Andrew Peterson (whose new book on creativity is out and amazing) has spoken about art as a blending together of honesty, beauty, and truth. If you put together honesty and truth without much thought for beauty, you get most of what passes for Christian music on the radio. If you have honesty and beauty, but no clear expression of the truth, you get something like Coldplay or Brian Fallon. When you get all three, you get someone like Rich Mullins. But when, Peterson says, when you have truth and beauty, but no honesty, the result is most hymns.
Now, on principle, I suppose I would’t disagree too much. But two of my favorite hymnists break that rule. Perhaps they are the Rich Mullins (Mullinses?) of hymnody: William Cowper (pronounced “cooper”) and Anne Steele.
“Dear Refuge of my weary soul, On thee, when sorrows rise, On thee, when waves of trouble roll, My fainting hope relies. But O! when gloomy doubts prevail, I fear to call thee mine; The springs of comfort seem to fail, And all my hopes decline.”
That’s a hymn by Anne Steele. Sandra McCracken has popularized it, but Kevin Twit of Indelible Grace has really been at the forefront of bringing her poetry back into the conversation (let alone adding incredible music to her words). You can read about her life here. But the lines of her hymns have been such honey and moonlight for me because they combine honesty, beauty, and truth in a way that speaks to the wreck that I am.
How oft, alas, this wretched heart Has wandered from the Lord, How oft my roving thoughts depart, Forgetful of his word! Yet sovereign mercy calls, “Return!” Dear Lord, and may I come? My vile ingratitude I mourn; O take the wanderer home.
That’s a Tuesday for me. My prayers are usually some inelegant, muttered version of “O take the wanderer home.” I wander often. My heart is a rover. And yet the unstoppable love that keeps me from going off the cliff calls me back. Even in my “vile ingratitude,” he calls me back because I am his.
Last night, I had the worst dream about you. You decided I wasn't worth the pain. And like a ship that couldn't wreck, I tried To strain against the waves of black and blue. I just remember screaming through the rain As you crept back into the tomb and died. And as your lungs stopped moving, I sunk down Beneath a freezing sea. But there were none Now left to lend a saving hand, to drown The fear. No Spirit to leave death undone.And so we lay there, you, under the ground,And me, under the ocean's depth around My head. And the salt of my tears became The sea. We'll have to re-brand and rename.
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead…”
I wrote this sonnet today. It’s in iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme:
ABC ABC DEDE FF GG
The lopsided structure of the 14 lines gives it a disorienting feel with rhymes you would expect. That’s intentional to the subject. I’ve always been fascinating by Paul’s playing of the “what if” game in 1 Corinthians 15. If Christ is still dead, then we need to not call this Christianity. In fact, we’re the most pathetic bunch if the tomb still holds his bones. To me, that’s a nightmare. But I thought the passage was worth paraphrasing in order to remind myself of the importance of the empty tomb.
In the struggle to follow after Jesus, there are lots of ways you can put kindling around your heart and trust that the Spirit will spark a flame deep within. We call them spiritual disciplines or the ordinary means of grace. If prayer and the intake of Scripture are the primary fuel for the Christian soul, the memorization of Scripture is like the lighter fluid.
Dallas Willard puts it like this:
“Bible memorization is absolutely fundamental to spiritual formation. If I had to choose between all the disciplines of the spiritual life, I would choose Bible memorization, because it is a fundamental way of filling our minds with what it needs. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth. That’s where you need it! How does it get in your mouth? Memorization.”1
Coming from a different tradition, Chuck Swindoll says,
“I know of no other single practice in the Christian life more rewarding, practically speaking, than memorizing Scripture. . . . No other single exercise pays greater spiritual dividends! Your prayer life will be strengthened. Your witnessing will be sharper and much more effective. Your attitudes and outlook will begin to change. Your mind will become alert and observant. Your confidence and assurance will be enhanced. Your faith will be solidified.”2
And I think the Scriptures bear witness to the value of memorization.
Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom.
After his sin with Bathsheba, David acknowledged that such inward truth is antithetical to outward sin and would’ve helped in his temptation.
Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You.
The crucial word there is “treasure.” This is more than memorization. The devil has Scripture memorized. This is treasuring. This is to have it and to love it. And if you love it, you will abide by it.
The Jews who did not believe in Jesus did not believe in him because they did not have the Father’s word abiding in them (John 5:38).
37 And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form. 38 You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent.39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; 40 and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
What does it mean to abide? The translated Greek word shows up in some form eleven times here. We get the English word “permanent” from it. It means to continue to believe in Jesus but it goes much deeper than that. It describes a continual union with Jesus. Jesus is saying “step into union with me”, “be apart of me and stay that way”.
Why is memorization important? If you don’t you can’t do anything. You can’t bear fruit. And if you can’t bear fruit, what happens? You prove yourself to have never been a Christian and you get tossed like firewood.
So, according to John 15, how do you abide in Christ?
“If my word abides in you…”
Now, at the outset, let’s be clear. I’m not merely talking about memorizing the Bible as the secret key to greater intimacy with God. Why not?
Satan memorizes Scripture. I assume he didn’t pull out his English Standard Version in the wilderness when he tempted Jesus (Matt.4).
The word of God abiding in a person is linked to that person’s belief in Jesus. John 5:38- Jesus is talking to Jews (people who had memorized the whole Pentateuch (in some cases the whole OT). And he says to them, “God’s word doesn’t abide in you because you don’t believe in me”. So belief in Jesus is unavoidably linked having the word of Christ dwell in you richly.
Scripture memorization is a means to a person. It’s more than just retaining information. It is a way to keep yourself abiding in Christ. And it’s linked to prayer in John 15. “Ask whatever you wish” is not a magic formula. It’s a logical outcome from having Christ’s word abide in your heart.
Jesus is not saying, “have my word dwelling in you with permanence and let it continually take root in you so that you can ask God for a sweet car or good grades or a nice marriage or a good job”. He’s not a genie. And besides, if Christ’s word abides in you, pretty toys won’t be your main desire anyway.
Having His Word in you shapes your wishes and changes your desires and influences what you really want at the core level. And when his word abides, it takes root. After it takes root, it produces fruit. Scripture needs to be internalized.
So, how is this best accomplished?
Andy Davis has written an excellent little booklet available online about how you actually memorize Scripture. His principles are as follows:
Memorize big portions- minimize tendency to proof text (context is king). Shoot for an entire book. Not too long and not too short. Start with one around 90-160 verses long. Make it something that will minister to you.
Survey the terrain:
Count the number of verses in the entire book.
Divide that number by the number of verses you will memorize per week. This is how many weeks the book should take you.
Look at a calendar and determine a tentative finish date.
Add a couple weeks so you don’t feel too much pressure.
Repetition is the key. Memorize with your eyes. Read each new verse ten times, covering each word as though photographing it with your eyes.
Say it out loud, emphasizing different words as you go. Memorize with your ears.
Memorize with the verse numbers! This will help keep you from getting lost and missing verses after reciting large portions.
Day one: Read Ephesians 1:1 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.
Day two: Yesterday’s verse first!! Recite yesterday’s verse, Ephesians 1:1 ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Look in the Bible if you need to, just to refresh your memory. Now, do your new verse. Read Ephesians 1:2 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.
Day three: Yesterday’s verse first!! Recite yesterday’s verse, Ephesians 1:2 ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Again, you should look in the Bible if you need to, just to refresh your memory. Old verses next, altogether: Recite Ephesians 1:1-2 together once, being sure to include the verse numbers. Now, do your new verse. Read Ephesians 1:3 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number. Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.
After you’ve finished the entire book, recite the entire book for 100 consecutive days. Ephesians takes 15 minutes to recite out loud. You can do this wherever. It won’t affect your busy schedule. Then recite it every Monday for the rest of your life. If you start to make little mistakes, take a Monday and read the book through by sight to correct those.
Give it a try.
This is something I’m trying to implement this month. I’m preaching on Psalm 113 on the first day of Advent at our church and would love to have that psalm memorized. And if I fail, I certainly haven’t wasted my time. And I’ll at least have little bits of the psalm lodged into my mind and heart like holy shrapnel. What are you going to memorize?
I’ve had the privilege of having a couple different conversations in the last month about depression. Sometimes I get sad and it doesn’t go away. But I’m also trying to follow Jesus as one of his disciples. I think I can hold these two truths in tension. It’s certainly possible.
I call them “tailspins”. Something can set them up or nothing can happen at all. But when they come (as one did this week), there is this horrible desire to simply soak in it. Maybe it’s just my temperament, but I love it when there’s something big to feel, even if it’s hopelessness. And so there’s an odd temptation to just revel in the darkness. But I don’t think that’s right. Paul Maxwell has been very helpful here in fighting against depression from the perspective of cognitive behavioral theory.
With the people I’ve spoken with recently, the question has been more one of spiritual progress. Or perhaps spiritual regression? It’s at least a question of maintenance. If depression is a bog, then how do we slog? How can we keep dancing through the darkness? How do we tread water when every urge says “give up and sink”? Here’s what I’ve found works for me.
Tell Yourself What You Believe
I have found that reciting the Apostles’ Creed helps. For centuries, Christians have been telling themselves what they believe even when they don’t believe it, perhaps even so that they could believe it.
This is not a way to sweep depression or doubt under the rug. This is how I strangle those hobgoblins to death each day. When I say “I believe,” it functions as a verb and as a command. And I believe the Spirit uses something as simple and ordinary as this to strengthen my failing faith.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
Eugene Peterson’s famous description of discipleship is apt. Some people say that the Christian life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. I have no doubt that is true for some people. For me, it is more like an uphill crawl through barbed wire while getting shot at.
That’s why I pray the Daily Office as I can, when I can. This was Thomas Cranmer’s attempt to get an entire country of people reading the same Bible passages together. I value it especially for the sheer amount of Psalms it pours into you. There are lots of places to start using it online. The point is to be able to read lots of Scripture everyday because “the voices in your mind are anything but kind,” to quote Andrew Peterson. It’s the Protestant answer to the question of how one “prays without ceasing” (1 Thess.5:16).
It’s sad how many evangelicals view the Lord’s Prayer as some piece of biblical trivia to memorize or, worse yet, as a rote and mechanical ritual that has been ruined by the smells-and-bells high church crowd.
I even heard a substitute Sunday School teacher for me once refer to it as “the Disciples’ Prayer.” I almost threw up. This is how Jesus spoke to his Father and, remarkably, this is how he invites his brothers and sisters to speak to their adopted Father as well (Mt.6:9-13; Lk.11:2-4).
The Lord’s Prayer functions as simply as a prayer to pray that puts you fully in line with the heart of Christ. It can also serve as a pattern of prayer, as we paraphrase the various parts of it. The Church has historically gotten endless mileage out of this one way of speaking to God and it has been of limitless help to me in the middle of the night, no matter the hour of the day.
Keep going. Whatever trauma has wrap itself around your legs, keep going. Even if your progress is inches and you find yourself going backwards some days. Whatever dryness has settled into your heart, keep going.
You cannot bottle the wind and demand that the Holy Spirit suddenly strike lightning in your life. But you can cover your soul with kindling and all of this spiritual fuel and trust that the Lord uses ordinary means of grace to build his Church.
Let’s Talk About What We Feel Weird Talking About: Our Luxury
Spending money is the American way of life. Saving and giving might not be, but Americans have been known to drop a trillion dollars on things we don’t actually need. Of course, consumer spending is a huge chunk of the economy and it’s not going anywhere any time soon. Spending is something we do and it helps keep this country afloat. But you can spend money foolishly or you can use it wisely.
With respect to money, we are simply holding on to what God has given us. My favorite book on stewardship is Randy Alcorn’s little book on managing God’s money (even if I don’t agree with all of his strategies). And that’s an essential starting point. You are holding on to your wealth as a caretaker. And you are most certainly wealthy or you belong to a wealthy family. But what are you going to do with that wealth?
Saving and giving are essential concepts to understand and implement, but even if we don’t all do those things, we all spend money. Does the Bible say anything about how we should spend our money? Not surprisingly, it does. It equips us with very tactical wisdom to show us how to spend well and spend wisely.
The Proverbial Dollar
The book of Proverbs has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to money wisdom. Embedded in the overall pattern of save-spend-give there is the two part step of pursuing righteousness first and then enjoying wealth as gift from God. Proverbs 14:24 says, “The crown of the wise is their wealth, but folly of fools brings folly.” If you are wise, you likely will have wealth. And that wealth is a crown. It functions as a visible indicator of your wisdom. This crown is to be seen so that others might see the allure of wisdom. If we wear ourselves out to get riches, we miss the point entirely. It has wings and will fly away anyway (Prov.23:4-5). The point is not to have it. The point is to use it (saving, give, spend). And the way you spend your wealth can function as a beacon for fools that you are wise in how you go about your business as a consumer.
There’s a difference between spending and squandering. Proverbs 23:19-21 indicate that we ought not squander our money simply on temporary physical excess:
19 Hear, my son, and be wise, and direct your heart in the way.20 Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat,21 for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags.
Likewise, Proverbs 29:3 (He who loves wisdom makes his father glad, but a companion of prostitutes squanders his wealth.) says we ought not squander money on temporary sexual pleasures. Again, God seems to be anti-squandering, not anti-spending.
“Whatever Your Appetite Craves”
In perhaps the most revealing text about how God views his people and their relationship to money, Deuteronomy 14:24-26 reads,
24 And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the Lord your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the Lord your God chooses, to set his name there, 25 then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the Lord your God chooses 26 and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household.
In describing the tithe, God tells Israel that when he blesses them, they give back in worship. But if it takes too much effort to take the tithe to the place of worship, they could sell it and spend the money for whatever they desired. Strong drink, oxen, whatever. “Whatever your appetite craves.” That’s how the Bible describes discretionary spending. But even this is not squander because notice that it is enjoyed “before the Lord” and that there is rejoicing in his presence. It is spending with an eye toward heaven, knowing that he has blessed and so we enjoy spending a portion of our wealth before the Lord.
“The Rich in This Present Age”
At the end of 1 Timothy, Paul describes two different types of wealthy people: those who want to get rich (1 Tim.1:6-10) and those who happen to be rich (1 Tim.6:17-19) for whatever reason. For those who desire to become rich, the apostle gives a warning. With that desire comes temptation that can easily lead to ruin and destruction. For those who are wealthy, he gives a responsibility:
17 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
Spend your money. But do good. Be wealthy in good works. Maybe spend some of that lovely green on an amenity for those who have few. Perhaps bless someone with a book. Buy someone a coffee. And enjoy it there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household.