"Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariots and horse, army and warrior. They lie down, they cannot rise. They are extinguished, quenched, like a wick. Remember not the former things. Behold, I am doing a new thing; do you not perceive it?"
What does it take to see a new thing while in exile? This is the context of the Israelites when Isaiah invites them to see something new springing forth in their midst. It is an invitation to go home, the hope of a second exodus from bondage. A return to the land promised and lost. A return to the status of chosen, blessed, free.
For decades they have lived in captivity, away from their homeland, separated from their customs and rituals, away from the place that gave them their identity and calling. They have lived in the humiliation of being captive, and they have been haunted by the memory of their spiritual infidelities which they believe have brought them to this place.
The words of the prophet must be a balm to their battered souls. It must feel like oil on the wounds of their hopes. "I am doing a new thing"--a new start. How enticing and how hopeful, yet the journey may not be a safe one. They may encounter dangers on this road. There is a risk in going back. Will the old place be as we have been told by our ancestors? Will we find the promised land or a place of plunder and destruction? Will the new be good or is it better to stay in this foreign place which is at least familiar? Better not to risk having hopes dashed for some prophet's promise of new life. And will guilt and shame be part of this journey? Will return to the land haunt rather than heal? Like Thomas Wolfe, they may recognize that you can't go home.
And how will they make this journey to the new? The prophet offers them a two-fold invitation, a two-fold vision: "Remember not the things of oldÃ‰behold I am doing a new thing; do you not perceive it?"
First, before they can perceive the new thing, they will need to "remember not."
Paul Tillich reminds us that growth always demands sacrifice; something must be left behind to accept the new. He writes, "If the new were part of the old, the prophet would not ask, 'Do you see it?,' for we already would. We cannot be born anew if the power of the old is not broken within us."
The power of the old must be broken. We must "remember not" if we are to perceive the new. I don't think the prophet means for us to have no memory. After all, these are the people who brought us covenant renewal. These are the people who had mantras such as, "Remember, you were slaves and God brought you out of Egypt and delivered you." People who proclaimed, "You will teach all of this to your children and your children's children." Israel knew the power of memory in helping the people remember that they were God's. Like a good Southerner, they remembered the power of the question, "Who's your Mama?" and you'd better know.
"Remember not" is not about the absence of memory. It is about finding freedom from memories which haunt us. Israel was haunted by their spiritual infidelities that they believed led to their exile. As such, they were not able to see themselves in a new way but only as the people who had failed God. That was their primary identity.
The prophet knows that energy consumed in haunting memories will limit their ability to perceive a future free and unbounded by their past. This will be Israel's challenge. They must find a new identity. They must perceive a new thing.
It is like the characters in Pat Conroy's book, THE PRINCE OF TIDES. They are haunted by memories that compromise the present and what they can perceive for the future. The irony is that many in the family do not want to talk about the past. The main character's mother says, "Why do you want to dwell on the past?" And yet it is obvious that the past's control is causing much pain and even insanity in one family member. They want to forget, but they do not know how to "remember not." They do not know how to lose the debilitating control of the past.
I remember a period of time in my own family history that was quite painful. I will simply say that it was a period in which many of us felt robbed of our dignity. I worked to keep it a secret for many years, for its memory was painful and not what I wanted people to know about me, lest in some way it affect their image of me. Its power was so strong that several years ago I was at a social event and saw a symbol of that period which caused me to feel abdominal physical pain.
A few months later, I was with my siblings and my brother brought out an object from that time. He placed it on a table we were gathered around and said, "It's time we deal with this, for this moment does not define who we are." I again felt the pain, and yet in their presence began to feel that perhaps it was time to offer up this period in a way that would begin to reduce its power over me. Perhaps there was a way, not so much to forget it, but to be freed from its power to haunt. For many years I thought I had these memories tucked away neatly, and yet my physical reaction told me they were anything but neat.
Israel will need to "remember not" the things of old. It does not mean they will have no memory, but that somehow they must offer up that memory to God so that it loses its power to haunt, so that they do not see themselves defined by it.
Remember notÃ‰ The first part of the prophet's call.
The second part of that call? "Do you not perceive it?" Given the prophet's words, we are reminded that there is no guarantee they are perceiving. How do we look for the new? How do we perceive the presence of the Spirit as it is springing forth?
In the film "American Beauty," Kevin Spacey plays a character living out the archetypal mid-life crisis. At one point in the movie he states that his wife and daughter think that he is this gigantic loser and he agrees with the assessment. He says, "They are right. I have lost something. I'm not exactly sure what it is, but I know I didn't always feel this sedated." He is a person whose choices at times leave much to be desired, yet one who is trying to wake up. He says, "I'm not exactly sure what I've lost, but it's never too late to get it back." He is trying to wake up to the present. He's trying to find a future.
Through the story, a picture haunts him. It is of him, his wife, and daughter at an earlier age beaming into the camera with all the hope and expected dreams of a young family. He asks, "How did we lose this?" He knows there is no going back and yet wonders, "Is it possible to find the life, the beauty NOW in some new way?"
In one scene, a neighbor's son is describing his love for his video camera and what it captures. He asks, "Do you want to see the most beautiful thing I have ever filmed?" It is the picture of a paper bag being tousled by the wind. As it moves around, caught in the wind's flow, he says, "The bag was just dancing, like a little kid begging me to play with it. That's the day I realized that there is this entire life behind things and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know that there is no reason to be afraid--ever. This video helps me to remember. I need to remember."
What does it take to remember that there is no reason to be afraid? What does it take to see beauty in things? What does it take to behold the new springing forth in our midst?
As Holy Week approaches, will this not be Jesus' task in the garden? Is this why he asks his friends to watch with him? Is he aware of what it will take for him to see the beauty, the new thing in what is before him?
Yet it seems that staying present is not all that perceiving requires. Do we not also need imagination? In his book A FAILURE OF NERVE, Edwin Friedman writes, "It can be said unequivocally that whenever anyone is in extremis--some kind of crisis--their chances of survival are far greater when their horizons are formed of projected images from their own imagination rather than being limited by what they can actually see." Imagination, seeing things which are not yet visible, the acceptance of mystery.
As we remember this weekend the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., do we not see one who had a tremendous capacity for imagination--one who knew how to "remember not" and behold that not yet seen? It is amazing to remember that his "I Have a Dream" speech came only months after he wrote his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." How does King "remember not" the beatings and jailings so that he can dream dreams and see visions? Surely, he had not denied the reality of the events around him. Yet amid the darkness, he is able to perceive the new thing in his midst. It was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that he proclaimed:
Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of excessive trials and tribulations, fresh from narrow jail cells, battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.
I say to you, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.
It is not that King forgets what has taken place or what will take place. It is that he has chosen to "remember not"; that is, he will not use those memories as the feed trough for bitterness. He will not let their memory control or compromise his imagination.
Here is one staying present, not clinging to the old, but imagining more than can be seen. Here is one whose horizon is not limited by what is visible, one who is able to say to us all, "Behold, I see a new thing. Do you not perceive it?"
What does it take to imagine? What does it take to perceive a new thing?
We are about to enter Holy Week. Is the Cross an experience of "remember not"? Jesus will have to offer all his memory, his calling, his friends, his family, and his religious tradition on the cross. The Friday event will be such a new thing that there will be no room for anything old to get in the way. That which can be seen is very limited. It will demand all of his ability to stay present, to dream, and to have horizons beyond what he can see.
"Why have you forsaken me?" will be his response to what he can see.
How will he stay present? How will he "remember not"? What will it take for him to have imagination and step into the mystery of the new thing springing forth in his midst?
As we enter Holy Week and find our own crosses, we too will be confronted with the call of the prophet, "Remember not the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; do you not perceive it?"
What will it take for us to "remember not?" What will it take for us to perceive this new thing springing forth in our midst?
Let us pray.
O God, you call us to behold the new. Give us courage to remember not and to perceive what is springing forth in our midst. Amen.