In the later years of his life, the great 19th century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson suffered from an increasingly faulty memory. When things would slip his mind, he complained of his "naughty memory," as he called it. Sometimes Emerson would forget the names of different objects. In order to speak of them, he would refer to them in a round-about way. For instance, when he could not think of the word "plow," he would call it "the implement that cultivates the soil." More important was the fact that he could not remember the names of people who were quite familiar to him. At the funeral of his friend, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Emerson commented to another person, "That gentleman has a sweet, beautiful soul, but I have entirely forgotten his name."
The loss of memory is a sad thing. It cuts us off from days gone by. It strips away the treasured residue of past experience. It erases our personal history and leaves us unaccountably blank pages. Not long ago I was visiting in the home of a delightful older woman. Periodically in the course of our conversation she would stop and -- after a moment's silence -- would remark, "I've forgotten what I was going to say." After this happened several times she confessed, "It's so humiliating to have your memory go bad." Certainly it is unfortunate, inconvenient and at times embarrassing not to remember. Yet without a doubt, for some people the failure of memory is largely unavoidable.
That is not always the case. Sometimes we are forgetful because we neglect that which has gone before us and become inattentive to those who have preceded us. We center all of our attention only on our own time and place. We act as though the present is all that matters and the past is some shabby thing that can be safely cast off and left behind like a worn-out pair of shoes.
Here we are with Memorial Day upon us. On this occasion we are called upon to remember and respect those who have died, those whose days are gone. It is no surprise to us that many people do not reflect upon the past during this holiday any more than they do on any other day. In our age of ever-accelerating change, we don't tend to look to the past to find our wisdom. We view what "has been" as largely irrelevant to what is now. The ancients are not our models. We place little value in traditions and inherited customs. And so when Memorial Day rolls around, our thoughts do not automatically turn to the past and to the departed. Most people appreciate Memorial Day largely because it is an extra day off work.
My purpose is not to be an advocate for a renewed practice of Memorial Day. This holiday is not expressly religious. It is secular. Nevertheless, it can serve to promote a value that is elevated throughout the Scriptures, that value being the importance of remembrance. You see, a failure of memory is not just something which leads to personal inconvenience or social embarrassment. It is a spiritual danger. A failure of memory in those things which are most significant results in a failure of faith. Forgetfulness erodes the foundation of our relationship with God.