“Remember Not The Former Things”


Pastor Rodwell G. Thom

 [ Isaiah 43: 11-21]

God spoke a word to ancient Israel: “Remember not the former things!” One of the striking features we humans have is the capacity to remember. We have memories. We can literally sit in the present but remember and live in the past. We also have imaginations. We can literally live in the future. We can sit here and imagine what we're going to do as soon as worship is over.

 Most of our problems in life don't come from our imaginations. They come from our memories. The past presents us with a paradox. On the one hand, a lot of good things have happened to us. We remember these things and feel good about ourselves. We develop great confidence in ourselves when we remember good things. Unfortunately we sometimes forget things we should remember. On the other hand, some bad things have happened to us. We remember some things we should forget. We let them become a lead weight, dragging us into despair. We are what we are due to the way we edit our memories. We tend to be selective in terms of what we bring forward from our past. This is exactly what the prophet Isaiah addresses: this double edge between the good things we forget and the bad things we remember.

 As we gather to celebrate the 35th Anniversary of Guyana’s independence it is well to ask ourselves: What are your individual memories of Guyana? What is our national memory? Is it selective? We remember significant events in our history. We remember how each race came to Guyana and how we came to be known as the land of six peoples. We remember the emancipation of slaves, the arrival of indentured laborers, the rise of the working class, organization of labor, the development of the political ethos, the long struggle for Independence that we finally celebrated on May 26, 1966. We can also remember some bitter memories – mainly, it seems to me racial conflicts and disturbances, and the deep distrust and suspicions with which we have subsequently lived. We remember destruction of property and loss of life. We remember times when it seemed like the very fabric of our society would be irreparably ripped apart. So as we sit here in the tri-state area and watch the resurgence of violence, the state of uneasiness, the destruction of property, loss of life, and heightened sense of fear following the recent national elections, old memories have resurfaced – old fears, insecurities, losses, and old wounds have been reopened. Political leaders and people blame each other for the current scenario. The ghosts we thought we had left behind have overtaken us once again.

 As I think about God’s call to “remember not the former things,” I do remember my foster grandmother who was a black woman, as good a woman as you would find anywhere. She was strong, intelligent and found many ways to teach us life-important lessons. One time she sent me to buy flour. She wanted to make dumplings for the soup she was preparing. I went to the store, purchased the flour, and on the way back, stopped off to play marbles with my friends. I forgot about my grandmother’s soup until my friends alerted me to my grandmother who was striding down the road with a coconut broom in hand. With much fear and trepidation I rushed home. That night when I took my place at the dinner table, I found two marbles lying on my dinner plate!  One does not forget such lessons! My grandmother told me the story of a 1964 incident. As was her custom, she boarded the bus one Friday, going along from Mahaica to Georgetown. At Buxton, the bus was stopped by some Afro-Guyanese. As she told it, they said, “All coolie people get out!” The bus got to the next village, Annandale. There Indo-Guyanese stopped the bus and said, “All black people get out.” That stranded empty bus, was for my grandmother, a symbol of the utter futility of hating people of another race.

 God speaks a word to Israel: “Remember not the former things.” It is a word for us too. God calls us to forget. How do we forget? How do we edit our memories? How does our dear land of Guyana move past its national phobia? Does it mean we turn a blind eye to injustice? Does it mean we pretend that wrong has not been perpetrated? My sisters and brothers, this is no small matter and there are no easy answers! But please join me in a reflection of the Biblical account of the Israelites' flight from Egypt. The angel of God went before them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night. There was one memorable moment when the angel had to go stand behind them to help them close the door on their past. It was a moment when they faced the threat of the Red Sea in front of them but they were in absolute panic as the hosts of Egypt charged behind them. Harold Cooke Phillips in his sermon “Closing the Doors” is quite correct: "Is it not true that often our greatest enemies are not those in front of us but those behind us?”  We may be concerned about our future here in the US or the future of our beloved Guyana. We may be concerned about our family here and back home. But aren’t we more like the Israelites: harassed not so much by the enemies we must one day meet as by the Egyptians we have already met? This is what makes life so difficult. We have these ghosts pursuing us. We think we have escaped, then we hear the clatter of their horses and see the dust of their chariots! Isn’t there a point at which we must set the Lord our God not only before us, around us, above us, and below us but also behind us? Isn’t this the time when we need the healing love of God right between us and the memories of the past?

 Our God is an awesome God. God is always breaking up old patterns of reality. Why? That we might begin new. God speaks at a pivotal point in Israel's history – a time when she has to seek new a understanding of her mission. God calls Israel to make a sharp break between her past and her future. “Remember not the former things. I am about to do a new thing.” God will transform Israel’s circumstances. Israel must die to her past so that the birth of a glorious future can take place. She must replace her memories of suffering and abuse with an awareness of God's generous new future.

 God has a word for us as we celebrate 35 years of Independence: Remember not the hatred and negativity that has been an acid in the Guyanese psyche. Remember not old grudges, resentments, and vexations of the mind. Remember not every real and perceived act of injustice that has been done against us. There are some things we just have to forget. If we remember all the hurt we have experienced, life becomes clogged and choked. If we selectively remember bad things then we destroy all confidence for today, we cast a dark shadow over every tomorrow, and we leave a very poor heritage for our children’s future. We should constantly sort out our memories, throwing away things we ought to forget and keeping things that are precious. We either manage our memories or our memories manage us!

 As I prepared for this event my own memory was jogged a little (again). I remember living in Buxton. When I began teaching I joined the local soccer team and practiced regularly. On the first day I turned out to play, one of the players, an Afro-Guyanese, looked at me and said, “I don’t like Indian people.” I felt bad and out of place, but I played nevertheless. But as we played over the months things changed. I could not judge him only by his first words to me, not could he judge me by what his initial assessment of my ethnicity. This came to a conclusion when I invited him to speak to our youth group at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Buxton Front, on The Coming of Africans to Guyana and Emancipation.

 This remembrance leads me in another direction this afternoon. “Remember not the former things” is a word that does not stand by itself, but notice it is immediately followed by “I am going to do a new thing.” It is more than simply forgetting the past. It is about the transformation of what we remember, our history if you will. Reflect with again on the relationship between Israel and Egypt. Led by the power of God, Israel closed the door and walked out, leaving Egypt behind. But as her future unfolded, Israel had to renegotiate and redefine her relationship with Egypt. In her battle with Assyria, her strongest ally was Egypt. In her battle with Babylon, her strongest ally was Egypt. When Nebuchadnezzar sacked the temple and slaughtered its priests, the prophet Jeremiah was rescued by Egypt. And we remember in recent times when Scud missiles pounded into Tel Aviv from Iraq, Israelis sat huddled in buildings, gas masks on their faces, little children hugging desperately to their mothers' sides, and their only hope the Patriot missiles being off-loaded at ports in Egypt. Think about what happened when Jesus the Christ was born. We read in Matthew 2:13-15: “When they (the Wise Men) had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod.” In other words the memory of slave days in Egypt was transformed to such an extent that Egypt, once the enemy, had become the friend of Israel.

 And this helps me to understand the word of God: “I am about to do a new thing.” This “new thing” for Guyana - is it not that we look at the people we once called our “enemies” as our friends? This “new thing” – isn’t it about moving past cheap and shallow political analysis to a more sensitive, compassionate, and life-embracing appreciation for the complexities of our history and of our own humanity? This “new thing” – isn’t it that God is calling us to truly respect and celebrate our racial diversity and to know once and for all that we are all in this together? Isn’t it to know that I don’t have all the answers and you don’t have all the answers, but together we might just possibly find a way of this grip of the past into the new future?  Isn’t it a “new thing” to minimize our political persuasions and maximize human bonds and kinship? We all need each other. The death of one is the death of all. The salvation and liberation of one is the salvation and liberation of all. And, my friends, is it not far better for us to be tied up like a pointer broom than to be separated living in the misery of our memories? It is certainly the Gospel to consider our enemy as our friend! To view the one we consider the source of our pain as our source of strength and support. This is the transformation of our personal and national memories. This, for me, is the power of the cross of the Crucified One. A cross that signified hatred, agony, suffering, rejection, and death is transformed by the Resurrection to become the symbol of hope, love and life. What a marvelous "new thing" to have our heritage transformed, for us to be redeemed from our own worst mistakes, and move on to the hope of tomorrow. “Remember not the former things. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

 From Pastor Thom: I am indebted to the homiletical insights from “Light in the Land of Shadows” by Harold C. Warlick, Jr.

The Reverend Rodwell G. Thom, a Guyanese, is currently pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, East Orange, NJ. He was educated at the University of Guyana, the United Theological College of the West Indies and the University of the West Indies. He has pastored in Guyana, where he served as President of the Lutheran Church (1992-1994), and in New York and New Jersey in the United States.

(This message was delivered at the celebration of the 35th Anniversary of Guyana’s independence, organized by the Guyana Cultural Association and held on June 24, 2001)