Some years ago, I had an elderly neighbour. His name was Les and he was an interesting, somewhat enigmatic fellow. He did his own thing and there was a kind of darkness that hung around him, even though he was quite friendly and could enjoy a laugh and joke. Over the years I gleaned a little of his life and there were indeed, some dark and tough times. Perhaps the overwhelming and defining experience of his life was WWII, where he was a paratrooper. Les never spoke much about the war or what his experience was. In a few snippets I understood that it was pretty dark, dangerous and traumatic.
I remember asking Les around ANZAC Day, if he would go to the march. He was emphatic that he wouldn’t be there. He hadn’t been to the march for many years – it was just too hard! The memories came back and he couldn’t cope with the levity in some people nor the glorying, pomp and other things that typified society’s attempts to remember, honour and make something significant of the wars. Les would spend the day at the local RSL with a few mates who understood him and his experience and he theirs. They wouldn’t reminisce nor share stories of war – it was too hard. They would drink and forget and avoid the ‘celebrations’ that went on around them.
Monday is Remembrance Day and thinking about this conversation with Les caused me to wonder, question and think about what I/we are remembering. What is memory about and where does it lead? I suspect that much remembering is nostalgic and whimsical, delighting in something that touches us in positive ways. We mostly want to remember well, the good things of our lives, and even extrapolate into our remembering that which is most positive and hopeful from our experience. Of course we remember things that are not positive and hopefully learn through them but I suspect we mostly push the dark and difficult things into the deeper recesses of our mind, delighting more fully in that which is good, that for which we yearn,
Despite the darkness, I recognise that in Les’ story, he was drawn to the positive things of life even through his tough and traumatic experiences. Mates who shared the journey and were there for one another in the darkest times, were cherished. These mates were the ones who understood, and they could share time together in a deeper connection and understanding that accepted each other for who they were without having to revisit the past events. I think Les valued some of the simpler things in life because he had been to the pits of hell and confronted with his own mortality – and survived.
I have been pondering a couple of ancient stories this week. The first is around 2,500 years old and comes from the Old Testament prophet, Haggai (1:15-2:9) – probably one of the less well-known and read books. The second is from around 1900 years ago – Luke 20:27-38. The story of Haggai (whose name means festival, worship, celebration) comes from a time when Jewish exiles began to return from Babylon, released when the Babylon was overrun Cyrus the Persian. They returned to rebuild the city and the Temple of Jerusalem. They were met with all the harsh reminders of a war that had been fought and lost 70 years earlier. The remnant citizens who remained had been focussed on survival and the rebuilding process only recently commenced. The memory of people came largely through stories passed down of Solomon’s Temple – a grand and beautiful structure. The stories probably extrapolated and inflated the extravagance of the Temple’s reality and so was their ‘memory.’ Their memory also focussed on the structure of the building and glorified in its supposed opulence and grandeur. Haggai’s words recall that the essence of the Temple was not the structure but the purpose. The glory of the Temple was not in its stones and forms but in the presence of God who filled the Temple with glory, wonder and the beauty of love, grace, justice and peace. Haggai recalled to the people that God was the one who was the focus and centre of the Temple and the worship of God was inextricably linked to lives of peace, justice, compassion and mercy. The true beauty that their memories were attempting to recall was the essence of God in human life!
In the story from Luke’s Gospel we have a group of religious leaders (a religious party called Sadducees) who came to Jesus in the last week of his life to trap him in theological debate. They held no sway with the concept of resurrection and so asked a convoluted question that sought to draw Jesus into a nonsensical argument in order to gain the upper hand. Essentially, they drew on the tradition of Levirate Marriage, whereby the brother of a deceased man was obliged to marry his dead brother’s widow. They asked that if this happened seven times through seven brothers, each marrying the one widow who was effectively passed down to each through an older brother’s death, whose wife would she be in resurrection. Jesus would not be drawn into the argument, instead indicating that in the life beyond this life, everything is different. There is a new and deeper freedom and sense of being that is ‘in God’. We are finally whole and complete within ourselves, and come into the deeper, richer sense of being that we are ultimately created to become. The question of the Sadducees is a limited one, defined by death and the limitations of life rather than an upwards directed vision of who we can be at our very best. Sadly, this is how much of life is lived. We choose a downwards trajectory, focussed on the outward forms of dependency upon people who fulfil our needs, legalistic notions that enable us to control, and materialistic aspirations that make us feel ‘rich’. The true beauty in life does not lie in having more – power/control, possessions/money, knowledge/education…
The true beauty of life, that finds its way into our dreams and through the nostalgia of memory, is in relationships with people, the earth and with the Divine heart at the centre of everything, the One we name ‘God’. When we put more import upon outward form and structure rather than inner relationship and being together, the deep richness of life dissipates, and we crave more of that which is ultimately unfulfilling. This accumulation mentality is an addictive path that is seeking life in the wrong places. Jesus invites his hearers into a place where they can experience life more richly and live more deeply and truly – now. The eternal life he speaks of is an experience that begins in the present moment. The Reign of God, which is love, joy, peace, hope and wonder is presently available to all. It flows in and out and all around us every day, whether we appreciate it or not – it is there, and we are all invited to participate and live within its true wonder!
When our memories help us dream and yearn for something better, perhaps we need to listen deeply to that to which they point – what is the content and true hope of the dream? On Monday, as we remember the dark places of life, we might be drawn into a deeper hope for peace and life rather than conflict and hatred. Perhaps we can respond to Jesus’ invitation to embrace relational, inclusive and compassionate life that is rich and full.