Not Forgotten

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To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.

Throughout the month of August, we’re looking at Ecclesiastes, that strange and seemingly “modern” Old Testament book that depicts what happens when humanity searches for ultimate meaning apart from God. 

It is a dreadful thing to be forgotten.

For some people, the very fear of that thing is a real thing.  It’s called athazagoraphobia – the fear that no one will remember who I am or what I have done, or that I ever had a place in this world. 

Solomon understood.

At the very end of a list of laments about the meaninglessness of life “under the sun” – that is, in this world and this world alone – he makes this observation:  “No one remembers the former generations, and those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them” (Ecclesiastes 1:11).

We must admit that athazagoraphobia isn’t entirely irrational.  A great many fears are focused on things that, realistically, aren’t going to do us in.  That would include ranidaphobia (the fear of frogs), koumpounophobia (the fear of buttons on clothing), and hexakosiohexekontahexaphobia (a paralyzing fear of the number 666). 

But, in point of fact, you really are going to be forgotten. 

Within five or six generations, it’s almost certain that no one in your family tree will have a sense of the “real you” – what made you tick, what made you laugh, what made you get up in the morning.

It doesn’t take nearly that long to be forgotten in the workplace.  “Institutional amnesia” will set in within a few weeks of your departure from the office.  Won’t anyone remember that you were once Employee of the Month, and that you had such great ideas at team meetings, and that you saved the company from that third quarter financial disaster?  Probably not. 

In this world, you really are going to be forgotten.  And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Well, that’s not entirely true.

You can attempt to be famous.  Try to set a record that will be hard to break.  Or produce a work of art that will be appreciated for centuries.  Or write some amazing words that a handful of admirers will read over and over again.

Or you can try to be infamous.  Do something outrageous, illegal, or tragically unforgettable.  Athazagoraphobia leads some people to forfeit their character and even their lives, if only they will be remembered.  

The English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) is best remembered, ironically, for his sonnet about a once-great world leader who is now no longer remembered, even though he did everything in his power to preserve his legacy.  His poem is called Ozymandias:   

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert.  Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Likewise, the author of Ecclesiastes says to his readers, “Don’t fool yourselves.  Nothing in this world is going to last.  You may think you’re king of the world today.  But tomorrow the only thing left will be a heap of ruins.” 

No wonder he opens his book with the words, “Meaningless!  Meaningless!  Everything is utterly meaningless.”

But here, for the first time, we need to take issue with Solomon. 

That’s because if you have come to know Jesus, then you know more than the wisest king in the Old Testament. 

We may ultimately be forgotten “under the sun,” here in this world.  But followers of Jesus have good reasons to believe that life isn’t over when it’s over.  And where there is life, there is memory. 

Our heavenly Father declares through Isaiah, “Can a mother forget her nursing child?  Can she feel no love for the child she has borne?  But even if that were possible, I would not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15).  And the apostle Paul, writing to the young believers in Corinth, says, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then [that is, in the next world] we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12).

To be in God’s presence is to be known.  And to be “remembered,” in the sense that God fully pays attention to all our moments – in this world and the next. 

You know that fear that may strike you from time to time – the lurking suspicion that no one really knows who you are, and that no one will ever remember you were even here?

By God’s grace, you can forget about it.