I sat in a meeting with our Confirmation Guides the other night. We were kicking around the truth that it’s harder to get young people to memorize than it used to be. (For that matter, memorization seems more difficult for all of us, reliant as we have become on electronic devices to store necessary information for us now.) A number of those at the table spoke of the gift it has been for them to have had to memorize so much when they were young… that they’re grateful to have these bits and pieces of the tradition so very ingrained in their memories.
Truthfully, my own Sunday School and Confirmation instruction were lax in this way. My own memorization has only come through repetition, not through any intentional effort to make these gifts so deeply my own. I was blessed to be taken to worship every week as a child and so as a result I knew the Lutheran liturgy by heart before I could read it for myself. And while it’s not the only one, the bit of scripture that is ours from Isaiah today became my own through repetition, too.
This is how this came to be. I was a very young pastor — then the assistant pastor on a staff which included a senior pastor and a visitation pastor. George, our visitation pastor, was more than a colleague. In time, he became a friend and a mentor as well. He and his wife, Mary, would drive into town every week and on Thursdays and Fridays he would make calls: on the home-bound, the sick, the struggling, and the suffering. And when he would go often he would read this bit of scripture to them. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you and through the rivers,they will not overwhelm you…” This passage came home to George when he was a young man, serving in the navy during the Second World War. He told the story that as he was sitting on a PT Boat, he pulled out his Bible, and opened up to these wonderful words. It was, he later said, as though they were meant for him. As you can imagine, he never forgot it and for the rest of his life he sought to share this comfort, this promise, with others navigating rough waters.
And so it was when people would die, because George had shared these powerful words with them, in turn their families would request this passage to be read at their loved ones’ funerals. Being the assistant pastor on staff, inevitably it fell to me to read the first and second lessons. And so at funeral after funeral I read these words until finally I found I could speak them without looking at the page. And now it is so that when I find myself without a Bible and visiting with people in need of this promise of God’s protection and care, I often will share these words with them. And more than once in my own life when the waters have become deep and treacherous I have found myself whispering these words to myself. Indeed, once when it was very dark I spoke these words over and over again and when I rose the next day I knew that no matter what should happen next, God was holding me in it… and that one way or another the battle I was waging would not take what mattered most.
I wonder now if Jesus also knew these marvelous words first spoken to a people in exile. I wonder if he heard them echoing in his mind and heart as he waded into the Jordan River to be baptized by John. I wonder if these marvelous strains of promise carried him through the uncertain times of his ministry and if even as he experienced God abandoning him, if on the cross he somehow heard them, too. Indeed, for all the ways the world had changed since those words were first spoken and for all the ways it has changed since, these words of God’s promised love and protection still speak. And so we do well to keep passing these gifts along to our children and grandchildren.
It’s old fashioned now to memorize such things, I know. And as I said, I do not stand as an example of one who ever really did so on purpose. But I’m grateful beyond words that through what appeared to be accidental repetition, these wondrous gifts are mine to hold as well. Without a doubt, there are days when they make all the difference.
- How do such promises first spoken to a people in exile still speak today? What ‘exiles’ are your people experiencing? What exile has been yours to endure?
- These words from Isaiah were first spoken to a whole people. They have spoken to me in individual circumstances and challenges. When and where do you think they speak best? Why?
- What passages do you know by heart? Did they become yours through intentional effort or by ‘accidental’ repetition? What stories do they carry? What do they mean to you? Why?
- Can you imagine that Jesus heard the echo of these words on the day of his baptism? What other passages might he have been remembering then?