My introduction to poetry was the book of Psalms, written in the King James:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,
He leadeth me beside still waters
He restoreth my soul
My maternal grandmother, Neel, was a school teacher and ran a strict household. My mother said that she favored switches for a time as a punishment. I laughed and told her: “I had a few unpleasant run-ins with switches too—with you. In fact, as I recall, you sent me out a few times to cut my own.” She conveniently does not remember this.
As my mother and her siblings got older my grandmother replaced the switches with two preferred forms of discipline: memorizing scripture and shelling the pecans that arrived by the barrel full from my great grandfather’s plantation. These methods could not have been more different. Mom said the pads of her fingers will never be the same. Pecan shells have sharp edges that nick tender hands and release a tannin that stains and can only be removed with lava soap. She still has scars.
The tedium of scripture memorization is in the rote, over and over, trying to keep the ‘thees and thous’ straight. For wayward youngsters it hardly feels like green pastures and still waters—more like boredom in print. But somewhere in the monotony a word or a phrase catches and takes hold, only to return again and again, not to tear or scar but to mend and heal.
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
for His name’s sake
Yea, though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil
for Thou art with me
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me
My mother went on to memorize many passages of scripture throughout both the old and new testaments. She was further encouraged by her beloved Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Henigar who wisely understood the irresistible pull of shiny things and awarded gold stars on a large chart for successfully mastering the weekly verse. Mom, never one to shrink from competition, knew she had the edge of a long line of preparation and handily filled the chart spaces next to her name. I don’t know that the promises contained in the many texts she mastered penetrated her soul but I suspect they did. Because even as a child she found herself in the shadow of death with the loss of her baby brother, and even as a child she experienced the presence of a perfect love that casts out fear.
Christians refer to scripture as ‘The Word’. The gospel of John begins with a declaration of Jesus as Gods Word to the world and the radiant source of life and light:
In the beginning was the Word
And the Word was with God
And the Word was God
Declaring that the word of God is ‘alive and powerful’ the book of Hebrews goes on to say:
By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made by the things which are visible.
Thus in response to the question, what’s in a word? In the realm of the Spirit, it would not be a stretch to answer: everything.
My mother did not dole out bible memory as a punishment though she did favor a few threat verses to repeat to me when I was behaving badly. And for a long stretch, pretty much all of my behavior was bad. I heard about the millstones, I heard about how nothing (“nothing, Ashley”) is hidden from God, I heard it and frankly, I did tremble. I encountered the scripture more as evidence of a fierce rod of reproof than a loving shepherd’s staff. I know my mother was trying anything and everything to put the brakes on a runaway locomotive of self-will. I know she thought that if I wasn’t paying the slightest attention to her admonitions, maybe I could be swayed by a higher authority. But I had an addicts destiny to play out and I did. When I had exhausted every bit of promise that drugs and alcohol offered me and was buried alive in the wreckage of it all, I became slightly teachable, slightly open to the idea that maybe there was a way out from underneath the shadow of death. I understood from Sunday school that God was a God of justice. What I didn’t know, what I still have trouble comprehending is that the justice of God is mercy. I anticipated that He might destroy me. Instead, He restored my soul.
Before teaching a course in Philippians at the church I attend, one of the facilitators had an introductory ‘debriefing session’ for those people in her group whose experiences of bible study in the hands of their teachers and preachers—and even their parents—were far more punishing than switches and pecan shells. I understand that for many the Good News is anything but, that people use the scripture to justify and amplify their own beliefs—and pathologies. I know too that when it comes to interpreting the mind of God—who framed the worlds with a word—all of us will get it wrong somewhere.
So I must tread lightly and quietly—which is not easy for someone who likes to have her say. I don’t always hit the mark but I aspire to St Francis’ admonition to preach the gospel using words as a last resort. Because it was love that changed me. It is love that is changing me still—not dialog and certainly not diatribe. These days I view the rod of the Lord as good fencing, wise counsel to one (me) that needs it. In Exodus, when Moses led Israel out of Egypt and into a wilderness called (of all things) Sin, they complained—often. When they could not find water and accused Moses of bringing them there to kill them, God told Moses to take his rod and strike a rock. He did and water gushed out—enough for everyone. That’s how I view the rod—it leads to Jehovah Tsuri: “the rock that is higher than I” and is a means to water.
Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies
Thou anointest my head with oil
My cup overfloweth
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
And I shall dwell in the house of The Lord forever
My mother says one of the many indignities of old age is interrupted sleep. And as more than a few of us know from Lady Melisandre in A Song Of Fire and Ice, if not personal experience, “The night is dark and full of terrors.” When my mother wakes to her heart pounding with apprehension and concerns—for her children and grandchildren, for the world that is now foreign and fearful to her, for her health and that of others, she begins to recite the verses of peace and refuge she learned as a child.
So often we encounter our worst enemies in the ghetto of our own minds. I continue to memorize scripture as an antidote not only for worry but for self absorbed, self destructive, selfish thoughts and find a table full of promise and a cup that spills hope and comfort along with course correction and an ever increasing desire to be transformed and renewed. My mother says that as she meditates on her favorite passages, the hope that anchors her soul fills her heart, the panic lessens and at last she sleeps, dreaming perhaps of the heavenly house that lies beyond imagination where one day she will dwell forever.