I Heard The Mystic Chords Today

People at Memorial Day Observance Mystic chords
Memorial Day observance in Lyons, WI

Did you hear the mystic chords today?

You’re not so sure how they sound?

That’s okay.

The Sound Of Mystic Chords

They sounded like “Present arms,” and “To the front salute,” from a weak veteran with a strong voice.

They sounded like America the Beautiful and The Battle Hymn of the Republic sung from the heart.

And they sounded like Amazing Grace from droning bagpipes while the rippling flag was raised, and Taps.

These are the chords that restored our memory. These are the mystic chords.

Mystic Chords Of Memory

But the mystic chords also sounded like these words from Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address:

“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

My dad read those words aloud at the observance at the Lyons Town Hall this morning.

Mystic chords of memory—the sound of the phrase drew me in. But what did Lincoln mean?

I did some digging.

Mystic Chords Of Collective Memory

I found Wildred McClay, in this piece he wrote for The Heritage Foundation.


To understand what sort of appeal Lincoln was making with these words we need to recall the setting in which the address was given in March of 1861. In the wake of Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860 without the support of a single Southern state, seven states from the Deep South had already left the Union, and the crucial border states were on the verge of doing so as well. The Union that Lincoln so greatly cherished seemed to be dissolving before his eyes…

For Lincoln, the battlefields and patriot graves deserved our reverence not simply for sentimental reasons, or out of reverence for our ancestors’ great sacrifices, but because of the cause for which they sacrificed. It would not have been enough had they merely died for the 19th-century equivalent of baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. They died, as Lincoln expressed it in the Gettysburg Address, in order that government of the people, by the people, and for the people “shall not perish from the earth.” They died, he asserted, to sustain the possibility of a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

“The Discipline Of Collective Memory”

McClay continues,

In the end, communities and nation-states are constituted and sustained by such shared memories — by stories of foundation, conflict, and perseverance. The leap of imagination and faith, from the thinness and unreliability of our individual memory to the richness of collective memory, that is the leap of civilized life; and the discipline of collective memory is the task not only of the historian, but of every one of us.

Historical consciousness draws us out of a narrow preoccupation with the present and with our “selves,” and ushers us into another, larger world — a public world that “cultures” us, in all the senses of that word.

This is our task. The mystic chords are God-sent to rouse us, together, to remember what matters. We interpret our present through the sacred past, rather than deconstruct the past to make sense of the fleeting present.

The mystic chords call us to this. They are all about collective memory, about remembering shared stories together. This holds us together.

Patriots do this. Christians do this. We remember our story together.

“A Memorial People”

The boys and I do not have individual memories of those who died in war. But we are not excused from remembering. It remains our duty to remember them. We believers are, as Jon Bloom explained, “a memorial people.”

So with help from the veterans and the song leader and my dad, and with gratitude—to those who gave all to preserve this nation and the Lord who rules all nations—we did that. We had our memory restored.

For who can possibly sing, “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,” without her Christian memory being stirred? I cannot. “He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:15).

Those 15 minutes in the parking lot this morning drew us “out of a narrow preoccupation with the present and with ourselves.”

Which is a very good place to be.

What mystic chords took you there today?

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you…

John 15:13-14a

Remember: What Dave Taught Me About Memory

This is Dave. He’s a friend, even though Dave can’t remember my name.

But Dave doesn’t take his memory problems lying down. Which is why we might all take a few memory tips from Dave.

Because I, for one, know that I have memory problems too. Spiritual amnesia, mine’s called. You know, when you forget what you should remember and remember what you’d best forget

Take Care Lest You Forget

Dave was in a motorcycle accident 20 years ago, give or take. He can’t remember the date. But he knows his memory hasn’t been the same.

So Dave always carries a notepad. Always. He’ll pull it out, scratch out a line or two, then tuck it back in his pocket.

Because Dave knows he needs reminding.

1. Remember Your Commitments

Why do you keep you so many notes, Dave? I asked between services.

I can recall this, he said, holding up his little green 3×5 spiral. At the end of the day I look back to see if I have to follow through on any commitments.

Dave is vigilant to remember. He explained how he transfers his notes from his little green spiral to a larger book at home, I don’t want to disappoint them and let them down. I don’t want to commit something to the Lord and forget about it.

But the problem, Dave said with a grin, is remembering to look back at the dumb notes.

We too should keep our commitments to others, and our word should be gold. For Christians, this includes the commitment to love God and keep his commandments (2 John 1:6, John 15:10).

In the Old Testament book of Numbers (15:38-40), the Lord told Moses to have the Israelites make tassels for the corners of their garments, “and a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them.”

Little green notepad or corner blue tassel or iPhone reminder, no matter- just so we don’t forget our commitments. We just have to remember to look.

2. Remember Who You Were

Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. This command to remember who they were- slaves, namely- is repeated over and over after the exodus (Deuteronomy 15:15, 16:12, 24:18, 24:22). In these texts, the reason for bringing up former slave status seems to be either to urge generosity and compassion toward those who are impoverished like they were, or to encourage thankful celebration under God for who they are.

Because we can take that for granted. And when we fail to remember that we were once slaves to sin (Romans 6:16), we can more easily fall back to slavery. Would-be-slaves, I called this once.

This idea is in the New Testament, too: Remember that at one time you Gentiles . . . were without Christ…having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:1112).

Remembering who we were without Christ is so important because it can intensify our love and deepen our devotion to the God who saved us. When we remember our life would be without him, we can cherish his forgiveness.

Dave had to relearn even his own name after the accident. He thinks it took months. But he’s got it down now. And another thing he’s got down- without consulting his notepad- is his testimony.

He remembers who he was. He remembers his testimony. In fact, he says rehearses his testimony while he’s at his “1200 pieces a day, assembly job.” And he told me how before that day in 1970 he wasn’t born-again, and then after it he was.

In other words, Dave remembers being a slave in Egypt and hopeless.

3. Remember The Lord

God’s people have historically had a bad memory. They had selective memory right out of Egypt, remembering-and grumbling about- the “free food,” but forgetting who they were- the slave status bit. The food may have been free, but they were not. That’s in Numbers 11.

Then, at the end of Judges 8, after strong judge Gideon had died, spiritual amnesia set in again. The people did not remember the Lord their God, who had rescued them from the hands of all their enemies on every side

But apart from selective memory, and probably worse, is this third memory problem: not remembering their God. In Deuteronomy 6:12 the God’s people are told, take care lest you forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

They should have been taking notes. Papyrus pads anyone?

Dave told me that one of things he tries to remember while at his work center is- I quote- “the work of God. I consult my notebook to remember things of this sort.”

There are practical steps we can all take to overcome our spiritual amnesia- our forgetfulness of how God has been at work. Ben Reoach describes seven here. And guess what? One of his suggestions is keeping a journal.

Like I said, Dave definitely knows what he’s doing.

I Shall Remember

I don’t know all of Dave’s story but I that it’s not all rosy. Apart from the physical and mental impact of the accident, I gather that close relationships have been strained. I’ve had some nasty times, he sighed. But even there Dave sees the silver lining, “A blessing of having a bad memory is that when someone treats me like poop, I forget and when I see them again I treat them real nice.”

Which brings us to Psalm 77:7-9, where the Psalmist ponders: Will the Lord reject forever? And will He never be favorable again-Has His lovingkindness ceased forever? Has His promise come to an end forever? Has God forgotten to be gracious, Or has He in anger withdrawn His compassion?

Dave could ask those same questions. Maybe you could too. Living in the group home around the corner from the church wasn’t Dave’s dream. And despite years of prayers for his memory to be restored, he still can’t remember names without his notepad.

But Dave does what the Psalmist did, right after he wondered if His lovingkindness had ceased forever.

Remembering Is Effortful

I shall remember the deeds of the LORD; Surely I will remember Your wonders of old. I will meditate on all Your work and muse on Your deeds. Your way, O God, is holy; What god is great like our God? 

John Piper says that this remembering is intentional and effortful.

The central Biblical strategy for coming out of darkness and discouragement and doubt is a conscious effort of the mind. Notice these strong words of intentionality: “I shall remember . . . Surely I will remember” (verse 11); “I will meditate . . . and [I will] muse” (verse 12). These are conscious acts that he chooses to do. This is the fight of faith. This is the fight for delight. It is the opposite of passivity and resignation. This is a strategy of life.

Sermon, “I Will Meditate On Your Works And Muse On Your Deeds

This is what Dave does, what he consciously chooses to do. He carries that notepad and jots it down and gets it out. He makes sure to keep his commitments. And he rehearses over and over his testimony and who he was- not before the accident- but before he came to faith. And Dave remembers the Lord. He ponders the ways of his God.

Who Remember You In Your Ways

This morning and last Sunday, I asked Dave if I could take his picture and tell about him and his memory trouble and how he still remembers. Of course, he said. God gave this to me. That’s what it means to be a Christian.

And then, at the end of both little interviews, he chimed in, because he’s put it to memory, probably by writing it over and over and over in his little notepads, then transcribing it at home into his bigger book, Romans 8:28.

All things work together for good, he quoted. No matter how nasty it gets- it all works together for good if you love God.

So as Dave waits for the Day when he’ll again remember his friends’ names, he clearly remembers God’s ways.

And there’s a promise or two in Isaiah 64 for my friend Dave.

From of old no one has heard
    or perceived by the ear,
no eye has seen a God besides you,
    who acts for those who wait for him.
You meet him who joyfully works righteousness,
    those who remember you in your ways.

Isaiah 64:4-5a