Sunday, February 22, 2009

Learning His Word "By Heart"

By Charlotte Lowrie
When I was growing up, our rural Oklahoma church was one of a group of German Congregational churches in the central United States. Every year, all the member churches would convene for an annual conference hosted by one of the churches. Each conference included many sermons, business meetings, teachings for all ages, and wonderful combined choirs. One of the kid events was a Bible memorization contest.

Much like a spelling bee, the contest was organized by ages, and each contestant recited Bible verses with Scripture references. Contestants stood in a line and the first child recited a verse. The judges verified the accuracy of the recitation and Scripture reference. Then the next child recited, and so it went until one or another child ran out of memorized verses. The last child standing won the contest.

So every year, well before the annual conference, my parents would get me started memorizing Bible verses. I remember being somewhere in the vicinity of 7 or 8 years old, as I walked from room to room in our farmhouse practicing my Bible verses. Of the two or three years that I competed, I remember winning only one contest. That year the conference was hosted by a member church in Kansas. The contest was held on an exceptionally hot summer afternoon. I was wearing a pretty dress that Mom had made, but suddenly the yards of fabric in the full skirt seemed heavy and close that afternoon. And the hotter I got, the more firmly my curly blonde bangs stuck to my forehead like glue. But I kept reciting verses, searching hard and fast for verses that hadn’t been recited by other contestants.

Then I remember realizing that I was the only person standing on the stage. Mom and Dad were smiling at me, but I was completely mortified to realize that I was on the stage all by myself. (Clearly I was too young and naïve to know what winning a contest meant.) Whether I got a prize or not escapes me, but I remember the great sense of relief I felt when they told me I could go back to my seat.

In the 1950s, we called Bible verse memorization, “learning by heart.” As a child, I always assumed that was just another way to describe memorization. But these days, I’ve learned that it means much more.

The Psalmist wrote, “I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from our commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119: 10-11 NIV)

Just as Jesus used the word of God against satan in the temptation, so the word of God serves as our shield and armor. With it, we can resist temptaton and evil. The Bible says that the word is sharper than a two-edged sword. The Lord reminds us to use His word well, to hide it in our hearts. And when we do that, it will be there when we need it.

Now, at an age when I can neither remember where I last laid my glasses nor see well enough to find them, I’ve begun again to learn His word by heart. Every week I choose a new set of verses and begin the process of learning them “by heart.” Some weeks, I learn two verses. Other weeks, I learn a lengthy passage of six or seven verses. And almost every day, I recite this week’s selection along with the passages that I learned by heart in the previous weeks.

This journey that echoes that of my childhood is rewarding beyond description. The blessing that He gives me as I recite passages is sometimes overwhelming. Other times, my favorite passages bring immediate tears of gratitude and joy. Now, as I learn by heart, I know that His words have become part of the sinew of my heart, deeply and richly embedded within me.

And I’ve found some creative uses as well. For example, I am in the last stages of a multi-stage procedure with the dentist. The dentist’s office is my least favorite place to go, and I cringe at the sound of the drill. But I finally found a good dentist--so good, in fact, that while he drills away on my tooth, I recite my Bible passages silently. If the drilling gets dicey, I just recite faster and mentally louder. And if I forget the sequence of a long passage, the Lord is there to prompt me with the first word or thought to get me back on track.

It seems improbable that it would take me all these years to understand what learning His word “by heart” means, but now I know, and I'll never forget.