For most of us, the act of remembering or revisiting a memory takes us back into the distant past. We remember people, events, cherished locales and details from days long gone. Of course, not all memories are pleasant, and traveling toward the distant past can also resemble something more like a nightmare than a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Nevertheless, even if we have but a few, all of us have cherished memories or times we periodically revisit in daydreams and remembrances.
Nostalgia is one such way of revisiting these times. It can be defined as that bittersweet yearning for things in the past. The hunger it creates in us to return to another time and place lures us away from living in the realities of the present. Nostalgia wears a shade of rose-colored glasses as it envisions days that were always sweeter, richer, and better than the present day. In general, as Frederick Buechner has said, nostalgia takes us “on an excursion from the living present back into the dead past…” or else it summons “the dead past back into the living present.”(1) In either case, nostalgic remembering removes us from the present and tempts us to dwell in the unlivable past. Without finding ways to remember forward—to bring the past as the good, the bad, and the ugly into the present in a way that informs who we are and how we will live here and now—all that we are left with is nostalgia.
It is far from a sense of nostalgia that drives the writer of Psalm 78. Instead, the psalmist recalls the history of Israel as a means of remembering forward, bringing the full reality of the past into a place of honest remembrance not just for the present generation, but for the sake of generations to come. The psalmist exhorts the people of God to listen and incline their ears to the stories of the Exodus, the wilderness wanderings, and the entry into the Promised Land. “We will not conceal them from their children, but tell to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and his strength and his wondrous works that he has done… That the generation to come might know, even the children yet to be born, that they may arise and tell them to their children, that they should put their confidence in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep the commandments.”
Despite God’s great works among them, the people of Israel did not keep the covenant of God and refused to walk in God’s way. They forgot God’s deeds and miraculous signs. They put God to the test and did not trust in God’s salvation. They were rebellious and “grieved God in the desert.” There are no rose-colored remembrances here, no bittersweet yearnings to which they can return. Rather, the darker parts of the story are remembered alongside God’s long-suffering and loving-kindness—urging the people to think about this God in the midst of their present circumstances. What had God done among them in the past? And how might they now live in light of that past?
In the same way, when Jesus instructs his followers during that last supper together saying, “This is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me,” he is not calling them to bittersweet yearnings, or simply to remember events lived long ago. Rather, he is calling them to remember in such a way that shapes all their living to come. Surely the disciples would not have understood fully all that Jesus was saying in his call to remembrance. Yet, they became his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth. Remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus was not just a fact they rehearsed, but a lived reality that gave contour and context for their generation and for generations to come.
With each passing year, we are offered the opportunity to remember and to ask how we remember the stories of the past. What stories do our lives tell? Does the great story of salvation impact the reality of our daily lives? Will we proclaim with the ancient psalmist: “Yes, we your people and the sheep of your pasture give thanks to you forever; to all generations we will tell of your praise!”
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings on the ABC’s of Faith (San Francisco: Harper, 2004), 252.