Meaty Memory

Because I function as a chaplain to the residents at my workplace, I’m known to wear a clerical collar from time to time. It always seems to catch residents off guard the first time they see me in it–here is this linebacker of a man with spiky hair, spikes in his ears, and tattoos running down his arm in the garment of a religious professional. To be honest it still catches me off guard a bit when I see myself in the mirror with a plastic rectangle digging into my neck–when did I become this contradiction of life and brokenness?

The last time I came to work collared up, one of my residents asked me, “what does a pastor do?” Despite having been to seminary for four and a half years and writing page upon page of ordination paperwork, I was more or less at a loss for a succinct answer to her question. So I rattled off the usual things: pastors take care of people, they’re there to help people when needed, pray for people, preach about Jesus, and so forth. Seeing that my off-the-cuff answer was not satisfying my resident’s question, I thought about it a little bit harder, and this unexpectedly fell out of my mouth:

“A pastor is a person who helps people remember things.”

What the hell does that even mean? What’s interesting to me is that, for as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve had some concept of what a pastor does. My dad is a pastor, so naturally what I see him doing is what I understand pastoral ministry to be. And since I made this observation about the role of the pastor, I’ve been thinking through what I’ve seen him do, and what I’ve seen other pastors do across the entire spectrum of Christianity, and what I myself have been doing as I’ve grown into my vocation–it’s all been the heavy-duty work of remembrance.

The “remembrance” I’m speaking about here isn’t simply walking through significant events as a mental exercise–“remember that time when…”–but rather, a kind of participatory remembrance that refreshes and enfleshes the experience of a person’s identity as they live their life in community. It’s that kind of meaty memory, anamnesis (as the liturgy nerds say), that isn’t simply remembering that “this happened to me,” but rather, “this happened to me and it is shaping my soul.” It’s that kind of memory we’re digging into when we throw water at folks and ask them to remember a baptism that many have no ability to recall mentally as it happened when they were so young. And yet, we still call them to remember things lost to the fog of time! The depth of anamnesis is something that happens in the community psyche, not the intellect of the individual, and in that depth there is great power.

With water and oil and ash and bread and wine the pastor gives the people footholds of memory:
“You are sealed as Christ’s own forever.”
“The body and blood of Christ keep you in everlasting life.”
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
“Even at the grave we make our song: ‘alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!'”
As the community gathers around its members and sees its members scaling the wall of human experience using these footholds, the community itself becomes a witness to the collective, meaty memories that have formed its individual members.

Clinging to the mountainside on her own footholds of memory stands the pastor, from Sunday to Sunday and in the 167 intervening hours ever beckoning: “remember who you are and whose you are! You are Christ’s own!” And she offers the bread and wine once more, she prays once more, she offers another sandwich, writes another benevolence check, baptizes another baby, buries another beloved friend, and stuffs another bulletin. More footholds emerge, and as the community scales the wall they begin to shine brighter with the radiance of Christ’s likeness.

So, that’s what a pastor does. I think. I’m still learning. But with joy I remember the footholds of memory that have formed me more into Christ’s likeness–my baptism, the temple of my childhood, Eucharists and mountaintops, tears and despair, confessions and penances, my orders and my doubt. And I am finding my voice, so that from my place on the mountainside I can call out: remember!

The Man God Loves

[Warning: Pulp Fiction language ahead! Also I know the title of this is “The Man God Loves” and I use that as this is a personal reflection from a cis-male perspective and it’s also a play on a song title. I don’t mean anything more than that.]

As I’m writing this Ella Fitzgerald’s performance of “The Man I Love” is playing on Spotify. In a bizarre way I somehow feel as though the lyrics could just as easily speak of “the God I Love,” especially the line I’ll do my best to make him stay.

I have trouble trusting God. I have trouble trusting in God’s goodness and his welcome, especially in a world that continues to be peppered with personages and prophets who pander to pedantic impieties and utilize the message of God to denigrate the humanity and realness of others.

I know that those people do not speak for God, and that my heart and life have already been spoken for by the God who suffers rejection and death for the sake of welcoming all into that God’s own divine demesne.

But sometimes the voices of those who cry “no!” to God’s children are louder than the dying voice of the God who cries “no!” to the pattern of suffering and death. The lie weasels into my thought processes: have I done something to drive God away? Am I still worthy of grace, despite all my darkness? And so I find myself doubting God, as though I cannot be found behind the nagging shadow of my own imagined unworthiness, listening for God’s dying whisper of tetelestai, listening for the rustle of linen in the resurrection tomb, listening for the footsteps of the myrrh bearers, and hoping that I too will find myself eating fish on the beach with the God I love. The voice inside me nags, “maybe I haven’t done my best to make him stay.”

I wonder if God ever sings “I’ll do my best to make him stay.” The reality is that God hasn’t gone anywhere; the issue at work here is my own human forgetfulness. This is why the Sacraments are so utterly important–we remember our baptism, we remember our participation in the death and resurrection, we remember the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we remember our forgiveness from sin, and we’re even set apart to help the world remember its belovedness in the other sacraments. The great grace is that I am spoken for whether or not I can hear the echoes of those realities in my mind’s ear. There’s nothing I can do to make God stay because God has never left, and will never leave. And the grace upon grace is that I can taste the realness of love in bread and wine, feel the embrace of the loving God in the arms of those whom I know love me, in their words, in their smiles and acts of service.

Even though the glow of those holy moments in which I knew God’s presence has faded, the grace of God is such that I can still see the glow of God’s presence in those people who bear God’s image. The light of God in these acts, in these glances, strikes me like purging flame, burning away the grime over my eyes and welcoming me once again into the light of God’s countenance.

And I am an image bearer of God, and what more, the final word has been spoken regarding me: beloved. And I’m willing to wager on a God whose arms are stretched far enough to embrace a world that has forgotten the God it loves. We are the world God loves, even though we’re probably going to screw it up on the way to making that love a reality for all people.

But praise be to a God who can’t get enough of us darling, forgetful fuck-ups, who joins us in the pit of despair and transforms that place of destruction into a fountain life and light and uncomfortable grace that demands we do something with it. And what’s even crazier is that God actually trusts us to bring the world back to life with him. A God who never leaves, and who does God’s damnedest to help us remember.