Remembering or forgetting – which is better?

Today is a national day of Reflection in the UK. There will be a minutes silence at 12 noon. This day has been chosen as it marks the first anniversary from the first lockdown in response to the pandemic.

Other countries will have their own anniversaries and key dates but this is ours. And we are being asked to reflect on so much that has happened that was unexpected, difficult, devastating, disappointing and downright complicated.

My question is ‘does remembering help?’

We all know from personal experience that remembering can be incredibly painful, we can get stuck in the past, we can be so overwhelmed by sadness or regret it can feel impossible to move forward.

So are we wise to try to remember or should we simply try to forget?

The Bible speaks about ‘former things’ and I was pretty sure that we were supposed to ‘forget them’ – I like a nice clear simple instruction: move on, put the past behind you, it’s what you do now that matters…. But when I dealt a bit deeper into the passages that speak about ‘former things’, the instruction was not quite so clear.

Isaiah 43:18 “forget the former things”

Isaiah 46: 9 “remember former things”

Arrrrgh! So which is it to be? What stance should I have towards the past? Should I be remembering it, knowing that sometimes remembrance chains me to sadness, regret, or disappointment? Or should I be so future focused, that I ‘forget the former things’ always ready to make space in my life for things to be new and different?

I am torn and for someone on the brink of a huge transition in their life, this feels deeply relevant and personal. How can I get this ‘right’?

So here is the idea the Holy Spirit whispered to me as I wondered about all of this.

Let remembrance be like planting a seed in the soil, let it be an act of hopefulness in the future

Let what ever has been in the past, whether that thing was a good thing or a difficult thing, be like a seed planted in the soil of your heart but asked God that from that experience something utterly new, and completely fruitful might grow.

We are told not to nurture difficult experiences in our hearts, lest they grow up like weeds of bitterness. That is not the kind of remembering that is helpful. Instead let’s offer to God all that is in the past, as if they were dead seeds and allow God to bring out of them a life that is utterly different from the thing that was planted.

Paul’s great chapter on Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15) is a huge help to us here, I had only read this last Friday.

In this chapter Paul uses the metaphor of the seed when he talks about death. He reminds us that seed sown is perishable, small, and seems utterly lifeless. 10 days ago I planted three packets of seeds which were my Mother’s Day gift from my son. The seeds were tiny, dry grains of apparent nothingness, and as I planted them into dark, damp compost there seemed very little hope of anything emerging.

Any painful experience in our life is like a kind of death and these painful experiences in our past can be very like those seeds: they can appear lifeless, meaningless, ‘a waste’ BUT if we offer them to God, we simply do not know what kind of fruitfulness may yet emerge.

Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, reminds us that what emerges is utterly different from what is sown. And he closes this chapter by telling us not to lose heart: “let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain”.

That line “let nothing move you” reminds me of the poster of an oak tree, which says ‘the mighty oak is simply a little nut that held its ground’.

So why did Isaiah contradict himself? In the first quotation he was reminding God’s people that change had always been the one constant in their life as a nation, and he had just commented on God’s faithfulness through some of the worst of those changes. He also knows that further great change is just around the corner and that this great change will feel like a disaster to them . So he urges the people to “forget the former things; do not dwell on the past”. In other words don’t get stuck thinking that how things have been is the only way they can be good. We are creatures who love familiarity, we hate being unsettled and we feel secure when everything stays the same. But nothing ever does!

And this is why a couple of chapters later Isaiah appears to contradict himself “remember the former things, those of long ago” – but what is it they are meant to remember? Remember that “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come.” Isaiah is reassuring them that God holds the future, and the things that are round the corner that they don’t even know yet that might feel like a disaster, might not necessarily be so but that what matters most is the constancy of God as a loving presence in the story of their nation and the story of their own lives.

So it is that ‘what‘ we are meant to remember turns out not to be a ‘what‘ after all – not a set of circumstances, not a satisfactory arrangement of life, but a ‘who‘ – the God who is, the God who holds time in his hands, the God who holds our lives in his hands. This is who we are meant to remember.

It is acknowledging the presence of this God, the unchanging and faithful nature of his love, which offers us steadiness in the face of the constant experience of change.

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