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“The Discipline of Memory”

              By Rev. Dr. Jeffrey A. Schooley

         

            June is a big month for me personally. It is a big month for remembering as various anniversaries overlap with one another year after year. (“Anniversary” literally translates from Latin as “annual” [Latin: annus] “return” [Latin: versus]).

On June 9, I celebrated both the anniversary of my high school graduation and my baptism. Both occurred on the same day in the year 2000. I began that day by going to worship, processing in my cap and gown, only to remove that cap a little later in the service so that I could go and be baptized. Later that afternoon, I joined some of those same friends who had witnessed my baptism in our high school football stadium so that we could graduate together. June 9, 2000 was most certainly a day of commencement – some temporal, some eternal.

On June 14, I celebrated my 10th “Ordiversary” (read: ordination anniversary). I did not intentionally decide to have my ordiversary so close to my baptism anniversary – this is all happenstance based upon when I was able to secure my first call – but I appreciate the close proximity of the two on the calendar because they share an even closer proximity theologically and liturgically. The waters of baptism flow throughout ordination. Just consider that these are the opening sentences (read: Call to Worship) that are prescribed by the Book of Common Worship:

L: As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

A: There is one body and one Spirit, just as we were called to the one hope of our

calling.

Later in the service, the Statement on Ordination begins thusly: “We are all called into the church of Jesus Christ by baptism, and marked as Christ’s own by the Holy Spirit.” Again, baptism and ordination are paired together in an inextricable bond.

Lastly (though definitely not leastly!), on June 23, Brianne and I celebrated 17 years of marriage. Again, there was no intentionality in placing our wedding day so closely to my baptism anniversary (and my marriage predates my ordination), but I still like the proximity because there is a connection between baptism and marriage too. Again, the Book of Common Worship offers one wedding liturgy that heavily

relies on baptism as the basis for marriage. Why? Because in baptism, we enter into a covenant (or promise) with God and this primary promise should undergird any other covenantal promises we make, such as marriage.

With this flood of anniversaries throughout the month – and corresponding Facebook posts/memories to help me actually remember them all! – I’ve been reflecting on the past quite a bit. But reflecting on the past can be dangerous work. Nostalgia is a comfortable threat to actually remembering rightly – and anniversaries of every sort tempt nostalgia to overshadow any and all other reflections. 

Last week Bri and I went and saw Inside Out 2, the long-awaited sequel to 2015’s Pixar hit, Inside Out. The premise of this film is that we live in the head of Riley, a young girl (9 years old in the original; 13 years old in the sequel), as we witness the interplay of various emotions – joy, fear, anger, disgust, and sadness. The sequel sees the addition of new emotions alongside the original cast of five – anxiety, ennui, embarrassment, and envy. Interestingly, a fifth emotion – nostalgia – keeps trying to enter the scene, only to have ALL nine of the other emotions shoo it away. Why?

Nostalgia, for all its comforts (and seeming inevitability), is dangerous because it tempts us to leave this moment and dwell primarily in the past. And, of course, failing to live in each moment is emotionally dangerous. One is unable to receive the gift of joy in this moment if they’re nibbling on the stale remains of past joys. Much like divinely-sent manna in the wilderness, joy is a gift we have to learn to receive anew each day. Yesterday’s joy is riddled with maggots and bacteria that are bound to make us sick if it is what we primarily consume. Indeed, we can rather rightly interpret the last eight years of political life in America through the lens of nostalgia. After all, what else gave a tagline like “Make America Great Again” its electoral potency if not nostalgia?

It is because nostalgia is such a dangerous temptation – emotionally and spiritually (and, as we’ve lived it, even politically!) – that I’ve titled this article “The Discipline of Memory.” And while I recognize that we all tend to chaff against the word “discipline” – it feels like an itchy wool sweater on our souls – memory without discipline is very likely to be nothing more than noxious nostalgia.

So what is the discipline of remembering? It is a way of remembering God’s past faithfulness so as to learn to better see God’s present faithfulness. What does this look like practically? It looks like the best wedding toast I ever heard (and, sadly, not at my wedding). Though I’ve come to learn that this toast is a bit of a cliché, it is a cliché with meaning. It goes something like this: “May today be the day you love each other the least.”

What a surprisingly beautiful sentiment delivered courageously in the midst of a celebration. To be sure, weddings are definitely the celebration of a new promise of love made. But weddings – like baptisms, high school graduations, and ordinations – are also the commencement of a new life/stage of life. The exhortation implied in this blessing is to nurture and grow this new thing. For, to be sure, no marriage will survive that implicitly sees the wedding day as the apex of the relationship. Such a view means that it is all downhill from there.

The same is true for these other spheres of life. No one wants to think that a high school graduate will only grow dumber with time, that the newly baptized will only grow less faithful with time, or that the newly ordained minister will only diminish in “energy, intelligence, imagination, and love” (all vows in the ordination liturgy) with time. Simply put, we remember our various beginnings as a way of charting our growth as we labor onward from those beginnings.

Learning to remember rightly is a key form of faithfulness in the Old Testament. Routinely God delivers the Law to Israel with a reminder to remember that they were once slaves of Pharaoh. Israel is to remember this past so that they don’t re-create it in their contemporary lives together. It is this oft-recited lesson from the Torah that Jesus embodies when, on the night of His arrest, He takes bread, breaks it, gives it to His disciples, and says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The eucharist is a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice that is meant to inspire our own sacrificial living for the sake of our faith.

And so, I invite you to engage your own anniversaries and memories with eyes wide open – that is, with one eye warily making sure nostalgia doesn’t keep trying to creep into the room and with the other eye looking to see and chart the growth that has occurred with time. May all your memories and anniversaries help spur you forward. May they be for you a foundation from which you receive God’s new blessings, not an anchor that holds you down from reaching those blessings. Amen.

             

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Tammy Schnitker

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