When I was a kid at summer camp I memorized scripture. Lots of it. You had to say a memory verse before you could swim in the river each hot afternoon. And you had to know all the “official” verses to qualify for camper of the year. I loved to swim and was fiercely competitive; so I always knew the memory verses.
A few years later, sitting in my Life of Christ class in college, I found myself regurgitating those same verses (and plenty of new ones) on tests, my pen filling in blanks, searching my brain for Bible words like “alas” and “therefore” and “henceforth.”
I don’t remember memorizing scripture being too hard back then, though it wasn’t ever easy. I also don’t remember the process feeling especially special. I don’t remember cradling those holy words on my tongue, holding them in and breathing them out, Spirit-spoken.
I remember them as tickets or ladder rungs enabling my advancement.
I didn’t write the words on my heart, not intentionally. I wrote them on the backs of my eyelids in dry erase marker.
As an adult I don’t memorize scripture anymore. I stopped as soon as the prizes did. That doesn’t make the prizes or the systems rewarding my efforts wrong. But it does mean, in all the competition and repetition, I missed the point, and I’ve struggled since then to find it.
Why memorize when I can read? Because I do read. A lot. I have a Bible on my phone and a Bible in my purse. I write scriptures on notecards and read those. I attend Bible studies. I write Bible studies. I lead Bible studies. Sometimes it feels like I pipe Bible into my veins via IV.
And when I do read it, I feel something special. I see the words clearly. I hold them tenderly. I observe and examine. I poke at the syllables and sentences until they move and breathe. Reading scripture is good. So why bother with the hard work of committing it to memory?
“Memorize this with me,” my husband says from the passenger seat.
My shoulders sag. I sigh.
“Come on,” he says.
“I’m terrible at this,” I say.
“Just try,” he says.
“Repeat after me,” he says.
“Dear friends, let us love one another…”
This past weekend, driving home from a beautiful trip to Abilene, TX, a trip full of joy and love, my husband Justin asked me to memorize a handful of verses from I John. I don’t like memorizing verses. I feel inept when I try, like a person with too small a basket to carry all the words. But I said I would because the trip had been good and I was in an accommodating mood and because we still had two hours left of our drive and perhaps this was as a good thing to do with two hours in a car as any other thing I could think up.
I’d been wanting to try memorization again after a long, long break. I suspected my excuses (“I’m no good at this.” “It’s not how my brain works.”) were largely empty. But wanting to do something and doing it are different. A week before I’d written four verses from the Psalms on a white index card. I’d read them aloud a few times, tried to let the words sink in, but found myself distracted and then wondered why I couldn’t find the words later, rifling through my mental files and boxes.
This day I decided to try harder. I decided to think only of the words and not of lunch or Blacklist or laundry. Justin spoke them. I repeated them. I was committed to this. No excuses.
And it was SO HARD.
I consider myself a smart woman. I’m a strong thinker, good at problem solving, capable of juggling several lines of thought at once. But this memorizing thing--it consumed me. All I could think about were the words. I couldn’t even think ahead to what phrase might be next. I could only plod word by word, totally and completely in the moment, undistracted. If I looked away, let some rogue thought about the kids or my schedule disrupt the moment, the whole passage would spill out of my hands, leaving me to pick up the pieces again, one by one.
I watched them cascade to the ground over and over.
Maybe I’m just getting old, but memorizing those six verses took all the brainpower I could muster.
I hated it. And I loved it.
My mind is almost never singularly focused. It whirs and swirls, thoughts like waves building and crashing, one on top of the other, no time between them to consider the last or prepare for the next. There’s no stillness to my thoughts. No peace. Just the constant hum of activity. I’ve learned to handle this phenomenon, embrace it even. It’s why I write, dumping all the thoughts on a page so I can look at them and order them and make sense of them.
Sometimes though, I just want to stop my thoughts. Sometimes the devil breaks in and hijacks every channel. He says stuff I don’t want to hear and makes me believe it’s me doing the saying. So I try to think of something else. But inevitably I end up thinking of both things--the devil’s thing and the something else and somehow, someway, both things end up drowned in the dark.
This is a problem. A problem for which I had few good solutions. Until I started memorizing scripture again.
This morning in the shower at the YMCA my brain would not stop planning outfits. This is a problem I have. Not a cute little problem. It’s a real, crippling problem, the sins of materialism, vanity, and perfectionism mixed into a time-sapping cocktail of thought deviance. I did not want to be thinking of clothes, to keep finding problems with the ones I had, identifying pieces I needed to get. I tried praying, but didn’t have paper or pen to focus my thoughts so the clothes kept appearing between the lines. Finally I remembered the scripture I’d memorized and how it had taken so much concentration, and so I started reciting,
“Dear friends, let us love one another…”
The recitation wasn’t clean. I stumbled all around. Put sentences in the wrong order. But I didn’t give up. I kept trying to put one word after another. Kept reaching deep into the fog to retrieve the next word, like a bunny from a hat. It took all my ability, and pushed aside every stray thought. Like in a movie when someone important walks into the party and every single person stops talking, my thoughts shut up in the mighty presence of the Spirit of God. Those words, those perfect truths, pushed everything else out of the way.
For ten good minutes my whole mind, every thought, swam in the cool, still water of truth.
I’m honestly not sure of the exact best reason why you should memorize scripture. I remember sitting with my great grandmother at the nursing home just before she died at the ripe age of 102, listening to her quote the Psalms. She couldn’t remember her son’s name, but she hadn’t forgotten, “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want…” Almost twenty years later I sat beside her son, my grandfather, as he died. And would you believe those same holy words were some of the last words he spoke? I want to have scripture in my mind and on my tongue when I die. That’s one good reason to memorize it.
Another, and the one I find most compelling for this generation, is the one I’ve mentioned in this post, the reality that memorization requires concentration. I read an article from a two-time US memory champion on how to memorize, and he said you simply cannot memorize something without devoting your full self to the task. In a whirring world where focus and concentration seem impossible, memorizing the Word of God yanks us into a powerful, immersive encounter with the divine.
Years ago, I memorized a lot of scripture. Yeah, I didn’t do it for the best reasons, and I didn’t benefit from it too much in the moment, but as I think back I realize, despite my poor handling of them, those verses are planted deep inside me. They’ve been there for decades now, growing in the soil of my heart, shaping me, directing me, comforting, challenging and reminding me. While I do wish I hadn’t memorized everything in the KJV (lots of thees and thous knocking around in my cerebral corridors), I can’t tell you how thankful I am to have so many of God’s words in the word bank of my mind. When my thoughts go wrong, I know I always have the right ones close by to grab and hold onto.
If you, like me, struggle to find focus or wrangle your stray thoughts, consider joining me for THINK GOOD this June, a workshop to help us fix how we think. I'll show you several good methods (including memorizing scripture) for getting your thoughts under control. Find more info here: godscout.com/thinkgood