Like me, many of you will have learnt things by heart as a child, perhaps a prayer or a poem or multiplication tables. This rote-learning method went out of fashion for a while but today I’m pleased to know that 4×12=48 without picking up a pencil or using my fingers.
Our ancestors in faith who lived 50 or 2000 years ago carried prayers, psalms and even large passages of scriptures learnt by rote in their heads – or we could better say they carried what they learnt by heart in their hearts.
There may be prayers you learnt as a child that you remember at least in part and it wouldn’t take too many recitations to bring back the complete text. Some favourites for me include the prayers: “Soul of Christ, Sanctify Me…” and “Remember O most gracious Virgin Mary…” and the hymns “Lead Kindly Light” and “O Love that Will not let me go.”
Children learn by heart easily and naturally and pick up the words of every secular song lyric or tv and computer jingle or catch-phrase without even trying. We help children when we match the secular (and often unhelpful) stuff they pick up by teaching them words that are sacred giving them a readily available life-long resource of hope and connection with God for future moments of struggle.
Today’s psalm is without a doubt the best known passage of scripture, well known word for word by people who would be surprised to realise that they know some scripture by heart. Try this little test yourself and you will easily complete this verse: “The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want…”
There have been times when the words of this psalm have helped me a lot. Sometimes when I feel a bit needy I find myself repeating as a mantra “The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want.” Most days my soul needs restoring, and when I sense the valley of death approaching this psalm which I know by heart reminds me that “I need fear no ill” because when I live with Jesus “goodness and mercy will follow me.”
Whenever this psalm is sung at a funeral I often glance around at the congregation and notice that most people are singing without reference to the hymn sheets. It is evident that they know this ancient prayer by heart.
The LORD’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want.
He makes me down to lie
in pastures green; He leadeth me
the quiet waters by.
My soul He doth restore again;
and me to walk doth make
within the paths of righteousness,
e’en for His own name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through death’s dark vale,
yet will I fear no ill;
for Thou art with me, and Thy rod
and staff me comfort still.
My table Thou hast furnished
in presence of my foes;
my head Thou dost with oil anoint,
and my cup overflows.
Goodness and mercy all my life
shall surely follow me;
and in God’s house for evermore
my dwelling place shall be.
Eugene Peterson who died last month was the master of translating the scriptures into everyday language. You can find his text from “The Message” below.
If you would like to listen to as you drive or work today you might appreciate this link to the psalm sung to the well-known melody “Crimond.”
You might like to make this psalm your prayer today, using even just a line or two. You might also like to remember a prayer that you learnt as a child but might not have prayed for many decades. Recall the prayer and see if you can still pray it searching online if you need help to remember the full text. Take a moment to share the prayer or hymn you recall at the comment link below.