O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
PSALM 63:1-7 (ESV)
My grandmother passed away on June 27, 2007. I can still remember the phone call from my mom. I was on my way to meet some friends for dinner. Sometimes with news like this, it cripples you right away, but my grandma had been very sick for some time and was never the same after her life-saving brain tumor removal. My mother’s voice was sad but calm, and I took the news with some uncharacteristic silence. Since her surgery, my grandmother had been staying in Houston with my aunt, so there wasn’t much I could do at the moment. I had been expecting that call for a while, so in some ways the grieving process had already started. I didn’t change my plans and ended up going to dinner.
I gave my friends a heads up about the news I got, and each was surprised I still showed up. We talked and laughed as we always did, and I took some comfort in the small clearing of normalcy in the great fog around me. I think I knew then that the dinner was merely stalling a necessary confrontation with grief and mortality, but I welcomed it anyway, if only to catch my breath.
It was on the way home when the numbness began to wear off. I can still remember so many details of that drive. The song I was listening to. The street all that darkness covered. The agonizingly long pause at the stop sign. Most of all I remember the feeling as I sat in my car, consumed by a very foreign and heavy desire to chase every memory of grandmother I could.
My biggest fear in that moment was forgetting her. I knew that though her body was lost to us, losing her memory would be a greater sorrow. So I grasped for random flashes of her life. The sounds of her cooking in the kitchen. The smell of her living room. Her laughable and contagious frustration with the Spurs. Her subtle but steady wave every time we backed out of her driveway. The more I remembered, the more I panicked. I felt like each picture of my grandmother was a piece of paper being carried away by the wind, and I didn’t know how to chase them all down. I sat alone and wept at that stop sign for what felt like forever.
Memory holds a special place in worship. Many of the psalm writers urge God’s people again and again to remember and to praise, the two activities comprising something of a formula for encouragement and perseverance. But the Israelites did not practice memory as a mere cognitive exercise. They were not a people for whom history was bound to a textbook or a diary. Their approach to memory was active. Remembering and praising were two halves of a single movement.
This meant that for them the act of remembrance involved participation. As they recalled God’s saving grace for their ancestors, the Israelites would praise just as their ancestors praised. They would sing the same songs. They would make the same sacrifices. They would follow the same practices. In this performative and representational activity, memories became alive. The worship of the past became worship for the present. This kind of remembrance continues through the New Testament, when after the Lord’s Supper, Jesus tells his disciples to repeat the meal when they gather to keep his memory alive (Luke 22:19). Remembering for the disciples here involved the mind and the body.
This kind of practice might sound unfamiliar to us, but we see it work effectively in our own lives all the time. Looking through a box of old photos, for example, certainly drives us down memory lane. But the power of this experience quickly fades, as you can only peer at the same photos so many times and come away moved. Compare that to the experience of participating in cherished traditions. It’s one thing to look at a picture of your mother cooking a family recipe, quite another for you to follow her handwritten instructions and cook it yourself. In the former, you might see a still shot of her in a sepia-toned frame. In the latter, she seems to move beside you, her words suddenly returning to fill the kitchen.
That night in my car, I was searching for memories of my grandmother that made her feel alive. I needed vivid pictures of her as she was to us, and in my moment of grief, all I got was two-dimensional Polaroids. It wasn’t until later that I realized the strongest memories came with activity. Today my grandmother is most “alive” when we live as she did and speak as she did and work as she did.
Ralph Martin says this is how God wired us, and true remembrance finds its heart in true worship. “We are not looking back as the historian or archaeologist does,” he writes. “We are recovering the past to let it speak to the present.” This is exactly what David does in his moment of fear in Psalm 63. He is weary and burdened from sorrow, and he knows that no comfort could come from mere snapshots of God’s past activity. David turns to remember God’s presence, which was once so vivid and moving in the sanctuary, and as David recalls that moment, he turns to praise now as he praised then. Like he did in times of peace with God and his people, David here sings and raises his hands and is satisfied. And in this activity, he is not just strengthened by memories; as he participates in worship David is crafting new memories for the future. “For you have been my help,” he writes, “and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.” He looks back on the sanctuary right now, but the day will come when he also looks back on this time in the wilderness when the Lord gave him a song.
The God we serve is alive and working now on our behalf. We don’t have to chase after dusty pictures of Him. Instead, memories of His saving grace can become comfort and strength today, and David’s example show us how. As we look back on all the Lord has done for us and relive the praise of those victories, we are reminded that the God who was there is also here.
Robert Robinson’s “Come Thou Fount” has long been my favorite hymn. Many people stumble over the word ebenezzer in its lyrics, but this is simply a Hebrew word for a memorial. It translates to “stone of hope.” When the Israelites encountered God’s saving work, they would erect a monument to remind themselves that the God who saves was still with them. As you pray today, read these lyrics and find encouragement in the Lord’s work in your life.
Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Hither by thy help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
Lord you sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
Jesus rescued me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, Lord take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.
Biblical remembrance keeps the candle of worship lit. How has God come through for you in the past? How did you respond to His saving work? Make your own ebenezzer today. Write down what God has done for you in the past and express your gratitude as you did before. Keep this memory alive when you go to God in supplication and praise.