Do you remember the movie Groundhog Day? Bill Murray plays a weatherman named Phil who is dispatched every year to Punxsutawney, PA, to cover the festivities of February 2, when Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog, is awakened from his slumbers and studied to discover if he will see his shadow. If he does, the story goes, we will have another six weeks of winter—which we usually do. There are costumed locals, high school bands, a sometimes rather fierce “rodent” as Phil calls him, and all of us are expected to play along with the silliness. Phil the weatherman thinks it is beneath him.
At 6 a.m. in his bed and breakfast, Phil’s alarm wakes him with the song “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher. He goes through a series of experiences as the day unfolds—an old classmate tries to sell him insurance, he steps in an icy puddle, he does a stand-up routine in front of the groundhog—and lobs a running patter of insults at his crew and TV viewers. Phil holds everyone in contempt it seems, including himself, and all he wants to do is get out of town. He almost does, but then the clock goes off at the same time, with the same song, and Phil repeats his miserable day—again and again and again. It slowly dawns on Phil that his day will be the same unless he changes.
Three times this week someone has told me they feel like they are stuck in the same script. Without the usual mileposts of time away from work, or a shift in activities or church services, or going back to school buildings instead of just lining up your pencils at the dining room table, it can feel like every day is the same. “I am thankful for my health,” said one old friend, “but I really don’t know if it’s Tuesday or Sunday, and I feel lost. How do you remember where you are and what’s important?” he asked me.
We talked about getting unstuck in Bible Study yesterday and the ritual work of remembering. “The oldest religious act is to remember,” I offered. A remnant of people have returned to Jerusalem after the Exile, in the book Nehemiah. With a strong, truth-telling leader, who doesn’t mince words about the challenges they face, who helps the people discover resources they didn’t know they had, who empathizes with their pain and inspires them to common purpose, together they repair their city and themselves. The physical work is just the beginning, however. As the construction vehicles back out beeping, the people gather to tell the story of their country’s founding, to remember who they are as they begin again, to measure its success and hold themselves accountable for its sorrow. Imagine their courage: they do the hard, essential work of recalling their whole history—not only the glorious deeds, soaring rhetoric, and inspired laws that changed the course of human civilization, but also the ways they have missed the mark, most searingly the times when a privileged few hoarded power and wealth to themselves, at the expense of the many. Remembering in this way is sacred work, I believe, because it roots us in the world as it is and in how it should be, a world we can rebuild with God’s help.
Imagine communities in our country doing the same work today, every year circling up in a kind of prayer to remember our whole American story—glorious deeds, soaring rhetoric, inspiring laws along with our transgressions and violence, when we did not live up to the vision to be one people, alike in dignity and equal before the law. Maybe we can begin the tradition this November, on the Sunday before election day, weaving the fabric of our service out of the many American voices, to tell the story of how we’ve come to be, to confess how far we still have to go, to remember our hope. Send me an email, if you want to take part.
In the movie, Phil finally has the courage to look at who he really is, to discover that he cares about someone, and to act in a way to deserve her love. He is still Phil—“not a different Phil, but a better Phil” (Roger Ebert)—still a mixed bag of strength and struggle, but maybe that’s the point. He escapes Groundhog Day by being the best person he knows how to be.
The Spirit’s voice of truth is healing and courageous, always drawing us to remember who we are even during this wretched pandemic, calling us to be the people that our country and our city and our families need us to be.