Reciting those wonderful words of life

Bishop’s Mantle column by Jim Bishop

While preparing for an upcoming talk, I pulled the thick black volume off the shelf, wiped dust off its leather-bound covers with my name embossed in faded gold lettering, opened it, and a flood of memories poured forth.

Here was the King James Version of the Bible that I received on June 6, 1956, from the primary Sunday school department at Doylestown (Pa.) Mennonite Church. To earn it, I had to stand before a large room full of peers – including my best friends, who watched intently, hoping I’d get stuck mid-sentence – and recite John 14:1-16 from memory – from the King James Version of 1611, of course.

There weren’t many paraphrases around those days. We assumed God spoke the King’s English, although He might understand when we sang “Jesus Loves Me” in Spanish; that was cool.

Our Sunday-school teachers knew how foreboding it would seem to us youngsters to face an auditorium full of fellow novitiates with the potential of their minds going blank, so they prepared us gradually for that fateful day. We were awarded blue tickets (with scripture verses printed on them) for committing several scripture verses to memory and reciting them in our individual classes.

Accumulating a certain number of blue tickets could be traded in for “birdie cards” (also laden with scripture and nice pictures). Three birdie cards were worth one “giant card.” These much-desired certificates could be turned in for prizes, like pencils and plastic rulers (also inscribed with Bible phrases).

A bit of bribery, maybe, but it worked.

This ritual remains engrained in my memory some 50 years later, and John 14:1-16 remains my favorite New Testament passage to this day. If pressed, I can still repeat it in my best King James diction.

I regret, however, that I’m not nearly as fluent in quoting scripture at will as I am in rattling off the lyrics of obscure songs from the 1950s, naming the artists, what year the tune came out and how far they went on the charts.

I wonder: Are children at my home congregation and at my current church, Community Mennonite, in Harrisonburg, still encouraged to commit scripture passages to memory? I know that Community youngsters are recognized publicly and rewarded for memorizing the Ten Commandments, certainly a good place to start.

As critical as it is to one’s spiritual health to read and meditate on Scripture regularly, what does it profit if I memorize whole books of the Bible – even Old Testament genealogies – but fail to obey those teachings?

The book of James, full of maxims and counsel for everyday conduct, states emphatically, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). The words of Scripture remain just that – many words arranged in columns – until they rise off the pages and land in our hearts, there to melt into our being and mold us into the kind of people who are stirred to action and whom God can use in his service.

Speaking of words becoming manifest, that’s the message of Easter – the Word becoming flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Not only that, but this One and Only is busy preparing rooms in His Father’s many mansions, declaring, “I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:3).

Now that’s a verity to memorize and never forget.

Have a joyfilled Easter!

 

Jim Bishop is the public-information officer at Eastern Mennonite University.

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