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Whitworth University Parents' Weekend Sermon 2007

Oct. 14, 2007
Bill Robinson

"Good and Bad Memories"

I would like to talk this morning about two kinds of memories: memories that anchor us, and memories that confine us.

I don't know about women, but we men are really good at invigorating our memories. . . when we talk about sports: The older we get, the better we were. And how about those cars when we were teenagers? They get better every year. Dan Seals recorded a song about his:

She weren't much to look at.
She weren't much to ride.
She was missing a window on her passenger side.
The floorboard was patched up with paper and tar,
But I really was something in my old yellow car.

Somewhere in a pile of rubber and steel,
There's a rusty old shell of an automobile.
And if engines could run on desire alone,
That old yellow car would be driving me home.

Take a look at me now, throwing money around.
I'm paying somebody to drive me downtown.
Got a Mercedes Benz with a TV and bar.
God, I wish I was driving my old yellow car.
I wish I was driving my old yellow car.

No he doesn't. In about five minutes he'd be singing, "Geez, I wish I was driving my Mercedes Benz."

Some memories are fun, some memories are serious business, and some memories come before us as a matter of life and death. My hope this morning is that we can manage our memories, rather than let our memories manage us.

Probably the most powerful speech ever given by a Nobel Peace Prize recipient was a speech about what to do with memories. What should we do, asked Holocaust survivor Ellie Wiesel, with memories of human horror that most of the world is not even capable of imagining?

In his Nobel lecture, Wiesel said, "Of course we could try to forget the past. Why not? Is it not natural for a human being to repress what causes him pain, what causes him shame? Like the body, memory protects its wounds. When day breaks after a sleepless night, one's ghosts must withdraw; the dead are ordered back to their graves. But for the first time in history, we could not bury our dead. We bear their graves within ourselves.For us, forgetting was never an option."

Weisel continued, "The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history. No commandment figures so frequently, so insistently, in the Bible. It is incumbent upon us to remember the good we have received and the evil we have suffered. ... The rejection of memory becomes a divine curse, one that would doom us to repeat past disasters, past wars."

Antigone, our theatre department's fall production, begins with the same warning: "If we forget the past, the past will return." To our immense fortune, we are spared from the brutality of memories that haunt Holocaust survivors. But we are not spared from the decision of what to do with our memories – when to draw upon them for guidance and hope, and when to cage them in order to keep them from caging us.

The Old Testament text this morning is from the Psalms. As Ellie Wiesel points out, remembering has always been important to the Jews. Their New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is also called Yom Hazikaron, the day of memory. As children, Jews memorize massive sections of the Talmud, and their holidays center around the collective memory of their history as a people. Around the world and across the ages, Jewish traditions are maintained by memories. And nobody does tradition like an orthodox Jew. In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevya sings of tradition with patriotic fervency. Without tradition, he says, things would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.

The Psalms, which happen to be the Jews' favorite songbook, begin with a great tribute to tradition.

1 Happy are they
who do not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.

2 But their delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law they meditate day and night.

3 They are like a trees planted by streams of water,
which yield its fruit in season
and whose leaves do not wither.

The word for law in the Hebrew is Torah. It doesn't just refer to the Ten Commandments, given to Moses, but to the whole tradition of faith. This passage could read, "Happy are those who live in the strength of their traditions, for they are like trees planted by streams of water." Traditions provide a root system. A few days ago, 50 m.p.h. winds ripped through the campus and stripped much of the color from our deciduous trees. But the trees still stand. Their root systems keep them firmly planted, standing tall against the winds.

Today we watch our children grow up in the hurricanes of culture. Will their roots keep them firmly planted? They march off to Whitworth University. "Good bye, John. Make sure you come home with a calling, a vocation, a clear word from God about what you should do with your life, and maybe even a wife, if you think that would be nice." How will their roots, their traditions keep them firmly planted as good and bad life possibilities swirl around them?

Generally, trees have two kinds of roots – woody roots that anchor the tree and non-woody close-to-the-surface roots that nourish the tree. And certainly our traditions both anchor and nourish us. So, if you're sitting next to your student right now, you're probably doing a root check. "What traditions of life and faith have I given this kid? Have I given her any at all?" Before you dive into a pool of guilt on this question, I'd remind you of two things. First, your children are anchored by some pretty strong roots that you don't even know you planted. When I think of two family traditions that nourish me, at least one would surprise my parents. I remember when I was a very young boy, my father would end dinner by taking us into the living room for prayer and Bible reading. It was a tradition; at least he wanted it to be. We didn't always do it, but we did it enough so it is part of my memory. Another tradition that took root in my consciousness was cheeseburgers and ice cream sundaes on when we got home from church Sunday night. When I consider which of these two traditions grew the deepest roots, there is no question. It was the cheeseburgers. Frankly, I considered family devotions a major interruption in my play schedule. And to be honest, I think I needed those Sunday nights more than I needed devotions. I never doubted that Christ was at the center of the Robinson family. That was the strong, woody root of our identity. I didn't need devotions to tell me that. But I did need to see my parents laugh. I needed to see them make a big deal over something as insignificant as cheeseburgers. I knew they loved their children, but I needed to see them enjoy their children. I needed them to show me the kind of family I wanted to have when I grew up. And every Sunday night, I could count on seeing that family. Parents, you've laid roots you don't even know about. But they are strong. And they nourish the memories your children carry.

A second reason for you not to be discouraged about the traditions you have or have not established has to do with roots and trees. Sometimes we talk about our roots as if they need to be in place before the tree grows. But a tree and its roots grow simultaneously. In other words, we never stop growing our roots. We can keep establishing new traditions that plant us firmly, that nourish our growth. It doesn't take much to sink a new root, establish a new tradition. Several years ago I overheard our two daughters on Christmas Eve talking real big. One of them said, "When we get married, our husbands better understand that they will have no influence over Christmas Eve." Very aware of my weak status as a husband, I asked why. "Because this is a family tradition." Well, if family tradition means this is the second third time we've done this, I guess they have a point. But their main point was "We're sinking a root here." And as they build their own families, they will always be nourished by that root. Sink some new roots this year. Parents of freshmen, establish a Parent's Weekend tradition. Or come up with a welcome-home-for-break tradition. Our family has the tradition of a welcome-home- from-anything party. Your students will be both anchored and nourished by these memories. And keep in mind one very cool aspect of remembering: The older your students get, the better you were. It's never too late to make deposits in the memory bank.

But there are some memories that aren't so helpful. As parents, what we forget about our children can be as important as what we remember. This morning's New Testament text is the same one Terry McGonigal uses in his sermon at new-student orientation. He tells the story of Jesus getting lost when Joseph and Mary leave Jerusalem. As Terry points out, a child is a terrible thing to lose. Especially this child. Can't you just hear the parents? "Well, Joseph, apparently you have forgotten the Messiah." Your child is not one of those things you need to forget.

But this story of the lost Jesus is rich with significance. First, he was lost for three days. This would not be the last time Jesus would be lost for three days. Second, he was found in the temple, the house of God. I hope we still find him there today. And third, losing Jesus was the first step for his parents in finding Jesus, in finding out who he really was.

I wonder if we parents don't have some losing to do in order to find out who our children really are. We carry memories of that neat little child or that sloppy little child, of the lazy kid or the determined kid, of the child who loved math or the child who loved art. All of these memories mold our expectations into what our children will or won't do with their lives. And then all of a sudden our children get lost. They aren't where we expected. They aren't in the majors we expected. They aren't marrying who we expected. They aren't in the careers we expected. They're not even voting for who we expected. Significantly, Mary and Joseph couldn't find their child among family and friends. Neither can we. And so we ask the Mary question, ""Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you."

Sometimes we get the answer that Jesus gave: "Why were you looking? I'm not where you expected, but I'm right where I belong." And that's true. Other times we get the answer that Jesus implied: "You totally don't get me, Mom. I'm not sure you really understand what I'm supposed to do." And sometimes we get the answer that is hard to hear: "You aren't the only one who is searching for me; I'm searching for me, too. I'm not sure if and when I'll find my way home."

So, as parents we ask two questions: What do we do with our memories, and what do we do with our expectations? And you children have one question: "Where are you taking me to lunch?" And that question annoys your parents because you should be thinking about your life, not your lunch.

Okay, because I am not a wise man, I have advice – Parents' Weekend advice. Here are my suggestions:

First, for the parents:

  • Don't underestimate your children's root system. The strongest roots are the ones farthest below the surface. They are invisible, but strong. 
  • Keep growing more roots. Keep building traditions. Keep replenishing the memories that nourish your children. 
  • Give your children space to change and grow. Have more confidence in their roots. Tugging on their branches stresses them more than it helps. Giving space might require some forgetting. You might need to lose them for awhile. It's okay; they'll be back. 
  • Every time your children get lost, or when you can't find them in your expectations, it's a great opportunity for you to show them unconditional love. Some of our students think you will love them more if you like them more, and that you'll like them more if they're more like you. When they aren't where you think they should be, it's a great time to show them that you love them anyway. 

For the students:

  • As your life unfolds before you, as you wander, or as God leads you, keep your loved ones posted. Tell them where you are and where you're going. It won't kill you. If you think it will help, ask them not to comment. If he could have, I'm sure Jesus would have sent a text message from the temple. 
  • We nourish our roots in the same we our roots nourish us – with our memories. Remember the traditions that have shaped you, that nourish you, that anchor you. Remember the cast of people who made those traditions, the people who love you so much. Remembering is your blessing and your duty.

Let me close with a speculation from this story of Mary and Joseph and Jesus:

Maybe we all need to lose Jesus. Maybe we need to lose the Jesus of our expectations, the Jesus we've made in our own image. Maybe Jesus isn't right in the middle of our family and friends. Maybe Jesus isn't where we put him, or where we left him, or where we think he should be. Maybe we need to lose Jesus for three days. Maybe we need a rejuvenated memory of his death and resurrection. Because we have the wrong Jesus if we're not living in the hope of his resurrection and the assurance that this resurrected Jesus can redeem our past, our present, and our future – that he can redeem us when we're lost, when we're found and when we're not sure whether we're lost or found. If we don't have the redeeming Jesus, we better lose the one we've got and find the one who says, "Mom, Dad, why were you worried? I've been doing my father's business… and you and your children are my father's business." Amen.