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Recently late one Friday night I was returning from having visited a parishioner at a local hospital. Walking in the upper east side of New York City heading west towards the Lexington Avenue subway I past a fruit vendor, a very common urban scenario. It was a rather large street stand on a corner and was accompanied by a refrigerated produce truck whose trailer door was open. There was a combination of COLD fruit and vegetable smells—not the same as a fresh farm market—rather the scent of refrigerated cold itself, perhaps refrigerant, and maybe even a little whiff of perspiration from the vendor himself. Continuing along, prompted by the overall “aroma,” my mind was instantly transported to the Bloomfield Sale Barn and Auction.
The Bloomfield Sale Barn and Auction was a quintessentially rural phenomena that brought together the fullness of business capitalism and social meeting grounds, a market and a place to gather. Thirty, forty years ago, such sale barns and auctions dotted the landscape of northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania serving the agricultural community of small farms. Now with fewer small farms and greater suburban encroachment, many of the sale barns have had to adapt or go out of business; there is less livestock sold, there are more flea markets instead.
But as a little kid on so many occasion while at the livestock auction my family would also walk through the market stands where Amish and English shopped and sold alongside one another: by the meat counter, the cheese section, and the produce. Those were good times. Those are good memories. It’s funny how a particular smell on a Manhattan street corner could instantly—at least in my mind—return me to that place and time.
This occurred a few days before the anniversary of 9/11. As such it made me mindful of the various places we go, people we meet, experiences we experience, and overall just how mysteriously we carry them all. I’m reminded that one can be transported in an instant, by a smell, a sight, a song, a place, and even a day on the calendar. These things can transport us to another time and place, to a significant joy, a lingering sorrow, a real trauma. Or sometimes just to a great heaviness that presents itself seemingly out of the blue.
I reckon this a fact of life. But am I often aware of it as a pastor? Are we readily cognizant of it in the church? And by wondering, not only in the people we function with, but in our own selves as well?
It seems to me however, this dynamic being what it is and the strength of memory itself, this is in part why the scripture as narrative is so powerful. As we encounter our stories and memories we need also see them in the light of the sacred story. I say this not in the sense of immediate healing, be it from trauma or whatever. Nor do I intend here a simple easy answer, that it all ends well at the end. It’s more complicated than that. Rather there is something here about holding the both/and. There is something about association and experience. There is power in remembering. It helps us to know who we are.
“A wandering Aramean was my father…” or “remember when you were slaves in Egypt” are not just quaint biblical story points, but are themselves various memories in our own narratives. And because memories happen in different ways—not only in the words we hear—the sacraments serve also to reinforce our memories, serving to connect us across that time and space.
We begin our Sunday morning worship together with a congregant pouring the water into the baptismal so as to reinforce the notion, “Remember your baptism!” as it relates to our identity as Christ’s disciples. But it also serves to remind us of God’s greater story, of exodus and fleeing, of salvation and redemption through the waters. And then all waters begin to remind us, or at least in part all waters carry with them a memory. The doughiness of the bread or the pungency of the wine recall not only what Jesus did the night that he was betrayed but recalls the Passover story in part, and the table of the Lord in part, and then every table carries that association, that memory. Importantly, I don’t think it’s about changing our memories or replacing them, but about remembering better.
If we are hard-wired as it seems we are, to carry memories recalled in an instant with us, how can we in our worship and formation do it better?