The Psychology of Sacred Remembering

RememberingThe psalms have been the primary prayer book for both Jews and Christians over many centuries.  They reflect the full range of human emotion echoing the human spirit’s most raw and honest life experiences.  They describe the joy of knowing God as he breaks into human history as well as the pain of exile, loss, and human suffering experienced in a world of sin and brokenness.  The psalms are a formative force in the lives of all believers.  I was privileged to lead a devotion using psalm 105 at a gathering I attended not long ago and wanted to share it here for others to reflect upon.

The section of Psalm 105 I want to discuss is the following (From the NIV):

“Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts.  Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.  Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always. Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced, you his servants, the descendants of Abraham, his chosen ones, the children of Jacob.  He is the Lord our God; his judgments are in all the earth.”

The key phrase I want to focus on is “Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgements he pronounced.”  The word I want to focus on is “Remember.”

Remembering is a profound human ability we take for granted.  In fact, if we didn’t have memory we would be purely instinctual creatures, not too different from the most basic crustacean at the bottom of the ocean.  There’s a fascinating case study done on a man named Clive Wearing who lost his ability to remember things more than a few minutes in the past.  He wakes every day as if it’s his first conscious experience and becomes easily frustrated when he sees writing in his journal he believes someone else wrote. He doesn’t remember writing in it just moments before and while he recognizes his own handwriting, he can’t understand how it got there.  His case is an extreme example  regarding the importance of memory.

Memory is a powerful tool because it makes present a past experience.  For example, whenever you smell a meal from your past being prepared, something you enjoyed  as a child at some long forgotten Christmas, that experience becomes vivid and real.  You’re struck by how much the past becomes part of the present and you can be brought to tears thinking about loved ones from that past celebration.  It’s like they’re right in the next room laughing and sharing a bottle of wine together.  The past is made powerfully present when the odor of the food brings back that special memory from a special time.  This power in vivid memories can work against us as well.  For example, people struggling with PTSD experience their past trauma in the present when something triggers their difficult memories.  The slightest trigger causes them to relive the traumatic experience that caused them pain and suffering.  For these people the past is not a distant memory but rather becomes a present reality.

This powerful experience of making the past a reality in the present is something God uses to help us stay connected to what he has done for humanity throughout salvation history.  During worship and prayer our remembering is a powerful tool.  The Jews use this power of sacred remembering when they celebrate the Passover meal.  When Jews celebrate Passover they’re not simply remembering something God did in the past, they make present the experience of being freed from slavery and led to the promise land right there in the midst of their gathering by remembering this saving act of God.  Like Jews, Christians do the same when they celebrate The Lord’s supper.  While Christians continue to argue about “how” God is present when they make Eucharist, focusing too much on the how leads us to forget about the fact he “is” present.  When Christ instituted the Lord’s supper he commanded his disciples to “Do this in remembrance of me.”  There’s that word again, the word remember.  Christ asks his disciples to exercise what I have called “Sacred Remembering”, something very different than just recalling  past events.  Sacred remembering allows the Holy Spirit to make present the sacred saving acts of God from the past.  While we often do this in private prayer,  I believe this is best done in our communal worship.  When we gather as a community our collective remembering transforms the ordinary to include the saving acts of God in the midst of the people of God.  Eucharist is the Christian Passover, a time for remembering that Jesus Christ gave his body and blood for the sins of many.  Remembering makes that past event a present reality for the gathered community.  Christ is mystically present.  I am not saying God is only present when we remember, I’m merely suggesting through our remembering we’re made aware of the imminent presence of God.  This is why psalm 105 is so important for our discussion about remembering.

Psalm 105 is a psalm celebrating two foundational acts of salvation for the Jews.  The first is their freedom from slavery in Egypt.  The psalm sings about how the people of God found themselves in a foreign land and that God sent them Moses to free them from their slavery.  The second act of salvation celebrated in the psalm is God’s promise and fulfillment in giving the Jews the promise land.  These are two very important acts of salvation the Jews recalled frequently as a community.  By “Remembering the wonders” they are recalling the presence of a saving God existing among them now, not just in the past.  This act of remembering was sacred and Scripture reminds us this psalm in particular facilitated that act of sacred remembering within the context of communal worship.  Yes, we are fairly sure all the psalms were used in the liturgical worship of the temple, but this psalm in particular reminds us David used this type of remembering to help the Israelites experience God’s powerful presence.

In 1 Chronicles 16:1-15 we read about David’s worship before the Ark of the Covenant when it was finally placed in the city of Jerusalem after being lost to the Philistines for a period of time.  David is in the presence of God and asks all those present to recall God’s saving acts.  All of this is done in the context of communal liturgical worship with ministers, music, food, and praise.  At the appropriate moment David asks the priests to sing Psalm 105.  This is a beautiful reminder that the God who wishes to dwell among his people remains constantly present and by recalling his saving acts through psalms, songs, scripture and sacrament, he is present once again.

We are finishing our journey through Advent and drawing closer to the incarnation of our Lord.  God, who so desires to be with us takes on human flesh and dwells among us sharing in our weakness and frailty.  During Advent and the coming Christmas celebrations we need to use the gift of sacred remembering to make God present with each worship service we attend.  When the scriptures are proclaimed, God is present.  When the Lord’s supper is celebrated, the saving act of Christ’s death and resurrection is present.  God is not distant in the historical past he is ever present in the “now” of life.  Through communal sacred remembering in the proclamation of word and participation in the sacrament we are drawn into the divine presence of God.  As the Psalm tells us we “seek his face always” and therefore he is always there.  Christmas is about God dwelling among us.  Allow the Holy Spirit to make that more than a past event on a cold Christmas night, make it a present transforming reality for you now!


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