Memory and God

“But Zion says, ‘The Lord has abandoned me; my Lord has forgotten me.’ Can a woman forget her nursing child, fail to pity the child of her womb? Even these may forget, but I won’t forget you.”

Isaiah 49:14, 15 (Common English Bible)

I was once told of a college professor who had been married for nearly thirty-five years when his wife became ill with dementia. Anyone who is familiar with this cognitive disease knows that eventually all memory is stolen from the individual. The professor did his best juggling his teaching responsibilities and caring for his wife until he could no longer do both. As he put it, he faced one of the most difficult decisions of his life when he placed his wife into a memory care center located nearly two hours from their home. Each day, following his last class, he would drive the two hours to share dinner with his wife. After some time with her, he drove the two hours back home to teach the next day.

Four hours of drive time each day eventually caught up with the professor. The emotional and physical toll was unmistakable as he realized that such drive time each day was not sustainable. Only one option presented itself – one option as the professor saw it. He would resign his teaching position at the college, sell his home, and move closer to his wife. When this decision was shared with the administration of the college and his students, they urged him to reconsider. With love and compassion, the administration and students told the professor that his wife no longer knew who he was, that she has now forgotten him. Perhaps make the drive less often – maybe on the weekends. Stay, they all asked. Stay with us.

With equal love and compassion, the professor refused. “Yes, my wife no longer knows who I am. She has forgotten everything. But I know who I am. I am her husband. Thirty-five years ago I made a promise to her. I intend to keep that promise.” That day the professor did more than demonstrate the worth of a promise made and a promise kept. Most powerfully, the professor taught his greatest lesson of all – that a loss of memory does not make any of us less a person. As long as his wife had breath, she was a person of value, a person to be cherished. Those who can no longer remember our names or of stories shared in the journey of life continue to hold a special place in our hearts and mind.

Isaiah asks, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, fail to pity the child of her womb?” Tragically, answers Isaiah, “Yes, sometimes yes.” Yet, Isaiah quickly moves the conversation forward and adds these words, “Even these may forget, but I won’t forget you.” Isaiah announces to us that, in the end, what ensures our worth – our value – is not what we can remember or fail to remember. What ensures our personhood is that God remembers us. Often our memories are so much a part of who we are that we cannot imagine an identity without them. What the professor teaches us – and Isaiah affirms – is that we are more than our memories. When our memories foil us they are held on our behalf by those who love us.



A Real and Vital Faith

“Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.”

Matthew 5:8 (Common English Bible)

Jesus teaches, “Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.” The “pure heart” is a faith that is “backed up by convictions, whose outward deeds match their inner commitments.”i  What Jesus is saying is that those who have “pure hearts” will have a faith that is real and vital. It is a faith experienced in the deep recesses of the heart, a faith that influences every moment of our lives. Such a faith confronts the God of the Holy Bible as an inescapable reality. Vagueness and doubt dissipates, senses become alert as though biting into something hot and spicy, and confidently we know that God is right in the midst of the present moment. 

This is not a faith that simply believes in God or has opinions about God. The church has multitudes of people who do that. It is one thing to recite the creeds of the church and utter words of belief, as almost all of us do. It is quite another thing to say, “God is in this place! I feel God’s presence.” That experience is like taking notice of a beautiful piece of art, imagination stirred by the rich use of colors or the complexity of brush strokes or standing on a beach watching a sunrise as if you had never seen one before. No one argues with a beautiful piece of art or with a sunrise. It is simply experienced.

The critical difference is awareness. Consider a conversation I had some years ago in Pasadena, California. During my graduate studies there, I commented to a resident what a joy it is to wake each morning, pour a cup of coffee, and enjoy the beautiful mountain range. At that comment, my friend looked-up at the mountains, with no discernable emotion, and said, “After living here for a while, you no longer notice them.” My friend acknowledged the presence of the mountains but they were not real to him. He had lost his capacity to notice them and have them move him deeply by the beauty that they generously shared day after day. His heart was not pure. Rather, his heart, muddied by the multitude of the small and large things that occupied his thoughts, fell numb.

Anything real to us results in emotional vividness. If such emotion is absent, we may question if we are paying attention, eyes wide open expecting the unexpected and anticipating wonder. Belief can be a profound matter, even courageous when such statement of belief may result in marginalization or persecution. However, often our beliefs lie at the surface of our lives, very present but lacking any meaningful impact on us. Perhaps attention to responsibility, to fulfilling daily tasks, or simply cynicism and exhaustion of the daily grind has narrowed our focus. Experiencing the uncommon in the ordinary requires a pure heart, that is, a heart released on occasion from the urgent tasks always before us, and open to the nuances of the present moment. It is what the Bible speaks of as stillness before God. Such a heart sees God in a child playing, in nature, in ordinary situations, and in opportunities to be useful to others. 



i Thomas G. Long, Matthew, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997) 50.


Happy People

“‘Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.’”

Matthew 5:30 (Common English Bible)

Crowds again gathered near to Jesus. Wherever Jesus seemed to travel, word would quickly move among the community and people would drop whatever activity that engaged them to listen for a word from Jesus – any word. Such was the power of the spoken word that fell from the lips of Jesus. That day was no different than today. As the old maxim goes, “Time is money.” If people stopped whatever they were doing to hear a word from Jesus, there was perceived value in that word. The value was simply that Jesus addressed life – life, as we have to live it. Jesus’ words were never dissociated from life. They were deliberate, vital, life-giving. Jesus never spoke to simply capture an ear. Jesus came to solve problems with living.

On this particular day, the first word spoken by Jesus was, “Happy.” It is not possible to over-estimate the significance of that beginning. This was not a chance word – a word chosen at random. Jesus could not begin his sermon that day with any other word. It was an inevitable word. The whole point of God coming to God’s people in flesh and blood, to live life as we lived life, was to experience life as we experienced life. Life is difficult. Daily, the determination to be happy, to experience life as God intends, meets with disappointment, inequity, and struggle. Our experience is Jesus’ experience. In the final analysis, Jesus sought to lessen the struggle. So, Jesus chooses this day to offer practical guidance for a happy life.

It is a welcomed word. The world is captive to an instinctive desire for happiness. Many may struggle for happiness day following day on what seems an endless journey. We might imagine that to be the story for many who gathered that day to listen to Jesus. Yet, the desire remains undiminished. However painful life may become, people cling to the hope – the possibility – that happiness might be claimed. Each of us believes in it, we seek it, the thought of happiness possessing us, demanding to be possessed. It is as though the great verdict of the world is that God intends that we are happy and Jesus has come do what is necessary to deliver on God’s intention.

As the people listened that day to Jesus, they heard God’s manifesto – they heard God’s singular concern for the well-being of all people. This would be the driving purpose, the driving force at the center of Jesus’ ministry. The absence of happiness was the cause of the world’s misery. The broken, the listless, the weary gathered at the foot of a mountain that day to be encouraged that hope remained in their grasp. Lives scorched by sin, lives on the cusp of despair nevertheless hoped against hope that there might be another day with beauty available to them. Matthew tells us that such a number gathered that they were a crowd. Looking at them, Jesus sat down and taught them. He began with one word, “Happy.”



Unfinished Discipleship

Every Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.

2 Timothy 3:16, 17

There are people in the church who have a favorite hymn but not a favorite Scripture. They have picked out a favorite piece of music to feed their soul, but they do not have a favorite selection from the Bible to feed their mind. The soul is well nourished. The mind is not. Why would this be? I recall a woman telling me that she does not need to study the Bible. She studied the Bible formally in college classes. That was forty years ago! Asked what her favorite Scripture was, she responded, “To thine own self be true.” That is not from the Bible. It is from the Shakespearean tragedy, Hamlet. Yet, she sings in the church choir each week. Classic, traditional church music feeds her soul, she told me. Nourishing the soul while neglecting the mind.

Paul writes to Timothy that God inspires Scripture for expanding the mind. The essential value of Scripture is to teach, show mistakes, for correcting, and for training character. Beautiful sacred music inspires and takes a weary soul to a place of rest and nourishment. That is important in the life of a disciple. However, it is not enough. Paul reminds us here, as he does in other places, that God created us for a purpose. God created each person to be useful to God. Scripture makes us useful. Scripture shapes us, forms us, and equips us to be participants in God’s work in the world. Inspired by sacred music while lacking usefulness to God is unfinished discipleship.

We belong to God. Paul is clear on that point. Can you imagine staffing your business with people who lack the basic skill set to get the work done? Christian baptism is Kingdom staffing. Baptism is God’s claim on us. God chooses us and provides the Bible as a training manual for equipping us to be useful. Baptism is also our promise. We promise to make God’s work the very center of our life. That means that we will expand our capacities for accomplishing each task God places in our charge. Done well, God’s Kingdom expands continually affecting positively more and more lives. That results in the exponential growth of God’s purposes in the world. That is, if each newly baptized disciple is useful.

I am asking that you feed your mind daily on God’s word in the Bible. Memorize passages that seem particularly meaningful. Throughout the day, as you go about other tasks, recall to mind those passages you have memorized. Think deeply about why that particular passage is important to you. That simple process accomplishes a big part of God’s work in each person—reflecting on what God intends for us to hear from a portion of Scripture that resonates with us. Prayerfully ask two questions: “What would you have me hear, O Lord?” and “What would you have me do, O Lord?” Day after day, you will discover that God’s Spirit is upon you, equipping you for God’s good purposes in the world. That is what discipleship looks like.