Early in February, the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire recorded overnight wind gusts of over 100 miles per hour and a temperature of −47 °F. This produced a new US record low windchill temperature of −108 °F. Experts noted it wasn’t the cold and wind that led to such extreme conditions, but an interesting atmospheric phenomenon that, in effect, caused the top of Mount Washington to become part of the stratosphere for a few hours. Talk about a mountaintop experience! Though not one we would want—or be able to survive.
But generally we love mountaintops, don’t we? The actual ones and the metaphorical ones. We love mountaintop experiences which bring moments of clarity, conviction, or renewal. From a spiritual—and Christian—perspective, it may involve a moment when someone feels especially close to God or senses the Holy Spirit moving in a tangible way. I grew up in South Dakota, and meaning no disrespect to our Great Lake here in West Michigan, I am more of a mountain person than a water person. Though I feel very much settled here after 20 years, half of my heart will always live out west, in higher altitudes among the ponderosa pines of the Black Hills, the rock formations of Shell Canyon in the Bighorns, and the incomparable vistas of the Beartooth Highway. For me, any visit to mountains can lead to a mountaintop experience. The landscape inspires awe and draws my eyes upward and inclines my heart toward praise and wonder.
I will lift up my eyes to the hills—
From whence comes my help?
My help comes from the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1–2)
The psalmist was saying more than just “mountains are pretty.” High places were locations for pagan rituals and sacrifices (e.g., Ahab and prophets of Baal as told in I Kings 18). The psalmist is saying that when he looks to hills, it is not to seek answers from man-made idols. He trusts in the one true God, maker of heaven and earth. God meets Moses on a mountain to make a covenant, to enter into a relationship with human beings in a new and remarkable way. In the gospels, Jesus goes to a mountain to find solitude and to commune with his father in prayer on several occasions. One of the most memorable gospel moments is the Transfiguration, where Jesus appears radiant in his glory to Peter, James, and John. And, more than that, Moses and Elijah appear alongside him. Now that was a mountaintop experience! Isn’t it remarkable then that those same three disciples were the ones who fell asleep, ran, and even denied? How could they have seen that and not stood firm? Yet maybe, if we are honest, we know all too well what it means to see and yet forget.
At this year’s Calvin Worship Symposium, I attended a workshop entitled, “Faith Practices for All Ages,” led by staff from the Faith Formation Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church of North America. You might be familiar with more “traditional” spiritual disciplines (also called faith practices) of reading scripture, prayer, fasting, but did you know that remembering is also a discipline? The Faith Formation Ministries team has developed a wonderful resource, the Faith Practices Project, and they define the practice of remembering this way: It “centers our attention on what God has done in our lives, deepening our assurance that God is with us here and now, and expanding our hope and anticipation for what God will yet do.” (I highly recommend visiting the Faith Practices Project website—and often—to browse its wealth of resources: https://www.crcna.org/FaithPracticesProject.)
My regular dental check-ups have provided my go-to object lesson about remembering. Every six months, when the hygienist would ask, “Are you flossing?” I wouldn’t say “yes,” as that felt like an outright lie. I told half truths: Sometimes. As much as I can. I’m trying to. At some point, I decided I could do better. If I left the floss on the bathroom counter, I would see it every day, so I would remember to use it. So I did. And I saw it every day. But I didn’t always use it every day. I’ll do it later. I’m too tired. Is that my phone ringing? Clearly, it wasn’t just a memory issue; it was a test of my will. Could it be, perhaps, that remembering, as a spiritual discipline, is a test of the will? Remembering isn’t just allowing a thought to enter my brain. That thought must have impact. I can be reminded of what I should do and still not do it. If I engage my will to remember—and to remember why it is important to remember—then I won’t just think about it. I will act upon it. I will allow it to shape me. Yes, we do need those reminding and re-centering signs for our spiritual health as well as our dental health. But even then, our environment—the air around us—can work against us.
I often think of a scene from my favorite Narnia tale, The Silver Chair. The young Jill Pole, a newcomer to Narnia, encounters the great lion, Aslan. Jill has just done something foolish, and Aslan, in his wonderfully winsome way, both chastises her and comforts her. He also challenges her. She and her fellow Narnia visitor, Eustace, have a job to do. Eustace isn’t there at that moment (a result of the foolishness), so Jill stands before Aslan alone, receiving instructions for the “mission”:
“Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.” [C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: HarperTrophy, 2000), 27.]
Remembering the signs means more than just seeing the signs. My failure to floss wasn’t simply a matter of not seeing the floss. Once I left it out on the counter, I saw it, but didn’t always use it. (Spoiler: When the children fail in their task in Narnia, it isn’t simply forgetfulness working against them either.) We can see without truly seeing. Fear, pride, laziness, and just the busyness of life affects both our actual vision and our spiritual vision. But when the air is clear, it allows us to clearly hear, see, and think. And aren’t we thankful for those blessed moments of clarity and purpose?
The annual Calvin Worship Symposium is always a clear-air moment for me. I come away filled and inspired, full of ideas about how to apply what I’ve learned, and, more importantly, to share what I’ve learned. For remembering is not just for me alone, for my personal spiritual growth. When I remember what God has done in my life, what he has shown me, where he has led me, where he continues to lead, it will inevitably impact my relationships. It will infuse into my work. When I accept an invitation to enter more deeply into my own story, I am more likely to invite others in as well.
“I will praise you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all the marvelous things you have done” (Psalm 9:1).
Remembering can be a solo thing. We can stroll down memory lane on our own, but when I sit down for coffee with a lifelong friend, and my story-remembering meets her story-remembering, we aren’t just sharing our shared history, we are forging a deeper bond of friendship. We can build bonds of shared humanity too, even across the centuries. When I present a Greek or Roman myth to my middle school Latin students, we talk about what it reveals about the people who first heard it, internalized it, and then told it to another. We connect those discussions to how we, as Christians who believe in the one true God and his son, Jesus Christ, are shaped by hearing God’s word, recognizing the good news of salvation is for us, and then sharing it with others. Remembering the story allows us to enter the story and share the story. Our stories, yes. But the larger human story too. And, more than that, the story of good news for all people which, remarkably, has reached us in part through the memory of shepherds on a Judean hillside who remembered—and told.
The practice of spiritual remembering isn’t necessarily only about memory, though it can include memorization of scripture or favorite songs and hymns (a discipline in itself). It’s not only for those who have a good memory. Some of us can remember our first day of kindergarten, while others can’t remember what we had for dinner last night. And many of us struggle to find our keys! Spiritual remembering is allowing yourself to be led to a place, a person, a time. Sadly, memory can fail due to injury, illness, and age. But thankfully, the spiritual act of remembering doesn’t fundamentally depend on us. It can be received as a gift from very much outside ourselves. I recall being at a continuing care facility worship service where I was sitting among people who had serious ailments of body and mind. And yet, when the preacher started reading the message text, Proverbs 3:4–6, voices from every part of the room joined in:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct your paths.
My mother recently told me that her oldest sister never lost her “spiritual memory,” even with advancing dementia. The final moment they shared on this earth was last Easter. They prayed together. My aunt was completely clear in her prayer that day, as she was throughout her cognitive decline. And while this might not be everyone’s story as they fight such damaging diseases, we can have every confidence that one’s individual—limited for all of us, in some way—memory is not the whole story. There is a corporate side to spiritual memory. Indeed, we are one body. We carry and share memories for each other. But more than that, we know that God knows each one of us by name, and we can never be separated from his love. We can be assured that his remembering of us is enough. More than enough.
The word “discipline” comes from the Latin disco, translated “I learn.” It’s a verb. And a verb is an action. How can we actively learn to remember? As the Faith Practices Project states, it starts with centering our attention. Then it becomes about intentionally making time and space so that the behavior, or posture, of remembering will take root and become a habit. And yes, that part is work. It’s countercultural. We live in a world of 24-hour news cycles and 280-character Tweets. Remembering takes time and stillness to connect the dots. It’s also work because it might engage the emotions more than we might like. How many of us don’t want to remember because it only seems to lead us to places of sorrow, regret, and fear? Instead of being an edifying faith practice, it only leaves us feeling like moral and spiritual failures. “My sin is always before me,” says the psalmist (Psalm 51:3). But those who rest in the Lord and his love can echo the words of Nehemiah, even through tears: “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” (Those who returned to the land of promise after exile certainly had much to remember about their failures.)
Remembering is work when the air is not as clear. We’re not always on the mountain. And when the air becomes thicker, it’s hard to even remember we were on the mountain. Sometimes, the fog is so thick we can’t see our hands in front of our face. What do you do when all else fails, when the trail never emerges from the valley, or the rollercoaster isn’t climbing again? We remember that remembering has a purpose. We remember the life of discipleship is about learning, forgiving (ourselves and others), and responding in faithful obedience at all times, whether we are up or down. But, most of all, we remember Him. We remember the works of his hands.
Lord, hear my prayer,
listen to my cry for mercy;
in your faithfulness and righteousness
come to my relief.
Do not bring your servant into judgment,
for no one living is righteous before you.
The enemy pursues me,
he crushes me to the ground;
he makes me dwell in the darkness
like those long dead.
So my spirit grows faint within me;
my heart within me is dismayed.
I remember the days of long ago;
I meditate on all your works
and consider what your hands have done. (Psalm 43:1–5)
What do we learn from remembering? That all of life’s moments are stitched together and, more importantly, held together by the one eternal God, maker of heaven and earth. And just like Lewis’s Christ-figure lion, Aslan, God is “on the move.” He did not stay “somewhere up there,” where the air was clear. He came to our murky, muddy, messy world: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). And whether we are on the mountain’s summit, or in the deepest pit, or stopped at any of the way stations along the road of life, we are not alone.
So, remember that you might believe. Believe so that you might remember.
Nothing else matters.