"I memorized the Book of Romans, and it healed my anger."
That's what he volunteered to me. It's not a remedy presented in DSM-V. Heck, I'm not even certain Anger Disorders are a thing in that esteemed manual of psychological maladies.
But there he stood, a grandfather, small business proprietor and masterful musician in my neck of the woods, insisting that an out-of-fashion discipline concerning an even further out-of-fashion book "healed his anger."
I was intrigued.
Healed his anger? Not just reduced it.
But obliterated it?
His method was simple. He’d labor to commit a chapter to memory each week. Then on Sundays, after church, he’d recite all he’d learned up to that point before his listening wife and daughters.
And eventually, after burying 16 chapters worth of apostolic treasure into the vault of his memory, he’d been altered. Drastically.
I socked it away as a fascinating spiritual curio.
"Her Memory Saved My Life"
But along the way, I was talking to another fella who recalled a dreary episode of spiritual languishing in his youth. A young co-ed began conversing with him during these days of his collegiate meandering. Fortuitously, as a teenager, she'd been bribed, er, I mean, incentivized, to commit the Westminster Shorter Catechism to memory by her father, a minister. He adroitly dangled a first set of car-keys as a carrot to achieve that mind-etching project in his daughter's life.
She turned 16, got her license and car, and could zip around town reciting profound Scriptural theology in succinct question/answer form. And as my friend became hers in their university years, the content of her memory introduced him to a vivid future. Rescued from the "gloomy dungeon of himself," he discovered through her influence, and Scripturally-informed conversation, the joy of being captured by the Hound of Heaven, who'd been on his trail unbeknownst to him.
His shorthand of the event: “Her memory saved my life.”
Dang. A memory rescue? Anger-healing through memorization?
My next unexpected head-on collision with Scripture memory happened after breakfast at the Canyon Quick Stop. After the happiness of a sausage biscuits and black coffee breakfast, a recent college graduate who'd invited me, told me about his best buddy who'd enticed him to commit large swaths of the Bible to memory.
His friend, who’d gone to our church some while playing basketball at Covenant College, had recited the entire book of Hebrews at the church his father pastored. My breakfast companion proceeded to tell me how that had spurred him on to give it a whirl as well.
The result? He was sitting beside me describing a zeal to gather and encourage other memorizers. The nutrition he’d taken into his soul had enlivened him so drastically, he couldn’t NOT invite others to the experience of and ardent devotion to Christ he’d newly tasted through this unlikely discipline in our googled times.
Tears that Grabbed My Attention
A few weeks later, he recited a chapter of Scripture to our congregation during a worship service.
It was the tears that first grabbed my attention.
This burly and vivacious, former 2 sport college athlete (Golf and Basketball, I think), who was soon to become a deacon (read mercy-worker) in our church, was giving a prayer, and then had been invited to recite a lengthy portion of God's word that he'd come to know by heart.
The contents of the Scriptures that he’d absorbed seem to suddenly reach up and grab him as he recited. A lump in the throat telegraphed a reality beyond him. And the poignancy of the Words that were influencing him made itself known through his moistened eyes. It's as if those memorized words were sending currents of electricity to make what he recited healingly personal.
While my memory of all these details is something of a disjointed swirl, it also seemed to be around this same time that Nicholas Carr unwittingly caught my attention in his much heralded piece, “Is Google making us Stupid?” In that vastly considered essay, he drew my attention to a fascinating passage from Plato.
In his 4th century BC dialogue with Phaedrus in the book of the same name, Plato places a story in Socrates' mouth. Socrates tells of Theuth, a god of ancient Egypt who'd invented "numbers, arithmetic, geometry....and most importantly of all, letters." Theuth, makes an appearance before Thamus, King of Egypt, and insists that his "letters will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered."
But, King Thamus is more concerned than impressed with this new technology of writing.
He tells the boastful and optimistic discoverer of letters that contrary to his expectation, in fact:
"This invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise."
Had King Thamus only had a smartphone and access to Siri!
What he lacked in Apple products though, he more than made up for in prophetic discernment.
The more we can "offload" as the managerial self-help books tell us, the more "efficient" and "effective" we will be. We will have more "brain space" for creativity. And I'm sure glad my phone retains over 1000 phone numbers for me. But what's in your brain if you aren't letting wise content soak there?
A Faux Wisdom
Memorization has gone the way of the orange polyester leisure suit, the 8-track tape and the 1978 rust brown Chevy El Camino.
But could wisdom be evaporating as our memory does?
Are we all cultivating a faux wisdom, a facade of true understanding by being able to summon the proper spelling of penicillin, the lyrics to that Elton John song we used to love, or the Shakespearean origin of "What's in a name...that which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet?"
Why would we be disconcerted to learn that during our appendix removal surgery, our surgeon was consulting a Youtube video while we were under, titled "Surgically Remedying Appendicitis?"
We'd expect the well-trained and wise in the healing arts to demonstrate as part of their competencies a large base of knowledge committed to memory....understandings that had been tattooed on their frontal lobe, and swiftly accessed as easily as they could recall their home address.
And of course, the Scriptures themselves are replete with enjoinders for the people captured and reconstituted by God as "his treasured possession" to fight against spiritual amnesia. It's an act of treason to forget God's words and ways. Because forgetting is the first step of abandonment of God.
And, the Apostle Paul urged that we be like a stew in whom the words of Christ simmer and soak. His words should "dwell in us richly," he insisted.
And centuries before my up the road neighbor in Hinkle was healed of his anger by memorizing Romans, the Psalmist was engaged in a marathon, running dialogue before the Lord, where he unearthed the secret to a "young man keeping his way pure." Namely, "by guarding it according to Your word."
His antidote to the self-sabotaging, but always alluring ways of sin was "by hiding Your (God's) word in my heart." (Psalm 119:9-11)
Could AA need a new supplemental step for addiction emancipation?
Perhaps, I needed to override my own internal messaging with the grace-soaked words of Christ in the Bible.
So I gave it a try.
I'd heard enough and read enough, and known my whole life the exceptional joy and value of memorizing a vast array of content from Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Gold and Platinum" to riveting dialogue in "Lonesome Dove."
I'd been in communities of memory where we learned, as college students using our time in the most productive ways, scores of brilliant lines that the Coen brothers put in the southwestern lips of H.I. McDonough in Raising Arizona.
And I was fortunate enough to have been told to memorize Scripture as a teenager, so I did a good bit of it. But I'd never tried or conceived of the possibility of absorbing large portions.
So I steeped for a while in Colossians. And eventually, recited the entire book one morning before the congregation. 1st century style, I reckon. Paul sure envisioned his entire letter would be read to his audience (Colossians 4:16). So I told it to mine.
Most of us never hear an entire book of the Bible all at once. Our folks seemed encouraged.
I know I was.
The sheer amount of time you spend loitering around a text you are trying to internalize gives a fascinating friendship with it. You start to think differently. To want differently. To expect differently.
Baking God's Grace into Our Memory
These days, I am thrilled to have congregants baking chapters and long passages of the Bible into their noggins. And they are reciting it in front of the congregation. A set of parents with six children, a newly married young woman who works in marketing, a 73 year old grandmother, a fresh college graduate who's running her own start-up business, a staff member with a husband and 2 toddlers...all these are letting the flavor and substance of God's words that work be worked into their entire being.
One graduate school bound married couple uses the husband's labors in having committed all of Romans that we've preached through the past two months to memory. They feed their marriage, as they go jogging together and she'll ask him to recite this epistle which Martin Luther urged would be "quite proper for a Christian, not only to know it by heart, word for word, but also to study it daily, for it is the soul's bread."
Marriage building and distraction from pain, all at once!
The leathery and apparently indomitable Keith Richards, guitarist for the Rolling Stones once allegedly insisted, "I never played a lick I didn't steal."
It was a comment in the same family as the gatherer and purveyor of wisdom, King Solomon, once insisted, "there is nothing new under the sun."
But it was also an homage to the power of influence.
The musical atmosphere a budding musician breathes in will profoundly impact the melodic stylings he introduces to the world through his instrument.
I think that's what folks who memorize chunks of this ancient and often, not immediately accessible book, called the Bible, are up to.
Whether it's to get their anger healed, or because their dad enticed them to before they realized its benefit, and it turns out to have saved the life of another, or it simply woke them up to realities they'd only been playing at before, anyone steeping in Scripture to be deeply flavored by it, is interested, in the end, to let their lives be moved by the music of the heavens.