“You don’t remember what your father said, but you remember what he did.” This was my first circuit counselor’s defense of deeds over creeds. He was a mid-50’s grad of the seminary. I was a new 1983 grad of the logical seminary, and I wondered did he know he was paraphrasing the Catholic aphorism regularly but wrongly attributed to St. Francis “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.”?
This was part of his theological prepping of me for ministry after ordaining me. He said that people will not remember what you preach or teach; they will remember what you do, and he cited my own experience growing up as proof. If we go there for proof, among other things I can prove that praying hard and not studying produces good grades. Sloe gin isn’t. A deer either has antlers or not, you can’t pray them on the animal.
However, we have moved on from that erstwhile bit of 60’s wisdom even as we have from things not being “my bag” or even the 90’s ‘doing you.” Now, if Chicken Soup for the Soul is any authority “people may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel” (Inspiration for the Young at Heart, 284).
Resisting the urge to break out into a chorus of “I feel good”, this bit of advice is the stock and trade of every glad-hander, brown-noser, shine-man, or AAL insurance salesman (Sorry, you have to be a certain age Lutheran to get that last one). And it’s the hook of many songs. Think “You make me feel like a natural woman”; “Hooked on a Feeling”; “I feel love” etc. The only one I think of that come close to refuting this point is Boston, “More than a Feeling.” But can anything good come out of Boston?
No, I wish to take the deeds over creeds and feelings over both on at the point of remembering. I love songs about remembering: “The Song Remembers When”; “Try to Remember”; even Barbra’s “Memories” move me. That being said what we do or don’t remember better not carry the day.
I visit three or maybe four, I can’t remember now, memory care units. These folks may or may not remember me as their pastor and I’ve been here 20 years. Talk about a forgettable personality! They usually remember the Lord’s Prayer, maybe the Apostles’ Creed, and sometimes even the Confession of Sins. But some can’t remember or at least express the what or why of Holy Communion.
What I remember or you remember or our people remember can’t carry the day. What God remembers does. And He says, “I will remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:34). He says, “Even though your father and mother forget you, I won’t” (Ps. 27:10). He says, “He remembers that we are but dust” (Ps. 103:14).
When we preach, we aren’t – or better not be – preaching memories into people. We’re preaching Christ and Him crucified into them. We’re preaching into them the God who has them carved into the palms of His hands. We’re preaching God’s creed that He wills all to repent and to come to the knowledge of the truth. We’re preaching God in Christ’s deeds of passive and active righteousness that redeemed the world and for His sake God cannot forget to be gracious or merciful.
In a postmodern world which only recognizes one valid currency, one accurate truth indicator: emotion, feeling, it’s very easy to play to that, and if you do, people will remember very little else. Most of all they won’t remember what God forgets and doesn’t.