Scripture for this Sunday: Ezekiel 37:1-14 (the dry bones); Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45 (the raising of Lazarus).
My sister sent a birthday card to my wife. On the front, it said, “I remember when rock was young.” On the inside, it said, “But I can’t remember why I came upstairs.”
Memory is precious: it gives us identity, and we grieve the loss of it. Memory in many ways defines who we are. Lose it, and our identity is threatened. But what if we could selectively remove things that are painful from our memory?
I heard a neuroscientist from California, James McGaugh, talking about the possibility that with appropriate drugs it might be possible to do so. Now the idea has some merit: post traumatic stress disorder and repressed memory syndrome are linked to the way in which we remember traumatic events, and so the idea is that some level of healing might be possible if the memory could be manipulated. It sounds like an admirable idea.
But what would it be like if we really could selectively erase memories? Would the eradication of pain carry the penalty of loss of identity? Each step of our history has defined us. Good or bad, the things that happen, and the way that we react to them, help to make us who we are.
There is also the role that healing has in shaping and forming us. We are offered the transforming grace by which pain and suffering can be taken and applied to the benefit of others: the spirit-breath of God blowing fresh life into the dry bones of wounded and afflicted human life.
Healing comes not from denial, from trying to forget, but from accepting and striving to work with God; allowing ourselves to be healed, and in turn to become agents of healing for others. Jesus understood this well. In healing Lazarus, he had first to experience the grief and anguish of Mary and Martha, as well as his own sadness, but then face the consequences: the raising of Lazarus sealed the fate of Jesus.
Yet in this ultimate irony – that in giving life to someone else, Jesus gave up his own life – there is a pearl of hope, and it is the new life of resurrection. If Jesus could overcome what he endured on the cross, and not forget it, but find reconciliation and transformation, then there is hope that God can use the pain that we experience, that seems intrinsic to the human condition, to reach out and touch our hearts and souls. God can renew us as individuals and as the collective people of God – people who have scars and wounds, who have known pain, but pain that God knows, too.
If offered the choice of selectively removing some of the painful memories of my own life, I would politely decline the offer. Even painful memories bring good – or at least, they can. Healing comes in the acceptance of what has happened together with faith in the transforming power of God’s grace.