New Beginnings - Remember

Happy New Year!  This week, we began a three-week series on New Beginnings. 

Luke 2:41-52  Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

When I read this story I try to imagine it all from the parents’ point of view.  It’s not hard, actually.  I have done my fair share of losing the children.  That feeling of panic the moment you realize your child is gone.  You reach out for help – I’ve had the shopping mall on lock down more than once.  You go on high alert, focused and with one mission: to find this child.

But I don’t know how it would be to feel that way for three days.

Three days they searched in Jerusalem, a city packed with Jews from all over the diaspora, on pilgrimage for the festival of the Passover.  Three days he was on his own in a city that was not his home, an unfamiliar place.  Three days Mary and Joseph did not know if their son was alive, didn’t know if he was safe.

And then, that moment when you find your child, you breathe a sigh of relief, and say, “Thank God you’re safe.  Now I think I’m going to kill you.”

Well, for Mary, this was one of those days in her child’s life that she would simply hold; one of those days she would need to suspend judgment; one of those days she would treasure in her heart.  It had been like that for Mary from the beginning.

At his birth when the shepherds told all the things that the angels had said, Mary treasured their words in her heart.  I can imagine the same, when they presented Jesus at the temple on the 8th day and Simeon and Anna, who were near the end of their lives, greeted the newborn messiah with words of prophecy and worship.  It was a recognition that as one age was ending, a new age was beginning.  And Mary treasured all these things in her heart.

This week we mark the end of this year, and cross the threshold of a new one.  It is a time of new beginnings, and at such times there are things we take with us and things we leave behind; some things we lay to rest and others we will hold and treasure in our hearts.  It is our task to sort through the pieces of our life and decide where they all go.  

Today we begin a three-week series called New Beginnings, and we look first at the task of remembering.  

There are different reasons for remembering things.  Some things are remembered because they were wonderful; other things are remembered because they were awful.  Everything remembered is remembered because it is somehow shaping us into the people we are and will become.  

Oftentimes the strongest memories are the bad ones – the memories we cling to as a caution, lest it should happen again.  The great depression; the holocaust; Pearl Harbor, or 9/11 – these are collective memories that impel us to guard against a potential danger.

It’s important to remember these things.  “Those who cannot remember their past are condemned to repeat it,” said the writer George Santayana.  There are certain things we would wish to never, ever repeat.  The memories might be painful, but they bear recalling for the sake of ensuring that we never walk that path again.

The Lord commanded Israel to remember their years of slavery in Egypt.  This was not a good memory for them, but remember they must.  In the act of remembering, the benefits are twofold – for their relationship with God and also with others:  First, the remembrance allows them to celebrate how the Lord their God led them out of slavery and into the Promised Land.  And secondly, they are reminded of what it is to be a stranger, ill treated, in a strange land; it is a caveat to never, ever subject anyone else to that kind of treatment.

One of my children had a bad year in middle school when her friends suddenly started bullying her for no apparent reason.  She was so miserable she wanted to quit school.  Fortunately it lasted only a year – although it probably felt like an eternity, it was only a year. But she never forgot that year, and it has reminded her to be compassionate toward the square pegs, the misfits, the ones who need a little love.  Her father helped her learn this when he said to her, “Remember how this feels. When you see someone else being left out or picked on, remember how it feels.”

Our memories of pain, while uncomfortable, can guide us toward becoming better people.  But we must allow ourselves to experience the memory honestly.  So often our instincts to protect ourselves from pain will kick in and interfere with our memories. And the memory becomes suppressed or distorted, such that we protect ourselves from the pain but as a result we learn nothing useful.  Honest remembrance is a healthy thing.

Yet, at the same time, we mustn’t let ourselves become overwhelmed by the painful memories, so much that we lose touch with hope.  I had some experience with this recently.

During this past summer, when one of my children was hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury I was as frightened as I have ever been.  I can’t really describe to you what those days were like, except to say that I felt like I was in hell.  As her condition began to improve there was some relief, but I began to notice a strange effect of the fear: I couldn’t recall any good memories.  Fear suppressed memories of good things and took away my hope.

Something I read this past fall reminded me of this.  It was a story told by Henry Nouwen about a man named Bill who lived in the community of developmentally disabled adults where Nouwen worked as a chaplain.  Bill had a very tragic childhood and when he first came to the community he was frightened, and untrusting.  And he had no memories.  The pain and the fear of his early life had blotted out all his memories.  

But over the years, he learned to trust and to love again, and gradually – miraculously – he found his memories.  In the security of a loving and caring community this vulnerable man could remember that there had been some love in those early years too.

This summer, I had to work at finding the good memories.  And as I relocated those memories, I found hope.

As a congregation, we look back on our history and recall good things and bad things.  In conversations I have noticed that some of us carry powerful memories of bad times; memories that seem to color all our impressions of this church – they cause us to be more fearful, perhaps, that we need to be.  As we consider the work of remembering, I ask you to remember three things.

Remember the strengths as well as the weaknesses.  This church has weathered some storms.  We can look back at them with clear eyes and remember that we have always had the strength to go forward – in the leanest times as well as the fat times.

Remember the weaknesses, with clear eyes.  Talking about them together can be a helpful thing.  What were the qualities that have dragged us down in the past?  What did we fail to do that we should have done?  What actions did we take that we are sorry for?  

Remember the losses.  This year, as every year, we have lost some beloved members.  Let us remember them with gratitude for all they gave us.  Each one of them left us a lasting legacy – let us remember these gifts.  We owe them a debt of gratitude for their contributions to Faith. Imagine making them proud for the way we are moving forward in their memory.  What does it mean for us to pick up the mantle they left and carry on?

Remember that the things Mary treasured in her heart were both extraordinary and frightening.  She didn’t know what the future would hold for her child, but she knew that all these experiences, these memories, would be important.

As we go into the New Year, let us choose the memories we want to take with us – the memories that will strengthen us, making us wiser and more loving. Let us remember with courage and with love, as we move forward.  Some of these things we may simply hold in our hearts, trusting in God to use them, and us, in the New Year.