Flex Your Memory Muscles

Photo from wisconsinwatch.org

I push old people. I yell at them too. But rest assured; it’s for good reason. So you need not be alarmed. Every Thursday morning, I help gather residents at a nearby skilled nursing facility for a weekly chapel service. I push them in wheelchairs that require a rolling boost down the corridor. Many are hard of hearing or easily confused. So I’m forced to use my outdoor voice and annunciate when telling them it’s time for church. And a few will wave away any offer of the large print songbook as their eyesight has deteriorated past the point of reading the gigantic words.

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

But when the service begins, an otherwise weary audience easily recalls the melodies and lyrics to traditional hymns. Rigid bodies relax and faces familiar with the daily struggles of disease and aging soften into smiles for a few moments of bliss. The pastor delivers a message, and then all are united in the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer–cherished words of petition that bring comfort to those very near the end of life.

Skip ahead to the weekend and my third-grade Sunday School class. Most of my students cannot recite the Lord’s Prayer. The assigned lesson plan was to spend two weeks on this ancient prayer. It wasn’t enough. So, I made a decision. I will devote a portion of each class time to bribe my students with candy until each of them know the prayer by heart.

And then, there is my mid-week confirmation class. Confirmation is for middle schoolers, the stage in a student’s religious training where he/she learns to articulate what they believe and why they believe it. But when asked, few in my current class can recite the Apostles’ Creed, a historic and universal statement of the Christian faith. Sheesh, I wonder if I can even do it!

It seems memorization isn’t taught much anymore. Expert educators tell us that when we force kiddos to memorize text, facts or methods for solving equations, we rob them of opportunities to truly learn and understand valuable concepts. I agree to some extent. Pushing memorization without explanation or discussion simply fills minds with mumbo jumbo that we hope can be regurgitated on command. BUT, has the baby been tossed out with the bathwater? I’m convinced there are benefits to the memorization of certain words. Specifically, sacred words like prayers, creeds or songs.

Of course, it is also important that we understand where religious words come from, who said them, and what they mean. Memorization isn’t a perfect education tool. A middle-aged family member reminds me of this when telling of his astonishment to discover that the words of the Aaronic Benediction–a blessing said at the end of every church service during his entire childhood–comes directly from the bible! He would just repeat the words, not knowing their significance. So memorization and rote recitation without explanation are obviously of no use in forming a thoughtful appreciation of one’s faith.

But religious ritual has its purposes like focusing the mind, uniting believers and offering a sanctuary of comfort from a chaotic and confusing world.

And for different, but still compelling reasons, I also suggest we have kids memorize multiplication tables, poetry and how to spell the word, discipline.

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