One Sunday after church, I went to a local home for the elderly and brought communion to those who couldn’t join us at worship because of illness, age, or debilitating issues. That first visit was strange, awkward, and nearly comical—I stumbled through the motions of giving, dropped a piece of the body, and also recited the wrong scriptures. It was, by any account, a bit of a holy mess.
When I got home, I reflected on the incident in my journal. I wrote about my foibles and unpreparedness at seeing people suffering from dementia engaged in something so timeless and pregnant with meaning. I recorded my bumbling motions and words, the awkwardness and shame of being so able in body and mind in the face of men and women far removed from independence. I wrote about the joy of watching people recite, sip, and chew. I noted the supreme irony: people forget their names, locations, and children’s faces, but they remember the Lord’s Prayer. I remarked on the power attached to remembering.
Holocaust survivor and novelist Elie Wiesel once observed a characteristic of God that still stuns me with its simplicity, depth, and beauty: “God is God because he remembers.” Think about that for a moment. God not only feels your pulse and the pulse of all created things, but the pulse of every movement ever lived by each created thing. God remembers.
As Christians we’re trained from an early age to cultivate daily practices that lead us into a stronger relationship with Christ. We buy books, movies, and how-to manuals on faith. We wake early to pray or read the Bible. We volunteer at church or with charities. All of these things we consider to be distinctly Christian ways of living in the world, and they are good. But I wonder if they help us remember—and become more like God through remembering. If so, how?
Wiesel’s observation set me on a path of keeping a record of my life, some way to account for the time entrusted to me. The impulse itself is a response to something ancient, like the command in the Psalms: “Teach us to number our days,” (Ps. 90:12) or even that of Isaiah: “Now go and write down these words. Write them in a book. They will stand until the end of time as a witness” (Isa. 30:8 NLT).
Perhaps I took these commands in Scripture too literally. I went ahead and journaled like a maniac. Of course, compared to God’s memory, my record is tainted by my own limited vision. It’s erratic and can’t be totally trusted, but that’s all right: My work contemplating and recording my life and thoughts each day isn’t diminished by my limitedness. In fact, I think it may be enhanced by those limitations. My journal entries are prayers, petitions, complaints, mournings, and amazements at the life I live—a life cherished by God, which makes it worth the record. This act of daily writing allows me to live from a place of devotion and hope.
Creating helps me keep attention: If I’m attentive, then I see people as God sees them.
When I was a child, I reasoned like a child: I kept a journal because I wanted the world to understand me, and I wanted to understand it. I’ve since given up on this pursuit and come to learn that the only way for me to understand the memory of God is to record the love and pain I feel and see in the world—to note that the kingdom of heaven in me is one that’s constantly being renewed by God, and that the kingdom of heaven in the world is ever increasing, bit by bit.
I’ve tried my best to pass this idea on—to give creatively as much as I engage creatively. Since my children were toddlers, they’ve been keeping journals, first drawing pictures of what they saw and felt, and now beginning to use their words for expression and observation. We’ll often sit together at the kitchen table recording ourselves. I figure that the best way I can teach my children to love the world as God does is to give them this skill. Whether or not it will pay off remains to be seen, but that’s no matter, because I’ve already become a better father than I was by trying to instill the practice itself. Through journaling, I’ve been engaging with my kids in a way I wasn’t before. Creating in this way helps me keep attention: If I’m attentive, then I see people as God sees them. If I see people as God sees them, I love them. If I love them, I believe. The cycle of attention is a cycle of love.
Perhaps there’s some creative discipline in your life that you’ve grown with that calms your mind and helps you remember—who you are, where you’ve come from, and where you want to go. Maybe each day you sew or needlepoint. Maybe you love an uninterrupted Saturday morning to work on the engine of your car. These things are creative—done by hand, engaging the mind, and adding to the world and your sense of identity in it. They’re also acts of remembering, right? They weren’t skills you were born with; they were taught. And as you rehearse them, it’s possible to be mindful and grateful—to be attentive to God and the person who came before you, both of whom enabled who to inherit such a skill. When you create as an intentional spiritual practice, you grow in love for God and the world that God so loved. Perhaps it’s time for you to pass along that skill to someone outside your comfort zone, someone who might need it.
Long after we’ve lived together, long after we’ve forgotten our names, the names of our children—long after people have forgotten our names—perhaps that thing we’ve made will still be living out its days. And someone like us—someone longing to understand God and the way God remembers—will record it, or paint it, or live in it, or live with it. And it will become part of what they remember.
Illustrations by Mark Weaver