Seminary professor Judy L. Fentress-Williams '84 explores the importance of remembering.

Following is the text of the memorial address given by Judy L. Fentress-Williams ’84 at the Service of Remembrance Feb. 21, 2009, at the University Chapel.

When I was an undergraduate, we had a number of occasions to encounter alumni as they visited campus. One consistent memory was of the alumnus with his family in tow, wife with that expression of intent interest to a story she had memorized long ago, teenage children looking slightly annoyed or distracted, as Dad took them from place to place, recalling the names of buildings and recounting his experiences there, marveling at the new structures, and engaging any unsuspecting undergraduate that he could. I remember thinking to myself; I will never be that guy …

And there we were this morning, walking with our children on campus. Calling out the names of buildings, telling stories about our experiences here when it came to me – I am that guy.

Now there is nothing wrong with sharing stories about a time that was so central to our formation as adults, and it is a good thing that so many of those memories are positive. Memory is central to our identity. Our personhood is shaped and formed in communities and when we remember, we affirm and reclaim parts of ourselves. Now I understand that those alums who took their families around campus were reclaiming a part of themselves that had receded to the background.

Ancient Israel understood the importance of remembering – the word is zacar – and this word in its verbal form means “to remember.” It is also the root for words like monument and memorial, like the service we are having today. In its usage, this word applies to the actions of people and God. For people, the word remember connotes calling to mind, but this remembering is not intended to be limited to cognitive activity.  

To the contrary, remembering in the Hebrew Bible is for a purpose – to evoke a feeling or thought that moves us to action. An example comes in the book of Deuteronomy. When Moses commands the people to remember the teachings of the Torah, the goal is not simply to bring those teachings to mind, but to be moved to action and abide by them. This act of remembering is central then not only to Israel’s identity but to her survival. She remembers who she is by telling and retelling her story. Just like our alumni on campus.

A challenge to the act of remembering is the human tendency to forget. Even with the best of intentions, the vast majority of us cannot remember everything. Details elude us and specifics become fuzzy. The fact is even when we want to remember, we sometimes forget.

Another challenge to the act of remembering is our tendency towards selective memory. We live and work in a culture that encourages us to focus on our achievements. We celebrate victories and downplay the setbacks. Think back to the college admission process:

--Your application stated that you were the vice-president of the student body. What it didn’t state was that you came to that position as runner-up for president.

-- Your first resume demonstrates your initiative by listing you as the founder of XYZ club, when in fact the only reason you founded the club was because you couldn’t get into leadership in an existing group.

-- When you make your case to your employer for a raise, you start off with a list of your successes, even if that success came as a fourth or fifth attempt.

-- We are shaped in a culture that values and celebrates winning.

Here the call to remember in the Hebrew Bible challenges us because this story is often brutally honest in that it includes the moments of despair and uncertainty alongside those of joy and triumph. One of the ways the story is remembered is through liturgy. There are certain days set aside to remember and commemorate moments in the life of Israel.

So we come to the book of Lamentations – one of five books that are known as the megilloth, or festival scrolls. Each of these books is associated with a holy day in the Jewish liturgical calendar. With a name like Lamentations, it’s fairly safe to assume that this book is associated with a time of sorrow in the story of Israel. And so, it is most appropriate that Lamentations is one of our readings today. This book is a literary and liturgical memorial to loss. It is a reminder to its earliest hearers and to us that we will experience loss and sorrow, and that there is value in setting aside time to remember what we have lost.

The five poems in the book of Lamentations are acrostic poems – they go through the alphabet – loss from a-z. To a culture of winners, this book is a literary witness to the fact that our success cannot be separated from our failures and our joys are inextricably tied to our sorrow. The beautiful thing about writing is the space in between the words and the lines. Lamentations is that space that reminds us that the happy memories of our undergraduate life are tied to experiences that are painful or cause us to regret. The liturgical space of a memorial service reminds us that a large part of who we are, and many of the blessings we enjoy, are because of people who are no longer with us and so we remember them – we celebrate their lives and we mourn our loss.

To a culture that selectively remembers winning and success, Lamentations calls us to another type of selective, intentional memory. It reminds us that our stories and our identities are incomplete if we don’t take time to remember our loss. But in the midst of that memorial to loss there is another selected memory. Our reading this morning comes from the middle of the chapter in the middle of the book. At the literary “ground zero” of lament, the writer says,

“but this do I call to mind. Therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD has not ended. God’s mercies are not spent. They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness.”

In other words, the writer is intentionally selecting another memory – and that is the memory of God’s faithfulness. What is consistent in the ebb and flow of our lives is this thing – the faithfulness of God – and so the writer is essentially doing the spiritual equivalent of looking at a figure ground image – the pictures where you can see one of two things. One famous example is the image that can be perceived as a vase or two faces, depending on whether you focus on the white outline or the black. Or like the “I Spy” children’s book series where you have to find the listed items on a page covered with images. You must train your eyes to find the desired item. In our spiritual lives, we must choose to find God’s faithfulness in the stories of our lives.  

As we remember those who are no longer with us, we remember that the God who created us is faithful and for this reason, we look to each new morning for a manifestation of God’s mercies, because God’s mercies are great.

Judy L. Fentress-Williams ’84 is associate professor of Old Testament, Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, Va.