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.

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.

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

Next week will be American Thanksgiving (I refuse to call it “Turkey Day” on principle). It will be a day of food, of family and friends, a day in which we, those who have been incomparably blessed by a magnificent and glorious God, simply say “Thank you.” It is a day in which we become living eucharists, and we would do well to remember the Great Thanksgiving and the whole of salvation history as we tuck in to our overflowing plates.

But this year, things will be different for countless families. They will, for the very first time, observe the holiday without a family member. A parent has died in the last year, a sibling disowned his or her family, a spouse did the unthinkable and the other was forced to end the marriage in a bitter divorce. Chairs across the country will be empty, and those who remain will remember the ones who once sat across the table.

They never really leave us, do they? Grandparents and parents in particular live on in their families. We share traits with those who have gone on, little quirks that always remind us they’re not truly gone. My sister buys raisin bran so she can pick out the raisins and have frosted bran flakes (like our grandfather did). I have a fondness for chocolate-covered cherries (like our grandmother). A cousin has her mother’s eyes, a father carves the turkey with the same knife his father used, and on and on and on. It’s those little moments of recollection which give us a twinge of memory, a faint smile, and the hope of one day sitting around the table with them in the age to come.

Others have a more difficult time of it. Families ripped asunder by divorce may sit in awkward silence, a mother dreading a child asking why a father isn’t home this year. A man who believed he had found “the one” sits alone in the only apartment he could afford and wonders why she suddenly stopped loving him. Holidays are hard days.

Regardless of the nature of the missing, those people will still be missed; they will be conspicuous only by their absence, but that absence will be felt. Even though they’re gone, they remain a part of us, and we carry them with us throughout our lives. I’m reminded of a Wordsworth poem, “We Are Seven.” It’s a bit long, but it’s worth the read.

“We Are Seven”

———A simple Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?
I met a little cottage Girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered round her head.
She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad:
Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
—Her beauty made me glad.
“Sisters and brothers, little Maid,
How many may you be?”
“How many? Seven in all,” she said,
And wondering looked at me.
“And where are they? I pray you tell.”
She answered, “Seven are we;
And two of us at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea.
“Two of us in the church-yard lie,
My sister and my brother;
And, in the church-yard cottage, I
Dwell near them with my mother.”
“You say that two at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea,
Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell,
Sweet Maid, how this may be.”
Then did the little Maid reply,
“Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the church-yard lie,
Beneath the church-yard tree.”
“You run about, my little Maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the church-yard laid,
Then ye are only five.”
“Their graves are green, they may be seen,”
The little Maid replied,
“Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door,
And they are side by side.
“My stockings there I often knit,
My kerchief there I hem;
And there upon the ground I sit,
And sing a song to them.
“And often after sun-set, Sir,
When it is light and fair,
I take my little porringer,
And eat my supper there.
“The first that dies was sister Jane;
In bed she moaning lay,
Till God released her of her pain;
And then she went away.
“So in the church-yard she was laid;
And, when the grass was dry,
Together round her grave we played,
My brother John and I.
“And when the ground was white with snow,
And I could run and slide,
My brother John was forced to go,
And he lies by her side.”
“How many are you, then,” said I,
“If they two are in heaven?”
Quick was the little Maid’s reply,
“O Master! we are seven.”
“But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!”
’Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

 

Take time this Thanksgiving to offer thanks for another year with a family intact. Take time to remember those who face an empty chair but whose hearts still say “We are seven.” And give thanks to the God who gives us all things, the creator and sustainer of all which is seen and unseen.

If you still have time after that, go eat some turkey.

Table Talk

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the common table. When we think about gathering around a table, most of us remember family meals. (If you don’t, then you probably at least have a mental image of the stereotypical idealized 1950s Leave It to Beaver sort of family dinnertime.) Perhaps another dominant association of the table, at least in Christian circles, is the Eucharist (a.ka. the Lord’s Supper, a.ka. Holy Communion). But regardless of specific functions, I think we can all agree the table is a gathering place, somewhere we go to be with other people, people whom we love.

What greater way of expressing community, solidarity, and love is there besides sharing a meal? Think about it. What do families do at holidays? They eat together. Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, relatives and kin who haven’t seen each other for years sit at the table and eat. And what is probably the single most common date? Dinner (sometimes with a movie to follow). There’s something about food and table that brings people together.

Part of it is simply the opportunity to slow down. Some of us rush meals, seeing them as an annoying necessity to keep us fueled until the next pit stop. We wolf down whatever we can get our hands on wherever we are, including the car, the sidewalk, and our desks. Such hurried, furtive mastications fall far short of being a true meal, regardless of calorie count or nutritional value. A true meal, eaten with other people, doesn’t have such time constraints. The stressors awaiting us after we push in our chairs disappear, if only for a few stolen moments. When we tuck in to the table, we slow down, savoring each moment — and each bite.

When we slow down like that, something amazing happens: we encounter other people. Really. Our focus shifts from the cares of the workaday world to those at the table with us. A common meal means common conversation. We check in with one another, asking questions about work, about relationships, about family, about hopes and dreams and fears and setbacks. People become real at the table, whether it’s a family feast at Thanksgiving or a private luncheon after a funeral. Friends go to lunch to discuss problems — or comic books. Couples are free to ignore the rest of the world and look into each other’s souls, daring just for a few minutes to be intimate and drop all pretenses. And none of this could happen without the table.

Apart from this, a table can also be a means of conveying status. The head of the family sits at the head of the table. A bigger table means bigger coffers, and those seated farthest from the host are all too cognizant of their perceived inferiority. King Arthur’s round table symbolized the equality and fraternity of his knights. Roundtable forums even today are meant to show the same egalitarianism, and they become places where every person and every opinion is considered equally valid.

None of these table-y insights are particularly new. We know from the Bible and other ancient authorities that the table has long been filling all of these roles. This is part of what makes the fact of Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors so scandalous. To sit with them at table was to mark them as equals. It was to say he loved them, considered them friends and family. To share a table was to tear down social boundaries and false senses of self-worth and self-importance. To eat with the Son of God was to recognize the playing field was level, and everyone had a chance at a relationship with the divine.

The best part? We receive the same invitation as those called by Christ in Scripture.

I’ve already mentioned the Eucharist being a common image of table fellowship in Christianity. I’ll even say it’s the dominant image of the table in Christianity. We even order our corporate in two parts: Service of the Word and Service of the Table. Different denominations — indeed, different congregations — celebrate the Table differently. Some require a formal liturgy led by a clergyperson to consecrate the bread and wine (or Welch’s), and some ask only a simple prayer offered by any believer. Some will allow only the baptized to the Table, and others open the Table to anyone who might come to faith by the grace offered in the Supper. One church might believe the elements to become true flesh and true blood; another might believe Christ is spiritually present in the bread and wine; and still another may say it’s all symbolic and no grace is conferred in the Communion.

Regardless of one’s eucharistic theology, we all share the same fundamental principle: Jesus calls us to the feast. He wants us to unite around the Table to unite around him. When we come to the Table, we recognize we are equals. We reach out to those around us and see, perhaps for the first time or perhaps for the millionth time, we are all friends, family. We see our worth in the eyes of God, and we see His grace and love towards us. And when we leave the table, we leave with a renewed sense of the divine, for surely we have spoken with our God.

It’s possible, I suppose, our own perceptions of the table and all its connotations and associations stem from the Eucharist Table. It’s also possible the reverse is true, and we love the Table because of our love of the table. No matter which way it works, however, we gather together, as the hymn says, to ask the Lord’s blessing at each of our tables. We have conversation, community, love, and grace in a unique way — a way impossible aside from the table.

Maybe that’s why Our Lord came in the form of a carpenter.

Next Up: What is this whole “public theology” thing, anyway?