Monday, January 21, 2013

Faith Works 1-26

Faith Works 1-26-13

Jeff Gill


Mystic Chords of Memory, Rhyming or Otherwise



In Lincoln's first inaugural address, before there was a Civil War and while reasonable men and women could hope there would be none, the newly elected President spoke of harmony, and how to restore it as disharmony and cacophony filled the air.


He spoke and indeed prayed that "the better angels of our nature" might help us find that lost note when we allow them to play "the mystic chords of memory" and "swell the chorus of the Union."


Lincoln's memory for a good phrase, an apt quotation, or a slightly bawdy story, was legendary. Most of us wish we could just remember our account passwords that the system demanded we change last week.


When memory is engaged, and works on our behalf, there is something mystical about that power to raise the dead, to envision what is lost, to return missing pieces to their place in life's puzzle.


Along with public speaking in general, death is preferable to being asked to recite something from memory, or so the pollsters tell us. Ask around, and you'll mainly hear "I have a terrible memory" from folks.


Come around from a different direction, and ask if a person knows that song starting "Now sit right back and you'll hear a tale . . ." but know that you'll end up hearing the whole song. We joke about stars stumbling on the Star Spangled Banner, but the truth is most of us know the whole thing, and it isn't short.


Camp songs from the dining hall, bits of poetry from the classroom ("into the valley of death / rode the six hundred" or "Listen, my children, and you shall hear / of the midnight ride of Paul Revere"), batting orders from long ago baseball teams (Tinker to Evers to Chance, or Becker to Kessinger to Santo), or the sing-song chant of a train conductor on a line you often rode ("Arcola, Tuscola, and Coca Cola").


Religious formation may not feature ruler wielding nuns or Mr. Lambert's fierce gaze any more, in exchange for a focus on experience and understanding and feelings, but there are still elements of faith that it helps to learn, and learn by heart. From the books of the Bible, if only so you can find Nahum and Philemon someday without panic or confusion, to the history of your own movement's founders, and even some points of your faith and practice – wouldn't you like to know those things by . . . heart?


In ancient times, memory was not linked so strongly to the grey mushy stuff you found inside of cow skulls and between your enemies' ears. Whatever it was the brain did, memories, especially those that moved us deeply, were recorded in an even more secure, central location: in our heart.


So learning something by heart meant a bit more than even remembering. You could recall how many scoops of grain the chickens ate each night at feeding time, but you knew by heart how your children looked as you fed them when they were babies.


And so on.


Poetry, especially memorized, is considered a heartfelt matter, for these reasons and more. Most churches have sacred music, or what we call hymns, as a way to give us a reminder of our beliefs and recall the story of our faith community's journey.  Rhyme and rhythm carve deeply into our hearts the words, and the ideas we might not remember as well otherwise.


A hundred years ago, "In the Garden" spoke to worshipers in America's growing cities of the restful presence of Jesus as if he showed up in the middle of your dreams of a childhood home, but spoke to you personally about today's problems. C. Austin Miles wrote in 1912 "and he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own; and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known."


More recently Steven Curtis Chapman tried to explain what baptism meant to a friend who loved the outdoors and adventure, and with his song "Dive" suggested "The long awaited rains / Have fallen hard upon the thirsty ground / And carved their way to where / The wild and rushing river can be found /And like the rains 
I have been carried here to where the river flows…"


If you think about it, you might be surprised by just how much you know by heart after all.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what your favorite memory verse (or poem) is at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

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