Mnemonic devices and the desires of our hearts

When I was a child, our Sunday school was large enough to have six separate classes for children in the primary grades: three for girls (1st-2nd grade, 3rd-4th grade and 5th-6th grade), and three for boys (with the same grade groups). At the time, I understood that boys and girls were separated because girls were quiet and good, while boys were rambunctious and disruptive. The teachers were mostly faithful older women, and those who taught the boys tended to have a take-no-guff attitude appropriate for their task.

All the classes focused on the telling of Bible stories, sometimes illustrated with two-dimensional flannel cutouts on a flannel-covered board, and the memorization of verses from the King James Version of the Bible. “Thy word have I hid in mine heart,” we repeated, “that I might not sin against thee. Psalm 119:11.” And indeed I learned to hide the Word in my heart. This rote memorization, dull as it seemed, formed the foundation for a much deeper understanding of the Scripture in my adult life. I’m truly grateful for all those faithful teachers.

We also had “children’s church,” which took place afterward in the church basement while the adults were worshipping upstairs. Children’s church was co-ed and was led by three college kids named Renee, Mark and Robin. They were so different from our Sunday school teachers — they had long hair, played guitar and taught us songs, some of which were funny and made us laugh. We had “sword drills,” in which we competed to see who could find a Bible verse the fastest. We spent time moving around — jumping up and down, performing skits and clapping our hands.

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One day Renee, Mark and Robin told us an elaborate story about a peace-loving pirate named Long John, who watched over the ship of a virtuous sea captain named Sir Charles. This good pirate exhibited all the fruit of the Spirit enumerated in Galatians 5:22-23. At the end of the story, we heard a one-sentence summary: “Long John, peaceful pirate, keeps guard for gentle Sir Charles.” We all memorized this easy statement, which made more sense than most of the Bible verses we had memorized in Sunday school.

And then we learned the fun kicker. The sentence was actually a mnemonic device. Each word of the sentence started with the first letter of a fruit of the Spirit: Long (love), John (joy), peaceful (peace), pirate (patience), keeps (kindness), guard (goodness), for (faithfulness), gentle (gentleness), Sir Charles (self-control). Brilliant.

Is there a point to memorizing fruit of the Spirit, or Shakespeare’s sonnets, or digits of pi? Ample research over the years has pointed to memorization’s benefits to the brain. But my concern isn’t primarily memorization’s utilitarian benefits. I wonder, rather, whether knowing a few dozen random verses in 400-year-old English idiom is good for my soul or my character.

In this regard, I tend to think of my cache of memorized verses in two ways: as a toolbox and as a structure. They form a toolbox because Scriptures known by heart can emerge at key moments — usually not for use in argument, but for the encouragement of my own spirit or someone else’s. They form a structure when, as I am reading the Bible on my own or in a group, certain lines jump off the page. “This is important!” my memorized verses shout.

“Long John, peaceful pirate” has helped me to remember that gentleness, peace, kindness and joy are not just culturally contextual values, but are gifts from God and outgrowths of the Holy Spirit’s working in my life. My goal is to create room for that fruit to thrive. Because I’m confident of this very thing: God, who hath begun a good work in me, will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).

Jay Blossom is interim publisher/editor of the Presbyterian Outlook. He lives in Philadelphia.