The Defining Power of Memory

Last summer my family met up for a vacation in Thailand. It is a rare opportunity to have all of us in the same country let alone in the same house for an entire week. Most days we just sat around the table or on the couches recalling our favorite Mongolian memories.

Do you remember sledding down Sansar hill into oncoming traffic?

Do you remember when we dug our own outhouse?

Do you remember selling Barbies out the train windows in Russia?

As we sat and talked, the Mongolian memories came flowing back and laughter was inevitable. These are precious and important moments that we share as a family because the opportunity to relive and remember our childhoods are so few and far between. No one shares our memories except the five of us.

Do you remember when we slept in the Berlin train station?

Do you remember the Christmas when all we got was Snickers and a Coke?

Do you remember being chased down the street by that pig?

As a family, we spend more time apart then we do together and this is the way it has been since 1999. A snippet of time spent here and there to re-bind the relationship and remember where we come from.  Essentially that is what remembering together does for us. Remembering is the process of re-binding and re-solidifying our relationship so that we walk away with a better sense of who we are and where we fit in this world.

Our memories have this way of defining us.

I don’t know about you, but the longer that I go without connecting with my family and remembering the past, I lose bits of myself. I just forget and I move about life without a solidified identity and I become insecure in who I am.

The same goes for my relationship with God.

As life moves me forward I am prone to forget the past as I am busy processing new experiences. Yet, I think I lose an important piece of my spirituality when all that God has done is forgotten, not only throughout global history, but especially throughout my own personal, relational history with God. I can forget who God is to me. Now, I am not suggesting that I have somehow forgotten the basic facts about who God is. No, I forget the emotional bonds that God and I have forged together.

Not to brag, but as a TCK, I am very good at detaching. I have some serious skills when it comes to walking away from relationships and never looking back. I would love to say that my relationship with God doesn’t mimic my family and friend relationships but then I would be lying. After all, I only know one way of relating.

This is why remembering is so important for me. As my identity, which is murky at best, begins to fade away, memories can bring me back to the truth.

Remember the time we prayed for bread and God brought us fresh bread?

Remember the time I swore at God and asked him to leave me alone and yet he quietly stayed?

Remember when I grieved alone in my room and God met me there throughout the night?

It isn’t through the events alone that my identity is strengthened, it is through reliving the emotional impact that drives my bond deeper with God, family and friends. Remembering can help defog the lenses from which I am perceiving current events and give me a better perspective as I push forward.

And I believe that this is the intention of remembering, to relive those moments in our lives in which God has personally and powerfully shown himself to us so that we can reinforce the bonds of relationship with a deeper level of trust.

So, I encourage you, when life is overwhelming, when marriage is hard, when God is distant…remember.

Remember the awe you felt when God made all the ends meet.

Remember the joy and excitement you felt when you and your spouse were dating.

Remember the gratitude you felt when you realized exactly what kind of grace God gives.

Remember the peace that comes from accepting that your identity is in Christ.

Here are some verses that I have loved that are focused on remembering Christ:

Ephesians 2:10-22

2 Timothy 2:8-10

John 12:16

John 14:26

Hebrews 10:32-36

What memories have defined you the most? How does remembering together with family, friends and God, aid your relational bonds?



  1. Patty Stallings April 30, 2017

    Joy, I love this post. It motivates me to stir up memories with our grown kids. Thanks!

    1. Joy Smalley May 1, 2017

      Thank you. Enjoy the time remembering with your kids!

  2. Elizabeth April 30, 2017

    “Not to brag, but as a TCK, I am very good at detaching.”

    Oh sister, you and me both.

    1. Joy Smalley May 1, 2017

      HaHaHa…a kindred spirit 🙂

  3. Claire Patty April 30, 2017

    Ah, a precious reminder to this TCK too! Thank you. Indeed, though we may be “experienced” at goodbyes and detaching, we don’t ever have to do that with our Lord! I’m thankful for this encouragement to remember what he has done for the purpose of re-solidifying our relationship with Him. So good.

    1. Joy Smalley May 1, 2017

      Yes! We never have to detach from God…He really is always present with us!

  4. Michele Z May 1, 2017

    I know this was not really the main point, but this sentence really jumped off my screen: “After all, I only know one way of relating.” I’m not a tck, but 25 years in four countries beside my passport one have taught me a thing or two about detachment, and I would say I’m not too bad at it! It had not occurred to me in the past 7 to 10 of struggling to abide in the Vine like I used to that the way I relate to everyone else has crossed over to how I relate to Him! We spent some time talking about it this morning, though, and between the things He spoke during the retreat and now this, the memories of being in that place of continual communion are not so vague and fuzzy, but, I think, becoming my present reality once again!

    1. Joy Smalley May 1, 2017

      Praise God Michele! I love those periods of time when God becomes tangible and I pray that your present reality is rich with Christ’s presence. It may not have been the main point of the article but I do believe it is an important point. I’ve heard it said that ‘who we are in relationship is who we are in relationship’ , so wether we are talking spouse, friend, family or God we only have one mode of relational operandi. It has been neat to see in my own life how, as I have grown in my ‘earthly’ relationships, my relationship with God has flourished more and vise versa. It is all enmeshed and beautiful. Blessings!

  5. Karen C May 1, 2017

    Well written, thanks. I was seeking out counsel a few months ago to learn how to do a better job at grafting in the spouses of some of our children. Because when we are back in the U.S. on furlough and around the family table, it is so natural for the, “Do you remember…” to be a significant part of our conversation. The counselor reminded me that this is part of our family’s DNA, part of who they are. It’s so true that few of their Stateside friends can relate to our DNA. I don’t want to squash or marginalize those precious memories and the laughter that usually comes with it. Suggestions as to how we can help those new family members feel a part?

    1. Leigha May 1, 2017

      Karen, as one who married into a family like yours, I encourage you to not be shy about sharing those memories! I’ve always *loved* hearing the stories of my husband’s growing up years in a context so completely different from mine. It was and is fascinating to me. (And I have to say, those stories gave me courage to do this with my own little ones.) After 14 years of hanging around them (and hearing many of the same memories over and over so much that I could tell them) it almost feels like I was there, ha. 🙂 One huge thing that helped me gain a better understanding and connection to the family was by actually visiting the country – twice (the second time with our kids!). I know that’s not always possible but man, to see their old neighborhood, meet old co-workers, tour his international school, and experience the culture, the food, the traffic, the heat, all of it… well that’s when I really felt I had become family. 😉

      1. Karen C May 1, 2017

        Thanks, Leigha. One has visited one of the places we’ve lived. It gave him much greater understanding about why we do what we do. For several of the spouses, it is so different from their small town background. One hasn’t been interested much in learning more about our background but wanting our child to “leave behind the past and totally embrace the new”. That adult child has struggled with having her rich and varied childhood affirmed and valued. I feel sometimes caught trying to find balance for each of these spouses are wonderful additions to our family.

        1. Joy Smalley May 1, 2017

          How long have your kids been married? I am not that knowledgable, so take my words with a grain of salt, but from what I have seen there can be a level of fear for spouses in acknowledging the value of an overseas life. Not everyone wants to live overseas and they may even be afraid that their spouse will all of a sudden want to move back to Asia or Africa etc. I think it is a way of protecting their vision for their life and it may just take time and security for them to realize that they can embrace the richness of their spouses overseas childhood without fear that they will be ‘dragged’ into that life or that their own childhood is diminished in light of a TCK life.

          1. Karen C May 1, 2017

            I like that thought about feeling that “their own childhood is diminished in light of a TCK life.” Thanks for the insight.

    2. Joy Smalley May 1, 2017

      Thanks Karen. I agree with Leigha, that part of the grafting in of spouses includes remembering together. My husband also spent some time in Mongolia after we got engaged and it was/is helpful because I know he has a visual image now for the stories that we tell. I will be praying for wisdom for you as you draw your kids together. I know it is hard.

      1. Karen C May 1, 2017

        Yes, it is hard. I’ve talked a few others who have also struggled with the grafting in process. It doesn’t automatically happen. Thank you for your prayers.

  6. Yvonne May 2, 2017

    Loved this!! Thank you so much for sharing. I have been trying to process why I only identify with the negatives in my life rather than the positive. Meaning it is easier for me to believe what others think of me because of certain instances or events that happened in my lifetime. Being on the field for 11 years in my older years I see how I disengage myself. Because I am not around family and friends to help me remember events I have retreated into a self isolated shell. I am going to start remembering memories to remind me of who I really am and to remember all God has done.

    1. Joy Smalley May 2, 2017

      Thanks Yvonne. I also have a tendency to identify myself by the negative experiences as opposed to the positive ones. I pray that God will give you vivid memories that solidify your identity in him and in the process bring opportunities to reengage. Blessings 🙂

  7. Evelyn May 3, 2017

    Thanks for sharing Joy. Living in East Asia for the past 7 years, and for most of our married life, the pace of life can be overwhelming. You know the stages: excitement/novelty, anger, humor, acceptance… adapting to a new culture almost inhibits having good memories, or memories in general! This post however reminds me that in this season, as our family has been called to sabbatical, we are also called to remember. Like you said, to remember the relational moments we experienced with God that brought us to this point. To remember His grace and providence, so we can move forward in uncertainty. I think remembering helps foster thanksgiving. For when we remember, we are inevitably overwhelmed time and time again with how God deeply loves us. I guess my prayer is that we learn to ‘rest’ well; to truly spend our time of sabbatical purposely by stopping, remembering, and cementing those memories as a means of equipping ourselves for the next step.

    1. Joy Smalley May 3, 2017

      Yeah, I agree Evelyn, it is often hard to find the good memories (or have memories at all) through all the transitions and stress of cross-cultural living. I like that you mentioned how remembering leads to thanksgiving. That as we remember what God has done for us and who he has been for us we are lead to a place of praise. I like that a lot. I will pray that God provides you with soul rest while you are on sabbatical and gives you the opportunity to both remember the past but also build memories for the future. Blessings.

  8. Lyndsay June 17, 2017

    This is so good Joy! Just what I needed to hear. I miss the days when we were together and I was learning and God was so REAL! Now there are kids and life and it’s not just about me. But to sit and remember that time when I was on fire for the Lord and everyday was a new adventure with just Him and I … puts a smile on my face. I know there are seasons and this one will pass like all the others. Remembering the joy and hope each day brought during that time, helps me get through the grind of driving kids around and cleaning the same messes every day. I know that one day soon the kids will be gone and He will still remain and who knows what each day will bring…
    Miss you guys! Love seeing your photos!

    1. Joy Smalley June 19, 2017

      Hi Lyndsay! Thank you! That period of time in my life was also a high with God, where emotions were strong and God felt close. We love and miss you too!

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