There are plenty of scenes from my childhood of which I’m not terribly proud. And then there are those scenes of which I shouldn’t be proud – yet I am. Recently, I was cleaning out our library and discovered a Bible that led to the discussion of one such occasion.
The summer after fifth grade, my best friend and I took a mini tour-de-VBSs. I wish I could say that we were drawn to the spiritual nourishment offered or to the biblical literacy promised, however, I cannot. As is true with most elementary school students, we attended Vacation Bible School for the plethora of fun and food. We knew the routine, and it didn’t vary much from church to church: Bible story, games, snacks, and a moral we were supposed to latch on to and carry into and throughout adulthood. Like undercover food critics assessing the worthiness of various dining establishments, we journeyed from Lutheran to Baptist to Methodist churches to see what they had to offer. They rarely disappointed. One church edged slightly past the others in ratings, however, due to an unexpected bonus in programming. During the first evening’s assembly, the chirpy cheerful VBS director announced that the week’s activities would include a contest. The student who could memorize and recite the most Bible verses by the end of the week would take home a prize. The introduction of competition was a game changer. We were in.
Strategy was important. If my friend and I were going to win the Bible Verse Memory Challenge, we needed to have an actionable plan. Ours was two-fold. First, we’d memorize and recite together. The benefits to such an alliance were significant. Second, we needed to target the verses that would be easiest to remember. Shorter was best. At the top of the list was, naturally, “Jesus wept.” With a plan in place and the resolve to win, we began the serious business of memorization. At the end of the week, we had memorized 110 verses and won by a landslide (which may have had something to do with the “two heads are better than one” advantage we’d secured). The prize: a shiny black imitation leather red-letter edition of the King James Bible. Inscribed to both of us.
One could say that the spiritual benefits of memorizing scripture outweighed the questionable ethics involved in our approach. Yet I’ll confess that the only verse I mastered and retained beyond that particular week in July of 1981 was, “Jesus wept.” And I’m quite certain I was unaware of the context in which the verse was used or the spiritual significance that it carried. We just needed a short verse to win the contest. It served our purposes.
After recounting the “Jesus wept” anecdote with my teenagers, the verse has popped up a number of times in casual conversation. Need a third sentence to make a paragraph complete? Jesus wept. No teacher would dare take issue with a quotation plucked directly from the Bible. Need to punctuate the typical narrative with a spiritual allusion? Jesus wept. Open to interpretation given questionable context, but it just might work. Four decades later, the short verse continues to abound with unlimited possibility.
Only days after my prideful confession of the shiny-black-Bible-winning incident, my daughter and I began reading aloud Laddie, by Gene Stratton Porter. We’d only started the second chapter and were settling in to the book’s characters and storyline. The book is narrated by Little Sister, the youngest of a family of twelve. As I recounted her story, I could feel my eyelids fluttering. I was sleepy. My words were focused and steady but my mind was wandering. Until we got halfway though the chapter.
Little Sister introduces her fifteen year-old brother Leon, who had forgotten to memorize his Bible verses the prior week. Leon announces that in an effort to regain lost traction, he’ll be reciting an unprecedented thirteen verses during the Sunday morning services. The big day arrives. The family lines the pews. The small country church is silent. Leon, whose face has “the look of heaven”, draws in a deep breath and begins. His first verse, as anyone familiar with the politics and preferred processes of Bible verse memorization would guess is, of course, “Jesus wept.”
I promptly stopped reading. My girl and I shared a knowing moment. My eyes left the page to meet hers. We paused then laughed – one more stitch in the fabric binding us together, the knowing of family history and shared jokes and the deepest parts of one another.
Our interest perked, we returned our attention back to Leon addressing the congregation. Indeed, he had memorized his thirteen verses. The remainder, however, hadn’t been chosen for their brevity. Instead, Leon’s verses pointedly admonish members in the congregation. “Give not sleep to thine eyes nor slumber to thine eyelids,” he launches toward the community slacker. “ To the arrogant Hannah Dover who carried herself as a princess, “As a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a fair woman without discretion.” The verses tumble out, roll across the worn wooden floor, and land firmly on the toes of the intended targets. He continues down the list. The verse and recipient change, but Leon’s brandishing of scripture remains masterful, insightful, and significantly indiscreet.
Once Leon ticks through the first eleven verses, he seems to awaken to the reality of the situation he’s created. But he can’t stop until he’s finished. The last two verses are aimed squarely at his parents.
“’When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up… The Lord is on my side; I will not fear; what can man do unto me?’ inquired Leon of every one in the church. Then he soberly made a bow and walked to his seat.”
I’ve been there. When I realized that my offspring see the world more clearly than I do, yet they haven’t developed discernment (or social graces) to pretend otherwise and remain silent. When I have to choose between shaming their honesty and dignifying their insight – however misapplied their responses to that insight might be.
It’s easier to pretend that our children are foolish than to acknowledge the hard truths they too often reveal.
Leon’s father had a choice.
Father’s voice broke the silence. ‘Let us kneel in prayer,’ he said.
He took a step forward, knelt, laid his hands on the altar, closed his eyes and turned his face upward.
‘Our Heavenly Father, we come before Thee in a trying situation,’ he said. ‘Thy word of truth has been spoken to us by a thoughtless boy, whether in a spirit of helpfulness or of jest, Thou knowest. Since we are reasoning creatures, it little matters in what form Thy truth comes to us; the essential thing is that we soften our hearts for its entrance, and grow in grace by its application. Tears of compassion such as our dear Saviour wept are in our eyes this morning as we plead with Thee to help us to apply these words to the betterment of this community.’
As we finished reading the chapter, I knew that once again, the sacred alchemy had transpired. While unsuspectingly reading a book published in 1915, truth had crept from the pages and into my soul. My heart was a little softer. My step a little lighter. The love for my family a little freer.
Truth is eternal and will never return void. Even if its source is an impertinent schoolboy. Or an old musty novel. Or 110 Bible verses memorized to win half of a black imitation leather red-letter edition of the King James Bible.
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For your edification (and general amusement), I commend to you Laddie by Gene Stratton Porter: