Memory and Imagination

Whenever I hear Matt Redman’s “Blessed be Your Name” I am on I-84 headed east through the Columbia Gorge, past the giant windmills, towards our favorite eastern Oregon camping spot. Our kids are all small, all strapped to booster seats, all packed in with snacks and blankets and books. Though the drive is excruciatingly long, these are the best of times. 

That song is a soundtrack to a memory. 

Our youngest son wasn’t on those trips. Born almost four years after his nearest sibling, he missed out on some of the memory-making of those summers when we camped a lot. We try to be careful when we remember. Sensitive. 

None of us have memories specific to his first year and a half of life. He spent them in an orphanage in India, surrounded by other babies and rotating staff. A great deal of that time he also spent in the hospital with recurring bronchial infections and pneumonia. Our first sighting of him was on a DVD, narrated by a lovely woman who gave us the phrase, “Shashwat is feeling sleepy” in her heavily accented english, and who told us Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star was his favorite song. 

But he came with no birth story, minimal history, and no shared memories from 17 months of his life. 


Memories are so pliable. My husband and I both have stories from childhood that we remember a certain way, while those around us have a differing version. Grievances can seem larger and punishments more harsh than they were in reality—we've learned this from our own children's memories. Likewise, the joys of certain events can grow over time and repetition, making a small act of kindness or privilege seem like an extravagance in our minds. This is the power we have, in shaping memories.

Our solution has been to make memories for our son, using our own experiences of India and its culture, and threading in the emotions and trauma common to any young woman giving birth. We tell him how loved he was by his tummy mom, how hard it must have been to give birth at sixteen in a tiny hut in a tiny village, and how, for eight days, she and his grandma struggled to keep him alive. He was tiny and frail when he arrived at the orphanage. We tell him how so many people worked to sustain him and get him healthy. 

We tell him he was wanted, because there are ways to “do without” a pregnancy, and we pray for his tummy mom together on Mother’s Day and on random nights when questions arise. They are hard questions—ones we can’t answer without imagination—and we tell the best and truest version we can. 

Some might call this lying. I prefer to call it Imaginative Redemption, because remembering is redemption, and the past lives in the stories we tell about it. We can tell any kind of story, avoid all kinds of truth, or settle for answering all the questions with “I don’t know"—but a child needs to know. We’ve chosen to make the best memories we can imagine for our son. 

God commanded Israel to set up memorial stones and called them to imagine a day when their children would ask, “What do these stones mean to you?”—a day when they would be far removed from the crossing of the Jordan and they would help their children imagine all the ways God cares and will care for them, by remembering all the ways he’d done so in the past. He unites curiosity with remembering, giving us an open-door for telling a good story.

I don’t remember anyone ever warning us about the questions our son would have when we were in the cumbersome process of adopting. I’m sure it came up in our training classes or our home visits, in the reams of paperwork we read and videos we watched; but until you are in the thick of the moment, until you have context for something, you don’t fully grasp it. We tell his story and answer his questions with all the redemption we honestly can. We try to create the healthiest memories for each of our children by telling them the truth—bad things have happened, mistakes have been and will continue to be made. But here is the redemptive imagination that keeps us going: God slipped on skin and flesh to buy back your memories and do more than you could ever ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20). When circumstances are beyond any we can control, God asks Is anything too hard for the LORD? and then delights in blowing our minds. 

A "true story”—which is not always the one we tell ourselves—roots us in a past experience of God’s goodness, because he is always behind, and gives us an imagination of his future goodness, because he is always ahead. We live in the moment with these memories and this imagination, and for every pleasure remembered, every memory forgotten, every blank space in a life we know was full of goodness, there is a redemptive story to be told.  Our kids will develop their own soundtrack to their memories and they'll exaggerate the stories and miss some details, but we hope a redemptive imagination will help them with the lyrics. 

The Great Story of Parenting

When we worry, we’re trying to write a story that we cannot write with an ending that we cannot see. We are making calculations based on experience so far. But when we take the long view, when we remember that an eternity has passed behind us for a God with no beginning and stretches out before us for saints with no end, we see how the story we cannot write is more beautiful than our imagination allows for. 

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Faithfulness, the cure for inconsistency

There are lots of ways I'm consistent in my life: I brush my teeth every morning and evening, drink coffee daily, pack a lunch for my husband Monday through Friday, sit in church every Sunday; I've tried to be consistent with my kids, with exercise, with my relationship to Jesus; and for the most part I consistently make bacon on game days for my kids. It's what we do. I recently lost my way, however. For weeks it's been Costco muffins and ice cream and cinnamon gummy bears in bulk, and I've known the day of reckoning was coming, the day when I check back in to reality and own up to the body I've been abusing.

When I grow up, I'm going to make a plan and stick to it: a plan for eating, a plan for working out, a plan for spending one-on-one time with my kids, a plan for keeping the checkbooks balanced and the bills paid and the floors mopped.

For now I'm ever-wavering and say things like "for the most part I'm consistent..."

I get discouraged over this and beat myself up with lists of short-comings. I'll bet you do this, too. I'll bet most people are good-intentioned on the inside and sweet-toothed and undisciplined on the outside, wanting to behave and respond and live one way but pulled by overwhelming desires in the other direction.

It's not the way we want to live. Jumping on and off the wagon is hard on a body and destructive to a soul that wants to do good, be good, feel good, especially when we mix up our views of consistency and faithfulness.

Paul gives us his famous first century lament to our 21st century problem: "For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice." It's classic. We are all hypocrites under this proclamation, weighed down with heavy flesh and wishing for a superhuman resistance to flashy anger and slothful rest and a ravenous appetite; in a strange way it makes me feel better—I'm not alone in my inconsistency.

But a big-picture view of my life, charted with a line connecting the high points, the upward climb, would show a faithfulness that defies inconsistencies. There is comfort in a God Who sees not as man sees, and when I look at the life of David I remember that God gave an overall progress report of his life—"a man after God's own heart"—and not a one-time indictment.

I think we can hold both inconsistency and faithfulness and still be after God's heart.

The beautiful thing in all this inconsistency is that my perfection was never going to win me any merits, anyways. It's all fine that I'm an up-and-down traveler to glory and not a quick progress-er, a hopeful dreamer rather than a steady do-er. God specializes in this kind of grace and even sent His Son to finish for all the good intentioned people who don't, the ones who make progress by faithfully starting over and over, right where they are.

In the meantime, being faithful means getting back on track:

  1. I'm eating the vegetables and foregoing the sugar. My youngest daughter volunteered herself to do another Whole30 with me, which is really helpful because misery loves company and she drinks her coffee black, anyways. I've begged for half and half and she is unsympathetic. I need that.  We're almost over the hump though, and I think we'll soon be able to gloat to the rest of the family about how great we feel.
  2. I'm turning off notifications and taking notice of the tangibles. For some reason I thought it was a good idea to have headlines from CNN and Fox News pop up on my phone throughout the day, along with Facebook and Instagram and Twitter notifications. I've turned those off. I have to keep relearning that being always connected to the world is not good for my soul. I need to be responsibly informed, not perpetually updated. The tangibles: I'm taking note of one verse or writing a one sentence summary of what I read in the morning and adding it to my bullet journal list for the day. I look at that list often...consistently.
  3. Getting my thoughts back on track is imperative to being faithful, and music always helps. My favorite songs right now are this and this.

Fall is always a time for fresh notebooks and new routines and schedules for us. It's the perfect time to get back in the game in all the areas I've let go over the summer. I also like the first day of the month, every Monday, those first couple hours of each day; I'm hoping to discipline myself to see the first minute of each hour as a resetting, too.

What if the reason for time is simply so we can mark all the grace we've been given? What if noticing that grace is more important than our consistency to follow rules we've made? And what if our lenses were adjusted occasionally to see all the areas we've been faithful, because of grace?

We might change our habits and that might change our attitudes and all together our faithfulness, which is the cure for inconsistency, might increase.