Sunday, May 6, 2012

The matter of memory

This weekend I traveled to Kansas City to see two of my sisters graduate – one from college and one from law school.  I stayed in the bedroom of my 8 year old nephew, Vincent, amongst legos and bugs pinned to velvet plaques, stars glued to the ceiling and collections of books about dogs.  After he’d oriented me to the important things in his room and left me alone, I realized there was music playing softly. It was a cd with the Sunday school songs I had grown up with: Jesus loves me, I’ve got the joy down in my heart, Jesus loves the little children, Oh, how I love Jesus, and others, on a mellow cd where they were paced, I discovered, to match the beating of a heart.  The cd was set on repeat.

When he came back in I said, “Vincent, that music is so relaxing.”
He said, “Yeah, I think so too.  I like to sleep with it on. Hey! maybe you could too!” 
So when I went to bed that night I did not turn it off.  Throughout the night when I would stir I would catch morsels of music, words that I had grown up hearing, comfortable, familiar, somehow part of me.  They wove themselves in and out of my dreams.  When I awoke, the songs of my childhood and my faith gently called me back to day.

“Keep these words that I am giving you. Recite them to your children.  Talk about them when you are at home and away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

You are my children who I delivered from the land of Egypt. I am your God.  You shall love Yahweh your God. 

It’s all God has ever wanted.  Back and forth this tumultuous relationship goes throughout time – from the beginning when when God breathed it all into being and placed the tree of God’s vulnerability among them, Choose me, choose life, I will show you the way to live fully, wholly. And instead they chose not to trust the God who loved them, and to look after themselves and turn against one another. And on and on it goes, rolling through centuries and millennia, God’s relentless love and humanity’s turning away and God’s constantly adapting strategies to share life with these cherished ones made in God’s image.

There are lots of reasons, I suppose, why people turn away from love.  In this story, they don’t even know yet that they have. 
What is it like to have lost your memory? To have forgotten who you are, what shaped you, where you come from, where you’re going? What is it to be not just one, but a whole people like this? Yesterday disregarded, tomorrow uncertain.  Trapped in eternal present, and unpleasant present, at that.

So what, then, was it like for them when those scrolls were opened?  What was it like to hear a story that was true about you and you never knew it? What was it like, after more than a lifetime of ruthless, unpredictable and oppressive authority, lawless self-preservation, fear and corruption, to being gathered one day in the square, by your young king and told that when cleaning out and repairing the temple this was found:  the law, the ten commandments, the history. The word of God. 
What was it like to hear the words aloud that your ancestors wrote, a message from God in their voice, guiding their lives and it was supposed to guide yours too, but you’ve never even heard of it before.  Like learning your own middle name for the first time.  Discovering you’re adopted, or that you’ve got a whole family of people you never knew, or that you’re incognito royalty.  It’s the Aboriginal lost children of Australia stolen from their people and raised in white homes hearing their language for the first time. It’s a dug up time capsule not only introducing your ancestors but blowing misconceptions about your own identity out of the water.  It’s an opening of your own past that completely alters the present and rewrites the future.

I picture stillness over the crowd, barely a breeze, rapt attention and dead silence, not a throat-clear among them, as the words are read:

My people, here is who you are! And here is how I designed life to work best, together and not just alone, for others and not just yourself, giving and not just taking, sharing and not hoarding, resting and not just toil. Each one treasured, all together belonging.  Forgiven, free.  Here’s the relationship you were meant for – with me, with each other.  You belong to me. I have chosen you for a special purpose in the world – I will care for you and you will live within my care so that you can care for others.
And the crowd holds its collective breath as these words sink deep into their souls.

And the most painful and poignant part of all of it, I imagine, is standing there listening when the words are read, Whatever happens, my children, Do not forget this!
 In fact, rehearse it, Teach it to your children, talk about it when you’re awake and dream it when you’re asleep, Discuss it over dinner, leave post-its lying around, tuck it in your purse and have it in your pocket and Literally stick it to your own forehead so you don’t forget.  It’s that important.

And you’re standing there hearing this as the third generation of people who’ve completely forgotten.  You’ve never told it to your children and you never heard it from your parents.  You’ve never discussed it over dinner let alone carried it with you in your pocket or plastered it to your forehead. You’re hearing it for the very first time. 
All the ways it could have been. 
All you’ve done that you can’t undo.  All you would’ve done differently had you known. Hope and shame comingled.  Joy and sorrow welling up and spilling over.
All together you stand there remembering what you never knew.

Huldah the prophetess knew. She recognized the scriptures when they brought it to her.  She told them what these words were and she told them what God was waiting to say when they finally looked up and noticed God again. 
How did she know?  How could she be the one-  she, and not even the priest - who could speak with confidence when the people were finally ready to hear again the truth of their situation?  How did she alone remember?

She was not alone. The prophets, who criticized the dominant consciousness and pointed out all the heartbreaking ways things were not as should be, who energized the people with the promise of a future different than the pain of the present, these prophets did not exist in a vacuum.

 They came from communities, a tiny remnant of people who remembered the story, who were raised with it as part of their lives when everyone else forgot.  They listened to the songs as they fell asleep, they heard the tales over dinner and rehearsed the lessons in the fields or the streets.  They prayed to Yahweh, and shared life with the living God when everyone else had left God long before for lifeless idols of their own making.

Even when the whole people had forgotten, even when perhaps nearly all the copies of the book of the law had been lost or destroyed, even when the kings of Judah was behaving worse than the worst of their enemies, and the cruelty and suffering was unending, there were some who remembered. Some who kept the memory alive for the rest of them.

Brueggemann says, “The subcommunity that may generate prophecy will participate in the public life of the dominant community…from a certain perspective and with a certain intention.  Such a subcommunity is likely to be one in which:

-       there is a long and available memory that sinks the present generation deep into an identifiable past that is available in song and story;

-       there is an available, expressed sense of pain that is owned and recited as a real social fact, that is visibly acknowledged in a public way, and that is understood as unbearable in the long term;

-       there is an active practice of hope, a community that knows about promises yet to be kept, promises that stand in judgment on the present,

-       there is an effective mode of discourse that is cherished across generations, that is taken as distinctive, and that is richly coded in ways only insiders know.  
        (from The Prophetic Imagination)

Imagine now, that we are such a community.  That prophets are grown here, that together, we are prophet.  That one day all the world will know again the love of God, will live in love, and peace, and justice, forgiveness and generosity,
and for now, we keep that reality alive and rehearse by remembering the faithfulness of God in the past, and telling the stories that have shaped our journey as individuals, as communities, as the church, as God’s people, in scripture, in our lives, imagine we hold that memory.
And imagine that we grieve together that things are not as they should be, we share that grief in honesty together, we talk about what separates people from each other, together we look open-eyed at injustice and brokenness and suffering.  Imagine we can openly name death in all its forms and grieve it. And not because we’re somehow exempt from it, but because we participate; even in our own lives we’re part of what shouldn’t be.

And Imagine that we practice hope, we live out of promises yet to be kept, we find strength from God’s future to treat each other as God sees us, we find courage to live unafraid to reach out to others, to see and be seen, to listen and be heard, we recognize all people as children of God and treat them that way, because one day these glimpses we see will be realized in all fullness. 

And Imagine that we practice noticing what is easily overlooked, and we get good talking about it.  We are truly People of the resurrection, who see it and seek it everyday. 
Imagine we have an effective mode of discourse; we can talk about all of this, we have rich language and imagery that we share, and we value wrestling through difficult things, we appreciate sharing stories and perspectives and insights and questions.  
And we do it in song and art and prayer and laughter and beauty and broken bread and spilled wine and cooked meals and long conversations and quiet moments and all different learning styles and all different gifts.  Imagine we become fluent in our ability to communicate with each other over the deep and important things God is stirring up in our lovely and ordinary world.

Because the world has forgotten, it’s memory is short.  And we are here to remind the world who it really is.  Created by God, each one loved by her creator. All together made for life and love.  In astonishing diversity made for harmony and wholeness.  And imagine we live this out in defiance of the dominant consciousness that has forgotten, but we also live it out in sure anticipation. We wait.  Because we know it’s coming.

My second night in Kansas City was spent celebrating with my family.  In the room last night there was a lot of joy and hope, and a lot of brokenness and pain.  Hard-fought achievements accomplished, long-suffered challenges met, pride and happiness. Also relationships strained and persons in turmoil, marriages already dead tentatively and awkwardly seated alongside new ones born. Foster kids separated from their family who can’t love them without hurting them, but loved and held by a new family of people they should never have met in their lifetime.  Children entering the teen years, hesitant and beautiful, and wild, masked, caped and flashlight-armed young ones racing in and out from the night. 
It was a room full of people seeking to love in the ways they know how – favorite desserts, group photos, flowers, laughter over stories of the younger years, fear or hope over what might be ahead.  All of it was there.  Exhausting, sweet, and poignant. 

And I returned to my 8 year old nephew’s bedroom and kicked off my shoes and closed the door.  And I heard the music still softly playing.  Reminding, gently, insistently.  Jesus love me, this I know. The peace that passes understanding down in my heart.  Because he first loved me.

There is a truth that goes deeper and reaches back further, through struggle and pain, past amnesia and unknowing,
a love beyond all denying and turning away and forgetting, that plunges into death and roars joyfully back into life again, that stretches strong from the beginning of everything out past all eternity. And even in this moment, it holds you.
I am the Lord your God. 
Be open. 
And share it, however you are able, with each other.
Now, loved ones, let it pulse through you with each beat of your heart.
Put it on repeat and never stop listening.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

We've been collecting little summaries about the various prophets as we've journey through the Old Testament. Most of them we take from Frederick Buechner's Peculiar Treasures, but he didn't have one for the prophetess Huldah, so we created our own.


Josiah.  When he came to power people said it was a relief; he’d be a puppet, perhaps, but at least he wasn’t his grandfather.  Or his father. Maybe this one would be better.
She wondered what would become of them all.

When he came to power he was eight years old, but he was not naive.   The advisors that had murdered his father just three years into his reign had in turn been murdered by the people.  And now he sat on the throne, his toes just shy of the floor, his arms propped up high on both sides.  He could feel the weight of the world pressing on his narrow shoulders, the shadow of danger hovering over him. 
She held her breath and waited to see what would happen.

But he had heard the stories, whispered in the corridors, told to him by a kind nurse, a peddler in passing, a servant’s child.  The snippets of stories sang in his soul, resonating in the fibers of his own being - the stories of Yahweh, and the people of God, of Solomon and David, Moses and Miriam.
She prayed he would listen to the stories.

You didn’t have to be fully conscious to see that the temple of Solomon, towering in their midst, was crumbing in disrepair, not to mention filled with idols and temple prostitutes installed there by his child-sacrificing grandfather King Manassah.  You didn’t have to be a genius to guess it wasn’t what it once was.  Or was meant to be.  Before.  Back then.
She retained the memory.  She grieved their amnesia.  She held out hope for the people’s return to their God.  And she waited.

When he came to power he was only eight, but he knew what kind of king he wanted to be.
For a few years he watched. He listened. He gathered people who could tell him the old stories.  He learned from the mistakes of his father and grandfather.  And then he made his move.
He started by cleaning up the temple. He started by rebuilding what was breaking down.  He could think of no other place to begin. 
And when the priest found it, when the priest brought it to him, he knew.  Without being told, without ever having heard the words before, he knew what to do.  He tore his clothes.  The grief of God and the prophets became his own.

She heard them coming before she saw them. 
When the party from the palace made their way to her door, and she paused and smiled, before rising to greet them. The time had come.
They placed the scrolls on her table.  She lifted one and held the sacred words in her calloused hands.  She stroked the fine letters and her eyes filled with tears.  She looked at the messengers, the questioners waiting for her answer, and she knew that their lives and the world they knew were about to change.
She answered them.

“Tell the man who sent you that this is truly the word of God.  And God is indeed very angry. For generations the people have turned away, and they will reap what they’ve sown.  But also, they will return.  By the wise hand of this king, they will return to their God.”

                                                                        (Kara Root, from 2 Kings 22-24)

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