Memory and Hope
Scriptures: Isaiah 43:14-21; Isaiah 63:7-15
When I was a student at Whitworth College in the 1970s, some friends and I began visiting an elderly woman named Lillie. Lillie lived alone in a small ramshackle house on the north side of Spokane. One of my friends met her at a department store, and she seemed so lonely and disheveled, almost like a bag lady, that my friend decided to start visiting her and persuaded a group of us to begin visiting her. The first time we went to her house—this was about 1973—she was clearly in mourning. The drapes were closed, and she was sitting on her sofa in tears clutching a picture of her deceased husband. As she held the picture she told us about how good her husband had been to her and how anguished she felt when he was stricken with cancer. I finally worked up the nerve to ask her when he died. She said, “1957,” which at that point was 16 earlier. I asked if this was a special day for her, like their anniversary or her husband’s birthday, but no, she was just grieving. In subsequent visits I discovered that she was always grieving. Years later the drapes were still closed, and the same picture of her husband was propped up on the sofa next to where she sat.
She reminded me of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations, who still wore her wedding dress from the day, decades earlier, when her husband had failed to show up for their wedding.
There are two ways to remember the past. One is to remember the past and be stuck in it. You can see this happen in our first scripture reading from Isaiah 63. It begins by remembering the past. Verse 7: “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us….” It goes on to tell how God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, how God parted the waters of the Red Sea so they could escape, how God led the people through the wilderness, giving them food and water until finally bringing them to the promised land. It is a wonderful memory. But they are stuck in it, because the present does not look that good. In the time of Isaiah, the people of Israel had been defeated by their enemies, made homeless and taken into exile by the Babylonians. Listen to verses 11-13:
Then they remembered the days of old, of Moses his servant. Where is the one who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of his flocks? Where is the one who put within them his holy spirit, who caused his glorious arm to march at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters before them to make for himself an everlasting name, who led them through the depths?
The Israelites cherished their memory of Moses, but they were stuck in it. As a result they were blind to what God might do in their lives now.
Which brings me to our second scripture reading from Isaiah 43. Once again this scripture starts by remembering the past—verses 16-17:
Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.
Again this remembers the time of Moses. If you remember the story, when the Egyptian horses and chariots tried to chase the people of Israel through the Red Sea the water closed back over them. They were extinguished, quenched like a wick.
But now in verses 18-19 God says,
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old, I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
God is not telling the Israelites to forget the past completely. After all, God had just reminded them of the past in the previous two verses. God wants us to remember the past, because God has worked in the past. But the past is not something to inhabit as your permanent home. The past is meant to show us what God can yet do in the future. That is the other way to remember the past: to see the past as prelude: “I am about to do a new thing,” says the Lord, “I will make a way in the wilderness.” Just as God made a way through the Red Sea for the Israelites to escape from Egypt, so God will now make a way through the wilderness so that the Israelites can return from their exile in Babylon. The past is the prelude to hope.
I wonder what would have happened to Lillie if she had remembered her past in a different way. What if she had remembered the wonderful husband God gave her, and then wondered what other good relationships God might have in store for her? She might have even realized that some quirky college students could be part of God’s future blessing in her life.
According to the Bible the past is prelude. This is true even if your past is full of memories not all that great. I know from talking to you that some of you here had an almost idyllic life growing up, and that others of you had some horribly painful experiences growing up. That was also true of the Israelites who looked back and remembered how God saved them from the Egyptians. But they also remembered how they ended up as captives to the Babylonians, in part because of their own poor choices.
Another way to get stuck in the past is to get stuck in guilt, to feel that you have messed up in ways that God can never fix. But Isaiah also has a message for the guilty: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” says the Lord, “I am about to do a new thing.”
In my office I have a book by Robert Dykstra called Counseling Troubled Youth. In the book he talks about how the future God has for us can reshape even our memory of the past. He writes, “It is never too late to have a happy childhood” (p. 17).
There are two ways to get stuck in the past. One is to idolize it—those were the good old days—and the other is to regret it, to feel that the past has trapped you in a hopeless future. Both are a denial of God’s power to do something new in your life.
When I was called to be the pastor of my former church, Hamblen Park Presbyterian in Spokane, I followed a pastor, Harlan Gilliland, who had been there for 17 years, not as long as Ben Lindstrom was the pastor here, but a long time. Many people in the church had deep ties to Harlan. Their children had grown up with him. He had done their weddings or the baptisms of their children, or the memorial services of their parents. They had fond memories of mission trips with Harlan and various kinds of small group outings. So when I went there I worried that people would yearn for the good old days, the days when Harlan was their pastor, like the way the people of Israel felt about Moses.
Then I ended up staying their 26 years, and I became the good old days, the days people looked back on with fond memories. Never mind that we also had our struggles and problem during those years, and sometimes people got mad. When I announced I was leaving, everyone got nostalgic.
I suspect that might have also happened to some extent here at Southminster. Ben was the pastor here for 33 years, the only pastor some of you had ever known. There are a lot of fond memories of Ben’s time in this church. It would be easy for Southminster to live in the past just as it would have been for Hamblen Park.
But the good news is doing a new thing in both churches. In January I went back to Hamblen Park for a Sunday morning church service, the first time I had been back for a Sunday morning service since I had left almost five years ago. Within 30 seconds of walking in the door, I saw four people I did not know. During the children’s message about 15 kids went up to the front, and I did not recognize any of them. Then I realized that half of them weren’t born yet when I was there. And I thought about our scripture passage: “I am about to do a new thing,” says the Lord. In the five years I have been gone, God has been doing a lot of new good things at Hamblen Park. I think the same is true here. I think the same is true in all our lives.
Memory can be a trap, but it can also be a vehicle for hope. The past can be the prelude to a new future. If it isn’t, maybe you are not looking at it the right way.