To remember 9/11 is to revisit a past pain. The uncertainty of that day paralyzed many with fear and filled others with rage. It prompted a broad range of feelings, and for many folks, the emotional sting still lingers even after two decades. As we memorialize that transformative moment in American history, we are called to remember. We see it emblazoned on the sign or intoned by the rally speaker: Remember!

But what do we remember? Are we being asked to remember the emotional pain of that day’s trauma? That doesn’t sound pleasant. What about the horrific loss of so many first responders at Ground Zero?

Maybe we play it safe and are only interested in hearing about “where were you” when it happened? Must we remember the tragic loss of so many citizens who perished? Won’t that kind of remembering just prompt unwanted tears?

Or perhaps we’re supposed to remember the valiant courage of our servicemen and servicewomen who have fought evil on the other side of the world for so many long hard years? Aren’t we also supposed to remember the countless acts of compassion by neighbors consoling neighbors? Should we just remember the faith and courage, or must we also remember the fear and anger?

I think the answer to all these questions is yes. Uncomfortable remembering is essential to the human experience. It functions as a needed antidote to both blind optimism and debilitating pessimism. It balances us. Remembering both the good and the bad helps to shape our thinking and frame our future. Remembering is learning.

Over my tenure as a Christian, I’ve either preached or heard probably in the neighborhood of 6,000 sermons and lessons. Of course, after so many, I don’t remember every word spoken. It is undoubtedly also true that those who hear my sermons don’t remember every passage or point proclaimed. A simple survey quizzing my people over what I preached last week would prove this to be true.

I do, however, carry with me the guiding principles of Christianity that have formed inside of me over time as a cumulative consequence of those lessons. You see, continual drinking from the well of God’s word instills in us a robust capacity for healthy faith. It’s not a one-time remember and done. As we keep rehearsing the gospel narrative, this act of remembering keeps us focused and centered. God knows that remembering is learning.

That’s why, for example, he wants us to include the memorial of the Lord’s Supper in our worship. We weekly eat the unleavened bread and drink the fruit of the vine because we’re told to “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24). It is a memorial, yes, but it is also formative to remembering our identity.

You see, this habitual “remembering” equips us and shapes us into who we ought to be. We should want to be people who have learned the lessons of the past and can thus live into the future equipped to manage life’s challenges. We remember 9/11 because we acknowledge we have been shaped by that past event and because we know we continue to be shaped by it.

We’re keeping ourselves open to learning when we remember the past, even when the lesson comes through remembering the pain.