Holy Amnesia and Thanksgiving: They go together. Of course.

November 24, 2010

Faith & Spirtuality

By Charles Redfern

This week, our nation will again heed President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 call: “It has seemed to me fit and proper that we should solemnly, reverently, and gratefully stuff ourselves to the gills with turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberries, pumpkin pie, pecan pie – and more turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries, pumpkin and pecan pie – and thence park ourselves before a television like dead cement trucks and look upon the forever hopeful Detroit Lions through closed eyelids, which will open only if someone turns it off, whereupon we shall scream: ‘I was watching that!  What’s the score ..?’”

Lincoln’s title for this great celebration was, of course, “Turkey Day,” in honor of the Pilgrim’s original meal of cod, eel, clams, oysters, lobster, goose, duck, venison, varieties of fowl, leaks and parsnips – among other things.  We’re not so gauche, so we’ve defied him and call it a “great day of Thanksgiving” – a label prompting questions between our denied cat naps: Why not make thanksgiving and gratefulness a lifestyle (minus the calories)?  Why not free ourselves from postmodernity’s bitter grip and stand in awe once more?

A New Testament passage suggests it can happen – as long as we agree to unlearn much of what we’ve learned.  We would become forgetful.  We would catch a lovely disease: “Holy Amnesia.”  The Apostle Paul said as much in Philippians 3.  He described his life as a legalistic Pharisee and Christianity’s nemesis, then dictated verses 13-14: “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it (perfection in the Christian walk).  But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (emphasis added).

Obviously, I’m employing hyperbole (the biblical writers do it …):  Paul vividly remembers his culpable past.  Ralph Martin explains: “To forget, in the biblical sense of the word, is not just simply to obliterate from the mind (if that is indeed possible).  It is rather the opposite of ‘remembering’ (anamnesis), which, as a biblical term, carries the important dynamic meaning of recalling from the past into the present of an action which lies buried in history, in such a way that the result of the past action is made potently present.”  To explain Martin’s explanation: A mother constantly browbeats her son.  The boy grows up and vows he’ll never marry because all wives brow-beat innocent children.  His past is reaching into his present and enslaving him.

Paul refuses to be so confined.  His deeds were terrible, but God’s forgiveness has freed him.

The relevance

Psychological anchors drag down many: “Dad treated me horribly.  Mom never understood me.  My spouse never listened.”  If only they knew “Mary,” (not her real name), a hilarious, kick-boxing, drop-dead gorgeous, ice-cubes-to-Eskimo sales fireball – and grandmother – who befriended me during my pathetic stint in corporate sales.  Yes.  I once knew a dazzling, kick-boxing grandmother who could have leapt off the movie screen.  And Mary had a past: Her husband had beaten her and left her for another woman while their church took his side.  She could have sulked like an anchor-laden loser.  But she didn’t.  She “forgot” in the biblical sense.

She once tried giving me sales tips (item number one: trash the constant hang-dog look).  I responded with a litany of excuses: I was under a-lot-a pressure … people were mean to me … my childhood … my adolescence … my early adulthood … my this …  my that.  She replied with the patience of a rabid wolverine: “Will you let those statements govern you?  Will your past determine your present?  Will you let others determine who you are?”  She actually shook her finger.

I discerned my role in this conversation: Listen.  Absolutely no talking.

The irony: I was the supposedly “mature” Christian – a pastor, even.  I was serving a church claiming the Spirit’s power but composed of anchor-collecting members peeling off their excuses: the pressure … people were mean … childhood … adolescence … early adulthood … their this … their that.  Why would Mary, who “forgot” her past through her own discipline, even want to come within five miles of such a church?  She’d smell its spiritual aroma and hack.

Against the grain

“Holy Amnesia” spoils psychological theories holding that we should constantly recall our traumas in the couch of a therapist.  Research in 1952 suggested such approaches didn’t work, but it was buried and forgotten in academia’s ivy-covered libraries.  A New York Times Sunday Magazine article told the story of Dusty Miller, who was abused as a child but led a fairly normal life until she went to a therapist.  She was mush after her hour-long visits; she went on spending sprees (she had never done that before); and, after a year, she was running low-grade fever with aching joints.  She got better when she stopped the therapy and took up tennis.  Miller is now a therapist who helps people free themselves from past trauma.  Dwelling in our ordeals can feed the beast – or, to put in New Testament language, it forms a foothold for the devil (Ephesians 4:27).

There are times when we should recall our past.  I remember “Jim,” who craved deeper intimacy with God but couldn’t see beyond the huge old man pointing a crooked finger beneath a searing glare.  A counselor guided him through his own, unprobed history.  Voila: Mom and Dad had bequeathed him their image.  Good-bye to a life of fear.  Hello to a life of thanksgiving and praise.

A bird in the sky

Jim had to remember so he could forget – or, more accurately, so he could forgive, which is so essential to holy amnesia.  Philip Yancy lit up the word’s depth for me in Whatever Happened to Grace when he said it means “to let go.”  A picture formed of a huge bird breathlessly flapping its immense wings over a river.  It could not rise because its talons clung to a tremendous weight.  Then it let go.  The weight splashed and the bird soared.

I couldn’t help but ask as I watched the bird fade into the sky:  How often have I skimmed the surface when I could have soared?  How often have I foolishly clung to my “right to be angry?”  Why hold on to such a damaging “right”?  I don’t exercise my “right” to smoke because smoking may kill me.  The joke’s on me when I bare-knuckle my “rights” and hold on to my resentments.  Let go of those rights.  Forgive – especially the “big” sins.  They weigh the most.  Use the precious gift of forgiveness and watch those huge weights splash into the water.  Soar into the life of eternal thanksgiving.

The role of the past

Holy amnesia rids us of the past’s hegemony and transforms it into a treasure chest of wisdom.  We can strain toward what is ahead (Philippians 3:13).  We can press on to win the prize (verse 14).  We can grab hold of the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ our Lord (verse 8).  We vault from a life of explanations and excuses to a life of adventure, rising and rising in the vibrancy of the spirit.  Each day can yield moments for gratefulness.

Meanwhile, pass the mashed potatoes … and the dark meat … and the string beans with small onions … and more dark meat … And I would root for the Lions, except they’re playing the Patriots this year – and everyone knows that Lincoln rooted for New England.

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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