November is a month for remembering. November 1st is All Saints Day, when many remember past friends and loved ones. November 5th is ‘Bonfire Night’ when Brits remember Guy Fawkes and his attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament. November 12th is Remembrance Sunday when we remember before God those who gave their lives in the service of our country.
The Jesuit priest, Gerard Hughes, began his autobiography, God, Where Are You, with some thought-provoking words about remembering:
Memories are not simply records of the past; they are wellsprings of our present. Memories are like energy charges within our being; they can be pleasant or painful, creative or destructive. The life-giving or destructive quality does not lie within the past event, but in the relationship we construct between the past event and the present. We cannot change what is past: the only change we can make is in how we regard it now. That is why I beg for a new spirit within me so that I may see the past in a new way. I love to think of God as the divine alchemist who can produce something precious out of the base metal of our experience.
What a challenging thought. All of us have memories, and the older we are the likelihood is that our memories will be quite mixed – some will be good, but some will be bad. The question I wish to tackle is this: what do we do with our bad memories?
Unfortunately, there are many who continually wrestle with memories of past failure. They find it difficult to believe that God is able to forgive all our sins and to remember them no more. But the good news is that when God forgives, he also forgets (see Is 43.25). The story is told of a young man who went on his knees before God and confessed a particular sin, promising never to do it again. Within an hour he was back on his knees saying, ‘O God, I have done it again’. A deep voice boomed from heaven, ‘Done what?’ God’s forgiving love is so perfect that it is utterly forgetful. When it comes to past failure, we do not need to allow the past to plague us.
Ideally we too should be able to forgive and forget those who have failed us. Yet, there are times when it is well-nigh impossible to forget certain events – not least when, as a result, our lives have had to take a different direction. What then? Clearly the past cannot always be forgotten, but we can at least forgive those who have sinned against us and so ensure that the past no longer controls our hearts and our minds. Otherwise bitterness develops, and where there is bitterness we are always the losers. Indeed, it is my experience as a minister that unresolved anger and hurt all too often become displaced and transfer themselves in our feelings toward others, with the result that there is often then a breakdown in present as well as in past relationships. Even where the offending party has failed to see their need for forgiveness, for the sake of our own soul we must forgive, for otherwise our failure to let go of our anger and resentment will spoil not only our lives now but may well jeopardise even eternity itself (see Matt 6.15),
One further thought. To ‘re-member’ literally means putting back together something that has been broken and disconnected. This means more than recalling an event from the past – that is but a feat of memory. The opposite of re-membering is not forgetting; but dis-membering. To truly remember requires that we turn back to past actions or relationships and recognise our own place within what happened – perhaps for the first time. As we begin to re-member we may discover that far from having been totally in the right, we may actually have been in the wrong. In that sense re-membering can be the key to restoring broken relationships. But for that to happen such re-membering must go way beyond the nursing of old hurts and, instead, allow the hurts to be exposed in such a way that we discover our place in the cause of pain. Then re-membering allows memories to become healing rather than destructive. Perhaps it was this kind of re-membering which James had partly in mind when he wrote “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (Jas 5.16)