on remembering, for Memorial Day

As we approach Memorial Day, we do well to remember that memory is not just a comforting nostalgia, but a way of knowing who we are, of connecting with God and others. Many of us, immersed in counseling lingo, know the dangers of forgetting. We know by now that we cannot know who we are without knowing from where we’ve come. We know that trauma will never heal as long as it is locked deep within us. We know that we cannot progress or grow as long as we refuse to take inventory of our mistakes and poor past habits. We know we cannot begin to imagine steps of reconciliation as long as we ignore or deny the wrongs in our past. Memory is a teacher, a revealer, a guide for every day that follows.

Memory certainly can be constructive and healing, but the work of today is not to tell us to take our medicine, nor to remember in order to stay out of trouble. Instead, this Memorial Day I hope to ring the bell of memory again for beauty, as an act of worship, and maybe of resistance. I am arguing we should not face memories because they otherwise haunt us, but because in our memories we find our very selves; in remembering, we tap into the eternal hint God placed within us at our forming. Remembering resists mortality and reverses erasure.

Walter Benjamin was a Jewish German philosopher and thinker about culture and literature who fled Hitler’s growing Nazi hatred in the 30s. He died along the way when he thought his escape had been blocked, committing suicide. Thankfully, among other ideas he left us the legacy of the notion of Messianic time. For Benjamin, a powerful connection—one that overcomes the limits of mortal humanity—occurs when a community beholds a piece of art or beauty together. Making a memory collaboratively with others somehow crosses the boundaries of space and time that isolate us. Messianic time is felt and tapped into when a collective experience is shared. When a moment is held among people together, it is so powerful that an atemporal connecting occurs across time; for Benjamin, past, present and future merge into the shared moment.

The bonds of mortality, of our own sad stuckness in temporality, are tight indeed. How can we practice remembering in a way that catches a glimpse of Messianic time? Frederick Buechner, a writer and priest, is helpful here as he reminds us that first our memories must be spoken. In speaking of a hard and never talked about past memory of loss, he found hope in words, asserting, “Words are so much a part of what we keep the past alive by, if only words to ourselves.” We must learn to face our memories and also learn to speak them. Tell yourself the story of you. The stories that shape and impact and make you. Remember them to yourself, with images, yes, but also with words. When we speak such words, we offer ourselves the chance to re-remember the ideas that helped shape us, putting ourselves together again.

Buechner argued that speaking memories into the present keeps those we have lost alive, but I think it helps us stay alive too. As a follower of Christ I believe I was made with God’s imprint. The God in me elevates and expands my most painful limits, giving me tastes of the eternal in precious, restorative glimpses. I have to struggle and grieve and fight against my own imprisonment in linear time. I am neither eternal nor God, and am thus limited to live one day at a time, leaving the past, and memories of those I knew in the past, behind.

This is mostly true, but I think memory is a beautiful, outrageous, God-sized loop hole in my prison of time. One of the pathways to Messianic time, to God’s eternally connected temporality, is memory. Buechner puts it this way: “Maybe the most sacred function of memory is just that: to render the distinction between past, present, and future ultimately meaningless; to enable us at some level of our being to inhabit that same eternity which it is said that God himself inhabits.”  What if remembering the past lifts us out of linear time and instead gives us a taste of the eternal, where all time is simultaneous?

This Memorial Day, indulge in remembering. Take some time to re-member yourself—to put yourself back together—by telling the stories of the people and encounters that continue to shape you. Take a morning to marvel at how close you can be to those you have lost when you remember them. Give your private memories words, and tell stories about the people you have loved and love still. Keep them alive with your laughter, and revel in the Messianic time that allows you to walk with them, to hear their voices, and to sense the embrace of God, again.

on grit, and tripping

This week, a repost (with a few mild changes), from last spring. For all of us in our wildly different contexts, it is helpful to remember that every good path presents some trips and falls.

Good stories struggle. They have moments when it is not clear that the good guys will win, or even survive. They have heroines who compromise or take a stand in the service of a long-term goal. They have heroes who persevere against all odds, getting dirty in the process. Most of us want to be part of our own good story. Why is it then that we often lose perspective when our journey becomes imperiled? We tend to throw up our hands, assume the end has come, and walk away. 

We Americans like to think we are models of courage and hard work, but hiding within this narrative are cynics who give up at the first sign of discouragement.  Even though we know struggle is part of all progress—often the most valuable part—we are shocked and consider quitting when we come upon unexpected struggle. It is not unreasonable to argue that many lack the grit required to stay the course when things seem impossible. This is why so many schools and consultants overuse the word so often. “Grit” is the hipster version of determination. It is the ability to stay at it even when the odds feel stacked against you. 

This idea is problematic though, because encountering difficulty is not the same thing as the odds being stacked against you. Difficulty is part of life. Trials come. Life rarely moves in a linear path of ascension. Only a collective and sustained cognitive dissonance allows us to live amidst the sadness and decay of others while expecting sunshine and roses for ourselves. Part of the reason we struggle when we encounter difficulty is that it often catches us off guard. We observe others, thinking, “I am so inspired by the way she struggled through that trial, learning and growing in the process to become an even better version of herself.” When we face a struggle, however, our response often involves foul language, throwing things, and giving up because it is too hard. If we learn to pay attention to the stories of those around us, we might nurture our ability to anticipate and live through our own roadblocks. In addition to grit, we need to develop a greater capacity to contextualize our hopes and dreams with the stories of others.

Understanding that set backs accompany progress has a collective impact beyond the obvious personal benefit. As a society, we need to develop stamina for staying the course even when it is hard. The city of Nashville seems committed to rolling out the red carpet to every industry, developer or entrepreneur looking for a place to land. This is mostly wonderful; however, it is hard to become the “IT CITY” without displacing many of the residents of the previously “ignored city.” Gentrification is hard. Affordable housing is complicated. This doesn’t mean we stop trying to find a way forward though! Nashville is off the growth chart, and we need the grit as a society to create health in all our new dimensions. We need to contextualize the positive aspects of our growth with housing inequities and displacement, and then find the grit to keep creatively addressing our affordable housing deficit. The presence of frustration means neither that progress is impossible nor that we are powerless to correct course. 

 Immigration is complicated. According to some, we have an employment and crime crisis in America because of it. According to others, we have inefficient court systems, mistrust between police and immigrant communities and poor oversight of employers’ hiring practices. Because immigration in complicated, and we as a society typically lack the capacity to sustain effort in the face of difficulty, I am concerned we will continue to demonize asylum seekers, traumatize their children, reduce Americaness to whiteness, and then walk away away in defeat, fear and isolation. In this moment we need leaders who understand that terrible mistakes are part of any success. We must listen to voices who understand that America often finds itself in unfamiliar territory with no clear solution, and then we find the grit to stay the course and keep working together.

Last summer my family and I went hiking in western North Carolina, and it was magical to watch my kids go from grumbling-whiners-forced-out-of-their-technology-caves into honest-to-God-frolickers. They frolicked. Ran and skipped and played and laughed. They handled the ups and downs with ease, jumping from rock to rock across rivers, crossing every root, stumbles and all. Then we approached the final ascent to the waterfall. It was muddy and slick, dangerous even. Quite steep. When we got to the top, the trail became a four-inch thick sloppy mud fest. Our shoes sank, our steps slid, and we nearly missed the majesty of the waterfall because we were covered in mud. Most of us overlooked the mess to enjoy the beauty, but our tween immediately started demanding I replace his nice shoes.  He said it was all my fault for taking him on this dumb hike. Grit gone.

Where did all the frolickers go? The beautiful truth is that you can’t get to the waterfall without going through the mud! The presence of hard and wonderful things are not mutually exclusive. We need to expect the setback in the midst of forward progress, for it will always come.

Many of us long for an encounter with beauty. We desire meaningful success. We strive to find peace. But we often think we can get there without getting muddy, without losing our footing along the way. The presence of the hard does not eliminate the possibility of the good. Keep living in the present, taking each step, breathing in and out, and remember that every hard moment is just that, a moment.  It is not your entire story. If you want to live a “good story” kind of life, develop a capacity for living through hard things. It is wildly unlikely that you will find the depth of life’s beauty without encountering pain in the process. Stop turning back, and learn to navigate the mud before the waterfall.

on drinking, ranting, and other toxic habits

Walking down Bourbon Street, I noticed a sign on the door of a bar that read, “Two Drink Minimum Per Guest.” Given the location and its famed debauchery, I was baffled at the notion that a bar would publicly announce its concern for the drinking limits of its customers. Misunderstanding completely, I was smitten by the old-fashioned idea that the bar would assume a thoughtful role in public indulgence. I imagined an iconic bartender, playing it cool but knowing how to cut someone off, refusing to escalate a situation that could go wrong in a hurry as he protected the peace and stability of his community.

Then I read the words again, acknowledged I had utterly missed the point, chuckled to myself, and moved on. Far from encouraging limits for their customers, this bar seemed to give public notice that only the indulgent need enter here: Unless you order at least two drinks, keep walking.

In Nashville, my favorite bar is a short walk from home. The Taproom is like a public living room or patio, a place where we regularly start an evening, end a night, or waste an afternoon. At our table, a bystander might hear comedy, history, philosophy, economics, theology or psychology as we discuss All The Things. I often belly laugh, yell, cry or cuss over a pint in this familiar space. This bar, in particular, has served as a counseling office, a church, a classroom, a reunion and a refuge as I talk with people I trust about how I live my life.

Seeing the sign in New Orleans made me wonder if a random bar has a social contract to encourage good in others. No; I think not. Despite my absurd love of the Taproom, I recognize that a bar is not required to uphold a commitment to the flourishing of their communities. I suppose it would be bad for business for a bartender to remind customers to thoughtfully consider the words they use and the actions they take.

People should, though.

Each of us has the chance to decide who we will be in the lives of those around us. The bar sign is helpful in that it clearly announces the kind of place it is. My initial misunderstanding of it made me wonder what how I label my relational approaches. Am I the kind of person who will always push people to indulge relentlessly in their own bad habits? Am I a person who will encourage others to keep going even when they know they should stop? Or am I such a faithful friend that I will cut others off when they are being toxic to themselves and others?

What if our public institutions had to articulate the unspoken rules that guide their discourse and actions? Would it be true for our houses of worship or schools to hang signs that say, “Here in our community, we will affirm the dignity of every human; we won’t ignore the experiences of anyone, or allow you to fear difference or to blame others for your discomfort”? I hope so, but I fear that even in these places we simply encourage the worst impulses in others, ignoring outlooks, beliefs and habits that destroy hopeful and compassionate communities.

Each of us is a walking bar of sorts. In every single interaction we have the chance to provide a place for others to find a listening ear, to restore themselves after a long week, and to offer advice as they think about who they are and who they are becoming. In each conversation, we have the chance to allow people to spew hatred, to believe the world is against them, to blame others for their own perceived failures, and to fan the flames of negativity.


We have the chance to guide them to stop while they are ahead. We can help others minimize their own toxic ranting, or cut them off before they get drunk from the blame, complaints, or chronic dissatisfaction they spew at others. We can be the bar with a two drink minimum or we can be the bar who will cut a friend off before they hurt themselves or others. What a privilege.

What if, like the upfront bar on Bourbon, we wore signs that let people know how we approach friendship? What if we had to own our default position in relationships?

“Willing to support your worst impulses.”

“More committed to your growth as a human than to our comfort as friends.”

“Not gonna stop you no matter how sick you sound.”

“Will likely make you angry when I call BS on your rant.”

“Happy to nod along as you ignore your shortcomings, obsess over small slights and blame others for your disappointment in life.”

“Committed to the person I think you can be, and willing to remind you of who you are.”

It might feel comfortable and familiar to agree with every perspective a friend shares, but it is not loving, and might even be dangerous. Left to our own devices, each of us can become consumed with ourselves and obsessed with what we deserve. We need friends and public institutions willing to challenge toxic ways of thinking. We need others to provide context for our narrowly derived thoughts.

Do friends know you to be a two drink minimum friend? Do you push folks to go too far, even if it will eventually hurt them or others? Or do you care enough to disagree, to correct, to speak up against hidden impulses and encourage people to be self-aware without being self-consumed?

Be the bar that leaves people better than they found them, not the one who helps people try to blackout and forget before the night is over.