Memory and Personhood

June 19, 2013

Martin B. Copenhaver

"Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands."  From Isaiah 49:14-18

When my father died we went to tell my grandmother the news, news she was not able to comprehend.  In a sense, dementia saved her from grief, so there was some comfort in that.  Yet, still, her only child had died and it seemed unspeakably sad that she could not recognize his name, or mark the loss.  The prophet Isaiah, asked, "Can a woman forget her child?"  In the case of my grandmother, the answer would have to be, "Yes."

When my grandmother herself died a number of years later, we said things like, "She left us a long time ago."

Our memories are so much a part of who we are that it can be hard to imagine who we would be without them.   In some sense we are what we remember.

But, just as surely, we are more than our memories.  We do not say of an infant, living in those early months before memory, "Well, she's not yet arrived.  She's not yet a person."

A loss of memory does not make us any less a person.  So those who no longer can remember the prayers of the church, or the Bible stories, or the hymns, have a special place in the church because it is a community that remembers the prayers and stories for you, and sings the hymns on your behalf when you no longer can.

In the end, what ensures our personhood is that we are remembered by God.

Isaiah asks, "Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?"  And the answer is, "Yes.  Tragically, sometimes yes."  But Isaiah quickly adds these words, which he takes to be God's very assurance, "Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands."

Prayer

God, remember me, even when others forget, or when I may forget your promises.  Inscribe me on the palms of your hands.

About the Author
Martin B. Copenhaver is Senior Pastor of Village Church, United Church of Christ, in Wellesley, Massachusetts. A new edition of his book, Living Faith While Holding Doubts will be published this month by Pilgrim Press.
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