Painful Memories

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We all have memories—some happy, some not so happy. 

Here’s what made me think of it. Some of us were on a church retreat once and that particular morning we agreed to talk about our memories. Among us was an elderly gentleman who had spent the War years in Europe. He shared some of his experiences in a Nazi prison camp. Here is a summary of one of his stories:

The emotional pain rivaled the physical pain. Hunger was our constant companion. In the day time, we worked in a nearby ammunition plant. Once, when we were led back to our camp, we passed the entrance to the camp kitchen. Through an open door, I saw a table on which sat a pile of sliced bread. I dashed in and took a slice, my judgment blurred by terrible hunger. But then the tragic complication…the man behind me, as he saw me, also ran in and took a slice. Just then a camp guard passed by and saw him doing it. As prisoners, we were all positioned around the camp square where we watched that prisoner being executed.

We all felt the emotional weight of this man’s experience.  He had not only witnessed a terribly tragic event, he had been part of it. After a long silence I had to ask the question… “And do you now feel that somewhere you are co-responsible for this man death?” “I don’t know”, he said, “but if I had not taken that slice of bread…”

We have memories of events that are complicated, events that have ethical elements to them, events that have negative implications, events of which we are part perhaps for no other reason than just being there. And with the memories come feelings. One of them may be guilt. Were we co-responsible? Could we have played a more virtuous role? Should we have spoken up? Good people cannot always avoid being drawn into collective guilt. And sometimes situations arise that are in themselves deeply personal, enhancing the reality of guilt-experience. And have not our spiritual leaders cautioned us not to find excuses, but to confess sin, own up to sin…? The evil of Nazi concentration camps was indeed the constant emphasis on the inmates’ unworthiness, their badness. Within the terrible moral limitations of those camp realities—messy realities—our man had to pick his way. And he experienced failure, fear…

But then the beauty of grace made its entrance! Someone among us read from 2 Corinthians 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses but we have one who is tempted  in every way, just as we are…”

Our Savior Jesus Christ is also our High Priest, able and willing to sympathize with us. He will be with us in every painful memory. Does He remove them? No, but it does mean that we have Company as we read our memories, very sympathetic Company.

All of that involves a bit of a challenge. Our memories need to be transformed In Christ. We need not allow the pain of memories to continue to have their way unchecked. We must share them with Jesus. In him they lose their sting: sanctified memories! And that is part of what it means to mature in Christ.

All of this embodies a challenge.

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Thank-you for sharing this story.
Thank-you for telling us that a church retreat can have this depth of realness.
Thank-you for asking him the hard question and helping him put the pain into words.
It is true what you say about the possibility of our beautiful Jesus coming into our memories and transforming them. I have experienced this healing over and over in my own journey.