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Saturday, 18 June 2011

Powering memory

'She spoke on a verse from the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi isn't it? Chapter 3 verse 10.' So said my colleague Sandra during the office lunch break yesterday. She was recalling a sermon she heard 46 years earlier! Not only was she able to name the verse of scripture, she also told us the sermon was about bringing your complete tithe into God's storehouse and the blessings that follow. A remarkable piece of remembering, or so most people would think. And that it was a sermon that was being recalled makes it all the more extraordinary; most people assume sermons are instantly forgettable!
Sandra may well have a very good memory but I don't think she'd mind me suggesting that her remembering of this particular sermon isn't actually so extraordinary. Several important aspects of the way collective memory works are illustrated by our lunchtime conversation:
Gladys Alyward
First, the lunch time gathering was chatting about TV and films. Somehow the movie star Ingrid Bergman came up in the conversation. From there it was an easy step to her starring role in the 1958 movie Inn of the Sixth Happiness as the inspirational Gladys Alyward (1902-1970), the Cockney domestic who became a missionary in China. It was Alyward who was the preacher of the sermon Sandra mentioned (Alyward did a speaking tour in the UK in the mid 1960s). The memory is therefore well provided with readily remembered associations in terms of popular cultural forms. This is one way it is located, and social location is vital to remembering.
Second, Sandra heard the sermon at an event she attended with her mother, and remembers exactly how old she was at the time. The memory is therefore located in another way as well - it carries with it associations of a particular and significant time of life and the sense of belonging to a special social environment that went with it.
Third, the memory carries with it a very strong recollection of feelings. The deep emotions raised were clear in the way Sandra told of the incident and how touched by it those who listened were. This provides yet another kind of location in the sense that the personal significance of the memory remains lively and pertinent.
Fourth, Alyward as the speaker that day spoke with a sincerity of intention that was tangible. Sandra says that afterwards there was so much she wanted to say to Alyward but she was so overcome by the tenor of the occasion and the impact of the speaker that she found herself tongue-tied. Sandra felt that Alyward sensed that and she responded to the youngster by giving her a warm hug. That physical contact adds weight to the memorability of the sermon.
As it happens a recording of Alyward's sermon has recently been found (access it here). The venue and exact date of the recording isn't clear, but its style and content is almost certainly something Alyward repeatedly used during her speaking tours. She speaks straightforwardly and biographically without many rhetorical flourishes, but returns repeatedly to Malachi 3.10. Her conviction is compellingly but undramatically communicated at every point. Interestingly Alyward does not herself described her address as a sermon.

I think every preacher has things to learn from Sandra's remembering. Do we make memory location easy for our hearers? Are we sensitive enough to their current life experiences? Are we connecting to feelings and making what we say emotionally memorable? Are we deliberate enough when it comes to communicating conviction? I suspect if we paid more attention to these things Sandra's remembering wouldn't seem quite so remarkable.

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