Memories that Heal Us

Joshua 4:1-9

First Baptist Church Laurens

May 26, 2013

My favorite memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. is the World War II Memorial, which opened back in 2004. This memorial, which was long overdue, is a moving tribute to both the greatest generation and to the war to end all wars. Equally moving in my opinion, is the hard work being done these days to try to ensure that all living and able World War II veterans get the chance to see the Memorial during their lifetimes. These “Honor Flights”, as they are called, provide one last chance to thank these brave veterans for their service and for their sacrifices on behalf of our country. With 1,000 World War II veterans dying in the United States each day, it is a bit of a race against time. Yet, so far, the organization has flown over 100,000 veterans from 117 different US airports to the Memorial.

What I appreciate about both the World War II Memorial and about the work of Honor Flights is that they both seek to affirm the positive aspects of what happened between 1941 and 1945 when the world was at war. What I mean by this is that in the midst of those incredibly dark, difficult, scary and horrific days, there were good things that happened. In the midst of the chaos, people displayed great heroism and tremendous loyalty to one’s neighbor and country was exhibited. In essence, and in a strange way “it was both the worst of times and it was the best of times” just as Charles Dickens exclaimed in A Tale of Two Cities. It was a time when the very worst and the very best of humanity were on display side by side and in the exact same moment. As a result, while I think that the work being done with the World War II Memorial and the flights for veterans acknowledges the horror it also honors the heroism and both are equally important and equally valid ways of memorializing what happened.

I share this because I think the same thing happens in our text for today from Joshua chapter 4. The Israelites, under the leadership of Joshua, were also in the process of memorializing a significant period in their history as a people. In this passage, the Israelites were ending their forty year period of wandering in the dessert. They had finally crossed the Jordan River and entered into the Promised Land. As they did, led by God’s spirit, Joshua invited the people to memorialize what they had been through and to remember God’s faithfulness to them over the course of the journey. With monuments of 12 stones erected on both land and in the middle of the Jordan River where they crossed, the Israelites built tributes so that neither they nor their children would ever forget this part of their collective journey as a people.

Just as with the Memorial in Washington for World War II, the Israelite monuments commemorated what was the worst of times and the best of times for them as a people. These forty years had been incredible difficult – it had been a period of intense infighting, soul searching, poor decisions and to a degree difficult circumstances as they were on a limited diet and as they were never able to really settle and exist in one location for very long. At the same time, this was a forty year period through which God had taught them a great deal, a time in which they had escaped Egypt and in which they had finally prepared themselves for the chance to enter the land that God had long prepared them to take. As a result, these two monuments would be a way for them to remember, long into the future, both the good and the bad of what they had been through.

Memories are always like this. Memories, when we are honest and truthful with them, are always a combination of both the best and the worst of life. They are a mixture of both our finest moments and our darkest experiences. They are a collection of days we would love to repeat and weeks we never want to live through again.

This is true when it comes to remembering our loved ones as well. Often times, death is such a difficult and tragic experience that our memories of our loved ones become overwhelmed by how their lives came to an end. And, in many regards, there is nothing very good about dying. There really is no way to sugar coat it enough to make it an altogether good thing. Even when death takes away suffering or ends a life that is no longer able to be lived in full, the experience of watching a loved one’s life come to an end is still difficult to live through at best.

Yet, when we approach our memories as always a mixture of the worst and the best then I think these same memories can play a tremendously healing and helpful role in our lives. When you look at our text, it seems to me that the Israelites remind us of this perspective in a couple of ways that are well worth noting.

First, they were able to appreciate that thought it wasn’t easy, there were many positive elements from the journey they had been on.

Again, as we have been saying already, remembering and memorializing the difficult moments of life always require us to both recognize the tragedies associated with the situation while also celebrating the triumphant and touching aspects. For it is in celebrating those touching moments that we are able to make some peace with the tragic elements.

My closest friend in seminary is living through the death of his mother from cancer at this very moment. He and I talk on a regular basis and I know first hand how difficult this journey has been and continues to be for all of them. One way that he has kept me in the loop has been through sharing the occasional email from his dad that updates everyone on his mother’s condition. The other day one of the emails from his dad included the following..

So, do we cry? Yes, we cry a lot, me more than Susan probably – late at night when she is sleeping. Do we wish this was not happening? Certainly. We wish we were both healthy and able to travel, do things, and enjoy more years together. But the fact is we only have a short time left to be together here. We enjoy the little things – a day that we can go out to lunch or dinner; a day shopping at the mall; or a day just sitting in our swing in the back yard holding hands and playing with the dog. It is amazing to me how many of these little things we overlooked in the past.

Second, they also seem to have been able to affirm that even though the journey had sent them in circles at times, God had been with them every step of the way.

I highlight this truth because this is a reality that is so easy for us to lose sight of at times. And, without a doubt, I suspect that the Israelites struggled to always affirm this too. It is both human and easy to conclude in the midst of life’s difficulties and tragedies that God has abandoned us or is absent but that is never the case. God is always with us in both the lowest valleys and on the highest peaks. Sometimes this is a truth only embraced as we look backwards. And, it is important that we do.

When we can affirm God’s nearness in our memories we are much more likely to recognize God’s nearness in the uncertain future before us which is full of its own peaks and valleys.

This past week, the Laurens Elementary 4th and 5th grade classes went to Disney World for their end of the year trip. It was a real pleasure for me to accompany Callie as well as a number of our own FBC teachers, parents and students on the trip. One day, three of our students participated in a detective game in the Disney park called Epcot. In each section of the park dedicated to celebrating a different country in the world, they had clues to uncover.. As their chaperone, the first thing I would do when we arrived in each new country was to point out a bench or place where I would be sitting while they were at work playing the game. I wanted them to know where I would be sitting or waiting the whole time. They wouldn’t always be able to see me but I would be there and I wanted them to know I was there – no question about it.

God works in a similar way. We don’t always see God. We don’t always feel God’s nearness. But, this doesn’t change the certainty of God’s presence or attentiveness to our lives.

When the Israelites looked back, in their memories they celebrated the goodness that had been mixed in with the difficulties. And, they also affirmed that God had indeed been with them every step of the way.

This gave them not only a positive feeling about where they had been but it also gave them a real sense of hope for where they were going. On this day, as we remember, may the same be true for us. Amen.