Seeking the Sacred - Learning by Heart
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
If you weren’t here last week for Ash Wednesday, you might not be sure about what we’re up to. On Wednesday nights, over the course of the next few weeks, as we make our Lenten journey to the cross, we’re going to engage some of these ancient Celtic Christian practices. So much of popular culture and popular theology and popular practice, when it comes to Lent these days, is about “giving something up,” “taking something away,” “sacrificing” something as a way to focus our attention on the season, to mimic some solidarity with the sacrifice of Christ, whatever. And that’s all well and good and as meaningful as we’re able to make it.
But I hope it can be meaningful, too, to add something to our life of faith and how we practice what we’re up to around here. So I hope these practices we’ll look at will be fun and meaningful practices and disciplines that might inspire some new insights and understandings for us; some new ways for us to bring life and faith together; some new ways to meditate, pray, focus our attention differently, learn something about ourselves and what God might be up to in us and for us and through us these days – and that might last even after Lent ends and we’re living on the other side of the tomb again.
Pastor Aaron and I will do most of the preaching, but we have a guest coming for one of the evenings, too. And we picked our topics from this book – The Soul’s Slow Ripening – which some of you have signed up to read along with us as part of it all. We picked practices that spoke to us, personally, and that we thought we might have something to learn from and share about for the good of the cause.
So it might not surprise you that I picked this ancient Celtic practice of “Learning by Heart.” You know that most Sunday’s I commit the Gospel to memory as part of my preaching. It’s something I started doing way back in the day, during my first year or two of ministry. To be honest, I first started doing it as a kind of party-trick; as a special effect for worship that I’d seen other preachers and pastors do. I thought it would be an interesting challenge and something that would add a bit of interest and drama to the way we hear and receive the Word from one Sunday to the next.
And that’s all it amounted to, in the beginning. It was a challenge for me from one week to the next and something fun and interesting for worship in general.
And, in order to get some of these Gospel readings locked into my very scattered and busy brain, I start on Monday or Tuesday, if I’m lucky. Whenever I get into my car to drive somewhere longer than my commute from home to church, I start to read and re-read – out loud to myself – whatever passage I’m trying to commit to memory. (I imagine people who see me on the road assume I’m talking to myself, or by way of Bluetooth, on the cell phone.) It’s also a really good way to fall asleep at night.
My litmus test for how well I have internalized a passage and learned it by heart is to see if I can recite it, with the radio on. If I can recite a passage out loud, uninterrupted, without losing my train of thought, while simultaneously listening to a song I’d just as soon be singing along to, I feel pretty confident that I’ve learned it “by heart” enough to share with all of you, in worship.
I’ve gotten better at it over the years. And thankfully many of the passages show up again and again every three years, thanks to the lectionary, and they get easier to recall.
But what I learned after making it happen week after week, year after year, is how much more inspired it seemed my preaching became; and how my personal engagement with and learning from Scripture seemed to grow over time. I started to hear the voices in Scripture more dramatically. I started to wonder differently about which words Jesus might have emphasized, or not. I started to reflect on the emotions behind what was said, to whom, and so on.
These Gospel stories and the words of Jesus become a part of my on-going, inner dialogue from day to day so that I have experienced, through this practice of “learning by heart,” what, I believe, the ancient Celts were up to so many generations ago.
In her book, The Soul’s Slow Ripening, the author’s husband talks about how ancient cultures, like those in ancient Israel, didn’t necessarily understand that the brain is the organ that stores memory and learning and wisdom. He says ancient Egyptians were under the impression that the brain wasn’t used for anything more than cooling the blood, so that, while the other organs of dead pharaohs were preserved with a sense of reverence, their brains were scooped out through their noses and thrown away.
All of that is to say, when we hear Jeremiah talk about “writing God’s law on the hearts of the people,” we’re to understand that the heart was believed to be the seat of – not just love and emotion – but of learning, wisdom and understanding. So that “writing God’s word” on your heart wasn’t just an invitation to emotional reverence for or worship of God’s commands, but it was just as likely a practical call to an intellectual commitment to God’s Word, and teaching and commandments for God’s people.
And there is something as practical about that invitation as there is something holy and spiritual about making it happen. There’s something practical and holy about committing God’s word to memory; searing it into your brain; learning it by heart.
A well-known trick for coaches and athletes who run or swim or otherwise compete against a clock, for instance, is to repeat a goal-time over and over in advance of a competition, in order to prepare themselves to achieve that time or to beat that goal. (You might not know that my wife, Christa, was a really good swimmer in high school and her mother would leave index cards around the house with those goal times written on them in the days before her swim meets.)
If you’ve ever loved someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease – or if you’ve ever been with Joyce Ammerman when she’s taken communion to local nursing homes – you know what it is to have frustrating, seemingly empty conversations with these poor, elderly men and women until the time comes to sing a familiar old hymn or recite the Lord’s Prayer. When you wonder if you’ve wasted your time… if they’ve heard or grasped a word you’ve said… if your praying has been in vain… they suddenly come to life and sing or pray those words right along with you. It’s holy, beautiful, surprising thing, every time.
I’ve heard stories of prisoners of war who saved their sanity, salvaged their hope, by practicing their faith in the form of whatever Bible verses and prayers they could remember during their years of torture, confinement and captivity. You never know when “learning by heart” might just save your life, I suppose.
And we heard a great example of this – if not the greatest example of this – just this past Sunday in the Gospel story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The devil tempts Jesus over and over and over again… “Turn this stone into a loaf of bread,” “Bow down and worship me,” “Throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple.” And after each temptation Jesus counters the devil’s test with the words of Scripture that he had written on his heart. “One does not live by bread alone.” “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” “You should not put the Lord your God to the test.”
The practice of learning by heart is as practical as it is holy. And I hope you’ll give it a go this week – and that it might become a fun, regular spiritual practice and discipline for you. On the table before you leave, are a handful of passages from Scripture to choose from. I hope you’ll draw one out before you leave and work on learning it, by heart, over the course of the next week. It will take some time and repetition, but I’m certain everyone here can do this. (I’ve started small. And there is a variety to choose from. I’m not suggesting anyone memorize the Gospel of John, for crying out loud!)
If we want our hearts and our minds and our lives to be filled with the Word and promises of God… let’s fill our hearts and our minds with the Word and promises of God. Let’s invest at least as much time and energy on God’s Word and God’s promises as we do investing our time and energy on less hope-filled, less fruitful pursuits. Let’s let God’s Word and God’s promises take up more prominence, more power more space in our hearts and in our minds than all the other destructive distractions that compete for our energy and attention too much of the time.
Let’s write the Word of God on our hearts in a new way. Let’s abide in God’s Word and let the Word of God abide in and through us so that we might be changed by the joy it brings – for us and through us – when we do.