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Each day of Lent this year, our focus will be on one of the signature texts from the Psalms - the prayer book that Jesus knew.

It matters what we choose to remember.

That's overwhelmingly true for people who are married.

We're not just talking about birthdays, appointments, and those important anniversaries.  

Studies consistently show that happy partners look back and remember a long and winding road that has brought them to a good place, even though there were tough times along the way.  Unhappy partners do just the opposite.  They look back and see nothing but a trail of tears.

The amazing thing is that happy couples and unhappy couples may be looking at precisely the same events. 

The way we look at things makes all the difference in the world.

When someone in a happy relationship looks at their partner, they don't see a perfect person.  They see someone they love who routinely makes mistakes, and they give them the benefit of the doubt.  But a partner who is struggling with anger and bitterness wonders how they ever got stuck with such a blunderhead of a spouse.  They've become almost functionally deaf, dumb, and blind to the things about their partner that once sparked joy.  

What happy couples and unhappy couples have in common is that they both have the power to write (and to edit) their own love story.  

It all depends on what they choose to remember.  

Psychologist John Gottman and his staff carefully observed more than 700 couples for something like two decades.  They discovered what they came to call the "magic ratio."  By carefully tracking the positive and negative interactions of marriage partners, could they predict the future happiness index of those relationships?

Gottman's answer is a resounding yes. 

The magic ratio is 5:1.  For every irritating or demoralizing interaction in a relationship, there need to be at least five affirming, loving, or encouraging interactions.  This proves to be true for quiet, peaceful couples (who quarrel about as often as a solar eclipse) and demonstrative partners who wouldn't think of going to bed without hurling at least one piece of kitchen crockery.   

If the ratio exceeds 5:1, it means that couple has learned how to navigate chaos and pain, often with humor and grace.  If the ratio dips below that number, there's probably trouble on the horizon.

Social psychologist Ayala Pines once counseled a woman named Donna who specialized in focusing on what her husband did wrong.  Every time he left her feeling angry or depressed, she recorded it in her "hate book."

What was Donna doing?  She was preparing her case for walking out the door, even though her past included evidence that her husband wasn't such a rotten guy. 

Gottman writes, "I have found that nothing foretells a marriage's future as accurately as how a couple retells their past."  

We have the power to remember and relive happy times.  Or we can experience a kind of relational amnesia that makes us forget why we ever fell in love in the first place.  Can such a thing really happen to people?

Yes. They forget how to remember.  

There are two fascinating pairs of psalms that take us deep into the mysterious realm of memories:  Psalms 77-78 and Psalms 105-106.  These are among the longest psalms in the Bible. They brim with historical details.

The first psalm in each pair is a call to look back and say, "Lord, I remember when you took care of me in the past!"   Check out Psalm 77:11: "I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago." 

Then there's Psalm 105:5: "Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced."  What follows in each case is a history lesson: one example after another of how God keeps his promises to those who trust him.    

God clearly wants us to look back, as a happy couple would, and see the track record of things working out, even in the midst of dark days we thought would never end.

The second psalm of each pair describes what happens when we fail to remember. 

Even after God dramatically brought them out of slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel doubted his power and his motives.  Psalm 78:19 borders on contempt: "They spoke against God, saying, 'Can God spread a table in the desert?'"  Sure, you got us out of Egypt, but what are we supposed to eat out here?

Instead of rejoicing in the amazing love story that God was writing for them, they were filling up the pages of a "hate book."  

Psalm 106:7 puts it this way: "When our fathers were in Egypt, they gave no thought to your miracles; they did not remember your many kindnesses, and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea."

If you've ever seen Charlton Heston's Moses in The Ten Commandments stretch out his arms while the Red Sea parts, it can seem incomprehensible that the people would ever forget to thank God for that.

But most of us have attended weddings where a happy couple took joy in each other's presence - and now that same couple cannot stand to look at their own wedding pictures.  It matters very much what we choose to remember, and how we remember it.     

The "psalms of remembering" call us to revisit the past with thankfulness - to see a love story in which God is presiding over every detail.  Even during the rough patches.  

What past events, "coincidences," and surprises should we thank him for today?

May God, by his grace, teach us to remember how to remember.    
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Glenn McDonald is the Director of Mission Integration for the Ascension Ministry Service Center in Indianapolis, Indiana, a role in which he serves as the workplace mission leader for 900 associates in the healthcare industry.

Glenn is an ordained Presbyterian minister, has 33 years of congregational leadership experience, and is the author of eight books on discipleship and spiritual formation.  He and his wife enjoy living on a small farm.
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