Practicing Remembrance with Lamentations and Pauli Murray

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Pauli Murray in the World Mural by Brett Cook. Photo by Kristen Hendrickson.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, we are encouraged to pause, take a breath, and remember for whom or what we are thankful. After reading the words of the prophet in Lamentations and the words of Pauli Murray, I would propose that we take the act of giving thanks one step further and practice remembrance or memory this Thanksgiving.

Lamentations 3:19-22 states,
19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
is wormwood and gall!
20 My soul continually thinks of it
and is bowed down within me.

21 But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,
‘therefore I will hope in him.’
25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.

Why the sudden change in the poetry, from darkness and despair to hope in the Lord? Though I only included two verses of the lament, the entire first three chapters are filled with complaints, line after line of utter hopelessness. What has caused this change of attitude? What would suggest the possibility of hope? What force can possibly rescue hope from unyielding lament? What would allow the poet the strength to envision an alternative?

One word: memory. The poet remembers where they have come from, remembers the stories of their ancestors, remembers other times of great hopelessness, and remembers when God has been faithful in the past. It’s the poet’s memory that allows for the triumphant “but” to break through the wall of lament, allowing a glimmer of hope to enter.

Memory, or the practice of remembrance, was a central tenant in the life and writing of Pauli Murray. In her memoir, Proud Shoes, and her autobiography, she engages in the practice of remembrance, telling stories of her family, her experiences, her challenges, and her reflections on her life. She engages her memories and draws upon them for strength, courage, and faith. It seems that memory allows her the freedom to engage with the past in a way that thankfulness might not.

When I am prompted to give thanks or be thankful, there seems to be an assumption that I should give thanks for what is good in my life, the things I have, the hand I’ve been dealt, and the relationships in my life that are meaningful. Giving thanks is a good practice. Certainly, the Psalms are full of thanksgiving to God, for who God is and for what God has done.

The prophet of Lamentations and Pauli Murray prompt us to engage the next level, beyond thanksgiving, and into remembrance. As the Israelites in exile examined their current reality, they were not filled with thanksgiving. As Pauli Murray recounts the horrific realities of slavery, the oppression and abuse from which her grandmother came, she does not do so thankfully. The practice of remembrance does not necessarily encourage us to remember the good without the bad, in the way that a practice of thanksgiving sometimes does. In remembrance, we find freedom to acknowledge the laments of our past and present. When we remember, we are bolstered with the triumphant “but” of the prophet, that we might discover both thanksgiving for where God has been faithful and hope that God will continue to be faithful.

We practiced remembrance at Refuge in November and I would encourage you to take a few moments to do it on your own or with others while you share the meal.

What do you remember during this season of Thanksgiving? As you remember where you’ve come from and where you are today, for what or whom are you thankful?

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