Memory flashes and the knock of Jesus

By Andrew Thompson

Scientists tell us that certain powerful experiences can get “seared into our brains” so that we remember them more vividly than the normal day-to-day. Journalist Bridget Murray Law wrote about them last year in the Monitor on Psychology. These experiences are called “flashbulb memories,” and they explain why some people can remember so vividly where they were and what they were doing when, for instance, they heard that John F. Kennedy was shot or when they first saw images of the twin towers of the World Trade Center falling down.

Flashbulb memories don’t have to be about profound events in the world’s eyes, but they are profound to us when we have them. I remember vividly the first time I took a ride on an airplane after I was old enough to realize what was going on. I filed onto the plane with the rest of the passengers, buckled in, and listened to the flight attendant give her spiel. Then the reality of what was about to happen hit me: I was sitting in a giant metal tube that would shortly be traveling at 500 miles an hour, 30,000 feet above the ground. We taxied down the runway, and I grabbed the armrests of my seat so hard I put permanent indentions in them.

The thing about flashbulb memories is that they happen to us when we encounter the world in a way that makes us realize how unpredictable it is, how weak we are, and how much of our lives is subject to chance. We live in world of sharp corners and hard edges.

What happens, though, when all of our lives threaten to become a series of flashbulb memories? There is a famous Dorothea Lange photograph from the Dust Bowl era in the 1930s with the title “Migrant Mother.” It shows a farmwoman named Florence Thompson with two young children huddled against her. The children’s faces are turned away, but hers is not. And she is looking past the camera lens with a thousand-yard stare, wrinkles of worry and age etched into her face. (The photograph is catalogued in the Library of Congress under the title, “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.”)

It is a picture of poverty. Literal, material poverty. Florence Thompson had clearly endured a life of one flashbulb memory after another so that her very face was her witness.

Few of us have known that kind of poverty or are even liable to. But just as that “migrant mother” lived through one kind of dustbowl, I wonder if we aren’t living through another. The irony is that the same culture that was once so poor is — for Methodist folk like us — oftentimes the opposite now. But in our material wealth we know that spiritual poverty, if not deadly to the body, is at least deadly to the soul. It is deadly to our souls, and it is deadly to the church’s soul.

What I’m talking about here is a kind of malaise. It is the malaise of the Laodiceans in the Book of Revelation, who were neither hot nor cold but just lukewarm and soupy (see Revelation 3:14-16).

We are Christian people. We know we have been bought — at a price — and we have read that we are a redeemed people, a restored people, a people reborn by the Spirit.

We’re also a Methodist people. And we know we are to be more than a church — we are to be a movement. But we often feel as if we’re moving through mud.

Our problem is not that we don’t have the visible edifice of the church out there in the world. There are more United Methodist churches in more counties in this country than any of our denominational cousins. Our problem is also not that we don’t have the right marketing slogan, or the right website, or the right “programs” to draw in more people.

No, our problem is of a different order. Our problem is that we’re not quite sure that God can do with us what he has done in the past. It’s a handwringing problem. We don’t wonder where the next handful of grain is coming from to feed our children; we wonder where the next handful of grace is coming from to feed our souls. It’s like we’re having a series of flashbulb memories of a church losing its vitality. So we cry out (and if you’re not, then for God’s sake cry out!) for the assurance that God is here, that Christ is present, and that the Holy Spirit is with us!

The time between the times

As United Methodist folk, we might do well to remember that our founder himself faced something not so different once upon a time. And I don’t have to recount the great story of Aldersgate to remind you that John Wesley found it in one place and one alone: that Christ has died for us, even us, and has saved us from the law of sin and death. He found an encounter with the living God.

The Book of Hebrews in its opening chapters tries to counsel us about how to understand the world that we find ourselves in. God became man so that we who are men and women might know the grace he has imparted to the flesh of all mankind. This unruly world, and all demonic forces, and all sin have been put in subjection to the One who is both Lord and Savior.

And yet when we look around us (and when we look within us), things don’t seem to be exactly “subjected.” They seem to be pretty troubled. We hear of wars and of rumors of wars, and we know firsthand the pain of loss and disease and death. We sin, and we seem to live in a world still bound by the power of sin.

Friends, it is an illusion. Hebrews testifies to it. Our vision is still cloudy, because not everything has been revealed as it will be. We live in the “time between the times,” as some have put it, after the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ but before his return when all things will be made new. And so we “do not yet see everything in subjection,” Hebrews says. But says the Scripture — and here’s a “but” that makes all the difference — we do see Jesus.

“We do see Jesus,” the Scripture says, “who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9).
Except Jesus

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time over the past few years trying to “read the culture” that is all around us. I’ve answered questions from people about how we can reach young adults, even when I was a young adult and wasn’t sure of the answer myself. I’ve seen churches go bonkers trying to be on the “cutting edge” of culture, and the Internet, and styles of worship, and all the rest.

Now, a lot of this is honest and needed discernment over how we should go about being faithful as the people of God. But a considerable amount of it is also the church version of anxious hand-wringing. We’ve got to “get it right,” so the thinking goes, if we want the church to have a future.

The truth is we don’t have anything to offer that the world doesn’t already have in spades. Our websites will never be as flashy. Our Twitter feeds will never be as clever. We don’t have anything the world does not have.
Except Jesus.

We do see Jesus. And we have received Jesus. And that is something that the world can never know. Does it call for something in us? Yes, it does! But what it calls for does not require the ability to write HTML code or dress like a hipster or anything else that is going to make us seem more faddish and fashionable. It calls for a certain kind of community, where people who were once strangers now call one another by the name of “brother” and “sister” and who share a love that is so striking that it looks to the world like a lamp that has been lit and set on a table in a room where all else is darkness.

When Jesus knocks

“You may say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing,’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked,” says Jesus. “Therefore I tell you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.

“Behold! I stand at the door and knock,” says our Savior. “If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Revelation 3:17-22).

In her book, Revelations of Divine Love, the great medieval mystic Julian of Norwich wrote about a vision of Christ she had during a period of trouble. She pondered the great sorrow of sin in the world, saying, “[S]o I looked, generally, upon us all, and methought: If sin had not been, we should all have been clean and like to our Lord, as He made us … for then, methought, all should have been well.”

She goes on: “But Jesus, who in this Vision informed me of all that is needful to me, answered … and said: It [was necessary] that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

When Julian said, “All shall be well,” here’s what she meant: We have been adopted as sons and daughters of God through Christ Jesus our Lord. There is no more fear; there is no more fear.

He is knocking. So welcome him in, and eat with him.

Andrew Thompson is an ordained minister and historical theologian in The United Methodist Church. He teaches at Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tennessee. This essay is adapted from the Rev. Thompson’s sermon preached at the Arkansas Annual Conference in Fort Smith, Arkansas, on Sunday, June 10, 2012.