2 Thessalonians 2:13-17

Past Present Tense

2 Thessalonians 2:13-17

Past Present Tense

Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen

In more traditional corners of our land families visit the graves on Memorial Day, bring flowers to father and mother, grandfather and grandmother, and maybe sisters or brothers, fuss about the graves a bit, think long thoughts awhile, then go off to the other activities of the holiday weekend.

Memories — important aren’t they. The irony is that they become increasingly important during those years of life when we become less good at them. I have always wondered whether I am less able to remember or whether I simply have so much more to remember. I have noticed with my computer that the more stored in memory, the longer it takes to pull something up.

And the names, they are the real challenge, aren’t they. Ever have trouble with the name of someone you have known for years. Strangely I do remember someone who said, “The reason I have such a wonderful memory for names is because I took that Sam Carnegie Course.”

Certainly when it really begins to go, it is no joke. Nothing is sadder than the elderly relative confused and failing, who cannot remember who you are, disturbed, dislocated because of loss of capacity for memory.

But there are at least two critical dimensions of memory that are essential to life. First of all, our memories, so far as they remain vivid and lively, tell us who we are, as members of families, of this nation, of our faith. It is an illusion of modernity that we have any real identity and meaning as individuals outside the context of historic communities that have shaped us and which bind us to one another and our past. A community of national heritage and history, communities of blood and long-term friendship, faith commitments extending back through the years, communities built on memory, and when we belong to them and share in them we know who we are and why we are here.

I wonder if it is not the loss of such memory that lies behind the breakdown of historic communities with the consequence that life for many becomes isolated, solitary, depressing, without ties to the past, ties to a larger world than their own. Such life becomes desolate of any great dependencies, strength and hope beyond the autonomous self.

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A professor of philosophy at an eastern university, a brilliant man who had studied widely abroad, a man of acute sophistication and learning, was typically an agnostic, refusing to commit to any system of thought or way of life lest it destroy his independence. When his second child was only a few months old, she took ill with a bad fever and was placed in a hospital. Because the mother was exhausted, the father sent her home and stayed overnight in the child’s room. As he sat there feeling helpless for one of the few times in his life, his mind drifted from one thing to another. He began to ask himself about the direction of his life, what he was living for. Finally, in the midst of loneliness and worry, he began to hum an old Sunday School hymn. You know, it is dangerous to learn these old Sunday School hymns. They can come back to haunt you.

“O Jesus, I have promised, to serve thee to the end. ” He writes, “Over and over that simple song rang in my head, until finally I found myself saying, ‘O God. I did promise, but I have let the years and the learning draw me far away. In searching for the truth with a little “t,” I have lost the truth of life.” And he made then and there an inner surrender to the God of his early years and there came a sense of relief and peace. His daughter recovered and a few days later left the hospital. But he said later, “That was not the heart of the issue for me that night. Of course, I wanted her well, but it was the realization in those dark hours of what really counted in life. The faith of my childhood remembered, reached out and took hold of me and made me whole again. And I have found my way back to the place and people where I belong.”

And memory gives me not only a sense of meaning and belonging; it evokes a sense of obligation for who I am and what I have. An old man used to visit an old broken pier on the seacoast of Florida. Every Friday night until his death in 1973, he would go there slowly and slightly stooped with a bucket of shrimp. The sea gulls would come to this old man and he would feed them from his bucket.

Many years before in 1942, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker was on a mission in a B-17 to deliver a message to General Douglas MacArthur. Somewhere over the South Pacific the Flying Fortress became lost. Fuel dangerously low, the men ditched their plane in the ocean. For over a month Captain Eddie and his companions would fight the water and the scorching sun, spending many sleepless nights as giant waves threatened their raft. But of all their most formidable enemy proved to be starvation. Their rations were long gone. It would take a miracle to sustain them. In Captain Eddie’s own words, the pilot William Cherry read the service from the Book of Common Prayer, a prayer for deliverance and a hymn of praise. In the oppressive heat with my hat pulled down over my eyes to keep off the glare, I dozed off. Something landed on my head and I knew that it was a sea gull. I don’t know how I knew. I just knew. Everyone’s eyes were on that seagull. Food, if only I could catch it. And the bird sat there calm and still as I slowly reached up and captured it in my hands. And the rest is history. They ate the flesh and used the intestines for bait to catch fish. Their bodies were sustained and their hopes renewed because a lone sea gull, uncharacteristically, hundreds of miles from land, had offered itself as a sacrifice. And Rickenbacker never forgot. Ever since, about sunset, on a lonely stretch along the eastern Florida seacoast, until he died you could see an old man walking, white-haired, bushy-eyebrowed, slightly bent, his bucket full of shrimp to remember the one who gave itself without a struggle. Like manna in the wilderness, a gift from God.

Only as I remember mother and father, teachers and mentors, friends now gone, and all those unknown ones who gave their lives that my life might go on, do I sense the deep indebtedness that goes with life. My memories bind me, obligate me.

A world of instability and discontinuity, of rootlessness, of loss of place and community in self-absorption, loss of obligation to any real past. The late Christopher Laasch wrote, “To live for the moment is the prevailing passion and message — to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity. We are fast losing the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching out into the future. It is the waning of the sense of historical time and obligation that distinguishes the spiritual crisis of the day.”

And Paul writes to his friends in a not dissimiliar world, “beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, keep away from those who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they and you received from us.” And Christians down through the centuries, alive to the tradition that shaped them, alive to the sacrifice of their Lord that they might know freedom from sin and death, have known ever renewed sense of obligation.

But how do we remember to remember. That seems to be the problem in our time. The modern idea that we can ignore historic communities, family, church, nation and the rituals of remembrance which create and sustain them proves to be an illusion.

And I am afraid the television does not help with the task of memory. Charles Krauthammer writes, “The ultimate instrument for forgetting is television. It is inherent in the medium. The flickering image is impossible to retain. Who remembers the once ubiquitous Mike Douglas? Frank Reynolds? Michael Dukakis? Pastlessness is inherent in video with its fast cuts and dissolving shots and rerecord button, with its moving tape forever recording a vanishing now. For a television society, every day is Today, This Morning, and Tonight.

Sara Harrell Banks writes of stopping by the restaurant that is the gathering place for the town’s regulars in the small southern town she calls home. You will find the same small restaurant in Whitehall, Michigan where we summer, and I’ll wager, a thousand other small towns scattered across the country. “As I sat there listening, I wondered why the conversation among these men, the sound of it gave such a feeling of security and comfort. Then I thought that perhaps it was a reminder of my childhood evenings before the advent of air-conditioning when people still sat on porches to enjoy the cool at the end of the day. Then, the sound of adult voices meant security and order.

Stories were told in soft voices, family stories mostly, usually beginning with “Do you remember the time when Dad went all the way out to Kansas one summer to work in the wheat fields while he was working his way through ‘Old Miss.’

“There was the litany of familiar names; Nan and Swann, Edward and Lettice, Alex and Bertie, Margaret and Grace and Anne, names like beads counted over and over until they are polished and shining with use. And you knew as you listened, that all knowledge was there, held like a cup and shining.

“Now with air-conditioning and television, no one sits on porches anymore. Neighbors don’t wander over on warm, honey-suckle-scented nights to talk. Family stories aren’t told as often and children don’t have that same sense of belonging, of knowing who they are and where they fit. For a little while that morning in the restaurant, as I listened to the casual easy talk of the men, I was taken back to a gentler time. And for just a little while, I felt that ease, that sense of security that all knowledge was there —held and caught like fireflies in a Mason jar —a small light illuminating the darkness.”

I think she is on to something very important. There can be little sense of who we are and whose we are outside of community that offers its members strong identity through the rehearsal of strong memories. What are birthdays and anniversaries, the observances of Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, what is the worship and sacraments of the Church if not a time of remembering where we came from and whose we are and to whom we belong.

Paul writes to his friends in Thessalonica, who are struggling with life in an alien environment, where the world around them seems on a slippery slope into debauchery and ruin. And they feel like outcasts, nobodies, and are tempted to give up in despair. “..brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.” Tradition? The collective communal memory of where we came from and therefore who we are and to whom we belong.

This is why in church school and family we basically rehearse stories, Christian stories, family stories, hand them on as mind-shaping memories for our children to live in and from. Because it is the size of the memories we live in that determines our ongoing sense of identity and importance and purpose. If you live only in the little transient memories of yesterday’s slight, and the market on Friday, you will be as small as your world. But if you live in the large world of God’s story of you and for you, you will grow as great as the story.

I don’t know where you get your strength to go on, your renewal of spirit. I get it from remembering, in reading as in reverie. There is a lot of garbage back there that needs to be forgotten. But there are also a lot of encouraging faces and inspiring moments to conjure up and relive in memory.To remember my life is to remember countless times when I might have given up, gone under, when humanly speaking I might have gotten lost beyond the power to go on. But I didn’t. I have not given up. And each of you, with all the memories you have and the tales you could tell, you also have not given up. You also are survivors and are here. And what does that tell us, our surviving? It tells us that weak as we are, a strength beyond our strength has pulled us through at least this far, at least to this day. So it is possible to find peace —the peace that comes from looking back and remembering to remember that though most of the time we failed to see it, we were never really alone.

Perhaps I can tell you what has helped me with this perspective. It has been those who are part of my past who remembered now again become present.All those of my memory, living and dead, who with Jesus become present for me in our time, who say to me by their struggle, their frailty, but also their courage and faith, it can be done. You, too, can run with patience the race toward the kind of life you see in me. The names are many, some of the people out there in the church yard, some in Michigan graves, some in far off foreign places and some of you here. All these, remembered, become present and alive and say to me, “You can do it, too. You can rise above the common, the ordinary and reach for a life that is rich and noble and Jesus -like in the years yet yours to live.”

“Do this, remembering me,” he said at his meal. Perhaps we can simply use time and quiet from time to time to remember him, and all those who have peopled our lives with beautiful pictures of what it means to follow him. Just remember them, one by one, and so take heart and give thanks as he did and live again.

Copyright 2003, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.