This post is adapted from my afternoon talk at the Bethany Presbyterian Church Women’s Retreat in April.
A year and a half ago, at Thanksgiving, Susan showed me a little book she’d made with all the verses of Ephesians printed in it, six or eight verses to a page. She said she was going to memorize it.
“The whole book?” I was incredulous.
“Well, yes,” she said. “That’s the plan.”
“Ooh,” I said, “can I join you?”
I’m not sure what prompted me to ask her that, other than that I saw she had one. Call it mimetic desire, if you want. That’s surely part of it. I’m not one to let Susan do anything without my tagging along (well, except she did move to Boston and get a PhD, and I didn’t, but apart from that…).
I expect that another part of it was that in my sleep-deprived state, I felt brain-numb and fuzzy, and I wanted some concrete way to fire my tired neurons and get them moving and shaking, get the blood circulating in my brain again.
But perhaps the biggest part of it was sheer desperation. I was so scared that November, and the root of my fear was that God felt absent, even non-existent. So perhaps I thought that if I could just internalize enough of the Bible, I’d be able to feel God again. I’d be able to believe without doubting, without fearing.
So I asked Susan to make me an Ephesians Memory Book, too. She gave it to me the first week of Advent.
Each page in Susan’s little book represented a week’s worth of memory work. If I stuck to the schedule, I’d have the whole of Ephesians memorized in 24 weeks. I’d have a whole book of the Bible wired into my brain, running on smooth little tracks like the Chunnel train, and come hell or high water, I’d be okay because I would know God was real.
But it didn’t quite work out like that. For one thing, I just couldn’t keep up such an aggressive schedule—more than one verse every day. Nope. Not in my intensely lactating and sleep-deprived life.
For another, after a month of memory work, my fear was worse than before, with panic attacks rather than the words of Scripture rolling through my body like that Chunnel train.
Oddly enough, I didn’t give up. I’m not sure why. Call it God’s grace. Call it stubbornness. Call it pride.
But over the next 11 months, I memorized a verse or two or three every week, until I’d memorized the whole book. All six chapters. Every last word.
Now why on earth did I do this? In a culture in which we have easy access to words, it is hard to see the reason to memorize anything. After all, we can just look it up on Google.
It’s not like we’re those desert ammas and abbas with only one copy of Scripture among them. We have easy access to the words of the Bible (and everything else). So why memorize?
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre writes, “We need words that will surface when it is time to speak peace to violence or truth to power. To memorize poems,”—and, I would add, Scripture—“is to prepare for these moments, and to put away for a time of need provisions that will fuel our prayers and see us through.”
Words that we know by heart are the words that will surface in time of need. Scripture that we’ve memorized becomes prayer, the Word of God on our lips and in our hearts.
I don’t often have time to sit down with my Bible and a cup of tea and leisurely ponder the Word of God. Having Scripture memorized makes it possible for me to meditate on that Word when I’m making my bed or driving or on my morning run (uh, assuming I go on a morning run).
Memorization allows me to embrace the centuries-old Christian practice of lectio divina in the midst of my noisy, chaotic, crazy, kid-centered life. All I have to do is pick a few verses that I already know and start saying them over and over, listening for how they might speak to me here, now, again.
In Ephesians 4:1-2, for instance, Paul urges us “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love…”
Jane and I were doing laundry together a few weeks ago. I was loading the wet clothes into the dryer. She reached in and pulled out the lint trap and started cleaning it off, blocking the dryer door so that I had to stand there holding wet clothes till she was done. And I did. I stood there, patiently holding those clothes, waiting gently and quietly till she was done.
This is exactly what I should have done, so on the one hand this is totally minor, almost not worth mentioning. But on the other hand, knowing myself and how I would usually have responded—with a barked, “hurry up!” or some other bit of brusque impatience—this is a major triumph for me, an instance in which I can see that these words from Ephesians, said over and over again in my heart and mind, are sinking in, are making small but noticeable differences in my behavior.
I could, of course, tell ten failure stories for each success story like this one. Verses like Ephesians 4:29 (“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouth but only such as is good for building up…”) or 6:4 (“Parents, do not provoke your children to anger…”) make me brutally aware of how far short of the glory of God I fall on a daily basis.
But they do so in the context of God’s love and grace. Ephesians 3:18 reminds me how “wide and long and high and deep is the love of God.” Ephesians 2:4 reminds me that “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved!”
So the conviction of some verses is more than balanced by the love and grace that permeates other verses.
I am not stuck in my sin. I am convicted, yes, but also unconditionally loved and freely forgiven. I cannot earn God’s love. I cannot earn God’s grace. They are gifts: chapter 3, verse 7: “By grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.”
Memorizing these words makes me want to respond to this gift, makes me want to do what God asks of me, not because I have to—God never compels our obedience; if He did, how could we refuse to obey?—but because I get to, because I want to, because I can.
This is why memorizing a big fat chunk of Scripture is, I think, so important. If I’d only memorized those verses from Ephesians 4, I’d be stuck in a sense of my own failure, but by memorizing the whole book, those verses about how I’m supposed to live my life are balanced by the rest of the book, which gives me the context for my behavior: the love and grace that God has poured out upon me.
Memorizing Ephesians has enriched my life. I think it’s even fair to say it has changed my life. It’s a slow change, just as memorizing the whole book was a slow process, but slow and steady wins the race: “We press on towards the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (That’s Phillipians, a book I have yet to memorize, but it’s on my list!)
Come back next Tuesday to find out just how practical memorizing Scripture is in a busy 21st century life. (Or better yet, subscribe by email, so you’re sure to get the post.)