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Your word I have hidden in my heart,
That I might not sin against You.
“Jeff, I’ve got an idea,” I pulled him aside after the worship service one Sunday. “We’re going to preach through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Epiphany to Palm Sunday. What if you and I led a Wednesday night class where we invited others to join us and commit to memorizing the whole thing? You know, as a spiritual practice.”
I knew he’d be game. This is the kind of work he’s given his life to, both as a college professor and as a member of the church: getting God’s Word deep into the heart. He smiled, his eyes squinnied and his teeth shone through a thick beard like a patch of fresh snow in a thicket of evergreens. “I love it,” he said.
We got the word out and planned for the first gathering. We were prepared for it to be only the two of us. Surprisingly, nearly twenty-five people showed up. A good number of them were college students (Jeff shook the bushes in the theater department), but there were about a dozen others from the congregation—a young mom of three kids, a few other faculty members, a married couple in their fifties (dairy farmers), a widower in his sixties who lost his wife to cancer. An eclectic group to say the least. The church!
We’re in our fourth week now, taking on this slow, arduous work of attending to the words of Scripture as an act of humility, patience, and love (Augustine). It’s not just about impressing God’s Word into our memory but partnering with the Spirit to knead it into our hearts. Scripture memorization has long been a spiritual discipline of mine, but I’ve never done it community like this. It has been so rich to do this with members of my congregation.
During the week we’ll run into each other in line at the grocery store or on campus at the basketball game, and we’ll see each other holding our tattered sheet of paper with the Scripture on it, busy memorizing and mouthing words, probably looking crazy to others who notice. This past Sunday, when I got up to read the sermon text in worship, I looked out and there in the second row was the dairy farm couple—she was mouthing the words right along with me! I couldn’t help but smile.
Our Wednesday night class has become one of my favorite times of the week. The class structure is so simple. We begin by breaking into small groups and share how the memory work went the past week. What opened up for you in the act of interiorizing the Word? What did you notice that you hadn’t noticed before? What puzzled you? Where do you get stuck in the practice of memorizing? And then we practice reciting the Scripture aloud. Somebody starts and goes as far as they can from memory. Then the next person picks up, and we go around the circle until we get as far as our goal was for that week. If somebody gets stuck, another steps in. It’s a communal act of remembering the story together.
It all reminds me of Lloyd Jones extraordinary novel Mister Pip. Jones tells the story of a girl living on the war-ravaged island of Bougainville. She has an eccentric teacher named Mr. Watts who introduces his students to Charles Dicken’s classic Great Expectations. He reads the story aloud each day, and the children find themselves so caught up in the narrative it shapes their imagination and breathes hope amid all the conflict. As tension escalates, rebel soldiers come to the village and burn it down, including the school and their beloved Dickens book. But Mr. Watts knows that the story has found its way into their hearts—it only needs to be retrieved. And so in the ensuing days and weeks, he instructs the children to write down any part of the story when it comes to them, whatever fragment, and bring it to class. As each carries fragments of the story with them, they will retrieve the story together and tell it in community, without the book. Now it’s a living story, embodied by them.
It strikes me that this what we are doing when we gather on Wednesday nights and recite aloud in community Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. By the power of the Holy Spirit (and lots of hard work), we’re retrieving from our hearts the fragments of the Scripture we carry with us, this living story from the book we love, and we’re putting it together in community. And as we put it together in community, this story is putting us together as a community. In the act of remembering, we are being re-membered. We are being re-membered by this story in which we not only find ourselves but we find each other.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. – Col. 3: 16
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, IA.