Today I mark remembrance for two so-called infamous dates. But that’s such a wrong assessment.
Awhile back I wrote a post to talk about the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor and how my view if it has shifted through the years to really show me the presence and person of God in that day. The next year I wrote about the then-impending tenth anniversary of my suicide attempt and the perspective I have gained regarding the phrase “Christ makes all things new”. In one of my first blogs I wrote about our propensity to get lost in the past, to worship rather than memorialize, and I called for a little less talk and a little more harvest.
Last week, December 3rd to be exact, marked 11 years since I tried to defy God in the most ultimate way. Today marks 76 years since FDR made the speech in which he labeled December 7th, 1941 “a day which will live in infamy”. I like that phrasing linguistically; the idea of a living day speaks to a deeper truth about the memorials we build. Today I want to expound, if you’ll indulge me, on the tie between these three posts and these two events.
Most any adult in these United States who has at some point consumed too much alcohol knows the sickening moment the next day when, for a brief moment, you vividly taste the drink that sent you over the edge and your body shudders. That is the absolute picture of what FDR was describing: a living moment, an infamous and alive instant. It isn’t a passive recall or an inert monument, no, it is a living, breathing, heaving memory. It’s not a statue, it’s moving theatre.
I talked in one of those posts about Acts 1:7-11, so let’s look at that:
“And He said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in His own power. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.’
And when He had spoken these things, while they beheld, He was taken up; and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked stedfastly toward Heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; which also said, ‘Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into Heaven?'”
There’s so much meat here. The word “stedfastly” there is άτενίζω, atenizo, and it means to look on something intently, with a fixed stare. The same word is used in Luke 4:20 to describe how the crowd stares Jesus down after He declares He fulfills Scripture and then sits down quietly. This is the kind of stare in old sitcoms where someone in a restaurant says something shocking and the whole place turns, and even the cook leans out of the kitchen door, to see what happened. It’s the if-I-look-away-I’ll-miss-something-so-don’t-blink stare.
Turn down for what?
Let’s really paint the picture of the story in Acts here: 11 guys are standing on this hill, mount Olivet, with Jesus and asking Him about the future. He tells them that’s none of their concern but that they will receive power to go and preach to the world. Then he flies up into the sky like Neo from The Matrix and it’s just these 11 dudes standing there. I imagine Peter uttered whatever their version of “what the f***?!” was. There’s no conversation here among these guys, because what do you even say? They are there just staring up and trying to figure out what in the heck they just saw. Of all His miracles this was the truly stupifying one; people don’t fly. One or more of them looks down and suddenly there’s two dudes in white standing there with them out of nowhere.
If “Jesus!” as an exclamation hadn’t been invented yet I’m certain it was coined here as these men appear. I’ve had people sneak up on me and scare the heck out of me, but never have I looked up, looked back down, and had a person materialize in my personal space who wasn’t there before. Can you imagine it? These two angels scold them for staring so they just leave. They. Just. Leave.
Now I’ve never been a part of a group that watched something that spectacular, but I’ve been in groups of guys who got surprised by something, and I’m telling you Luke undersold this story to a hilarious degree. I guarantee at least one disciple said to these angels “Dude, did you even see what just happened?! I’m going to stand here staring forever because that was crazy!” I don’t know about you, but if guys appear out of thin air to shoo me away, brothers and sisters, I have questions before I go.
Right there, in that very questioning desire, is why we construct monuments: to try and process something we don’t understand. We are bookmarking awe, wonder, joy, sadness… whatever we felt that spurs us to erect a statue. In one of my posts linked above I talked about how we use monuments as a means to focus on death and pain, how we use them to escape a world we’re meant to be present in, but there is a flip side as well; there are good monuments. So how do we sort them apart?
Mark 14 opens with the story of the woman who pours the incredibly valuable jar of perfume over Jesus. When the disciples scold her He responds and uses a very interesting word. From verse 9:
“Verily I say unto you, wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.“
The word “memorial” there is μνημόσυνον, mnemosynon, and it has a cool foundational word: μάσσω, masso. It’s quite the journey from the latter to the former, so hang in there!
Masso is a Greek root word and it means “to handle” or, more importantly, “to squeeze”. The Greeks, cerebral as always, stretched this idea to the concept of squeezing a thought. This is the verb μνάομαι, mnaomai, and it means “to hold a thing in your mind.” This then was built on to create the concept of holding onto that for a long time, or rather to hold it often in your mind. That gave them the verb μιμνῄσκομαι, mimneskomai, which means “to recall” or “to remind”. But squeezing a thing also produces another object; in this case thought becomes memory, and that is the word μνήμη, mneme, from which we later formed mnemonic (a linguistic device to remember something — like remembering the rainbow colors as “Roy G. Biv”). Well the ‘ole Greeks realized that the memory can, itself, act and so they made the word μνημονεύω, mnemoneuo, which means “to be mindful of” or, better, “to exercise the memory”. But what does an exercised memory give you?
You gave me life, now show me how to live
I said that I like FDR’s words about a living day. That’s because of this word Jesus used, mnemosynon, which is the product of an exercised memory: a memorial, a memory that has been squeezed quite thoroughly. A memory that has worked out. A memory that has gotten buff, bro. Well that immediately makes clear why a memorial can be dangerous, doesn’t it? Because it can grow far beyond the size it should be, can hang around much longer than it should, can bully you. But it also shows how a memorial can be beautiful. It can be healthy, can sustain you, can help you do some heavy lifting. A memorial is a memory that has moved in with you and it stays with you as long as you squeeze it, as long as you handle it in your mind.
This makes it fairly easy to discern which monuments are bad and which are good, right? The ones that beat you, that oppress you, are bad and the ones that help you, that build you up, are good. The woman who poured perfume on Jesus is a good memorial because that memory tells us the things we value so highly in this world don’t matter as much as we think, but that they can be incredibly beautiful if we are prepared to lose them. A memorial to Jesus’ ascent to Heaven is bad because it pushes you to think of Jesus as the flying dude and to waste your life waiting for Him to return — and you can’t fulfill His request to distribute the gospel if you’re standing on the hill until Kingdom come. The dividing line between valid memorials and idols is reduced to Phillipians 4:8!
I used to memorialize Pearl Harbor for the pain I couldn’t understand. Now I memorialize it for the unfathomable beauty in the orchestration of it, in the Hand of God that moved so mercifully between and among those lives. I memorialize my suicide anniversary not as the day I tried to end it all, but as the day my Father birthed me anew into a life I couldn’t conceive of existing that night. That memory is well-toned and when I stumble it holds me steady.
Today as you move through your day I encourage you, I pray for you, to seek the memorials you have living in your mind and to hold them out for judgement against Phillipians 4:8. Evict, destroy, tear down those that miss the mark and give a little squeeze to those that hit the target. I leave you with the Word… The bracketed text is mine, and for extra credit: the Greek word there is logizomai!
“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things arehonest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on [memorialize] these things.”