A few years ago Bill, a retired pastor and seminary professor, convinced me and Tim, another pastor friend, that it would be a good idea for the three of us to memorize the Book of Revelation and recite it before our church on a Sunday evening. I mention that he was retired because a few days before the event—when I was scrambling to prepare and fearing I would make a complete fool of myself in front of a lot of people (one thousand people turned out)—I was thinking it was easy for him to talk about memorizing a third of a Book in the Bible; he had time, for heaven's sake. But I didn't. What was I thinking, I was thinking.
On the night of the event, just before we went out and did this terrifying thing, Bill reminded us that no matter how poorly we might do in the memory department, God was pleased with us and would bless his Word. He was right: for two and a half hours all the people, children included, listened as three men simply recited the Word of God from the last Book of the Bible, beginning to end. The Word was all it says it is: a hammer, a sword, rain, light, truth, and bread.
One of my greatest regrets in life is that I waited so long to memorize large chunks of Scripture, to meditate on the Word by learning to say it.
I was stunned, and when my persuasive friend later suggested we do the same thing with the Book of Mark and then Romans, we agreed and saw the same results. Each time, people sat in pregnant silence and listened to the naked Word of God, "unplugged" as musicians might say, with no frills, no illustrations, and virtually no visual aids. Alone, it was more than enough. I'll never forget how whistles and applause erupted spontaneously from the audience when one of us came to the closing lines of Romans 8:36-39: "for I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
One of the surprising benefits of all this memorization was the way I was forced to think in new ways about what a biblical text means. It was one thing for me to check the commentaries and pore over the critical apparatus and do the exegesis. It was another thing for me to think of how I would say Scripture if I were its author. Emphasis, pause, and inflection of voice can have a powerful effect on how a passage is heard and understood. Since then I have been practicing a kind of hermeneutic of speaking, and have been dazzled at the creative impact it has had on how I think about a passage. It isn't always first I think it and then I speak it. Sometimes I have to speak it before I can think it! All this now happens in concert with commentaries, language study, and the rest. Memorization with a view to speaking has become a chief way I meditate on Scripture.
As I have done this I have thought often of something rabbi Abraham Heschel said to the people in his synagogue who complained to him that the liturgy did not express what they felt. He said it was not that the liturgy should express what they felt, but that they should feel what the liturgy expresses. The liturgy was there to train, not merely express, their spiritual sensibilities. Memorizing Scripture can have that effect. Even as I try to think of how I would say a passage if I had written it, what I am forced to do is think of how Paul or Moses or Jesus would have said it. It isn't me saying it my way, but me saying in my way what they meant. My thoughts are most certainly not God's thoughts, but in learning to say a passage his thoughts may become my thoughts.
My preaching has also changed. When I started saying the text, I noticed how people seemed to pay much more attention than when I just read it. This probably shows I should have paid much more attention in the past to the way I read the biblical text. In any case, I and those to whom I speak are discovering the Bible is really quite wonderful. In fact if the Words of the Bible are heard clearly, the sermon may fail, but the time isn't wasted!
My view of myself as preacher has also changed. I used to think, quite presumptuously, that I had to make the Bible interesting to those who heard me. For instance, if there were no great illustrations, there was no sermon. I've repented of that. Again, I have discovered the Bible is really quite wonderful! It doesn't need my help. Now when I preach, I think of myself more as a docent in an art gallery. My job is to say just enough and then get out of the way so people can see for themselves the glory of what God has given us in his Word. I still use illustrations, of course, but more sparingly, less gratuitously.
The Bible is really quite wonderful! One of my greatest regrets in life is that I waited so long to memorize large chunks of Scripture, to meditate on the Word by learning to say it. But it's never too late. Francis Schaeffer said of the Bible, "I don't love this Book because it has a leather cover and golden edges. I don't love it as a 'Holy Book.' I love it because it is God's Book. Through it, the Creator of the universe has told us who he is, how to come to him through Christ, who we are, and what all reality is. Without the Bible we wouldn't have anything. It may sound melodramatic, but sometimes in the morning I reach for my Bible and just pat it. I am so thankful for it. If the God who is there had created the earth and then remained silent, we wouldn't know who he is. But the Bible reveals the God who is there; that's why I love it."
After I read those words, I put a Bible on my nightstand for just that purpose.
Ben Patterson is campus pastor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, and author of God's Prayer Book: Praying the Psalms (Tyndale House).