As Dr. Clingenpeel reminded us in a recent sermon, Christian faith is based on scripture, from which it follows that we cannot develop our faith without developing our knowledge of scripture. For me, it follows that we cannot hope to give our children a sound education in their faith without ensuring that by the time they graduate from high school they have read all of the Bible at least once, that they have some intelligent notion of the content of each book and that they understand the scriptural basis of the Christian faith. That kind of knowledge requires that we begin, in earnest, at least by the third grade.
Third grade is a milestone because it is the year the children receive their own Bibles and are ready to begin to read from them. It is a precious year because, while our third graders are gaining the capacity to learn from reading, they still have a capacity for wonder that allows them to hear the truth of these stories without the filters that sometimes lead us to discount what is most wonderful in them. Another gift that is common at this age is the ability to memorize and the willingness to memorize what they are asked to. This gives us a golden opportunity because what they memorize at this age will stay with them and grow with them even if they do not fully understand it when they first learn the words. It will have a chance to grow with them, even if they fail to consistently attend Sunday school as they get older, and even if they walk away from the church at some point in their adult lives. We recognize that memorizing is very difficult for some of our children, but these lessons are accessible to all of them on some level, even if the writing and drawing part of this exercise is where they wish to stop.
We use these gifts that our third graders bring us by asking them to commit to memory the books of the Bible and the ten sections into which the books are divided. This gives them a foundation for understanding the scope of the Bible story, how the Old Testament story leads to God’s becoming present to us in Jesus, and how the Gospels, Letters of Paul, and General Letters teach us how to be his disciples. We ask them to memorize the 23rd Psalm in order that they can carry with them always words that assure them of God’s providence and love and that teach them the fundamental nature of a right relationship with God. We ask them to do this not only for the content it teaches them, but to instill in them the practice of Bible study they will need if they are going to gain a fundamental grasp of the Bible before they leave our Sunday school.
The practice of memorizing a portion of the Bible is in itself a wonderful practice. Memorizing is one powerful way to grasp the meaning of something that is difficult to understand. It brings the scriptures inside of us, and makes it a part of us. It gives us the ability to have access to verses that sustain us any time and any place. Knowledge of the books of the Bible and the 23rd Psalm is a gift that is within the grasp of our third graders. We are delighted when they choose to receive it.