Thursday, July 20, 2006

Remembrance of Things Past and The Way Forward

Apologies to Proust and Ford and people who don't like long rambly posts.

Out in the nave, the murmurings crescendo-ed, soaring up to the stone vaulted canopy of our English cathedral. The burgeoning audience arrived anticipating a performance of Handel's Ombra Mai Fu. But away from the crowd, a great chill froze my heart in the quiet transept: my trembling hands held the neck of my violin, broken off horrendously, the edges of the fragmented parts like sharpened stakes; irreparable damage to a friend's Strad. In the midst of a nightmare conscious that it was a nightmare, I waited for the sharp sunny edge of reality to cut through the greyness, I willed it to spike through so I could stumble, blurryeyed, to check on the violins in storage. Back in this world, latches were hastily flicked and dusty cases flung open to reveal that the neck of the Chinese one had indeed come off horribly (suffice to say that I popped into Gramercy and everyone took one look at the remains and laughed) from humidity and disuse. But I never liked it anyway. (The more favoured Czech was still quite alright.)

Dreams of England are rare these days, which makes waking life much less painful (and also I suppose, waking life now rests in Christ). But years before, happy nights were spent in smelly old Barbours, strolling the familiar shiny wet cobblestoned streets, trailing steamy breath, chatting and noshing on hot pasty, visiting as we always did the grocer's for brown bags of shiny apples, the baker's to ask after his lovely macarons and the quaint tilted bookstore with dusty Bach scores in the back to have a browse and a quick word with the old lady who ran it. Sometimes, it'd be summer and the air would be delicately warm for long hikes across the moors or punting in the sweet river or lazy games of crocker on the lawn and scones, clotted cream, pots of jam and cups of tea after. It took us at least a year to ease off the crushing yearning, though we still felt as Rupert Brooke (though not quite in the same context): "there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England". (Am glad that someone else on the blogosphere still dreams of England as well!)
Perhaps it was the casual gift of Galaxy bars "to remind you of England", perhaps it was someone wanting to return to England where you could play games and have a barbie in the open without conspicious sweat and being surrounded by a cloud of mozzies, perhaps it was the offer of Müller Corners, perhaps it was the Toad in the Hole and the Spotted Dick, perhaps it was the revisiting of old haunts that stirred and churned the memory...

Old Haunts
Tiong Bahru: View from the Food CentreTiong Bahru: View from the Food CentreTiong Bahru: Art Deco FlatsTiong Bahru: Art Deco Flats
Tiong Bahru: The Art Deco and rounded stairwells and ventilation holes replicated in the "upgraded" hawker centre. Brilliant.
People's Park Collage
People's Park: BestFriend and I used to accompany his girlfriend, a sometime model and fulltime LaSalle student, here to gather haberdashery, sequins, buttons, trimmings, assorted odds and ends for her fashion design course. Years after, latenight postgrad dinners were spent in the cheap hawker center downstairs in a cloud of cigarette smoke, debating the finer points of some obscure part of the course (as only postgrads do) over long meals of cze char. And still after, nice folks from CYC brought me here to select fabric for work shirts. Now refurbished, the mangy cats and singletwearing pipesmoking oldmen have been relegated to the sidelines.
Roasted Meats
Ghim Moh: Whole generations of junior college students have been fuelled by, and have pontang-ed from lessons to paktor over, the char kway teow, prawn mee and roasted duck here.
Holland Village Cobbler
Even the Holland Village cobbler has moved on.

Old Friends and Acquaintances
Refurbished old haunts aside, it's been a nostalgic sort of month in other ways: heart-pounding chance meetings with former stalkers, impromptu but inevitable reunions at weddings, almost-forgotten friends popping by Singapore for a visit and pleasantly-surprising long-distance calls from voices from the past...

The thing about meeting people from your past is that you see, reflected in their comments and questions, younger images of yourself ossified at separate fossil layers, stratified in history. And, whether as a symptom of a relationship-obsessed society or because nonbelievers haven't much more to be interested in, the comments and queries inevitably focus on marital status and whom one is seeing at the moment (regardless of marital status), for example: primaryschoolmates think you are still that "self-sufficient kooky genius" and so must never have gone on a date; secondaryschoolmates think you're the uncommitted easilybored cheeky joker who must have married one of your secondary school sweethearts and seen somepeople on the side; juniorcollegemates are shocked that you and stable RuggedOutdoorsyPerson could ever have broken up; universitymates tell you that they've just got their own pad and a cockerspaniel and ask if you will leave hot and stinky Singapore and come and live with them and work things out; postgraduatemates tell you that they've seen AmbitiousHighFlyer in the media the other day and ask if you would both go over for dinner next weekend or a different group assumes that as soon as AmbitiousHighFlyer II returns from Hong Kong, the blacktie wedding invites will arrive in their mailboxes in due course and offer to do the harpsicord and viola at the reception. As the dimwitted tout whispered,"See I sell you cheap Mr. Mozart's skull when 'ee was 5. Eef you want, I have also 'ees skull when 'ee was 10 and 18". A very outofbody experience.

Driving home after, it is late and vehicular and human traffic and red lights are scarce, so it is easy to steer with one hand and prop your head up with the other and view the past through rose-tinted glasses and wonder how different things would have turned out, if only, at the appropriate fork in the road, different decisions had been taken. Later, still under cover of night, lying under the stars, it is too easy to dwell on regrets, to wallow in self-recriminations and to mourn a time long past.

What does God tell us to do with history?

Godly Remembering
There are many instances in the Bible where God commanded his people to remember history: particularly, what God had done in history. One major example is the Exodus event. The Israelites were to remember the day that they were brought out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and the strong hand the LORD who brought them out from that place (Exodus 13:3). Remembering their past was so important that God instructed the Israelites to incorporate mnemonic devices in their lives: the eating of unleavened bread should be to them as a sign on their hand and as a memorial between their eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in their mouth. For with a strong hand the LORD brought them out of Egypt (Exodus 13); the keeping of the Sabbath should remind them that they were slaves in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD their God brought them out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Deuteronomy 5:15).

These practices were also to function as methods of transmitting these corporate memories, this national history, from one generation to the next: "no leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory. You shall tell your son on that day,'It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.'" (Exodus 13:7-8).

Why was remembering of such importance?

For Relationship
The works of God in the past, and his character shown through those works, told his people who he was, how they should relate to him and what to expect of him. So, for example, they were not to fear other nations they were to dispossess no matter how great they looked, because they were to remember what the LORD their God had done to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, the great trials that their eyes saw, the signs, the wonders, the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm, by which the LORD their God had brought them out. So would the LORD their God do to all the peoples of whom they were afraid (Deuteronomy 7:17-18). The people would know how to relate to God and what to expect of him: trustworthiness and faithfulness, backed up by awesome power. That's how relationships work out: products of a history of interactions and revelations and dealings with each other over a period of time given the parties thereto a pattern within which to relate. (Which is why, conversely, it is difficult to have any sort of relationship with someone with the retentive memory of a goldfish (urbanlegendly, 3 seconds).)

For Survival
Remembering past events is also how we learn to interact with the world and survive in it. Someone who gets zapped once by a wet socket is likely to end his days in a great sizzle if he doesn't remember that wet sockets are dangerous things to touch. So also remembering whom God was and his awful judgement on those who did not obey him was important for the Israelites if they wanted to live: warns Moses,"if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God" (Deuteronomy 8:19-20).

For Living in the Present and in the Future
Remember, says Paul to the Ephesians, "that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ" (Ephesians 2:12-13). And if this is so, then they are to live, Jews and Gentiles, as one people in Christ.

So it is right, and it is commanded, that we remember the work of God in the history of the world and in our personal histories, for such memories tell us who he is and how to relate to him now. We learn from the punishment of the disobedient in the past to know how to live now. We learn from the faithfulness of God in the past to know for sure that he will fulfil his promises in the future.

Sinful Nostalgia
But there is a certain sort of (selective) remembering, a certain type of nostalgia that God warns us against: that which falsifies the past, that tells half-truths about history.

So the Israelites, very quickly forgetting the terrible slavery that they experienced in Egypt grumbled on route to the Promised Land: "Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at" (Numbers 11:4-6).

So we are sometimes tempted to think how good the days were before we were converted to Christianity: the lovely freedom to do whatever we wanted, to marry and divorce anyone we chose, to cheat and steal if we wanted, to lie on a whim, to spend our money completely on ourselves. But we forget, dangerously, that in that state, we were dead in our transgressions, we were slaves to Satan, we were on the way to an eternity of dreadful crying and gnashing of teeth. And we can be sure that the anger of the LORD blazes hotly against such self-deluding wistfulness (Numbers 11:10).

Racing Forward
"One thing I do," says Paul,"forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:13-14). We are to be like athletes, running the race, pressing on, straining forward to take hold of the prize that awaits at the finishing line. Action words.

There is no place in the Christian life to be weighed down by the remembered guilt of past sins. But this is not a mere talkshow platitude and positive thinking. When we turn back to God, we take hold of the blessing of the substitionary death of Christ on the cross in our place. Because our sins have been paid for by Jesus, God tells us that he himself shall remember them no more. We trust that God's words are true and that Christ's blood is sufficient to pay for our past wrongs, no matter how terrible they were. We have faith that God has forgiven them as he promised.

There is no place in the Christian life to grow fat and complacent in the "successes" of the past. There must be no coasting on past achievements. Don't think that we have it all wrapped up. Don't think that we have arrived. Don't think we know it all. Don't think that we have triumphed over this or that specific sin. Don't think that our years of experience as a Christian, our office within the church as a minister, an elder, a deacon, a DG leader, a 1-to-1 discipler means that we are "sorted" for life.

Paul tells us in Philippians 3 that the mature Christian realises that his work is never completed, that he cannot let down his guard against sin until he has crossed the finish line, and attained the resurrection from the dead. With the Bible as our directional guide, our map, we are to put all our energy in persevering to the end. Christian believers, forgiven sinners as we are, have to work out our salvation for which Christ has taken hold of us, by striving to become like Christ in our character, and by working for Christ in the world.
Very Brit
So a few weeks ago, when it was a toss-up between (1) free tickets to Zouk's "Very Brit" with all that nostalgic Britpop, synthpop, new wave, Topman/Topshop/Warehouse clubbing gear, alt punk 'ttitude; and (2) having a not-dancey, non-alcoholic DG social, the choice was clear not because we were holy-moleys but because...well...I guess, right remembering helps you to make choices in the here and now for the eternal future.

And of course they don't sell a pint of the club's nastiest for just a quid over here. ;-)

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At July 21, 2006 4:43 pm , Anonymous kataifi said...

haha...i can imagine you at the bar counter and accusing the bar man: "wot? feefteeen dolluhs for thes watered down stuff"!


off to greece soon so catch you in august!

At July 21, 2006 9:17 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is a touching entry because it is a real person who is writing it. a rare entry of yours that doesn't read like a bible study.


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