"Memory is the well of providence." That's what came to me today while I was out walking. The poet in me said it aloud, to see if it sounded pleasing, because, after all, if it doesn't sound good, what good is it?
Memory is one of those things we take for granted. We remember how to brush our teeth, dress, get to work, drive, and avoid this or that pothole or speed trap. We remember who we left in bed this morning (or who left us), our children's first words, where we were when we heard the events of 9-11, or even how to talk (a regrettable memory, at times). These collected memories form our history. History is important. If you don't think so, just consider what we mean when we say we have a "history" with that person. It means we've had a difficult relationship or, at least, one that has existed for some time and with some intensity. We remember that we do, because it's important to the future of that relationship or perhaps another one to come.
But my son doesn't think history is important. It's dumb, he says, and boring. I asked him if he remembered how to get up this morning, or how to eat. He said sure. I said see, you believe in history -- unless you knew your own history (how you did these things yesterday), you wouldn't be able to do them today. I said you'd make the same mistakes over and over again if you didn't believe in history. He said that's dumb, you don't understand. He's 14, but he'll get over it.
Actually, though, if it isn't self-evident, we all believe that what happened a moment ago, or yesterday, or last year, or 200 years ago is important. It's important for all the obvious reasons, the reasons everyone takes for granted (like remembering how to get up), but for Christians it's important for another reason. Providence. Memory is the well of providence. It's a reservoir of God's goodness, the Story God's telling.
Providence is a word we don't use much. In fact, most people only know it was the name of a now-defunct television series and, maybe, a city in Rhode Island. In simple terms, providence is God's continuing personal involvement and management of the world, his working of all things to accomplish his ends (Rom. 8:28), in ways that are mostly inexplicable and mysterious yet wholly good. He's It. No fate. No chance. No stray atom. Just God.
I said mostly not wholly inexplicable. For example, I don't know why my wife finally lost a backgammon game to me today, and I can't imagine that it plays a significant part in God's providence, but I do know that it was no accident and not outside His plan.
Memory is the well of providence. Memory and history are important to reflect and meditate on, for they reveal, in part, the workings of God in our own lives and the world around us. Seeing that work of God builds our faith and causes gratitude to well up in us. Well, like me -- On ocassion I have said that I'm glad I didn't marry that girl because if I had then my life would have been such and such (not so hot, that is, or OVER). Thank God I say, to which my wife says amen.
But really, remembering is more than just thankfulness over what didn't happen. It's that for a moment, on rare occasions, the tapestry is turned ever so slightly so we can see the beautiful design emerging on its face when what we generally see is the mess on its backside. Yes, the backside of life, like the backside of most people, is not always pretty, but it's what we get, and so when we get to see the flip side a bit, we can be reassured that something better is happening, something bigger than what we see.
It's not nostalgia, either. Not the wistful longing for an idealized past, as in Lot's wife looking back with regrets at Sodom or the Israelites bitchin' about the desert and wanting to pack up and go back to good old Egypt. Remembering is forward looking. It leads to present action. For example, in Genesis 9:14-15 God says he will remember his covenant with Noah. Why? So that now and in the future he will spare the world another flood. Besides, the past never was as good as you thought it was, was it?
Several years ago I spent some time in a hospital being pretty sick. I didn't much enjoy it. I was not a very good patient. I was often morbidly self-absorbed, or discouraged, and a burden on others. And I know better. Not a day goes by that I don't think of this sorry affair. Why? Because I want to remember what I was like and how God was faithful and people loved me nonetheless so, by His grace, I won't be that way next time (and make no doubt about it, there will be a next time for me, and for us all). God's purposes in causing this trial are still mysterious and inexplicable, but they are good.
Memory is the well of providence. I just need to draw on it more, to remember well.
So, that's just what happens when you go out walking.