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 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.

OR

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.

on doubt and breathing

Sometimes the world is too much, and so we try to escape. Even that phrase—that I often overuse, “the world”—is an escape of sorts. We are often bad at naming the thing, the pain or joy, the love or anguish.

I’ll try again.

Sometimes hope feels like the easiest thing in the world. Like running fast and forever on a day when you can. Like a morning with plenty of time. Like a conversation that rings eternal. Sometimes hope is easy. But sometimes it isn’t.

Sometimes a band that holds the world together snaps and the shock, the injustice, the wrongness of it is so complete that despair and sadness feel like the only thing there is. A little boy who doesn’t get to grow up. A family with an ache that consumes. A younger brother who might not remember.

It is not a choice not to hope, nor a choice to escape. The wrong just becomes so big that you can no longer access the good. The paths to hope and joy become inaccessible. Sensemaking is out of the question. Perspective, like aging eyes, becomes blurry.

If such horrible things can happen, maybe the ground is not so solid. Maybe all our assumptions and dependables and granted takings are foolish after all. Maybe we should trust nothing.  What is true? Who is sure? What will hold me?

My friend Lori, with a voice like liquid wisdom, reminds me, “Bles-sed are those filled with doubt. Bles-sed are those who doubt.”

 

Breathe.

 

The questions don’t disqualify. And like good hospitality, suddenly I know I’m not alone in wondering how I can ever hope again.

And so, to circle back to our roots: Sometimes the world is too much, and so we can’t access the comforts or hopes or truths that usually restore us. Sometimes the present God feels distant. Sometimes we can’t write a treatise, or lecture beautifully on the nature of things, or gently advise a path ahead. Sometimes we can’t charge into battle, or trust the system, or even name the thing we need from a friend. No, we can’t do any of those things that usually hold the world together for us.

Perhaps though, we can wonder. We can appreciate a flare of beauty. We can create beauty (as resistance). We can accidentally be comforted by a God we feel distant from at the moment.

This feels like, and often accompanies, art. And so today, in the midst of wrestling with my own silence, I’ll offer the poetry of another. (When your own way is blocked, look around and find a companion. Mary Oliver is a great place to start.)

Breathe.

FromThe Ponds”

…Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.

I want to believe I am looking

 

into the white fire of a great mystery.

I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—

that the light is everything—that it is more that the sum

of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

“Wild Geese”

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body 
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

From “In Blackwater Woods”

…every year

everything

I have ever learned

in my lifetime

leads back to this: the fires

and the black river of loss

whose other side

is salvation,

whose meaning

none of us will ever know.

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
 

“Don’t Hesitate”

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

Mary Oliver

Amen.