Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Remembering the Future

On October 30, 1935, at Wright Airfield in Ohio, airplane manufacturers gathered to compete. At stake was a contract to build the military’s next-generation long-range bomber. As Atul Gawande puts it in his book, Checklist Manifesto, it wasn’t supposed to be much of a competition. Model 299 (a.k.a. Boeing’s “flying fortress”) was clearly the favorite. As officials watched, the impressive plane roared off smoothly, then suddenly stalled and crashed. It turns out the pilot had forgotten to release a locking mechanism.

All of us forget. It’s why we make checklists (and why pilots go through a checklist before they fly). I find I am less and less confident that, without one, I will remember. This past week, I had my Costco list, my Home Depot list, my Safeway list, my reading list., my . . .  Obviously, I am less and less inclined to trust my memory.

More troubling is not simply what it forgets, but what my memory remembers. Though we might be prone to object, there are no pristine memories. In her The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Margaret Bendroth notes, “There is no hard and fast evidence that links memories to ‘true’ accounts of the past.” Memory is simply a process, an unstable combination of brain chemistry and social cues.

Again (in case you already forgot), I find this troubling. Disconcerting. Could it be that my memory of a past event is not actually actual? I have married an Oregon girl, climbed a tree in an Indonesian jungle, ascended to one of South Asia’s highest mountains, completed a PhD at Dallas, spoke to Nigerian pastors in Jos, and more recently met with a Serbian prince in Belgrade. Or did I? Are these figments of my imagination? And, assuming they occurred, what within those experiences really happened?

In a recent conversation with another pastor, he recalled a period in my life, but it’s not how I remember it. Whose memory is accurate here? Maybe both are off. We don’t always remember events in the same way.

We do this with nostalgia. I travel back to San Diego and remember such good times. But just how good were they? Growing up on Herbert Street and consuming mom’s fried potatoes and sauteed Spam was the greatest. Really? Is this what she served? In his How to Inhabit Time, James K.A. Smith defines nostalgia as “a sort of fascination with the past that is an act of deliberate forgetting.” Whether we are conscious of it—or not—memories are made and remade in our minds. Over time, they change, taking on different shades of meaning.

I decided to verify some of these findings by turning to Curt Thompson and his research in Anatomy of the Soul. He is a psychiatrist who graduated from a medical school also in Wright (remember?). He notes that when we remember, the entire brain goes to work. In the act, we are firing neurons that have been fired before. The more they fire, the better the recall. Hence, I do not forget my password to my computer (yet!) for I type it in every morning. Immediate, short-term, and long-term recall refers to the time interval between the encoding of a memory and its retrieval. The scary thing is that the longer the time interval, the more challenging the retrieval, and the greater potential my remembrance of the event changes.

In his study, Thompson points out that every time we remember something, the memory changes. It turns out the neurons fire differently depending upon the context in which we remember. How I remember my mom’s meals may depend upon if I am on an island dying of hunger or at a Wildfin restaurant, just finishing an exquisite seafood dish. My present experience has a way of shaping the past.

All of this matters, for how we remember will determine our tomorrow.  How I remember God and his past acts in my life will decide if I step out in faith or shrink back in fear. It is why we need to recall the moment God encountered our lives and brought us to himself, as well as remember his day-to-day work in our souls. And do it again and again.

This past Sunday, in my preaching of Philippians 2:12-13 and its admonition to “work out your salvation.” I recalled the moment I personally experienced God’s saving work. It is not just the past in our heads we can never forget; it is the present in our doing. Remembering not only brings hope and confidence—it urges us to press on. It gets us through the night. “My soul is downcast; therefore, I will remember you” (Psa 42:6).

Faithfully telling and retelling our story to ourselves and others, as Thompson puts it, is one of the most important things we can do as followers of Jesus. We must remain attentive. We must never forget. We must remember it well. It is why God invites us to regularly engage our memories at the table of communion. He wants us to never forget. Recalling and retelling our story (his story really) in different contexts reinforces our present faith. More, it anticipates the future.

Bendroth advises us to aim for sanctified memories. Keep remembering what we should, while forgetting what we must. History is a tool for avoiding mistakes, as well as envisioning a future. Perhaps there are few spiritual disciplines more important than journaling, especially as one gets older. Otherwise, like Elijah, we will regress and forget what happened at those triumphant Mt. Carmels of our lives, or remember them differently. And when this happens, we easily cave to the next “Jezebelian threats” and find ourselves in the desert.

BTW. Happy Memorial Day. May we also never forget those who died for us.

[1] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World, 3.

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