The old man catches me in the back of the sanctuary, where I’m straightening church bulletins, pencils and childrens’ Quiet Bags.
He shuffles his feet, asks how Bible memory is going for the Sunday School children. But perhaps he’s asking if I’m hiding verses in my soul, too?
His name is Helmer. He’s 86 years old. He carries a narrow-tooth comb in his front pocket, a work-worn Bible in his farmer hands, and Truth tucked deep into marrow.
Psalm 1 is his favorite, he reminds me. I already knew that. He told me a few months earlier, and I even inked his name in the margin of my own Psalms. I have listened to him recite the psalmist’s words a half-dozen times or more.
I smile, listen again. Words take root in repetition.
He starts in his shaky bass voice, with wisdom-rimmed eyes burrowing deep into mine:
“Blessed is the man
that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
nor standeth in the way of sinners …“
A few days later, I dial the twice-widowed farmer; he answers on the second ring. I tell him I’m calling to get his advice.
“How do you do it, Helmer? How do you memorize the words?” I ask him.
The old farmer tells me: If you plant words over and over again, they will take root and grow on the inside. It’s not hard, he says. And there’s really no need to complicate it. He doesn’t have a five-step plan, or a series of index cards, or a $300 video series to stimulate brain activity.
Just this: Open heart, open Bible.
I ask him: Do you still do it, even now, Helmer? Do you still memorize the words at age 86?
He says he feels compelled to memorize, because you don’t always have the Good Book right beside you when you need a comforting word for someone else … or for yourself.
But isn’t it hard, Helmer, when the brain grows old, weary?
“No, no. I should say not,” his bass voice swelling in the phone receiver. “I memorize just as well now as when I was young.”
I tell him how I’ve been researching techniques for Bible memory, and how I tried memorizing all of Romans 8 last year, and how intimidating it was.
I tell him how I should have tried something a little less difficult — and I hear his gentle, knowing “um-hmmm.”
He knows. He knows.
Then he starts in again, on some of his favorite verses, voice waltzing on the words. I flip to the verses in my own Bible, following his Word-dance with the Father.
“See now?” he says. “I think I pretty well got it.”
You sure did, Helmer. You sure did.
“His delight is in the law of the LORD …”
— Psalm 1:2