Hebrews 4:12 Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.
In today’s epistle, I was surprised to find this passage – one that I know and take to heart – but not by heart. A scriptural passage that would, if I could know it by heart, roll off my tongue in preaching or on the page as I do theological reflection or in a pastoral visit. I love this word from God – so encouraging and illustrative of the depth and power of God’s Word.
But instead of settling with the delightful surprise of coming across Hebrews 4:12-13, I was sadly reminded that I didn’t know this passage by heart. As much as I love it, I could not have told you it came from Hebrews. And more. I am reminded at how poorly I have memory-mastered scriptural passages and verses for use in ministry and in life.
I am wondering about the facility and capacity to memorize scripture and what roll that plays in one’s faith formation. I know that I was not exposed to explicit bible memorization as part of my Christian formation – at least in the early years. The Ten Commandments, yes, but truly not much else. Youth Group bible studies would come later – but in my early and formative years, the practice of bible-verse memorization was not introduced.
And yet, I was learning the big ideas in God’s Word – the intentions of the heart, as the letter to the Hebrews describes – in worship. And without being aware of it, I was even memorizing discrete, explicit, scriptural passages for the the liturgy in the tradition in which I was raised was infused with scripture. Approximately 70% of the Book of Common Prayer comes directly from the Bible, and Episcopalians read more Holy Scripture in Sunday worship than almost any other denomination in Christianity.
It took me a long time to realize how much of the bible I had learned. I had considered myself a biblical illiterate when I first entered seminary years ago. I was looking forward to some serious bible study where I would memorize God’s Word and expand and deepen my big-picture understanding of God’s revelation in scripture. A God is in the details sort of thing – wherein bible verse memorization would facilitate comprehension so that I would be better at not only connecting dots in God’s Word, but also connecting culture dots to God’s Word. Memorization and context.
But memorization did not come easily. Context, yes. Indeed, that’s a big part of what this blog is all about, at least for me – context for God’s Word to be able to hear what the Spirit is saying. Today. To me. To God’s people.
That memorization was difficult for me has been a surprise. I spent many years in my youth and in my young adulthood and even in my professional life for a season memorizing lines. As an actor and public speaker I never found memorization a challenge. Nor later in life when I learned a third foreign language to speak, or learning Ancient Greek. Mastering conversational Italian and written Greek was not without challenges, but memorization of vocabulary and sentence structure and the like wasn’t a problem.
Perhaps that had something to do with how I memorized lines, a script, a speech, a colloquialism. The method to the madness, so to speak. I know in all of those learnings, I had to combine audio with text. I had to SEE the words I was learning. So with a script, I memorized by seeing all the lines on a page – mine and the other actors. And when I was rehearsing or performing and needed to recall a line, I would visualize the page. I could see the line – highlighted often in yellow – and then I would recall the line on stage. Same thing at work when learning Greek. In addition to flash cards, seeing the word in the text – in John’s gospel for example (the easiest most elementary Greek of the bible) – was my way forward recalling the Greek word.
I do a lot of audio book listening. And podcast listening. If I want to master an idea, commit something to memory, I have to purchase or locate online the written transcript or book. I have to SEE the words I have heard in order to commit the idea to memory. I have to place the idea in conTEXT.
So, why not scripture? Why haven’t I been able to memorize scripture so that I can call upon a verse or letter or passage at just the right moment?
I am not quite sure. I think I am wondering more about those who have memorized the bible hook line and sinker and how they use scriptural passages – word for word from whatever version of the bible they prefer – to make a case for this or that. Those folks lose me after awhile. The recitation isn’t enough to make a case. God’s Word needs to be unpacked, heard in conTEXT. And all of it needs to be heard, preached, read – and often.
Even so. I would if I could. I would cite scripture right now to make a case for bible-memorizationally-challenged ministers to continue speaking to, about, for God’s Word.
Best I can do today is cite the letter to the Hebrews (which, by the way, was most likely not penned by Paul – how’s that for conTEXT :-)) to encourage and remind all of us that God’s word is living and active – not static, not to be reduced to a flash card for memorization. But to be lived. As seen in Hebrews 4:12:
…the word of God is living and active