When I was a little girl, one of my favorite things to do was sit with my great-grandma in her cozy little den and listen to her memories of growing up in Chickasha, Oklahoma. She was born in 1884 so by the time I came along and was old enough to sit still and listen, she was in her upper 80s. She told me about the Oklahoma land rush she witnessed—her mom ran a boarding house right there on the line and Grandma said the morning of the rush there were people sleeping in bedrolls all over their porch and covering every inch of land around the house so they could be close to the starting point. She talked about the great tribal pow wows when leaders of different nations would come to town for a meeting. Her memories gave me a window into a world I would never see with my own eyes but one that lives on in my genetic makeup every single day, inspired by love, directed by spirit.
I remember thinking back then that it must be sad to get to the point in your life when all you have are your memories. I imagined it was like looking through a scrapbook, picture by picture, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve discovered a wonderful truth: That memories aren’t just two-dimensional artifacts we look at it in our minds. They are re-livable, feelable experiences still alive within us. Somehow, decades later, you can still feel the stirring of your heart you felt the first time you met your spouse. You can feel the happy anticipation of big events—maybe like the prom, or a special date, or an upcoming wedding. Our chests open with the grandeur of the feeling of awe as we think about amazing natural sites we have visited; and we feel the warm glow of love and family—which lasts forever—as we replay special holidays or reunions or just simple meals that were full of good humor and fun.
We may not often think about it, but much of what we do, see, think about, and understand every single day has something to do with our memories of yesterday. We carry around with us in these fascinating minds of ours a massive encyclopedia of everything we’ve ever done, everything we’ve ever said, or thought, or touched, or tasted. Thankfully our every catalogued experience isn’t crammed into our mental space every waking moment—we wouldn’t be able to function! But because of the astounding capacity of the mind and the elaborate and instantaneous indexing systems our executive function possesses, most of us can call to mind what we need when we need it.
When we go to get donuts in the morning, our minds pull up directions to tell us how to find our way there. Or perhaps if there’s a road closure, our memory reminds us of a side road to take or another route to follow (and in a pinch we can turn to GPS on our phones). Those past memories also inform in a big way how we feel about things. What we believe to be true about people and places, what we expect from the world, how much we trust important ideas like love really does win, and truth matters, and kindness is a universal language.
Our memories may also bring to mind lots of examples of when love didn’t seem to win, and truth didn’t seem to matter, and kindness didn’t make the difference we were hoping it would make. Depending on how many of those memories occur to us—and what we choose to do with them and believe about them—they can shape how we feel and just as importantly, what we do or don’t do in our world. Our thoughts, feelings, and actions lead us either to be part of love’s solution or a contributor to the fog of fear and distrust so many people seem captivated by these days. The path we choose—and it’s an important choice—may depend to a large degree on what we remember and how we remember it.
Last week I enjoyed the beautiful evenings after work by weeding and tending my gardens. It was just a joy to be outside, listening to the birds, feeling the breeze, my little efforts in sync with Life once again adding beauty to the world. Even if no one ever enjoys those gardens but me and the birds and a few squirrels and bunnies, I love tending the space and feel connected to Spirit as I do it. As I weeded quietly and peacefully—not many thoughts in my head—memories of what I was tending bubbled up: The happy, lily-of-the-valley, now spilling over into a second garden bed, are direct descendants of the flowers from my grandmother’s house over on Conner street. Her lily-of-the-valley ran all along the sidewalk next to the small detached garage and they blossomed—small and perfect and fragrant–every May, just before my birthday.
When I was old enough to have my own garden, Grandma gave me some of her plants to include, and even though I’ve moved twice since, the lily-of-the-valley have always moved with me. Today they are healthy and thriving and spreading as they do. And they are living doing well not only south of their original spot, at my house, but also west, in my daughter-in-law’s garden too. They’ve spread into a new generation and there’s no reason to think they’ll stop there. In fact, the way God has designed things, it’s likely those lily-of-the-valley will continue on into untold generations, far beyond my ability to see or know. Because—perhaps you’ve noticed this–God’s life loves to live and the systems and ideas, people and places that nurture life thrive in the long run. Conversely, the systems and ideas, people and philosophies that limit and control life, that push people down and try to stifle creativity and growth eventually fail, falling apart because at their heart they are missing the core that holds is all together: God’s love is already the whole story. We are learning, gradually, how to let that light shine into our daily circumstances and through us, out into our world.
When I was in seminary, as part of my coursework in pastoral care and counseling, I did a track of independent study on what’s known as narrative therapy. I went to workshops with some of the leaders in the field; I read books on the practice and application of this area of counseling. It all just seemed to natural and true to me. Narrative therapy is really about noticing the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our experience—how by interpreting things in a certain way or dismissing or undervaluing our gifts and talents, we can limit our life and ultimately lose touch with our happiness. Our stories about ourselves can create obstacles that are hard for us to see past. So noticing our stories and then exploring other ways to understand them can help us find more freedom and maybe a path around things that have previously held us back. It’s a fairly straightforward process that can bring a lot of opportunity for positive changes in our lives. And it makes us better listeners and more critical thinkers. And perhaps best of all, it is in line with a central truth that Christ taught: the truth will make us free.
For example, any place in your life where you say things like, Oh, this always happens to me is an indication that there’s a story right there that you’ve been telling yourself about yourself. It’s likely it’s not really true; that whatever has just happened—you couldn’t get a parking space, or the last item sold out before you go there, or you hit all red lights when you were late for an appointment—may have happened more than once to you, but it probably doesn’t literally always happen. That’s just the story we tell ourselves about whether we feel blessed or not. And when we make big generalities about ourselves—Oh, I don’t have any talent, or I never was a good cook or I’m not athletic like she is—we are dismissing and ignoring the talents we do have and the cooking ability we do possess and the activity we are capable of. Sweeping generalities overlook the small details like they are not even there—we dismiss and devalue them–and if on the surface we believe what we hear ourselves say (and most of us do, to one degree or another) those generalities limit our life and our potential. Whatever we tell ourselves repeatedly—true or not, kind or not—will show up in our experience. We expect to see it and we do. It’s as though we speak our realities into being without even realizing it. That’s part of the natural creative ability of soul.
And our limiting or self-judging stories can be damaging in a larger sense too. What we believe about our families, about our church, about our country has that same creative shaping ability. If we look back and say, Oh we’ve never been able to get along with that side of the family, how likely is it that we’ll all get along? If we here at Noblesville Friends think of ourselves as an aging and shrinking congregation, how hard will it be for us to believe that God is in fact inspiring us to share love and light in the world? And if we believe that our country is going from bad to worse, and there’s no hope for transformation and renewal, that belief could make us avoid others God would have us love, steer clear of conversations that could bring healing, and avoid putting ourselves in a place where we might be able to do something positive that could help. Focusing on the worst outcomes, the bad news, evidence of people’s uncivility and unkindness discourages us and creates a hopelessness that makes us feel powerless. We won’t even try. When we fall for that idea, we hide our light under a bushel. And we missing the opportunity God gives us to love and be loved.
That’s why it’s important that we examine the stories we think and share and believe. Beyond our daily happenings and here-and-now events, we are part of a much greater story, a far deeper memory, an experience of quiet presence and truth that will ground us and guide us and help us see the goodness in our world if we will let it. The writer of Psalm 121, our Old Testament reading for today, was doing just that. He acknowledges that there is threat and uncertainty around him, but he lifts up his eyes to the hills, asking “From where does my help come?” He remembers,
“My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
Through the rest of this lovely psalm, the writer assures us that God knows the smallest detail of our lives—keeping our feet on solid ground, providing shade by day and shelter by night.
“The Lord will guard you from all evil; He will preserve your soul. The Lord will watch over your coming and going, both now and forevermore.”
The psalmist invites us to turn toward God in whatever we face, to look back and remember all the ways God has been there, helping us, bringing just the right people and arranging circumstances in the best possible way. It’s not that we kid ourselves about the difficult parts of our story, the things we regret, the actions we’d take back now if we could. The mistakes and misjudgments are there, but if we look, we will see God shining through them all. God’s Light doesn’t illumine our memories to make us feel bad but rather to help us understand what we needed to learn, what God was teaching us, and how boundless God’s grace truly is.
And once we see more clearly, the light of understanding moves our story along, showing us how far we’ve come, helping us see what we were learning about love and life and hope. This kind of change can happen in any memory that still holds pain for us. We see this in grief, when in the early days and weeks—during what’s known as the acute stage of loss—peoples’ memories are often upsetting ones, moments when their loved ones were struggling or uncomfortable, times when they felt heartsick or overwhelmed. But over time those difficult memories begin to fade and sweeter memories come to mind, memories of good times and laughter. Things that we’re glad we did together. Eventually that sweetness expands into gratitude and even though we still miss and grieve our loved ones, we are so grateful we had the time together that we did. We feel blessed to have had them in our lives. Such love. Such grace. Such a gift, every moment we shared.
So what happened here? With time, the light began to shine through the pain and heartache of our loss. We started to see in a new way—it’s like our eyes adjusting in a darkened room. We gradually allowed a space for the bad and the good to rest together—and then could see God’s healing love shining through it all.
Similarly, when we look for God in our stories, they begin to change. We start to notice things to be grateful for, things we may have previously missed. We say thank you more often—and feel thankful more often. We notice kindness and possibility around us. And we begin to see ourselves in a new way—no longer focusing on our flaws and limitations, all the things we can’t do—but seeing instead the goodness God gives us each day and feeling a desire to share it. Acting on those inner nudges feels good because when we do, we are part of the overarching purpose of love.
In our New Testament reading, Jesus was talking to the disciples and trying to prepare them for the idea that he wouldn’t be with them much longer. He reminds them that the words he has spoken to them aren’t his but come from the Father who sent him. He wants them to remember the source of the truth they have heard from him. He’s pointing their eyes toward the hills. He says,
“These things I have spoke to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
Bring to your remembrance, he said. The memories inspired by spirit are meant to remind us of the larger truth of love and life unfolding all around us. In any situation, we can remember that love is present, thinking of how Jesus modeled in compassion and care for all, always. We can remember because that’s spirit’s express purpose: to help us remember. That not only helps us see ourselves and our world more clearly, without judgment, but it equips us to share what we’ve learned, to bring kindness and peace, comfort and hope as we naturally feel inspired to do when we’re listening to love.
That’s what it means to remember well; to watch for God’s light, shining through the memories that guide our days and inform our actions, to make room for truth and kindness and hope to re-emerge in our thoughts about ourselves and each other and all of humanity. Our world can heal and find harmony and balance. Our lives can be renewed, no matter how old we may think we are just now. God’s purpose for us is love; God’s promise is peace; God’s presence is Life itself. And so it is for each of us as God’s children. We just need to remember that—and on purpose, remember well.
- OT Psalm 121
- NT John 14: 23-27
- Narrative therapy: https://dulwichcentre.com.au/what-is-narrative-therapy/