slight and injury I seem to hold onto, unsure at times if they were even intended as slights and yet unable to let them go. Or some of the painful things I’ve said over the years our of anger or hurt feelings to some of the people I love most in the world. Would it not be wonderful to forget these things and in this way start anew?

I sometimes wonder, in fact, if part of Israel’s problem at this point in the story is precisely that they can’t forget. They can’t forget what it’s like not to trust God. They can’t forget what it’s like not to be so afraid — of life beyond Egypt or the power of a neighboring country, for instance. They can’t forget their penchant for running to whatever god or customs their more powerful neighbors held. And, most of all, they can’t forget their inexorable pattern of faithlessness. And not being able to forget these things, they seemed doomed to repeat them.

And so God does what Israel cannot: God forgets. In response to their failure, God refuses to recognize it. In response to their infidelity, God calls them faithful. In response to their sin and brokenness and very real wretchedness, God’s memory has to be pushed and prodded to find any recollection. God forgets.

And if God forgets, might we also?

This past week I tried out the following exercise with a wonderful group of pastors (you know who you are!): after talking about this passage and God’s insistence on not just forgiving our sins but forgetting them as well for the sake of a new and better relationship, I asked them to call to mind and hold onto one difficult memory of something they wished that God would forget: an unkind word or deed of which the were ashamed, perhaps. Then, I asked them to call to mind and hold one thing they wished they could forget: some slight or hurt or betrayal or disappointment that continues to prey upon them.

Once they had these two things in mind — and I invited them to actually imagine holding them in each of their hands — I then said that I would read this passage about God’s intentional forgetting again and as they heard those words to let go of the thing they wished God would forget because, indeed, God already has. I then challenged them to explore in the coming week whether they were able to let the other — the thing they wished they could forget — go. I could not demand that of them, of course, but I could invite them to try in order that that perhaps, by God’s grace, they will no longer be held captive to that difficult memory.

I think this might work in a congregational setting as well. We need to undertake this kind of exercise with care. Some hurts have marked us so deeply that we dare not assume they are easy to forget, and we don’t want someone feeling like a failure for not being able to. At the same time, I think we need to remind each other of God’s promise to do what we cannot: to forget — to forget all that keeps us from relationship with God so that, in the absence of the cycle of memories, we can imagine and live into a new future.

I still think of my uncle when I read this passage. I know full well that the “forgetting” this passage announces is qualitatively different from the forgetting he experiences. Yet my cousin tells me that my uncle now lives, by and large, with a remarkable equanimity, even a tranquility of spirit. This is not to make light of his condition or that of anyone suffering a similar illness. His road to this place has been at many points both difficult and painful for him and for all those who love him. But it is to recognize amid the tragedy something that is occasionally beautiful. He has forgotten most or all of the things that once weighed him down and he is now at peace. And that is a rare accomplishment.

Has he forgotten also, however, so much of himself that he no longer really is himself? I’m not sure how we’d know for sure. I do know, though, that he has not forgotten what it is to love or be loved, and to the degree that he remembers that, I would argue, he remembers the best and most essential part of himself. Further, in these moments of blessed forgetfulness — knowing that many other moments have not felt blessed — he finds connection with the God of Jeremiah who also forgets so much yet remembers love.

“Tell my family that although I do not remember them I love them.” “I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” I don’t know how far apart these statements are. Sometimes they feel infinitely distant, at others remarkably close. But I do know that I’m grateful for a God who will do — for Israel as well as for you and for me — what we cannot do for ourselves.

Blessings on your week, ministry, and proclamation, Working Preacher, in the name of our blessedly forgetful God.

Yours in Christ,