Remembering Whose We Are

by Donald Senior, C.P.

Themes of memory and remembering have been with me lately.

There is a wonderful book called Forgetting Whose We Are: Alzheimer's and the Love of God by David Keck. He is the son of Leander Keck, one of the great scripture scholars in the United States, who teaches at Yale and is the head of its Divinity Department. His wife contracted Alzheimer's Disease at 57 and is still alive today. Their son, David, a Methodist minister, wrote this book from his family's experiences.

Keck writes that Alzheimer's is a theological disease, because it strikes at some assumptions we hold so important in our culture: intentionality, self-consciousness and self-direction. The disease, which snatches away the core of a person's being, attacks these very values. In fact, it seems to take them all away.

At the same time, Alzheimer's teaches some profound truths. We are not really so autonomous as we think we are. We are not as self-directed or independent as we think we are. Even as caretakers, we find that we really do count on others more than we think. This disease brings us back to where we started in our lifecycle: we leave life as we began -- in the hands of others.

A Journey to Forgetfulness

When someone has Alzheimer's not only do they forget who they are, but people around them begin to forget, too. The illness has a way of making us lower our standards. Family members find themselves telling stories in a simpler way. If the person confuses people, we let it go. If hygiene becomes difficult, we lower the standards.

The disease emphasizes something that is true for us all. Remembering is difficult. The most alert persons, communities, societies have trouble remembering things accurately. It is hard to remember accurately. Even with law courts and legal depositions, we can't always figure out who said what or who did what and when.

God Knows Who We Are

In his book, Keck offers an interesting analogy. The Bible, he says, is the collective effort of the people of Israel and the followers of Jesus not to forget. It is more than not forgetting what is taught in Scripture about the compassion of God and the beauty of life; it is about not forgetting whom we belong to, whose we are.

Sometimes in a community, strong people who are very bright can live as if they have forgotten to whom they belong; they forget they are children of God. A great part of the church's role is to help people not to forget to whom they belong. The Bible, with all its stories, names, traditions, liturgies and rituals, is the record of the people of Israel and the followers of Jesus trying not to forget to whom they belong. Remember Moses on Mt. Nebo telling the people not to forget where they came from as they enter the Promised Land. right: Mount Nebo, Jordan in June 2006

Finally, in his book Keck says that when someone in a devoted family is ill and cannot remember who they are or to whom they belong, the family remembers. Those who really love the person never forget. Even though others forget that the sick person is a human being, the family continues to lavish care and kindness on the person.

In the Bible, God is the one who ultimately never forgets. God remembers when everyone else forgets who he or she is. God does not forget.

In the Book of Isaiah, at a moment of desolation when the chosen people feel alone and forsaken after their exile, they cry out that God has abandoned them. God responds through the prophet in these words:

"Can a mother forget her child? Can a woman forget the fruit of her womb? Even if these forget, I will never forget you. See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name."

This beautiful text captures the ultimate Biblical intuition about who God is. God is the one who never forgets, never lets go, even when we do, even when we forget ourselves and fail to recognize our own depth and beauty and destiny as children of God.

This is the reason for journeying to the Holy Land: to contact its tremendous tradition of human history, human yearning, human struggle, human conflict, all of it groping and grasping for the face of God, looking for who we are before the face of God. Its great characters, its great experiences of liberation, its moments of transcendence, help us understand better who we are before God. They teach us not to forget that we are God's sons and daughter, destined for life and love beyond imagination. By approaching the Bible as people of faith we remember whose we are.

Photo Credit: Tom Neys

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