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LEARNING BY HEART

LEARNING BY HEART

6287240997_53ff1460da_zThis book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it.  For then you shall be successful.                                                                                                                       Joshua 1:8-9

It was my mother who taught me to “learn by heart.”  She had no degree in spiritual formation or religious education, but it was at her knee that I was taught about learning Scripture by heart.    My mother never called it memorizing, but learning by heart.   My mom somehow knew that by repeating God’s Word again and again it might in time make its way into our hearts.

So before I was learning to read “Dick and Jane” my mom asked me to take Psalm 23 and learn it by heart.  My brain cells and neurons were quick and facile back then so in a flash I knew the Shepherd Psalm!   Then from Psalm 23 she had me go on to Psalm 100 about entering God’s presence with joy and gladness.  I remember thinking it so much fun to repeat the words back to my mom and my dad!

But my mom didn’t stop there.  She took me on to Edgar Guest poetry, “The Bridge Builder” by Will Drumgoole, and “The Touch of the Master’s Hand” by Myra Brooks Welch.  (Check out these poems!  They will move and inspire you! http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/237102, and  http://www.barbados.org/poetry/masters.htm).

Don’t get me wrong!  I didn’t understand all the words, ideas, and emotions I was storing away, and don’t always today.  But as I turn them over and over and sit with them they do somehow make their way to my heart.

But then, memorizing pretty well stopped for me!   Being a Baby Boomer I somehow got the notion that memorizing was just for kids!  Yes, I did have to memorize the Periodic Table and French verb forms, but we called it “rote memory”, which we were told would stifle self and creative thought.

Recently at a Starbucks I saw a man point proudly to his new iPhone and announce, “I never have to memorize anything!  I can always look it up right here!”  Sure, we can always look up Scripture on a handy smart phone, tablet, or Bible, but has it found its way to our hearts?

The Greek philosopher Plato worried about what the newfangled technology of writing might do to Greek culture.  He feared that the common availability of written documents might “produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it.” (“Phaedrus”, The Collected Dialogues of Plato).   Plato imagined that people would memorize less and less because they could always look it up.   And history proved Plato right!

God’s Word does have quite a lot to say about the necessity and value of memorizing Scripture, learning it by heart so that we might learn to live “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4):

  • Psalm 119:11  I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you. 
  • Colossians 3:16  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.
  • See today’s Scripture text, and God’s command to Joshua.

The late Dallas Willard, icon of Christian spiritual formation and head of the philosophy department at USC, hammered away at the importance of learning Scripture by heart:

Bible memorization is absolutely fundamental to spiritual formation.  If I had to – and of course I don’t have to – choose between all the disciplines of the spiritual life and take only one, I would choose Bible memorization.  I would not be a pastor of a church that did not have a program of Bible memorization in it, because Bible memorization is a fundamental way of filling our minds with what they need.  ‘This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth’ (Joshua 1:8).  That’s where we need it!  In our mouth.  Now how did it get in your mouth?  Memorization! (Spiritual Formation in Christ for the Whole Life and Whole Person in Vocatio, Vol. 12., no. 2, Spring, 2001).

I am sorry that I have not done a lot of memorizing since I was young, whether Scripture, good poetry, or prose.  My brain cells are more sluggish today, but new research talks about the plasticity of the brain and how, in fact, old dogs can keep right on learning.  I know that if I can memorize the words of a song, or the box scores of my home team, I can tuck away whole chunks of Scripture.  It would take no more than a few minutes a day!  And as I repeat the sacred words again and again they will somehow sink into my heart.

I am thankful for opportunities that I have to teach seminarians, pastors, and lay people about spiritual disciplines.  Memorizing Scripture is one I want to pick up again.  It’s learning God’s Word by heart.  Ninety-six year old Billy Graham says: “I am convinced that one of the greatest things we can do is memorize Scripture.”  Why not start with one verse of Scripture a week!  That’s one verse I can meditate on as I drive down the 101, stand in line at the bank, or count sheep at night.   It would also be great for couples and families to memorize a verse together each week, to learn by heart.

Grace and peace,
Tim

photo by honorbound

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