If I Forget You

by | Nov 14, 2021

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Jarrett McLaughlin
“If I Forget You”
November 14, 2021
Psalm 137:1-6

A word about the sermon today
November is Alzheimer’s Awareness month.
I am aware that so many – too many – people are affected by memory loss in one way or another. That is why I wince to bring it into focus AND why I feel it important to bring it into focus.

Alzheimer’s Disease has rightly been called “the long goodbye.”
The body does decline, but the mind fades faster.
Family become strangely unfamiliar and friends become absolute strangers.

But it’s not just memory that recedes. It’s the personality as well – what makes you You.
It’s a cruel end to what might otherwise be a beautiful life.
For those who have accompanied somebody you love, you know how powerless it makes you feel.

For that reason, I should say up front that the goal is not to resolve anything today.
I simply want to bring the Bible to bear on this condition and wonder aloud with you:
“How do we live with the spiritual toll of this disease?”

Our Scripture reading may seem to be fairly at odds with the topic seeing that it hinges on the importance of memory. The reading comes from the book of Psalms. I once heard the Psalms described this way: the Bible is largely God’s word to us, but the Psalms are more like our words spoken back to God. The Psalms cover all manner of emotional terrain. So listen to these words from Psalm 137.

Scripture:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there
we hung up our harps.

For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

Sermon:

Becky sits by herself at a table, her long gray hair barely contained in a tight bun; her icy blue eyes fixed on Cal as he shuffles over to her. The man sits down next to her and begins to stroke the back of her neck. Today he knows Becky to be his wife. In a few hours he will likely forget. As for Becky herself, she no longer speaks, but sometimes Cal’s presence distresses her, which is perhaps a sign that somewhere deep down inside she does in fact know him.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Jim just moved into the memory care unit two days ago. He is six foot two and 225 pounds, a former athlete. He wears a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, surf shorts and flip flops… he is 58 years old, five years into an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. His wife Sondra shows him how to throw a small rubber ball into a toy basketball hoop. She hands the ball to Jim who then looks at the hoop, unsure of what it is. He hugs the ball to his chest and begins to cry.

Sondra will stay by his side for a full 48 hours before convincing herself that it might in fact be easier for Jim if she leaves.

Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

How many families have a Becky or a Cal; a Jim or a Sondra in them?
I dare say there’s hardly anybody whose life has been unmarked by the particular agony of memory loss.

How utterly maddening it must be – to feel so dislocated from who you are.
I find the Psalms offer helpful words of lament when we are feeling that most acutely.

The Psalms are rightly described as poetry, but even more so, Psalms are music – they’re songs written by song writers. This particular Psalm is written from the location of exile.

The Kingdom of Judah found itself in the crosshairs of Babylon’s imperial expansion.
The siege of Jerusalem was complete by 587 BCE and King Nebuchadnezzar ran his conquest by the play book. After you summarily defeat your opponent, you then gather up all the most educated and most skilled citizens and deport them back to Babylon. By draining the brain trust you ensure they will never be your rivals again.

That’s how a Jewish songwriter found himself on the banks of the Euphrates River, asking “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Holding more heartbreak than a country ballad, that same songwriter then goes on to make a rather serious vow: “Let my right hand – my harp playing hand – wither; let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth so that I might never sing again if…IF…I forget you, O Jerusalem.” Those are some strong words.

Don’t get me wrong – I understand the sentiment.
I respect the passion in a promise like that.
I really do.

Somewhere in our house there is this certain object that always elicits blushing and giggles from my daughters.
It’s a fancy, old-timey, sand-filled hour glass – but etched on the bottom are the words “Our Love Will Last Forever.” Why do my daughters think that is so funny?
Because it is not a gift from my wife and their mother, Meg.
It is a gift from my High School girlfriend.

Some of you might be wondering why I still have this hour glass….I don’t really have a good answer for that to be quite honest.
But if nothing else it reminds me of those moments in life where you feel things so intensely, and you’re so certain that you will never forget this moment.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if this Psalm writer, so full of promises and passion, wasn’t a very young man himself at the outset of the Exile.

But the thing about time is that it relentlessly marches on.
The hour glass turns.
And it turns again and again.
The hours turn to years and that which seemed so unforgettable does in fact dim – even for the sharpest of minds.
How much more for those who suffer from any one of these debilitating diseases that strip mine your memories and erode your personality.

Do you know how long the Babylonian exile lasted?
70 years.
More than enough time for memories to fade.
More than enough time for our passionate songwriter to indeed forget the object of his devotion.

“Let my right hand wither, let the tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I forget you, O Jerusalem.” That is a mighty big promise to predicate on something as fragile as human memory.
I already invoked sad country ballads this morning – I don’t know if there are many Country music fans out there, but those of a certain generation will remember Glen Campbell – the Wichita Lineman, the Rhinestone Cowboy.

In 2011, Glen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
It was already fairly advanced by the time that he was tested.

Even though he was beginning to struggle with speech;
Even though he was often unable to recall the names of his own wife or children;
Even though he would sometimes get lost in his own house,
Glen and his family decided to embark on this ambitious 121 stop tour.

It would have been understandable if they retreated from the spotlight.
It would have been understandable if they focused on protecting his legacy and his public image.

Instead, Glen and his family decided to sweep all pride aside and let people in.
Glen put himself and this disease in the spotlight – to remove the stigma; to allow us to talk about it more openly.

You can imagine how taxing such a tour must have been on his mind – and how unpredictable each night could be. There were times he would get lost in the middle of a song and start complaining about his guitar not working. There were times when Glen would up and decide that he was going to play “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” twice.

Of course, they gave him every help they could to get him through a show.
His own children were in the backing band and they could help guide him during the set.
They had teleprompters on the stage to help him with the lyrics.

There’s this one moment captured on film where Glen is playing the song “Gentle on my Mind.”

He sings the first line confidently, with a big smile – “It’s knowing that your door is always open and your path is free to walk…”

Now – if you know that song at all – it has a lot of words in it and it’s not easy to sing. His brow furrows as he get a little lost in the second verse: “you’re moving on the backroads, By the rivers of my memory. And for hours you’re just gentle on my mind.”

You see these concerned expressions on the face of the band, wondering what’s about to happen.
But at the end of the verse Glen continues to read exactly what the teleprompter says.
It reads – and he says out loud – “Glen Plays Long Guitar Solo Here.”
He wasn’t supposed to say that part out loud.

But as soon as those words leave his lips, his eyes widen and it’s like muscle memory takes over and his fingers start dancing up and down the fret board while his right hand picks out this amazing guitar solo. He’s got this little smirk on his face and – for this moment at least – Glen is completely himself again.

You see that the music itself has not left him…not yet at least. It’s so beautiful.
But perhaps not as beautiful as the audience’s reaction.
They go wild – they stand, they cheer, they whistle, they holler.

By any other measure, this show has been a train wreck.
But the audience doesn’t see a train wreck – they see humanity courageously on display.

All of this only fuels my conviction that people aren’t looking for perfection.
We respond to vulnerability – and I’m not sure what could be more vulnerable than this.
The people see a songwriter they love doing what he loves most, even if imperfectly.
And they unequivocally love him for it.

It does make you wonder – what if our Psalmist – that passion-filled, promise-making song-writer, got it a little backwards.

After all, there was another poet who also found himself in Babylon – the prophet Isaiah –
And He sang a very different song.

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.”
Can a woman forget her nursing child, [says the Lord],
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;

What if it’s not so much about us doing the remembering.
What if it’s more that we are remembered – whole and complete, even when we aren’t.

God will not forget who we were and who we are

God will not forget the weariness of caregivers; the tension on families; the cost of this horrible disease.

God will not forget any of it.

You are inscribed on the palm of God’s hand – and that hand never withers.
Thanks be to God. Amen.