The saxophonist picks up her instrument. The drummer begins the count, and she is lost. The song, Autumn Leaves, is so familiar her body plays as if asleep – her breathing, fingers, and embouchure working together effortlessly. The song moves on, and she begins to move away from the head, improvising over the internalised chord structure. Her mind may wander to leaves drifting down from an avenue of maples, but it is memories that fill her. Memories of hearing this song played live by a band in a packed jazz club in Chicago. Memories of studying all the great interpretations of this song by so many that have gone before her – Miles Davis, Erroll Garner, Eva Cassidy. And now it is her turn to weave the threads of memory together into a new creation, something beautiful, something her own, yet part of a greater whole.
Like the Jazz musician, we too are part of a tradition of memory. The Psalms are like the Jazz Standards of our Judaeo-Christian heritage, and every Christian songwriter is building on all that has gone before. Every year we retell the story through the Christian festivals, and take our place in the ancient melody.
Why do we remember?
Today is Armistice Day, and we remember the costly impact of particularly the first World War, as well as the sacrifices made by so many of our ancestors and those serving in the armed forces in defence of our nation. It is an emotional day – both patriotic and confessional. We are thankful that a great evil was overcome, and yet we mourn for our own failures as a nation over centuries. We remember to celebrate, we remember to confess, and we remember to change. In Revelation 3 when speaking to the church in Sardis, Jesus tells them to “Remember what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent.”
I’ve just been reading through 2 Chronicles, and I’ve been struck by the repetition – it mostly focuses on the people of Judah, and the way they lurch from one king to another; one who leads them away to serve foreign gods, and then another who leads them to remember the Lord and come back to him. I was particularly struck by Josiah – he leads them to reinstate worship in the temple, and as they do so they discover the book of the law. They read it, they remember, they mourn and then they change.
We also remember to heal. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up in 1995 in post-apartheid South Africa gave the chance for victims to be heard and perpetrators to confess. The process brought much healing and reconciliation, although the process of collective remembering was painful.
Psychiatrists and counsellors often encourage their clients to share their stories, to delve into painful memories. This is because sometimes events are so horrific our brains do not process properly, and we almost need to reset. In a Christian prayer ministry setting, it can be important to remember painful things in order to identify where lies of the enemy have taken hold, or where we have made agreements – cursed ourselves, if you like – and need to break free. Someone who has been abandoned by a parent may tell themselves that they aren’t worthy of love anyway – and in doing so they partner with the enemy and need the healing the Spirit brings to fully receive and accept the love of God and also the love of others.
The children of Israel are repeatedly told to ‘Remember you were slaves in Egypt.’ This act of remembrance reminded them of many things, including how far they had come, and how the God they serve is a God of deliverance.
Every week (lockdown permitting), the church around the world shares in an act of remembrance – communion. In this act we take our place in the tradition of centuries of Christian worship, remembering the passion of Jesus, his body broken and his blood outpoured. We remember that our God is one of mercy, grace and love. We remember and we adore.
But our remembering isn’t my only focus today. I did a word study of ‘remember’ in the Bible and I was thrilled by what I found. We serve a God who both remembers, and doesn’t remember. He sees the rainbow and remembers his promise never to flood the earth again. He remembers his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and remains faithful to his people, and to us. He remembers the evil and wickedness of the enemies of his people.
But then he doesn’t remember. In Jeremiah 31 we have these incredible words:
31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
34 No longer will they teach their neighbour,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
The new covenant, mysteriously symbolised in bread and wine, is the outworking of God’s choice not to remember. Where before he would look at the rainbow and remember his promise not to flood, or he would look at his people and remember his covenant with the patriarchs, now he looks at us and instead of remembering our wickedness, he remembers his son on the cross. He remembers thorns, nails, whips, and blood poured out. No matter how big or small the evil deeds we have committed, he remembers Jesus.
So we pause to remember body broken and blood shed. And we give thanks.
Our father in heaven pauses to remember body broken and blood shed. And he forgives, heals and welcomes us into his very presence. Come, he says, and know me.