Expressions of Memory

Late summer has a particular scent to it. It’s a smell of a core of heat gone cold around the edges, of a fire ready to go to embers, of an aridity struggling to hang on before the rains come. It’s the smell of green leaves and dust, of hot ashes and warming homes, of new endings and old beginnings. That scent brings up many memories for me. I spent twenty falls in a classroom — returned to school at the end of summer for two-thirds of my life. So this smell reminds me of starting over, of friendship, of facing the unknown while working hard to bring it to light. Overall, it’s a series of happy memories, and so the end of summer brings a smile to my face.

Memories are powerful things. Our entire lives can be changed simply by how we remember things. A bad memory, true or false, can determine our attitude about practically anything, really. Grudges, after all, are nothing more than a set of negative emotions held together by memory of a real or perceived slight. We don’t patronize a store or a restaurant based on our recollection of how it was years ago, heedless of anything which may have changed in the interim since that memory was made. On a practical level, memory can make or break you; consider students studying for their exams or a businessman bucking for a promotion. Their faculty of recall, their ability to remember the pertinent data determines their success or failure.

Of course, our identity relies upon memory, too. It’s impossible to live in relationship with other people if we forget who we are, who they are, or how we’re to act towards each other. You can’t perform your job if you can’t remember how. Your past decides the future inasmuch as it made you the person you are as you face the years ahead of you. This is what makes Alzheimer’s Disease and amnesia in its various iterations so particularly insidious (and one of my worst fears). They erode who you are.

One shouldn’t confuse memory with personhood or intelligence, however. Even the amnesiac and the demented are beloved human beings, people made in the imago Dei, people receiving the love of God. They do not cease being human just because their memory fails. By contrast, those of superior memory are not superior humans. Our current society places a premium on raw knowledge. We often mistake knowledge for intelligence, though. Knowledge is not intelligence any more than ignorance is stupidity. Someone may be able to recite an encyclopedia without understanding a word of it. Data must be assimilated, processed, manipulated — and that requires an intelligence beyond a simple capacity for memory.

Having a fantastic memory can be a problem in many ways, too. Remembering every detail of everything makes it difficult to move beyond past hurts. The pain is always fresh, the sharpness never dulled by time. Instead such slights are fully relived and re-experienced at will, and sometimes involuntarily. On the flip side, good memories can become idols. The remembered past, regardless of the accuracy of the remembrance, becomes the goal, the objective for the future. This is the fatal flaw of Jay Gatsby, so astonished Nick Carraway should believe one can’t repeat the past. We can’t, of course. The past has passed, and we can’t hope to recover it. But when memory dominates, when we try to recreate it instead of moving forward in new directions, we turn the past into a god instead of letting God be sovereign over our past.

This power of memory appears as a common motif in Scripture. God casts our sins “into a sea of forgetfulness.” “Love keeps no record of wrongs.” God “remembers” His promises to and covenants with His people. But the greatest instance of memory comes in anamnesis, in enacted memory — the memory we experience each time we celebrate the Table. The Eucharist is the ultimate expression of memory. It is the perfect obedience to the command to remember Christ. The Great Thanksgiving calls to mind the mighty acts of God’s redemptive work in history, of His salvific deeds recorded throughout time. When we proclaim the death of Jesus in bread and wine — and true proclamation it is — we remember the sacrifice of our Lord at Calvary. What’s more: we recreate it in effigy, in symbol, breaking the bread of his body and pouring out the cup of his blood. This enactment (not reenactment, for we do not sacrifice Christ anew each Lord’s Day) of memory is the ultimate remembrance. Here we remember Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. Indeed, this shared memory, this common remembering, unites us to God and to each other — perhaps even for the first time.

Thus is the freedom and the tyranny of memory. The tyranny to unmake us, to hold us captive to the remembered past — and the freedom to recall and enact the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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The Rite Stuff

Once upon a time, back before the days of my deep theological reflection, before I had realized a calling in low church evangelicalism, I had dinner with a Roman Catholic bishop. I had met with the diocesan vocations director and formally begun discerning the call to the priesthood. I was issued a rosary blessed by Pope Saint John Paul II specifically for the discernment process, and the bishop wanted to meet with me and all the other discerners for food, prayer, and general fellowship. A month later — and three months away from the formal ceremony to sign on the dotted line, having been fast-tracked by the diocese and offered a potential place of study in Rome itself — I “discerned out” and returned to the Protestantism which birthed me.

My friends still call me Father Peters, though.

I dropped out for several reasons (and before you ask, mandatory clerical celibacy was not one of them), but there were two main things which made me want to “go home to Rome” in the first place. The first was a study of church history and historical theology, which convinced me contemporary Protestantism gets a few things wrong. The second — and the more influential, being guided by my heart more than my head for the only time in my life — was the Roman Mass itself. I visited a Roman Catholic church with a couple of friends and immediately and irrevocably fell in love with the eucharistic liturgy. The reverence, the congregational participation, the veneration, everything about it captured my heart at once. I fully admit I’m a “smells and bells” guy when it comes to liturgical worship. Now, speaking only in Latin or celebrating ad orientem may be a bit too sacerdotal for my taste — and orthopraxy, even in worship, must follow orthodoxy — but the rites and rituals of high church worship does it for me. It fits my personality.

I’m personally wired for such things. If I may say so myself, I have a gift for rites, for the ritualistic. It’s one reason I receive so many comments about my weddings and why I’ve already been booked for the funerals of those who may very well outlive me. It’s a talent, a knack I have.

We all possess a need for those sorts of things. Even if we worship in the low church style and receive Communion via “Jesus chiclets” and “Protestant shot glasses” as we do in my own denomination, we as individuals possess a need for ritual. I think we all realize this even outside of the church. After all, what are birthday parties? Graduation ceremonies? Quinceaneras? Bar mitzvahs? They’re rites of passage, ways to mark specific moments in time or special accomplishments in ritualistic ways. For example, someone once described a birthday party in these terms: “People gather around a sacrificial food after removing it from the fire. After chanting the required song of celebration, the object of celebration prays and extinguishes the ceremonial candles. The sacrificial food is portioned out, and gifts are brought to the celebrant.” Phrased differently, that’s, “Your friends and family take your birthday cake out of the oven and bring it to you. They sing ‘Happy Birthday to You,’ and you make a wish and blow out the candles. Everybody gets a piece and give you your birthday presents.” See? Ritual. (Don’t get me started on the liturgical garb we call “academic regalia.”) This stuff is everywhere, even in the most private moments of our lives. We invent it to make it so.

And we need to. These rites and rituals are critical for our life in community. They unite us. They create shared and common experiences. They act as benchmarks and guideposts, letting us know we’re at specific points in life while guiding us toward the next one. They reinforce what is important, remind us of what our cultural values are.

Rites function the same way in the church. You may be thinking, “My church doesn’t have any of this stuff.” Au contraire. Unless you wing it each and every Lord’s Day (which I cannot recommend), you follow a set order of worship — a prescribed ritual, if you will. Even if it’s “song-communion-song-prayer-reading-preaching-two more songs,” it’s still a liturgy, still ritualistic. You have a set way of observing the Table. A protocol for baptism. Outlines for funerals. Specific elements for a proper wedding. All of these are rites or rituals. All of these are specific things used as religious ceremonies and/or carried out in a pre-determined fashion towards a specific (religious) end.

These things don’t inherently detract from the proclamation of the gospel; instead, they enable and magnify it. No matter what the “religion is bad but Jesus is good” crowd may try to say, this sort of religious observance is implicitly an act of faith (more on those guys here). Baptism is considered the Christian rite of initiation, but very, very few have ever suggested we give it up because it’s a ritual. No serious reader of the Bible could look at Matthew 28:18-20 or 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 and declare “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper must be abandoned! They’re ritualistic! They’re rites! Jesus never wanted us to do such ‘religious’ things!” I mean, he commanded them. Christ established these rites and bade us do them. What makes us think all such things are evil? How can they detract from the message of the gospel, of Christ and him crucified, when they are biblically pronounced proclamations of his death and a sharing in his resurrection? They are the gospel, enacted and visible words for all to see.

All rites and rituals should be so.

Every physical act of worship should be about Jesus, whether it’s the meet-and-greet or the benediction. Every ounce of our rituals points to the head of the church, Jesus Christ. We were created, wired to do such things. Let us do them in the name of the Creator, for the sake of the one who saved us and the Spirit who dwells within us.

In so doing, let us use these rites to teach the lost what it looks like to be saved.

The Panic Panic

Before I left for seminary, I was given a word of caution from a friend who was already there: “Every single guy here is panicking about not being married. Don’t do that.” At the time, I admit I thought it was an exaggeration. And, in fairness, it was — to a certain degree. It held much truth for many, though. Both prevailing opinion and the job market think it best for clergy to be married before serving the church in a ministerial role. The push to get an “MRS” over the “MDiv” resulted in a few fun jokes about seminary dating culture. My favorites were “The odds are good, but the goods are odd,” and, “There are three stages to seminary dating: talking, engaged, and married.”

Along with a handful of other friends, I graduated with M.Div. in hand and no work done towards the MRS. This is probably because 1) my course loads were crazy (self-imposed, largely, but crazy) and 2) I never panicked about it. I’m not one particularly given to panic anyway, and I applied the same attitude to dating and marriage. As a result of my laissez-faire attitude, I did lose a great many prospective employers — but God still put me where I needed to be. I’m routinely asked about my wife or how many children I have, as single pastors are truly anomalous in my ministry context, but I politely answer and shift the topic. No panic there.

It’s not just the pressure to marry which can induce panic in a person, though, is it? Work is the biggest stressor most people have. True on-the-job emergencies happen. Bosses can come down a bit too heavy-handedly. Uncertainty and confusion abound in a results-driven atmosphere. On the flip side, being unemployed causes just as much panic for some.

And then you come home from work, and an all-new set of panic triggers presents itself. Bills have to be paid, and your creditors don’t care about your hours being cut. Your spouse and children all have wants and needs, all requiring you to devote resources to them (including your own time). The dog had an accident on the couch again, little Billy poured bleach in the aquarium, no one bothered to put a new roll of toilet paper on the roller — oh, and by the way, your mother-in-law called, and she’ll be here tomorrow to spend a week with her grandbabies.

Panicking yet?

What about if I add an oil leak in your car? A failing report card? The church asking you to serve on a committee? (The horror!)

Panicking now?

Panic is a response to many things, even things other people may think nothing about (like parties or making phone calls). I suppose it’s a misapplication of the fight-or-flight instinct. You can’t do both at once, or perhaps they’re in overdrive and demand an immediate external, physical response to the psychological turmoil within. It could be the brain’s inability to process so many stimuli simultaneously. I really don’t know. All I know is sometimes panic sets in, takes over, and rules one’s life.

I don’t want to minimize the impact of panic and anxiety. Telling someone “just don’t think about it” has never helped. Never. Not a single person. Sometimes it requires counseling and medication to get a sense of panic under control. If you need that kind of help, please seek it. Please get the treatment you need to get well. There is no shame in this.

Even if you don’t suffer from panic attacks, and ceteris paribus, most of us have no reason to panic, regardless of the situation facing us. Yes, life is difficult and uncertain; as a character from a favorite movie once said, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Even in the pain and panic, however, we as Christians have hope. We know there’s light at the end of the tunnel because we know the light of the world. We know we will suffer, but we also know we will be delivered. We don’t worry or panic because God cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).

This is the great truth Christ taught in the last pericope of Matthew 6. “Therefore I tell you,” Jesus says, “do not worry.” The Father knows our needs. He treasures us, values us above the rest of creation. When we seek God, He takes care of us. Worrying doesn’t help. Anxiety and panic serve no purpose. Our faith and trust in God sees us through. Our belief in His goodness and love should outweigh our belief in the world to overwhelm us. That is how we avoid panicking. Trust God to act in the right ways at the right moments, and do everything you can to be ready when He does. (This means, fellow single ministers, to look for a spouse [as God wills] without proposing on every first date.)

May the One who calmed the sea calm the storms which arise in the hearts of Men. Amen.

In Awesome Wonder

When you’re but a wee child, everything is new, mysterious, and wonderful. Nothing is mundane or ordinary. The eyes of a child can see the beauty and the tragedy in all things, regardless of what they are, and respond in awe. We all know this to be true, else phrases like “childlike wonder” wouldn’t exist. I suppose it’s a function of inexperience, of naivete, of innocence. Whatever it is, it’s, well, wonderful.

But children grow up. As we age, we seem to lose our senses of wonder and amazement. (If you don’t believe me, try to impress someone.) Adults think we’ve seen it all; nothing is new under the sun. We stop seeing some things entirely, letting our minds fill in the scenery around us — or at least I hope I’m not the only one who hears “a couple of years” every time I ask “How long has that been there.” Things fade into the background, become routine, and cease to make us gasp in amazement.

I wonder sometimes if that’s why worship is unattractive.

People leave the church, stop coming to worship, all the time. It’s currently estimated that around 70% (70!) of young adults who were raised in church no longer attend services. I can’t speak for all 70%, but I’m willing to bet that for a great many of them, worship became routine. Every week at the same time they gathered in the same place to sing the same songs, say the same prayers, hear the same sermons, eat the same bread and drink the same wine. It became boring, dull, and predictable. They never encountered a dynamic, living God, an all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present deity who did wild and wonderful things. The Savior of the Universe never did anything exciting, anything requiring imagination and demanding awe.

Recent trends in theology haven’t helped that. Instead of maintaining an emphasis on the mystical and the Other, we’ve focused on concrete rationalism. Apologetics is of inestimable value, don’t get me wrong, but when our corporate worship feels more like a lecture hall than a temple, we’ve misplaced our priorities. It’s true we must make an appeal to the mind, demonstrating a logically consistent and coherent faith. But aren’t we commanded to worship with heart, body, and soul as well? Does the body worship if it never has to do anything to participate in the service? Is the heart moved by data alone? Can a soul be impacted without the mysterious and the numinous?

Liturgical, “high church” worship leaves more room for mystery, true, but I believe it can and should be a part of any worship style. No matter the denomination or the order of service, the worshiper should experience a sense of awe, of wonder. The architecture of the building plays a part in this, as does the decor. The music can help, the prayers can help, the sermon can help. A proper celebration of the sacraments is one of the biggest contributing factors; who can truly grasp the provision of God’s grace through material things and not come away with a sense of wonder?

All of these things, though, should be presentations of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Songs, prayers, sacraments, and sermons all should point us to the crucified and risen Lord — and if they fail to do so, they can’t properly be termed Christian. Without the gospel, there is no worship. Without the gospel, there is no church.

Without the gospel, there is no mystery.

For what can be more mysterious than a God who was dead and yet lives? Than a God who put on flesh and became a perfect man while remaining fully divine? Than a God who loves us enough to do that? Than a single God existing in three Persons so He could do that?

Folks, that’s mysterious. And the proper response to mystery is wonder. Wonder, amazement, a sense of Something Beyond, something incomprehensible and fantastic and awesome. That’s who God is. And if we realize that’s the God we worship, then our praise will never be dull or routine again. Each Lord’s Day will have its own wonderment, its own special feeling of divinity. It will be something we yearn for, a thing longed for and sought after, a thing so different from the mundanity of life it arrests our senses, demands the fullness of body, mind, heart, and soul, and never permits us to simply sit idle and fill in the gaps by rote memory.

It will be something wonderful.