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Remembering Life’s Journey

I have not seen the movie Barbie, and most likely never will. But I have two daughters who, when they were of an age that girls tend to play with dolls, had multiple iterations of Barbie. My most memorable interaction with those dolls is from walking into the room they shared and finding a Barbie head here and a Barbie leg there and a Barbie torso in the corner. It was like being on the set of a horror movie!

This experience subsequently bore rich fruit in my teaching ministry. I could point to the fact that Barbie had been dismembered. But anyone who is familiar with those dolls can testify that they are pretty easy to put back together. The various body parts just snap back on with a little push. In effect, the Barbie doll that had been so shockingly dismembered could be re-membered, restored to wholeness, revealed as the unified entity that she was made to be.

When Christians gather to celebrate the Eucharist, the word remember figures prominently. The presider pronounces the sacred Words of Institution, first over the bread, then over the wine: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Most of us reflexively presume that the antonym of remember is forget, but, thinking liturgically and sacramentally, it is, rather, dismember. As a consequence of sin entering the world through our primordial forebears, the bodies that are the outward and visible signs of our personhood are, sooner or later, subject to dismemberment, whether it is “worms” that “destroy this body” (Job 19:26) or the fire of the crematorium, or something else. As we make our journey toward that moment, it is presaged by innumerable anticipatory microcosms of itself: relationships that falter and fail, aspirations and plans that fade away like a mist, the very Law of Entropy that relentlessly dismembers the fragile order of human imagination and skill into brutal chaos.

The core of the Christian proclamation is that such dismemberment and chaos do not have the last word; God does. In Jesus Christ life, hope, and redemption are made available to us. In the moment when God raised Jesus from the dead, the script was flipped, the game was changed. God is about the project of remembering his creation, not in the sense of merely calling it to mind, but in the way I went about re-membering my daughters’ Barbie dolls back in the 1980s. And the home base for our participation in that work of remembering is the celebration of the Eucharist. When the dispersed members of the community of the baptized assemble for Word and Sacrament, the Body of Christ is re-membered.

We participate in Holy Communion, holy koinonia, with the Blessed Trinity and with one another. Again, the kind of remembering we do in the eucharistic liturgy is no mere calling something to mind, a reminiscence, “thinking good thoughts” about Christ and who he is and what he has done. Rather, the Greek word translated “remember” is anamnesis, and it carries a markedly richer meaning, one of “making present” that which is remembered, participating in its reality as if the barriers of time and space were transcended. When we “do this” in “remembrance” of the dying and rising of Christ, we are sharing in that dying and rising.

As I have been a steward of the Christian sacraments for nearly 34 years, and taught about them for even longer, part of what I have endeavored to communicate is that the sacraments are not self-contained, as if they were some sort of closed system. They are intimately and dynamically connected to the ordinary things that human beings do each day. Baptism is much more than a bath, but it is at least a bath (which is why some have said that a good baptismal font should look like it presents a credible risk of drowning). The Eucharist is more than a meal, but it is at least a meal, with a gathered community sharing in food and drink. The sacraments, in effect, are a feedback loop. The common (water, bread, wine, oil, touch) is taken up into the holy and thereby made holy.

Ideally, then, that which is thereby newly holy is welcomed back into our quotidian lives, infusing them with layers and dimensions of meaning that were not noticeably there before. If a baptism properly resembles a bath, then that experience should enable us to see in our regular daily ablutions a sign of rebirth and new life. If our celebration of the Eucharist properly resembles a meal, then the loop is closed when we are then prompted to recollect the Eucharist as we sit down for dinner at the dining room table … or perhaps even in a fast-food restaurant. This, I would suggest, is the perfection of anamnesis, the fruit of the work of remembering that lies at the heart of the Eucharist.

I have of late been afforded ample opportunity to close this “anamnetic loop” via the events of my personal life, events over which I have no control. Those who are familiar with some of my earlier contributions to this blog are aware that Brenda, my wife of 51 years, is well down the road of Alzheimer’s-caused dementia. I had to outsource her daily care to a nursing home in the spring of last year. When I visit her, it’s simply impossible to tell whether she knows who I am; she is still “present” affectively to some degree, but no longer verbal in any meaningful way, certainly not capable of engaging in a conversation.

As a result, of course, I have had to navigate a peculiar sort of grief. It’s grief because a loss has demonstrably occurred; I no longer have the companionship of my wife. It’s peculiar because that loss is continually in the present progressive tense — I have lost Brenda, to be sure, but I also am losing Brenda in unfolding real time. She will eventually die of her disease, and then I will have a temporal anchor from which I might “move on.” While she yet draws breath, my experience ends in -ing.

One of the works of divine grace in my life this year has been a series of trips, each one plausible in its own right without having to carry additional meaning, but that have invited and enabled me to pursue the work of re-membering Brenda, and our life together, in a way that flows directly out of a decades-long spiritual practice of being present at the Altar of God for the celebration of the Eucharist each Lord’s Day and holy day. I am not at all sure that I would have been able to perceive these experiences in the way I have apart from that eucharistic foundation, and precisely because of that foundation, they have been occasions of deep anamnesis for me.

In February, I drove from my home in Chicago down to Baton Rouge, in response to an invitation to visit and preach in one of the parishes I served there, as part of its 50-year anniversary celebration. To my delighted surprise, there were a number of parishioners who fondly recall my relatively brief stint as their pastor (three years, 1991-94), and it was a joy to worship with them in a lovely building that existed only in my dreams during the time I served there. Brenda’s partnership with me in that ministry was a core element in the remembering that took place in the parish hall between services. While in Baton Rouge, I took the time to drive and walk slowly around the neighborhoods we lived in, and the schools our children attended. I also visited the parish in the city where I began my ordained ministry in 1989, standing in the pulpit and at the altar there, letting the memories wash over me. Seeing these places triggered recollections of happy occasions and difficult occasions. Whenever I have dreams about an “intact” Brenda and the children we brought up, it seems like this is the era on which my psyche has imprinted, and marked as somehow normative. Being there was a hugely integrating experience.

In early April, I was in Salem, Oregon, from Wednesday in Holy Week until Easter Monday. Brenda and I lived in the Salem area between 1976 and 1986. Our two younger children were born there, and we became deeply engrained in the life and work of St. Timothy’s Church. Brenda and I both took a turn directing the choir, and I filled in at the organ on several occasions. I served a term on the vestry, ran the Christian Education program for a while, and it was there that I re-discerned my vocation to the priesthood and was eventually sent to seminary from the Diocese of Oregon. Brenda and I were both profoundly shaped by the liturgy and spirituality of that amazing parish — which, I am happy to say, continues to be amazing all these years later. It was at St Timothy’s that I first encountered the full observance of the Paschal Triduum as laid out in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and I was back there this year precisely to drink from that well, just as part of the congregation, because, while I may be biased, no place does it better.

But the Salem years also had their dark and stormy aspect. We were constantly on the brink of financial disaster, and I had more jobs than there were years to have them in. These realities produced relentless corrosive anxiety. Neither Brenda nor I were doing our best work as marriage partners, and I often wonder that we got through those years intact. So, in addition to attending the liturgies of Holy Week, I once again drove and walked — slowly, and, I would say, even prayerfully — through the areas where we lived, and places that were significant in our lives, sometimes stopping and recalling a difficult or tense exchange.

As I flew out of Oregon on Easter Monday, I had a deep sense of gratitude for having been there, both as a 2023 visitor and as a 1970s-80s resident, and I was curiously reluctant to even make that distinction in my mind. The visitor participated in the experiences of the resident in an anamnesis that was appropriately anchored in the liturgy of Maundy Thursday, which is in turn grounded in and participates in the foundational Eucharist in the Upper Room. Indeed, the rector’s homily that night triggered my imagination to see my trip as primarily anamnetic, as eucharistic.

Westmont College, my alma mater in Santa Barbara, invited the members of the Class of 1973 to mark the golden anniversary of our graduation by coming to campus for a series of events, and to walk once again in the commencement procession. I decided to attend, and made a road trip out of it. I stood in the spot where I first laid eyes on Brenda in the fall of 1969. I walked around campus and simply inhabited the memories of our (perhaps scandalously quick!) romance and courtship in the winter and spring of 1972. I drove to a bluff overlooking the beach and searched — with probable though not certain success — for the spot where we first said “I love you” to one another.

I walked by the places we lived, the hospital where our oldest child was born, and attended a liturgy in the church where we were both became Episcopalians (a huge step for a couple of Baptists at the time), where our daughter was baptized, and where I served as organist for more than two years. That weekend in Santa Barbara, where Brenda and I lived from our marriage in 1972 until our move to Oregon in 1976, was quite emotionally powerful — the apogee of my three spring journeys. I could feel everything I was recalling as if I were indeed … re-membering it all, making it present once again.

Before heading east, I first pointed my car north, to California’s central valley, where we lived in Stockton between 1994 and 2007. This was a rich and intense period of our life together. During that time, Brenda and I became empty nesters, as our two younger children headed off to college. I had an intense and challenging ministry as rector of the historic downtown parish. Beginning in 1998, and lasting until our departure, Brenda developed the finest traditionally oriented church choral program in the city, and we had people flocking to St. John’s, not because of my preaching or anything else I was doing, but in order to sing with Brenda! It was a golden era, before the full flowering of the tragic divisions that overwhelmed Episcopalians in the first decade of this century.

As was the case in our Oregon years, the Stockton era was not free of heartache. Brenda and I hit a rough patch around the turn of the millennium that seriously threatened to undo us. If the details were known, the survival, and subsequent thriving, of our marriage might be one of the most compelling tales in the history of human storytelling. Suffice it to say here that never have Brenda or I experienced such amazing and abundant divine grace. That time of difficulty turned out to be the catalyst for the happiest era of our marriage, and the happiest period of my life — the roughly 15 years from then until the onset of Brenda’s dementia symptoms in 2016. So, I did the same thing in Stockton that I had done in Baton Rouge, Salem, and Santa Barbara: by car and on foot, I simply allowed myself to be in the spots where both the challenges and the grace were multiplied and manifested. It was integrating. It was healing. It was anamnetic. It was eucharistic.

And the sacramental/liturgical feedback loop yet continues. The common is taken into the holy. The holy is presented back into the world of the common, but changed. And that altered “holy common” material is taken once again to the altar and offered in eucharistic sacrifice, part of “ourselves, our souls, and bodies.” Since returning from my last trip in May, my experience of the liturgy, both from the nave and when I have been privileged to be at the altar, has been palpably enlivened by the experiences and reflections that I have shared here. There are no topographical maps for grief. I cannot say what the shape of my journey will yet look like. But I give myself to what lies ahead, armed with confidence already born of experience that grace will reliably abound in a life lived eucharistically, that the sacramental economy will fund me with the resources by which I can remember Brenda even as she is being dismembered with agonizing slowness, while I watch, and in the promise that she and I are both already re-membered in the company of the saints.

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