‘Lord, You Were There’: Memory and the Presence of God

Editor: please enjoy a new reflection on our year from Brazos Fellows 2019-2020 alum, Emily Engelhardt. This fall, Emily is heading off to Nashville, TN to begin a program in Certified Nurse-Midwifery at Vanderbilt University.

000214510030As I reflect on this past year, I remember classes in a white-painted room with opaque windows in the back of Christ Church. I remember the feel and shape of a ceramic teacup within my hands and the unforgettable squeak of the back door. I remember a candle’s bright flame flickering in the middle of our table. As Christians we are called to remember, not only our own journey of faith, but the faith of generations before us. Our faith is built upon the faith of older generations who passed on the gospel through making disciples. Christianity, as Robert Louis Wilken reminds us, is inescapably bound to the witness of others. We do not even have Christ’s words apart from the apostles who wrote them down. The gospel is shared through the ages by bearing witness to God and living in conversation with the past.

 

Memory is a central theme in scripture. Only by remembering can we live in obedience to Christ—only by returning to God’s work in our own life and in the lives of those before us can the foundation of our faith be sustained. The psalms are saturated with memories of God’s faithfulness. Psalm 77 begins with cry to God with a “soul that refuses to be comforted”. Midway through, the psalmist turns:  “Then I said, ‘I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High.’ I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old.” Psalm 105 recalls the plagues from which God delivered the Israelites and his provision for them in the desert. The story of man’s rebellion, repentance, and deliverance is told again and again through scripture. Alasdair MacIntyre says, “I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question “Of what story do I find myself a part?” By remembering these stories, we learn who we are and how to live.

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Memory is also infused in the liturgy. In For the Life of the World, Alexander Schmemann calls the Eucharist “the sacrament of cosmic remembrance”. We remember Christ as the priest raises the Host: “Do this in remembrance of me.” And Christ remembers us: he washes us and presents us spotless before the Father. So not only do we remember God, but in the Eucharist God remembers us. In this double remembrance, Schmemann says the Eucharist is “indeed a restoration of love as the very foundation of the world” (46). The act of remembrance is an act of love. “There is nothing else to remember, nothing else to be thankful for, because in him everything finds its being, its life, its end” (51). Our remembrance has its end in Christ. Remembering our identity as the beloved and the redeemed is sustenance to the Christian life.

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How often do we forget God’s intimate presence with us, and his providential care? How often do we forget that the God who formed our inmost being is the one who created the heavens and the earth? The God who was born in Bethlehem, who revealed himself in the breaking of bread on the road to Emmaus, is the same God who stands at the door and knocks. This is the God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. One lesson from Augustine’s Confessions is from his prayerful act of remembrance. He looks back on his youth and is able to conclude “You were with me, even though I was far from you. Even though I did not know it at the time, when I remember I can say, ‘Lord, you were there.’”

And so, as Augustine reflecting on his young life, I think of the candle that burned during every Brazos Fellow class, and say “God, you were there!” In the moment it was not the focus of our attention, but the flame was steadfast and present, regardless of our awareness. Was not God always present, teaching and molding hearts, the whole time? “Did not our hearts burn within us?”

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