The Role of Memory in Worship

Guest Author: Benjamin Williams

We are what we remember. Perhaps this is why we are so devastated by a disease like Alzheimer’s or a condition like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We are devastated when memory does not work right.

Given that memory is so important, it is understandable that it would play a large role in worship and spiritual life. Think about how much we do in Christianity that is aimed at remembering together. The communion that we share is a “memorial.” Our sermons are usually more about “calling things to remembrance” than exposing some new truth. Our prayers are about remembering those in need and recalling the praiseworthy acts of God in our lives.

With that in mind, we can start to understand the fear expressed in Psalm 137 during the calamity of Jerusalem’s fall to the Babylonians.

How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! (Psalm 137:4-5)

The city had been leveled and the temple destroyed. All that remained was a memory, but what if that too was lost? Many ancient peoples never reclaimed their national identity after a conquest (just ask the Samaritans), and these Hebrew captives seem to fear that their history, now destroyed, might also be forgotten. The solution was to maintain memory for future generations in song. Within Book V of the Psalms is a sub-collection called the Songs of Ascent (Psalm 120-134). The Songs of Ascent were collected from various periods of Israel’s history. For example, Psalm 120 sounds like an exile song (“I sojourn in Meshech”), while Psalm 122 sounds like a pre-exilic song (“Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem”). The collection as a whole seems to be put together during or after the exile as a way to preserve the important memories. When you read them, you are seeing God at work among a people trying to maintain their memory. Their success is a powerful historical fact. The Hebrews come out of captivity with a robust sense of their own identity, and the songs they sang seem to have played a large role in that effort.

In the New Testament, Christians also pass on important memory through song.

The saying is trustworthy, for:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
If we endure, we will also reign with him;
If we deny him, he also will deny us;
If we are faithless, he remains faithful
— For he cannot deny himself.
Remind them of these things …

(2 Timothy 2:11-14)

Think of how this little hymn could be brought to remembrance in the face of need and crisis. How often Christians facing persecution must have whispered these words: “If we have died with him, we will also live with him.” The memory of song became a support for faith when all else faded away.

Today, our songs of worship not only point upward in praise, but they are also ways of sharing and passing memory to each other, even across generations. The young in our churches need to understand that old songs are the voice of those who have gone before us passing down memory to us. Likewise, our older Christians need to understand that new songs are connected to fresh memories in the lives of Christians today. It is not about old or new. It is about remembering the right things.

“The Lord’s my Shepherd; I’ll not want: He makes me down to lie In pastures green, He leadeth me In pastures green, He leadeth me The quiet waters by.” Think about what is happening when we sing this common hymn. This is a roughly 3000 year old psalm put into English verse in the Scottish Psalter 410 years ago and set to the music that we use today 160 years ago. We are passing down an ancient memory that still works to shape spiritual life today.

“Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; Shine thru the gloom, and point me to the skies; Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me!” This song, even with its archaic pronouns from before 1847, still powerfully speaks to a Christian conviction. Singing it connects us to those that have shared faith in the Abiding God in generations past.

“I heard an old, old story, How a Savior came from glory, How He gave his life on Calvary To save a wretch like me;” Many of our elderly church members remember this as a “new song” when they were young. It was written in 1939. Today, the old song about the old story transports them back in time to their spiritual youth while at the same time bringing forward the voice of a passing generation.

“You are the words and the music. You are the song that I sing. You are the melody, You are the harmony, Praise to Your name I will bring. You are the Lord of lords, You are the mighty God, You are the King of all kings, So now I give back to You the songs that You gave to me, You are the song that I sing.” This more modern song, written in 1984, is a favorite devotional song for a lot of us. Making it part of our regular song service helps to continue the powerful memory of a night around a camp fire with Christian friends or perhaps of an important devotional that made us think more seriously about our faith.

Memory plays a critical role in spiritual life, and the songs we sing in worship transport those memories. As James Hastings wrote, “In the cavernous recesses of memory, as well as in the vast universe outside, dwells the Divine Spirit, and if we cannot find Him in that inner chamber, it will do us little good to find Him elsewhere” (Hastings, Great Texts, 5).

“I will soar, then, beyond this power of my nature also, still rising by degrees toward him who made me. And I enter the fields and spacious halls of memory, where are stored as treasures the countless images that have been brought into them from all manner of things by the senses” (Augustine, Confessions X.viii.12).

Benjamin Williams attended the University of Oklahoma, and upon graduating from college with a B.S. in Astrophysics, he began full-time work as a minister. He currently works with the Glenpool Church of Christ in Glenpool, OK and is director of the “Faith Week” session at Frog Road Christian Camp near Lake Keystone. He and his wife, Selene, and their son, Lucas, live in the Tulsa area.

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