Words on my Mind

Thursday, March 07, 2013

By Steven H. VanderLeest

“Bless the Lord, O my Soul”  … Quickly, where is that passage found? 

It was Wednesday evening.  Our praise team was practicing singing “10,000 Reasons,” the song by Matt Redman, in preparation for the Sunday morning service.  Our team leader planned to do a short prayer just before the song and so she wanted to review the passage corresponding to that line from the song.  We all recognized it.  It was on the tip of my tongue!  A psalm?  Yes, certainly.  Which one?  A quick lookup on my smartphone zeroed in on the passage, though it wasn’t quite so immediate, because my Bible app was the New International Version, and the NIV translates that first word as “praise” rather than “bless” so my search didn’t yield any psalms on the first try.  A quick switch to biblegateway.org and a lookup in the King James version yielded Psalm 103 in short order.  I should have known it was Psalm 103, having memorized that passage as a child.  Why had that memory faded so far? 

“Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.”  Deuteronomy 11:18 (NIV)

I wasn’t always so slow to remember a verse.  After finishing 5th grade, I attended a summer camp with my cousin.  The week-long event was sponsored by the church my cousin’s family attended, so along with outdoor activities from hiking to swimming to volleyball, it also included Bible lessons each morning and chapel every evening.  Camp was not for the faint of heart.  We learned how to survive in the woods and how to survive in the ice-cold water of the camp showers.  We ate the unidentifiable chow served in the dining hall and lived to tell about it.  During chapel we sat on long benches constructed from rough hewn wood during even longer meditations constructed from rough hewn personal testimonies of the speaker for the evening.

On the first day of camp, the head counselor announced a memory verse contest.  The student who was able to memorize the most scripture passages from the official contest list would win a monetary prize.  Five dollars might not sound like much today, but to a fifth grader back then, that sounded like a small fortune.  The first passage on the list was Psalm 1.  An entire psalm?  Yes, that was the first hurdle.  But the first psalm is only six verses, and I had already memorized the first couple verses some time previously in Sunday School.  I set to work repeating the first couple verses over and over again, until I had them down pat, then added another verse, repeated the longer string of words over and over, finally getting the entire psalm firmly in my head.  I raced to my cabin’s counselor and the words flew out like water from a firehose, partly from excitement and partly in fear that I might forget if I took too long to recite the scripture passage.  Other students also got through that first Psalm and recited it.  I tackled more and more passages down the list, racing to stay ahead of the competition.  Over the course of the week, I had memorized my way through the entire published contest list (including the first five verses of Psalm 103).  Eventually the counselors had expand the list and assign a few more to me.  When we assembled for the final chapel on Friday, the head counselor pulled out a crisp five-dollar bill and announced that I had won the contest.  I was ecstatic.  I walked up to collect my prize and only when I turned to return to my seat and the whole group applauded did I feel a just a smidgen of pride. 

The following year, I once again attended the camp and on the first day they again announced a Bible memory contest.  This time the prize would be a airplane flight, piloted by one of the church members with a private aircraft pilot’s license.  Here was a prize worth pursuing.  I had never flown before.  The winner would get to see their house, their school—their entire neighborhood from the skies above.  This year the counselors were prepared.  The list of scripture passages was long and varied.  Some of the passages were familiar favorites, while others were obscure little pieces from little known corners of the Bible.  I attacked the list with fervor.  All other camp activities paled in comparison with this pursuit.  Every moment of free time we got, I had my nose in the Word, practicing the next verses on the list.  When we assembled for the final chapel on Friday, once again the head counselor stood up to announce the winner.  I held my breath.  He said a little about the importance of memorizing the Word of God.  He thanked all the students who had participated and memorized so many verses.  I was on the edge of my seat.  My feet were twitching with nervous energy.  Finally he proceeded to announce the winner.  Me.  I was ecstatic!  He handed me a certificate for the plane ride and once again the group applauded.  Later that summer I enjoyed my first plane ride, taking off from the Kent County airport to fly low over Grandville, Michigan and get a bird’s eye view of my house, my church, and my school.

In the weeks and months afterwards, many of those memorized passages faded from my memory.  Now decades later, only a few favorites come easily to my lips.  The sands of memory get smoothed out and fade under the ocean waves of time.  Does technology speed up our forgetting?  While ubiquitous wireless access puts an incredible array of information at our fingertips, are we really smarter?  I can google an answer for you, but does that make me wiser?  I suspect the convenience of the Bible on my iPhone gives me the excuse to memorize less.  However, humans have long used lists, and writing in general, as a tool to help us remember.  Perhaps a Bible app is just another one of those tools.  In the past I have rarely carried a Bible around with me, but now I have it with me daily, in my phone.  Few of us could memorize and retain the entire Bible, so we all need the crutch of the written Word occasionally.  On the other hand, I think it is still a good spiritual discipline to memorize some of scripture, so that God’s Word lives both in our minds and our hearts.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest