The debate about tearing down statues that has dominated our news headlines this week has been a proxy for a deeper debate about what we value. Behind it has been questions about who we remember and who we forget and what that says about the things we value. So, one of the key arguments for preserving the statues of people like Edward Colston is that without them we are less likely to remember important people from history, particularly those who weren’t involved in heroic battles or leading our country through difficult times but did play their part in the foundation and growth of our modern cities.
But I want to suggest that the debate about forgetting our history acts as a proxy for an even deeper concern. We are afraid that people will forget those men and women from the past because if such lavish benefactors can be forgotten, then what chance do I have. We fear that we will be forgotten. The biggest threat of cancel culture is not its ability to cancel now but that we all get cancelled in the end.
Ecclesiastes 9 tells the story of a little city and one of its citizens
14 There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siege works against it. 15 But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. 16 But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not heard.
We fear being like that poor man. Ecclesiastes sets up a tension. On the one hand, God has placed eternity in our hearts, we know that we are made for more than this short life. On the other hand, life here is like vapour or breath, life is fleeting, fragile and short. We work so hard to build permanence, but we cannot. I think that the less and less that we believe in the physical reality of eternity, the more that we worry about building our eternal legacy here.
For most of us though, the immediate priority is not that we will be remembered when we have gone but the fear that we will be forgotten here. If I am not visible, if I am not noticed, then people will forget about my contribution and if they stop noticing my contribution then I will become surplus to requirements.
This can drive our behaviours at work. We need to be seen to be present and so we get in early and leave late. We send emails at midnight and we are constantly busy. It can happen in church and Christian life too. We constantly need to be seen to do things, to be up front and recognised. Sometimes we assume that those needs arise out of pride and ambition (and sometimes they do) but often they arise out of fear.
This week in our Sunday Night study and in our Afternoon Tea discussions, we are talking about “rest.” Rest is one of the casualties of the fear of being forgotten because we worry that if we pause to take a break then we will not be missed. I remember a previous boss of mine leaving for his holiday and saying to his secretary “My phone will be on” and she, being a blunt lady, responded “we won’t be calling.” She cared enough about her boss that she knew he needed the break and that he needed to know that he could leave us to it for a week or two and still have a role when he got back.
Don’t let the fear of being forgotten consume you. Don’t let it rob you of rest. Don’t let it distract you of friendship, family and relationships. Don’t let it stop you from enjoying the present. Christians do not need to worry about whether people will forget us. We have the promise that God does not forget. God remembers you, he knows your name. He loves you and he will never forsake or forget you.