I recently read a book called, “The Woman Who Can’t Forget: The Extraordinary Story of Living with the Most Remarkable Memory Known in Science” by Jill Price.
Her autobiographical memory is flawless. Since the time her memory was developed in her brain, she can remember everything that ever happened to her, including the time, date, and day of the week. Given a date, she remembers what she ate, what she did that day, what happened to her, and everything anyone said to her. The rest of her memory functions are average. For example, she didn’t do well in geometry in school because she had trouble memorizing the formulas. Her amazing memory is purely autobiographical.
Now at first this sounds like a very desirable birth defect. But it isn’t. Her brain is very busy flooding her with very vivid memories from her whole life. The memories are so vivid, that she constantly relives them, with the original intensity of emotion. If we think about this for a moment, what memories keep us up at night? Many times, memories we’d like to forget. The things that often stick with us, and come to us, are negative memories. Things we’ve said and done that we regret, mistakes we’ve made. Things that deeply hurt us. Imagine living your biggest mistakes and failures, vividly, over and over again.
Bad choices and negative experiences, for us, fade over time, and sometimes we are lucky enough to even forget them for a while, or even permanently. But it is our experiences that form us. We learn from our bad choices and hopefully remember not to repeat them. We may say something very damaging to someone and say to ourselves, I’ll never say that again. Jill Price, with her perfect autobiographical memory, can’t help but live in the past. She can’t let go of the past. Can’t get past things that deeply upset her.
Many of us, though not to the same extent, live with regrets. How many of us know that God forgives us, but we cannot let go of it ourselves. Richard Rohr is a Roman Catholic Franciscan Friar. He wrote about the country of Japan at the close of World War II.
At the end of the war, some Japanese communities had the wisdom to understand that many of their returning soldiers were not fit or prepared to reenter civil, peaceful society. The veterans’ only identity for their formative years had been as a “loyal soldier” to their country. They needed a broader identity to rejoin their communities and families. You do not know how to be a father/mother or a brother/sister or a husband/wife with a soldier persona…
So the Japanese created a ceremony whereby a soldier was publically thanked and praised for his service to the people. After the soldier had been profusely honored, an elder would stand and announce with authority: “The war is now over! The community needs you to let go of what has well served you and us up to now. But we now need you to return as a man, a father, a husband, and something beyond a soldier.”
We don’t have such rituals for letting go of a past marriage, a past identity (such as going from stay-home-parent to empty-nester), or a past failure. Sometimes we just keep living, regretting, or trying to redo our past over and over again. This is probably true of half of us! We need closure at the end of all major transitions in life.
We are also in danger of then telling ourselves we get what we deserve and no more than we deserve and then we operate out of some kind of meritocracy. Positive and negative alike, our major life transitions are formational to our identity. We need to face the negative parts of ourselves that we are not proud of, and the positive parts of ourselves that we don’t give enough credit to, and realize how all these parts have formed our identity. How did we get to be who we are? What formed us as people? What formed us as Christians? How do we continue to develop in our very best way?
Sometimes the most tragic events in our lives are the most formational of who we are. We look back to our scripture passage today, to contemplate the formation of the identity of the Christian Church. Stephen was a deacon. The deacons cared for the poor, especially the widows who had trouble supporting themselves. He preached and he talked about how his own life had been changed. He was arrested, brought to trial before the Sanhedrin and was taken out of the city for execution. There was a division of clothing, and then he prayed that his spirit be received by God, and like Jesus, asked forgiveness for his murderers. Saul, who would become the Apostle Paul, was there to witness it all.
It’s such a horrible story, I’ve managed to avoid it for my first 12 years of ministry. But recently I read a book called “Perfect Martyr: The Stoning of Stephen and the Construction of Christian Identity” by Shelly Matthews. I was interested to learn that Stephen’s persecutors, were his own people. Stephen was preaching to his own people, trying to get them to recognize who God is in light of what Jesus taught. He wasn’t trying to create a new religion. Unintentionally, he helped create a Jewish sect that slowly broke off as Christianity. But no one knew this at the time. All they saw was tragedy.
But his tragic death caused the disciples to scatter as far as Antioch. The very first know Christian Church was established in Antioch. They generated new sites of authority. It ended up being a culture-making, nation-building, construction of ethno-racial identity. Identity development is constructed over time through social and linguistic processes and our memories. Our common identity was formed through all the stories of the Bible, and by the Christian Church throughout history.
You may have been adopted into this identity or born into it, or perhaps you are still discerning your Christian identity. In the construction of your own identity, how did you get to be who you are? Taking our biblical story as an example, we can look back throughout our own histories, and reframe our memories.
We can think about all the things that have happened to us that stick in our memories, our life transitions, our choices and decisions that have affected our lives and either celebrate a positive memory or transition, or if it is a negative one we can reframe it. We do this by taking time to grieve the pain or loss (if we haven’t done this already). We analyze how the event affected our identity, our character. We give ourselves permission to let it go and maybe even perform a little ritual of some sort. And then we make a plan, of how to develop the best parts of who we are and who we’d like to become.
It is my prayer that the next time a negative memory (like a past marriage, or past identity, or past failure) comes into your mind, instead of beating yourself up about it, and how it has hurt you, reframe it. You already grieved it. You’ve already been forgiven. How has it contributed or formed who you are? Give yourself permission to let it go, and make a plan to develop the very best parts of you.
You are created in God’s image, and God loves you and treasurers you. Each and every one of you are a delight in the eyes of God.
 Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation, April 28, 2014