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Are You Willing to Remember and Learn from the Past?

Events were held around the world recently to commemorate the event from 500 years ago when Martin Luther presented his “95 Theses” – which he may or may not have actually nailed to the door of the church at Wittenberg, Germany – and began the changes in the church that are broadly known as the Reformation.

I was invited to make a podcast about this event and some of its significance, with particular reference to Baptist communities.

To my great surprise, it was distributed in the worldwide network of the Baptist World Alliance on the big day, Oct. 31, and I received some notes by friends and colleagues in that community.

One friend wrote, thanking me for this contribution. “Your talk was not only coherent, it was closely related to worship and ministry. Other talks and articles I have seen on this anniversary have been only a history lesson. You brought the Reformation up to our time with an enthusiasm and conviction about how these important truths connect with us today.”

This comment has caused me to think a bit about the importance of remembering.

There is, of course, that great saying of George Santayana, that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

The reality is that we do often proceed as if we can ignore the past, as if it is not shaping our lives and present situations. The past is, in fact, present with us.

But we do have a choice about how we live with it and this is where “remembering” comes in.

In a biblical story, the prophet Ezekiel saw a valley of dry bones, signifying a nation whose freedom and hopes were lost. He asked, “Can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3)

This question applies to so much of what we regard as “history.” Is it a story of lost opportunities and dried-up hopes? Is it dead?

I think the answer can be, “Yes, these bones can live.” However, it depends on how we deal with the past, how we remember.

We can remember in order to learn. This is an exercise of freedom. We can learn from mistakes but also from strengths and examples in the past. We can learn what doesn’t work or what might work now even if it didn’t work then.

“Remember” is a word made up of several parts – and here I would like briefly to focus on “re-” and “-member.”

The word member connotes the idea of being part of something. To re-member is to recognize again or to become again a part of something.

When we remember something, such as a significant event in our lives, we reflect upon it or consider (perhaps in fresh or different ways) what it meant for us and what it now means for us.

That is what my friend was suggesting about my podcast. His contrast was with talks that give attention only to the past – as past. It is gone or treated as gone.

Remembering in order to learn is not merely a journey into the past as a foreign country, as it were, but is rather an exploration of that past event as something of present significance, and even perhaps something pointing us toward its future and our future.

This becomes a source of freedom, a matter of choice. This can be true of our personal lives, psychologically and relationally, as well as for groups, families and communities.

There is another vital dimension of the idea of re-membering. In his immensely insightful book, “Can These Bones Live?” Barry Harvey, professor of theology at Baylor University, offers an account of the ways a community of people can become part of the “body of Christ,” that is becoming members together of the ongoing movement of God’s presence and purposes.

The biblical idea of “anamnesis” is a very distinctive kind of remembering: remembering Jesus in a way that makes us present to one another and to that story or movement that he not only initiated but in some way continues.

Thus, Harvey speaks of the “sacramental performance” in which our “little narratives” are drawn into something far more – sometimes at cost, sometimes in ways that liberate us from the divisions and violence of the world.

Through this kind of remembering we are re-membered; we are made into members of that something else and something more – not by coercion, but always by invitation, by choice.

And thus, we learn, we become, we live into a surprising future, re-membering this past.

Yes, these bones of our past, and our present, can live.

Frank Rees is a Baptist pastor in Melbourne, Australia, and an associate professor in the University of Divinity. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, To Be Frank, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @frankrees.