March 3, 2013

Roots Run Deep

In one of the most classic scenes from a work of American literature, a young Tom Sawyer is sent by Aunt Polly to whitewash the fence.  Instead of doing the work himself, the enterprising imp convinces all the neighborhood kids to do the work for him and even has them paying him for the opportunity to brighten up a few slats.  The thing about whitewashing a fence, though, is that it really is a futile job.  The paint eventually fades and you have to do it again.  In fact, painting generally is a temporary job.  Eventually the paint fades or chips or simply wears and you have to paint again or live with a room that doesn’t look very good.  A couple of years ago for Lisa’s birthday I made her the turtle flower boxes on our front porch.  When I glanced at them the other day, I noticed that it is time to update the painting because it is in fact chipping off.  But, there’s another way to finish a wood project.  Hanging in our kitchen is a combination spice rack and cookbook shelf I built about the same time as the turtle boxes.  Other than the layer of dust and cooking grime it looks as good as the day I finished it.  The difference?  I didn’t paint it.  I stained it.  You see, while paint generally sits on the top of a piece of wood, stain soaks into its pores.  The result is a finish that lasts a lot longer and generally looks a lot better.

This morning finds us in the third week of our journey through some of the spiritual disciplines.  As a quick review, the spiritual disciplines are practices designed to help us both disengage from the unhelpful influences of this world or else to engage more fully with the helpful influences of the kingdom of God.  When the disciplines are pursued rightly, they enable us to connect more fully with our God amid the distractions of this life.  They help to put us in a place where we are more sensitive to what He is doing, how we might join Him, and how we can receive what He desires to give us.  So far we have looked at the spiritual disciplines of fasting and taking a regular time of Sabbath.  If you have taken up the fast I called for between now and Easter, how are things going?  Have you started to notice that you really can live without it?  This is about the point that you might be resigning yourself to the fact that it really is going to be gone for a few more weeks and you can handle it.  There are more challenges to come, but you feel like you’ve seen the worst of it.  Have you yet felt you are able to connect a little more fully to God than you were before?  Keep seeking Him in the absence of whatever it is and see what He might yet have to say to you.  In the same vein, have you tried to be more intentional about creating more time in your schedule?  Have you identified any actions you need to take in order to make this happen, in order to make a Sabbath a regular part of your routine?  I hope you’ll step out in faith and with courage to make the necessary changes so you can keep running over the long haul.

Well, as our journey continues, we are going to look together today at yet another of the spiritual disciplines.  If the first two disciplines we have discussed were disciplines of disengagement, this discipline is aimed at helping us engage more fully with our God through His Word.  One of the titles we are sometimes given along with our Jewish cousins is “People of the Book.”  The reason for this is that our faith tradition is founded upon not some oral tradition or specific set of practices, but on the basis of the words written down by a group of men who purported to have heard from God and were passing on His words to us.   And while there are a few places in the Bible which talk about our ability to know something of God simply by making observations of the natural world, the truth is that from the natural world alone we can discern little about God beyond that He exists, that He is creative, that He is powerful, and that He is good.  These are good things to know about Him, to be sure.  They can point us in the direction of a relationship with Him.  But, they won’t take us all the way there.  Observations about God from the natural world will give us general knowledge about Him, not saving knowledge about Him.  For this deeper knowledge, we must turn to His Word.  The Bible with all its variety is the primary vehicle through which God has chosen to reveal Himself to the world.  Yes, He revealed Himself powerfully in the person of Jesus, but we primarily know about Jesus from…the Bible.  If you are a follower of Jesus you are only going to learn more about who you are following and the best way to go about that from…the Bible.  The simple reality is that if we want to know God, we’ve got to know His Word.  If you want to know God, you’ve got to know His Word.

And yet, if you are gearing up for another sermon in which the preacher berates you for twenty minutes about not reading your Bible enough, relax.  I’m not going there.  You should read your Bible.  There’s a ton of good, if often hard, stuff in there worth engaging.  Reading the Bible is a spiritual discipline and one far too many professed Jesus followers leave out of their regular routines.  But I actually want to go beyond that this morning.  Having Jesus followers read about Jesus is kind of a baseline practice.  Again, it’s a really important baseline, but I want to go one step further with you.  Think of it like this: On occasion, we have some weeds grow up in our garden.  I know, I know.  I can’t believe it either, but it happens.  Maybe someone really will invent that self-weeding soil someday.  Anyway, sometimes the weeds like to come up at about the same pace as the vegetables we’ve planted.  Well, when I actually get time to go take care of the weeds, at this early stage, I can’t safely use a hoe or a rake or Round-Up because I’ll kill the good plants along with the bad.  I have two choices: wait until the plants are a little bigger and stronger by which point the weeds will have taken over and will be threatening to take hostages if I try to mess with them.  Or, I can crouch down while I still have a 30-year-old back and pull them one by one.  In part because I’m young and in part because I’m a suburban kid who doesn’t really know any better, I usually take the latter approach.  In doing this, the plants coming up are like a person just reading the Bible.  He’s covered a lot of ground and will yield a good crop of fruit if tended properly.  But, the roots aren’t deep.  It doesn’t take much outside force and they come right out of the ground, killing their potential.  The weeds, on the other hand, usually have roots that run much deeper.  Unless I pull really carefully and dig down a bit, I may break the head off, but the heart of the plant is still there and it will eventually come back.  The rough treatment by the world (in this case me), may knock it down, but not out.  If we want to really unleash the power of God’s Word in our lives and plant a root there that cannot be affected by the storms of life, we have to take it deep into our hearts and minds.  We have to internalize it.  We need to…ready for the scary word…memorize it.  If we want to know God, we’ve got to know His Word.  Indeed, the next spiritual discipline for our focus this morning is Scripture memory.

Now, I’ll admit it right out of the gate: this is a discipline that gives Jesus followers trips down guilty lane and cold sweats.  It falls—along with its cousin, Scripture reading—in the category of “things I know I should be doing, but don’t do enough of.”  Usually, “enough” there actually means, “none.”  And then we offer up a variety of reasons why it doesn’t happen, some of which I’ll mention in a few minutes.  But, the reality is that for Jesus followers interested in taking the wisdom of the Bible seriously, Scripture memory really isn’t something we can overlook.  In fact, when the various authors of the Bible talk about Scripture generally, they almost never mention simply reading it casually.  They instead speak of internalizing it, of taking it deep into our hearts so that it can do its work there and not run off on us when the going gets tough.  Where does it do this, you might be asking?  I’m glad you did.  There are actually several places where the various biblical authors talk about Scripture.  Of these none are as eloquent, fawning, or lengthy as Psalm 119.  Psalm 119 is the longest single chapter in the Bible and every word of it is dedicated to proclaiming the greatness of God’s Words.  The author waxes poetic for 176 verses about how great God’s Word is.  In fact with only a couple of exceptions, one of eight words referring to God’s Word (laws, testimonies, ways, precepts, statutes, commandments, promises, and rules) is used in every single verse.  The psalm praises God for the beauty and wisdom of His Words.  The author several times declares his intention to keep the law.  He exhorts his readers to do the same.  In fact, in one little triad of verses early on in the psalm, the author lays out for us both the reason and the import of internalizing, or memorizing, God’s Words.

If you have your Bible or a smart phone with a Bible app, turn or thumb your way to Psalm 119.  The psalm is composed of an eight-verse stanza for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Every line of each stanza starts with its guiding letter.  For example, in the first stanza, labeled “Aleph,” each line starts with the Hebrew letter Aleph.  Pretty clever, no?  It’s almost like it was designed to be memorized.  Oh wait, it was.  Too bad the acrostic nature of the psalm doesn’t translate into English.  But if you learn Hebrew, memorizing this would be a cinch.  Anyway, when you get there, find the second stanza, “Beth,” and I want to look at the first three verses with you.  Let me read these starting at v. 9 and then we’ll talk about it for a minute.  “How can a young man keep his way pure?  By guarding it according to your word.  With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments!  I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”

Okay, as I said, these three verses outline for us both the reason and the import of memorizing God’s Words.  Furthermore, it uses an ancient memory device to do it.  The ancient memory device is called an inclusio.  Technically this is a poetic device, but poems like this were written in such a way that people could memorize them in order to pass them on since scrolls were really expensive and no one had a personal copy of the Scriptures.  Part of the reason, by the way, that we don’t memorize Scripture very often today is that it is so readily available to us.  I mean, why memorize something when I can pull it up in 30 different translations and at least 5 languages in about five seconds on my smart phone?  How about because if you want to know God, you’ve got to know His Word?  Well, this trio of verses gives us another pretty good answer.  Using this inclusio, in which an idea is simply repeated at the beginning and end of a passage, the author of Psalm 119 argues that memorizing Scripture helps to keep us on the path of life.  That’s the importance of it.  The reason lays right smack dab in the middle: we can’t seek God with our whole hearts if we wander from His commandments.

Let’s run just a bit further on this to make sure the point is clear.  Look at what the author says again: how can a person keep their way pure?  In other words, how can we stay on the straight and narrow path?  How can we remain morally upright?  How can we remain righteous before a righteous God?  The simple answer: by guarding it according to your word.  When the Word of God serves as the set of boundary lines for our lives, righteousness will never be a problem for us.  It’s when we leave the broad confines of the Word that we get into trouble.  This point is exactly mirrored in v. 11, the other side of the inclusio.  The author starts by affirming that he has indeed stored up God’s Word in his heart.  This means he’s memorized it.  It has become a part of him.  It shapes the way he thinks and reasons.  It forms the filter through which he views the world around him.  It helps him to know God fully.  If we want to know God, we’ve got to know His Word.  And why did he do this?  So “that I might not sin against you.”  When the Word forms the filter through which we see the world, sin is not going to be as big a problem.  When we are tempted to sin now, we run the temptation through our worldview filter.  For many folks, part of their worldview is that if it feels good, it must be good and therefore okay to do.  We wouldn’t verbalize that, but it’s there all the same.  It’s always been there.  It’s why Jesus proclaimed the necessity of self-denial to be counted as one of His followers.  God’s Word declares the exact opposite of this worldview.  When instead of, “If it feels good it must be good,” our filter says, “Just because it feels good doesn’t mean it is good, and if it doesn’t honor God I shouldn’t do,” we’re going to do a whole lot fewer things that bring Him dishonor.  But, something like that is only going to act as our filter when we have done the work necessary to put it there.  That means memorizing the Word so that it is present in us, shaping how we view the world.

Now, I could keep going on like this and parade a whole litany of other verses in front of you to show why this is a good and necessary discipline for you to practice.  I could remind you of Paul’s admonition to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…” in Colossians 3:16.  But that’s not really what you most need.  If you are a Jesus follower, you already know you should be doing this.  What you really want to know is how.  I want to wrap up this morning by getting really practical with you so that instead of some vague notion of what you’re supposed to be doing, you leave here today with some concrete steps to actually make it happen.

A few years ago when I was a bit younger in my faith and perhaps because of that more…energetic (have you noticed faith’s tendency to mellow with age too?)…I was looking for an easy way to incorporate the discipline of Scripture memory into my routine.  Leaving aside for the moment the irony of finding an easy way to pursue something inherently difficult, in my searching I came upon a little book that nearly jumped off the shelf and into my arms.  It’s title?  Scripture Memory Made Easy.  As I read it and engaged some with the method it offered, I was amazed at how easy it really did make it.  Now, I still had to do the actual work of committing the Word to memory, but the method systematized things such that I was able to focus only on the work and not worry about the hows.  Have you ever been faced with a project that felt enormous and in the process of working out exactly how to tackle it you got swept up and never bothered to actually start the project?  I think that for some folks that’s exactly what hamstrings their efforts to engage with the spiritual discipline of Scripture memory.  If we want to know God, we’ve got to know His Word, but we’re not sure how to go about knowing His Word and so we content ourselves with something less than God desires for us.

So then, how do we actually tackle all of this?  Well, the first thing to do is to eliminate our excuses.  How many of you are already thinking to yourself: “But my memory’s not very good!  I can barely remember my phone number, let alone a whole bunch of Bible verses.”  The reality is this: God has given you an incredible mind.  Your job is not to compare it with others or complain about how bad it is.  Your job is to use it to its fullest potential.  Besides, you have lots of things memorized that you probably don’t even think about.  You know your phone number (at least your home number).  You probably know the number of your significant other.  You probably have your Social Security number memorized too.  You know your birthdate.  You know your kids’ birthdays.  You know your spouse’s birthday.  You know your anniversary (right?!).  You know your address.  You know all the words to your favorite song.  In fact, you probably know the words to a whole bunch of songs.  They may not be on auto-recall, but if I started playing them you’d starting singing in almost Pavlovian fashion.  For instance, finish this song for me: “Praise God from whom…”   Most of you know those words by heart.  The reality is: you can memorize things.  Memory is like a muscle.  The more you use it, the stronger it gets.  Our brains are not like sponges.  There’s no upper limit to the amount we are capable of knowing or remembering.  The standard schooling for Jewish boys in Jesus’ day was to memorize the first five books of the Old Testament.  In their equivalent of high school you memorized the rest of it.  You are entirely capable of this.  You merely have to give it the necessary time and attention.  And, with the time you will create by employing some of the Sabbath practices I mentioned last week, you’ll have plenty to give to this.  Furthermore, don’t fret over forgetting some of what you’ve memorized as you go.  That’s normal.  But, like the weeds in my garden, once the root has been planted deeply, even if the head dies, a little motivation will bring it right back to the surface.  If you want to know God, you’ve got to know His Word.  And once that knowledge is planted deeply, it’ll always be there to rely upon.

Eliminating excuses, though, isn’t the whole battle.  Let me get a lot more specific on how to do this.  I’m going to unpack the method in my little book.  First, find an index card.  Then, write the verse on the card.  Make sure you copy carefully to catch all the spellings and punctuation and don’t forget the verse reference so you remember where it is.  Now, carry this card around with you and every time you find yourself with a few minutes to spare during the day, take the card out and work on internalizing the verse.  Repeat it several times slowly.  Break the verse down into phrases and learn each phrase individually.  Once you have each phrase down, start putting them together.  Make sure you learn the reference too.  Always make sure to include it when you repeat the verse to yourself.  If you have someone willing to help you, have them quiz you on the verse.  Have them hold the card and repeat the verse to them without looking.  Make sure they hold you accountable for getting it right.  Work to have the verse down with 100% accuracy.  Don’t settle for anything less than that.  This is the Word of God we’re dealing with here and we don’t want to take it lightly.  If this takes you a long time, don’t worry about it.  The fact is, the longer it takes you to learn it, the better you will know it.  If you want to know God, you’ve got to know His Word.  God is big and getting to know Him is going to take a lot of time.  Taking some time to memorize His Word is completely acceptable.  The particular approach of this book involves learning two verses a week.  Systematize this effort.  On Monday, learn the first one.  On Tuesday, review it (and any other verses you have learned in previous weeks).  On Wednesday, learn the second one.  On Thursday review just the second one.  On Friday, review all the verses you know.  On Saturday, review just the two verses of that particular week.  On Sunday, take the day off.  If you want to know God, you’ve got to know His Word.  Our God is an orderly God so it’s okay to learn His Word in an orderly manner.

Here are a few more tips.  First, pray.  What we are talking about here is a spiritual thing.  We’re not talking about memorizing lines from Shakespeare.  The approach might be similar, but the content and intent are very different.  God’s Word is a spiritual book and we are only going to draw anything from it with the Spirit’s help.  If the Spirit’s not involved, we’re wasting our time.  The Spirit is only going to be involved when we seek Him in prayer.  What should you pray for?  Ask for help with the memorizing, but more importantly than that, ask for help in understanding what it is you’re memorizing.  We remember things we understand better than those we don’t.  As a part of your praying, take time to meditate on the verse you’re learning.  This means holding it in your mind and dwelling on both its words and its meaning.  We are called numerous times throughout the Bible to meditate on God’s Word.   Finally, review regularly what you’ve learned.  Don’t be content to learn and forget.  It might happen over time, but take steps to avoid it.  Constantly go back over what you’ve learned about God so that, over time, you are putting together a fuller and fuller picture of who He is, what He’s done for you, and how you can live in that to the highest degree possible.  If you want to know God, you’ve got to know His Word.

Make sense?  Sound like something you really can do?  I want to do one more thing to help you on this journey.  As you leave this morning, I am actually going to send each family in here home with a copy of the book in tow.  Tucked inside the book are your first two verse cards, already made.  I will have the next week’s cards available each Sunday for the next year.  You just have to pick them up.  (If it feels like I’m trying to take away all your excuses, I am.)  Inside you will find all the advice and recommendations you need and more to make Scripture memory a part of your regular routines.  Since this is a family book, by the way, why not make this a family project?  Using the card I’ve made for you, make cards for every member of the family and learn the verses together, holding each other accountable.  If you have kids who are too young to memorize the whole thing (and give young ones a chance before writing them off), see if you can break the main idea of the verse down to a single phrase that they can memorize.  You’d be surprised just how much a little one’s mind will absorb with a lot less exposure than you’d expect.  However you approach this discipline, I pray you will.  If you want to know God, you’ve got to know His Word.  May you soak deeply in the Word in order that you may know Him fully and live in that knowledge.