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by Brian Keepers
A few years ago we started a tradition in our church of taking time in worship, on the first Sunday after Epiphany, to honor all the members of our congregation who died the past year, as well as all the babies born (an idea I stole from a fellow pastor who lives nearby). One by one, we light a candle for each and speak their name aloud. Endings and beginnings, all these stories, symbolized by a cluster of candles burning softly, gathered up into one story. The story of the Light that has come. Epiphany.
It is such a poignant moment. You can feel the gravitas in the sanctuary—the silence as the candles flicker. It’s the sound of a community remembering. A kind of remembrance that evokes both thanksgiving and lament. All of it mingled together and offered as worship.
This tradition always reminds me of the importance of taking time to look back over the past year before we go barreling into new one. It reminds me of the central act of remembrance for God’s people. How many times does God call his people to remember throughout the Old Testament narrative? And Jesus carries this over into the New Testament with his command every time we celebrate the Eucharist: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Biblical remembrance is more than just recalling events of the past, like a student studying for an exam. It carries the force of “reliving the past in the present,” of being caught up in the event as if we were there (James B. Torrance). Not in a way that causes us to retreat into nostalgia or get stuck in the past, but to experience again the story of the past, which informs our story in the present. And most importantly, to experience again the faithfulness of the covenantal God of history—in our times of both joy and sorrow.
Historians have long reminded us that forgetting the past will doom us to repeat it. And so remembering is also an invitation to learn from the past. This was demonstrated last week in President Obama’s speech on the urgent issue of gun violence. His “emotional moment” (as the media has been calling it) where he reminded us of lives tragically taken—from San Bernardino to Sandy Hook to Columbine. Remembering the past not only affords us the opportunity to learn from mistakes (and repent) but it can fuel motivation for change.
But the most important reason to remember the past is because the Bible shows us that the way forward is through the past. Some time ago a good friend introduced me to the West African word “sankofa.” In the Anken language of Ghana, sankofa literally means, “looking backward to move forward.” Sankofa is also a word picture—a symbol of a bird in traditional African art. The bird has its head turned backwards while holding an egg (representing the future) in its beak. It’s a powerful symbol of the truth that we move into the future by looking back into the past.
Jamie Smith (Calvin College) puts it this way: “When Christians remember, we are not retreating to the past; we are being catapulted toward the future. God’s people inhabit time in this strange tension, where we are called to remember so that we can hope. When Jesus enjoins us to eat and drink in remembrance of the Last Supper, he also points us toward the future: we celebrate the Lord’s Supper ‘until he comes,’ and so the remembrance is really just a foretaste of that coming feast. Our traditions are the gifts that propel us toward the future with hopeful expectation. Christians inhabit time as a stretched people.”*
It’s usually about this time of year that I’m reminded of why I so desperately need Advent. Not just because of the waiting that happens in the Advent season , but because those four weeks train us to be an Advent people in every season—to inhabit all time as a “stretched people.” This seems to me, at least in part, what it means to embrace our missional identity and vocation for the sake of the world. To be a stretched people who remember our way forward; a stretched people who embody hope.
Let’s just be clear: this is not a false hope that buries its head in the sand or squints with blind optimism. This is an authentic hope that stares the darkness squarely in the face and says, “No! The Light shines, and the darkness will not overcome it.” A hope that remembers the faithfulness of God in the past (and the good news that God remembers his covenant promises), and that means that the future holds possibilities beyond our own imagining. Or to borrow the pithy phrase of Karl Barth: Christian hope is “the impossible possibility.”
Twentieth century missionary to India, Lesslie Newbigin, must have had Barth’s phrase in mind when he preached these words in an Advent sermon:
The Advent faith is the faith that there are really new possibilities for our world. It means we have a certain skepticism towards this world. We do not act as if this was the only possible world….We have an altogether other basis for calculations about what is to come—namely the promises of the living God. We are sure that something radically different is possible, and that it is what God intends for us. We are sure that this other world is not just a dream, but that it is real and reliable, indeed that it is—so to speak—just around the corner, ready to break into our world and turn everything upside down. This is the Advent faith. This is the task of the Church…to keep constantly alight in men’s [and women’s] hearts the flame of hope and faith in the possibility of a different kind of world.”**
I need this kind of hope as we move into 2016. The whole world does, wouldn’t you say?
*“Learning (By) Stories.” Discipleship in the Present Tense (Grand Rapids: Calvin College Press, 2013) p. 49.
**The Good Shepherd: Meditations on Christian Ministry in Today’s World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1977) p.132.
Brian Keepers is the Minister of Preaching and Congregational Leadership at Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.