Monthly Letter – August 2017

Dear Friends

The summer holidays very often bring in their wake a swathe of treasured memories. The places you’ve been. The people you’ve met. The sights you’ve seen. The outings you took. The fun that you’ve had. The things that went wrong (but which you laugh about now). The adventures on which you were launched.

As often as not we come back from those holiday weeks with a whole massive library of photos (more so now than ever, with the coming of the digital age); they’re the vain but persistent attempt which we make to capture in a 2-dimensional, visual way the pleasures, excitement and joy which those special days of holiday had brought. Each photo, for the person who was there when it was taken – each photo still well able to evoke within their spirit some real sense again of all that was experienced at the time: but at best it’s more like the haunting echo of some music that’s been played, still ringing in our ears – only now but the echo, far more than the actual music itself.

But how keen we invariably are to show all these photos to our patient, long-suffering families and friends – indeed to any and all who’ll give us the chance so to do! And why? Because we want not just to show a set of photos which we’ve snapped, but somehow to share (indeed, if only we could, to re-live) the whole experience which we’ve known.

Such photos, stored away in albums, are, of course, no more than just a few ‘hard copy’ print-outs of the far more vibrant, multi-sensual memories which we carry in our heads and in our hearts. For this strange and wonderful gift we’ve been given, which we know as simply our memory – this extraordinary gift means we’re able to savour, long and often, all the sweetness of those points in our experience which have brought us such enrichment, warmth and joy.

This gift of memory is thus, as it were, a doorway into a ‘virtual’ world where all of our senses come into their own and we’re able again in a remarkably rich and satisfying way to bask in those pleasures which are now, in the ‘real’ world, all past.

And yet, wonderful as this gift of memory is and can be, it’s strange in a way we’ve been made this way by the Lord. Is He not more concerned with the future? Is that not the drift of the message the Bible proclaims from the start? The best is yet to be.

Is that not the focus of all of the days of creation? Before the third day’s work is done, the Lord is declaring “It’s good.” And it is. All that the Lord ever does is good: altogether excellent, astonishingly beautiful – that good. But He doesn’t really linger there at all: it may be good – that good – but there’s more still to come, and the best is yet to be, ‘til by the end of day six it isn’t just good (that good) it’s very good. Superlative upon superlative.

And that’s just the start! There’s more to come.  A whole load more. The Bible doesn’t stop at the end of Genesis 2. God’s purpose is far from exhausted by the time creation’s completed. Anything but. There’s more. Stunningly more. The best is yet to come! However good it may presently be, what’s still to come is much better.

Isn’t that always the direction in which we’re being pointed? The future. God’s future. What He still has in store for His people.

So how come we’re made with this powerful thing we call memory? And how come God’s time and again found exhorting His people to utilize that faculty? ‘Remember,’ He’s always for saying, ‘remember what once you were…’

Isn’t that what so often we’re trying to forget? What wouldn’t some give to ensure they were free from their terrible flash-backs? Those moments when the memory seems to kick in of its own accord, over-ruling all a person’s careful, conscious efforts to subvert the recollection of the pain and harm and damage they’ve experienced in the past.

If the best is still ahead of us, then why this constant exhortation to look back? What on earth is He hoping to do by this call to look backwards instead of ahead?

Indeed, what’s the point in His giving us memory, when it often becomes, through those flash-backs, the tortuous means by which all of a nightmare of hurt and of pain is experienced again and again by someone who’s been wronged and abused?

It’s a risky gift in some ways which the Lord has given. For not only can the memory sometimes become thus such an instrument of torture, it’s susceptible as well to abuse. It can easily be used in quite the wrong way: when given its head, like an unbridled horse, it can carry us off where we weren’t meant to go and can lead us right into nostalgia.

For when nostalgia sets in, our memory becomes but a one-way ticket to a glamourized view of the past. Nostalgia sees us hankering after that past: to such an extent that we simply get trapped in the past, and .. well, cannot get past the past.

Our memory’s a powerful thing: it ignites in our hearts strong emotional pulls. There are places, for instance, where something momentous occurred in our lives, places perhaps where we caught for a moment a glimpse of a ravishing beauty, places where we knew in our hearts a joy and delight which seemed, for a second, almost wonderfully out of this world. The exhilarating scent of heaven’s purest joy, the haunting, captivating echoes of the music of eternity.

And we, some of us, try to go back to such places sometimes – when in truth it isn’t the place at all that we’re seeking; it’s the fragrance of God’s future, it’s the scents and the sense of the best that is still to be given, which that place, that small, soon-gone moment in time, subtly lodged and ingrained in our memory – it’s that which we’re seeking. And to try and recapture that fragrance of God’s promised future by going back to the place where some time in the past we caught that fleeting hint of it – well, we miss the whole point of that moment. It was only ever meant to be for us a signpost to the future, not a spring, whose waters we might drink there evermore.

There isn’t any future in nostalgia! And memory wasn’t given us by God to serve that end.

So why was it given by God? And why do we find that our memories so often will trigger deep longings and aching desires in the depths of our hearts? Have you ever wondered that?

And have you ever noticed how our memories tend to work? How they often seem to demonstrate a marvelous capacity for filtering off those darker, grubbier aspects of the past? How we find ourselves referring to ‘the good old days’ (when in all sorts of regards they weren’t that good at all)? How the bits that you remember of those childhood summer holidays are by and large the good bits – the bright blue skies at the seaside; the warm sun gently melting the tar in the road, and giving to all the countryside a lovely, sparkling lustre; the games that you played, the adventures you had, the innocent pleasures you knew?

Is it just a mere coincidence that this is how our memories tend to work? Is it just another pointer to the way we can delude ourselves? Is it just another instance of our proneness to engage in wishful-thinking?

Or is it rather – in the kind and gracious providence of God, is it rather that this is how the grace of memory works; so that over time they siphon off the parts of past experience which have no great or lasting bearing on the ultimate realities to which these haunting memories are intended under God to point? As if they were no more than just the ugly, awkward scaffolding around an ancient building being restored to what was once its former glory – which bit by bit (I’m speaking of the scaffolding) is stripped away and taken down.

Might it not just be, in other words, that this gift which God has given us of memory is the complementary partner to that other striking grace with which we are endowed – our capacity to think into the future and to hope? As our photos are but an ‘echo’ of the pleasures of the past, might it not just be that our memories similarly serve under God as some sort of temporary ‘echo’, a faint but exhilarating ‘echo’ of the rich and unspeakable pleasures which God’s future for us in His Son will one day bring?

What is, after all, the “far better” to which the apostle referred? And how can we even begin to have any idea at all about that which, we’re told, “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived” – the future God has prepared for those who love Him?

Might it not just be that the forward-looking God who gives us the gift of our memory and who vigorously calls us again and again to make use of the gift – “Remember, remember, remember,” He says – might it not just be that He gives us this grace of our memory precisely to help us to hope?

We’re like weary, expectant submariners, stuck, for the moment, beneath the water’s surface and able only to guess at the lie of the land still ahead. Will it be just a ‘dried out’ version of the dark and murky depths in which we presently exist? How can they know in their life beneath the surface just what that land of the future will be like?

Well, submariners use their periscopes to see beyond the surface of the seas. Mirrors. Mirrors which help them see around the corner.

And might not our memories be the ‘mirrors’ which God gives us to help us catch just some small sense of the soaring, searing beauty, wonder, pleasure, joy, adventure, peace and satisfying love which the future He has purposed for us all in Christ will bring – a glory which, in truth, simply no amount of human words could ever start to adequately convey?

Isn’t that the imagery which Paul himself employed? “Now we see through a glass darkly,” he wrote. Of course. He meant not ‘glass’ as we now understand the term, as if we were somehow peering ahead through a dirty pane of glass: he meant instead the sort of vaguely mirror-image which some beaten, polished metal might create.

We have no way of knowing what the beauty, joy and pleasures of that ‘best’ that’s still to come will actually be like – other than by ‘mirrors’: the poor and rough reflection, on some beaten, burnished bronze, of things too altogether bright and full of glory for our hearts and minds to even start to comprehend.

The people, places, pleasures, which still to this day evoke in our hearts a hungry, aching yearning for we hardly know quite what, but whose intoxicating fragrances we caught a momentary breath of in the past – such memories, perhaps, in the kind and gracious providence of God, are that beaten, burnished mirror-image ‘echo’ of the ‘great dance’ of eternity: God’s whispering heralds of heaven, assuring our hearts that the best is indeed still to come – the freedoms and fun, the delights, the adventures, the rest, the rejoicing, the laughter, the love. And the Lamb: for through it all, and in it all, and in some way His being Himself it all, there is at last the Lord.

May we learn to use our memory, and memories, aright, and by rightly looking back with growing gratitude to God be able to look forward too with a surging, eager hope and real expectancy! The best is indeed still to come!

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton