Text: Isaiah 40:21-31
A memory is tricky. We remember a particular event that happened 20 years ago as if it was yesterday, but we have a hard time remembering what we did the day before yesterday. Some events linger longer in our memories than others, and we don’t get to choose what we will remember most. In fact, I find myself powerless and limited when it comes to my memory. I only remember what I can, and I can’t remember what I can’t.
For example, when I was young, I didn’t know how to put on socks. My aunt saw how I was doing, and thought that I was old enough to be able to do it by myself. One day, she suggested that if I could put on socks on my own, she would buy me black bean noodles, which was my favorite dish. I became motivated but still didn’t know how. One night I forgot to put my socks off before going to sleep. The next morning, I found myself still wearing the same socks. Craving the black bean noodles, I went to my aunt and exclaimed, “Look what I did aunt!” That was as far as I can remember. I can’t remember how she reacted to my lie, and whether she gave me the reward or not.
A memory is selective. No one can tell a whole story. Two people witness the same incident, but they can tell different stories depending on where they stand and what they see. Neuroscientists have shown that each time we remember something, we are reconstructing the event, reassembling it from traces throughout the brain. Psychologists have pointed out that we also supress memories that are painful or damaging to self-esteem.
Ken Eisold, psychoanalyst and author of What You Don’t Know You Know says that our memory is unreliable, adaptive and reshaping itself to accommodate the new situation we find ourselves facing.
So, what can we do about it? Eisold suggests that if we talk with each other regularly about our decisions, we will not only help each other to recall our thinking more accurately, we will probably think better as well. He admits that there is always the danger of groupthink – the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity or individual responsibility. But if we encourage disagreements and challenges, Eisold says, we are not only likely to avoid conformity but get better results.
I think he is pointing out a possibility, how our memory, despite its shortcoming, can help us create a better future.
Our ancestors of faith knew well the shortcoming of our memory, and the importance of reminders. The Bible is full of reminders of who God is and what God has done. Stories are retold over and over again through rituals. Jews celebrate Passover as a commemoration of their liberation by God from slavery in ancient Egypt and their freedom under the leadership of Moses. We Christians remember the life and the way of Christ by celebrating Holy Communion. The act of remembering, when it’s done properly, can help us achieve far more than we can ever imagine.
Isaiah evokes memories of God by asking “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?” Isaiah 40 is in the section of the book addressed to the people of Israel in exile in Babylon. The intention is to bring comfort and assure them of the complete and eternal promises of God at a time when those promises are hard to remember. People desperately cry out, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God?” The response is that God is always attentive and responsive to those who are faint and weary and without power.
Isaiah uses the two strong images, grasshoppers and eagles, to remind us of a possible transformation. Isaiah says that everyone on the earth, however strong and powerful they may look, is like a grasshopper. Yet, if we wait for the Lord, Isaiah assures, we can renew our strength, mount up with wings like eagles, run and not be weary, and walk and not faint.
Both a grasshopper and an eagle are fascinating and wonderful creatures. We can only imagine what Isaiah saw in them that speak about who we are or who we can become. Beside some magical facts about a grasshopper – such as its ability to jump 20 times its length or its five eyes, two characteristics stand out. During serious outbreaks, they eat anything – beans, roses, berries, anything. They can appear 2 or 3 years in a row or disappear for a decade.
Perhaps, its unpredictability and its ability to consume without limit can be compared to the weakness of human nature. It doesn’t take long to realize what caused the most pressing crisis humanity face today – the environmental and economic crisis; we human beings are unpredictable and we consume without limits, forgetting how much we rely on other species.
Eagles, on the other hand, are considered as sacred in many cultures and religions. In North American Indigenous culture, they represent honesty, truth, majesty, strength, courage, wisdom, power and freedom. As they roam the sky, they are believed to have a special connection to the Creator. The eagle’s eye is among the strongest in the animal kingdom. An eagle can spot a rabbit 3.2 km away.
I once encountered a bald eagle when I was walking in the park. All of sudden I felt like somebody was watching me or it was the realization that someone other than myself was real. I sensed that something sacred was manifested through that particular time and place. The ordinary place – I walk the park almost every day – became extraordinary with a deep sense of awe. I don’t remember anything else I saw or did on that day, but I do remember the very moment, and it feels like yesterday. What did the eagle have to do with my experience? I don’t know. But I do know that it was my experience of the holy, and it made an impact on me.
Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. That is God’s promise to be manifested in the creation. Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. Isaiah invites us to recall our memories of the holy. Isaiah is simply reminding us of the things we already knew but have forgotten, the things that we already experienced but have failed to remember: how we have been nurtured, fed, loved, and cared for by God through the whole creation.
We may not remember the details. In fact, none of us can tell the whole story. But we can help each other to recall our memories of how God has been working in and through our lives. Such acts of remembering can not only sustain us and our communities but also will continue to inspire us to create a better future for the whole creation. Let us be the living reminders for one another asking, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?”