About 2 months ago, Jon Myles said something pretty profound while leading worship. Not that he hasn’t said anything profound since nor that he didn’t before. It’s that the words he spoke on this specific day really hit me. To paraphrase, Jon remarked on how easy it is to forget God. How we come down from a mountaintop experience and get mired in reality as soon as our feet touch the flat earth.
The academic in me always wants to understand the why. How can the overwhelming presence of God, who formed the universe, shakes the mountains, and calms the seas, fade away so quickly? Shouldn’t coming close to God sear our brains, electrify our soul, and score our memories? But it doesn’t work that way…and here’s one of the reasons why.
We are really good at forgetting. Our memories fade over time (a phenomenon called memory decay) and are overwritten by new memories (called memory interference). And interestingly, our memory can get really bad when things make us feel uncomfortable. For example, we all tend to have an “unethical amnesia” in which we not only forget the bad things we do, but also forget details associated with any event in which we are less than ethical. We also tend to forget uncomfortable things others have done. You might be familiar with how hard it is for people to live with photographic memories because it is harder to forgive people when one can remember a slight vividly. Interestingly, research on people with enhanced memories suggests that memory decay and interference actually helps keep us from developing mental illnesses.
So we forget things as an automatic habit to protect ourselves from the bad things we do and have done to us. However, it’s not just the bad things that we forget. All memories go through this decay and interference process, no matter whether they’re good or bad. In other words, our minds have developed a protective mechanism against our own failings that diminishes our memory of God’s actions and thereby God’s character. As always, we are our own worst enemies.
And that’s why Deuteronomy 4:9 (NIV) admonishes us to:
“…be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.”
That’s why the Jewish people were so keen on building altars to commemorate divine occurrences in specific locations. These monuments acted as physical reminders of the goodness of God. It’s probably why the Old Testament and at least half of the New Testament are the story of God rather than merely the instructions of God. We remember stories better than instructions.
And there, in the Bible, we get the key to fighting against our own forgetting nature. Crafting stories and creating physical representations of these stories. Not just any stories though, but stories about where our lives intersect with God. Where God manifests and creates life change. It’s more than coincidence that research now suggests narratives and context are keys to memory. We tend to break our lives and others into chapters that have an end and beginning and we remember things well when we can reconstruct the context of the memory. In other words, crafting a narrative and filling out the details are exactly what our brain needs to remember events.
My good friend made a mother’s day present where he and his children took pictures next to places that signified a special moment with their wife and mother. The resulting altar stands as a constant reminder of the love that is shared. We can do the same thing with our faith. My wife writes Bible verses on our chalkboard wall which serves as a physical representation of God’s promises. Telling bible stories certainly count as well.
But what if we create a piece of art, comprised of pictures and our writings that illustrate God’s miraculous work in our life? Imagine the beauty of seeing a story on your friend’s wall that told how their family was impacted by God in a meaningful way. And imagine how hard it would be to forget the goodness of God when that goodness is weaved into the fabric of our social life. When our children’s children hear and see stories of what God has done before them.
I’m not good at this. I hate taking pictures, I have a horrible memory, and my storytelling skills are lacking. But I want to remember God. There’s a reason Jon’s word stayed with me. I’ve now realized it’s one of my Kairos moments or breakthroughs in which the Holy Spirit is trying to teach me something. I don’t feel guilty. Just a desire to do something and proceed on a slightly different path. One with more stories.