Friday, May 23, 2008

Faith Works 5-24-08
Jeff Gill

Try To Remember

Memory is a strange thing. Somewhere in all that grey goo is a series of electrical impulses vibrating off of chemical connections, that we access by a sequence of relatedness, from dim early childhood images to last week’s phone number we were trying to call today.

What we remember is not what “is,” but is the impression the “is-ness,” the actuality had on our subjectivity, stuck in that grey goo. We carry an arrangement of impressions with us that get sorted and dealt into patterns, stories and pictures and even movies made out of what is etched on our brain in chemical traces. Those impressions have the tendency to shift and move over time, even when we have no need to misrepresent, let alone misremember.

So we develop aids to memory – symbols on cave walls, letters on papyrus, carved statues, cast inscriptions in bronze. It’s amazing how much actually sticks on the brain, informally ordered, when we turn to our distant history and catch ourselves amazed by the effect of a small sound, or a slight scent.

Framed photos are now animated, or at least electronically flip past on the end table, and we can add a voice or a song to a chip on the back. These aids to memory almost, but not quite, keep pace with the tricks memory can play, especially as the years pile up. There are problems of biology, prions and eroded sheaths and tumors, which all can eat away at that precious pile of recollection. Our medical attempts to maintain the brain and body can nibble down the sharp edges with pharmaceuticals and cut big holes with surgery.

We learn, too, from such events that there is in the substructure of the mind a resilience that often can wire around such holes – and yes, fill in gaps wholesale with made-up memories sometimes – but the fundamental integrity of how our memory relates to what was, what “is” can still be trusted, else all of life would be an untrustworthy illusion.

Which makes it OK to be a little vague on dates (was that ’43? Maybe ’44 was when he died…) and sometimes even names (we just called him Jake, but look at that, his name was Jeremiah…) when we have pillars of stone and brass plates and documents of proclamation to lean on.

Our need for a Memorial Day, and we need one ourselves as much as the honored dead deserve the honor, is to remind ourselves how fragile and precious memory is. To paraphrase Paul, what we want to remember, we cannot, and what we do not wish to remember we cannot forget. That is a lesson of Memorial Day as well.

We need this solemn ceremonial gathering, this reverent processing behind flags and bands, this time for tender maintenance of family markers on our hands and knees, so we can put in perspective what we do recall, and what we need to remember, and how we smooth over the gaps between those two realities.

We need Memorial Day, even if, especially if, this area has no family or personal connections for us. There is a realization about the nature and function of memory that comes from walking down a line of gravestones, a series of names and dates and few puzzling inscriptions, knowing none of them.

In Deuteronomy and Zechariah and in the Letter to the Hebrews, the refrain “remember” is at the heart of religious observance, but it includes remembering things that God has not yet done, but has promised to do, in which we can trust; and that God has promised to NOT remember certain things at the End of Days, for which we can be thankful.

In Deuteronomy 24 – “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing...Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” Can we remember something that didn’t happen to us?

Yes we can, and sometimes we should. On Monday, remember Valley Forge and Lundy’s Lane and the Somme and Omaha Beach and Pelieu and Pusan and Khe San and that bump in the road outside of Basra. Remember it all as yours, for a time, and join with others as we remember our debts and the ones who forgave those debts for us.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio (and will be preaching at First Baptist this Sunday in Newark); let him know what you remember at

Monday, May 19, 2008

Notes From My Knapsack 5-25-08
Jeff Gill

If You Need a Reminder

Monday is Memorial Day, or “Memorial Day (Observed)” as many calendars remind us.

We’ve mostly forgotten the story of the Grand Army of the Republic, with many of her members laid to rest in the GAR section of Cedar Hill and other Licking County cemeteries under the slanting barrels of Civil War cannon.

Gen. John Logan, commander of the veteran’s association and senator from Illinois, called for the thirtieth day of May to serve as a time set apart for memory, for decoration and maintenance of memorials to the War Between the States. . . in 1868.

About a hundred years later we got forgetful, and had trouble remembering much more than weekends, except when a Monday holiday extended the time for grilling and shopping, and Memorial Day went to the last Monday in May, which is good enough most years.

Except we have to remember to get up, and join a parade or a procession or simply to stand and salute (Left hand? Right hand? Take off hat? Can’t recall…), to put out the flag (where did we put that old thing?) and figure out where the cemetery is, anyhow.

We remember with aids to memory in the paper (list of Memorial Day observances), the flag that the neighbor who was in the service once, long ago, always puts out, with bunting on courthouses and flags off of light poles.

Our communal recollection is assisted by granite and brass, old limestone slowly crumbling and carved letters faintly legible. Those cannons are quaint, but once deadly serious. The flagpoles often need a coat of metallic paint, hard to get up to the bronze eagle high above and harder still to get out of your clothes, so it isn’t always done when it might be.

There are plaques with names, letters upraised seeking our attention, letters carven deep pulling us in. Names with a familiar ring to them, recalling streets and roads and faded labels on mailboxes just down the block, along with names that don’t mean a thing, but bring us to a pause just the same.

Age we know to be cruel when it comes to memory. There are things that no one should forget – a spouse’s face, a friend’s laugh – and yet the years can steal them in life, let alone in death. We’ve all seen how a blank stare can wound when it comes from someone who has forgotten.

Is it any better to see the collective amnesia of faces who should know, but do not, what it means to see the commonplace sacrifice of four elderly men, slowly walking under the proud burden of color guard banners? How cruel is the forgetting of that oblivion?

Formality is certainly a lost art, or at least a forgotten one. Fedoras and white gloves and bowing at an introduction belong to a former age. That’s a page which has been turned, and having turned, will not look back.

Do salutes and pledges and brass polish and careful arrangements of flowers belong to that chapter, or can we write them anew on the blank page ahead? Remembering is often a question of writing something down, I’ve found. We should make a note to set up the flagpole and join the parade and salute the flag, what she has stood for and what she might yet represent.

Or you could just clip this and stick it on the fridge. Whatever helps you remember Memorial Day.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him what you remember at