Holy Repetition

Psalm 78:1-7 – The 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time – for Sunday, November 9, 2014

“I’ll declare riddles from days gone, ones that we’ve heard and learned about, ones that our ancestors told us . . .” (Psalms 78:2)

106098The writer of Psalm 78 wrote, “I’ll declare riddles from days gone, ones that we’ve heard and learned about, ones that our ancestors told us . . .”

And indeed the Bible does repeat (and repeat) those ancestral riddles, stories, parables, and more. How many times are the same stories shared, added to, referenced, and sometimes simply repeated throughout scripture? How often were the Israelites reminded they were the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? How often was the exodus referenced? David lived and died, and was never forgotten, in story after story.

Of course, it wasn’t just one person who wrote the Old Testament; instead the hands, hearts, hopes, and hubris from many went in the telling of the tales. The writing and revising of the books in the Biblical “library” took centuries. Even the New Testament, with Paul’s earliest letters likely written in the mid 50s CE and the final parts of the official Christian “canon” occurring well before the end of 200 CE, spanned several lifetimes. Everyone who had anything to do with putting words in the Bible wanted—needed—to include their version of events.

So, stories were repeated.

I’ve read that people need to hear about something at least six times before remembering that “something.” We require repetition for retention. I’m sure there are those who need to be told about a new event but once . . . well, good for them! However, a story repeated sixty times might be inadequate for the rest of us befuddled masses. We are overwhelmed by the endless torrent of new news (or recycled, rehashed, ridiculous junk) in this “information age.”

We often say we hear. But do we?

My wife is a college professor, and frequently teaches her classes off campus. She works with students preparing to become elementary school teachers. In recent years, her university has partnered with local school districts to immerse students into the “real world.” Every semester, her teaching site changes to a different school and classroom somewhere in the Fresno, California metro area. I can tell you the exact location of her campus office: second floor, end of hall, in the education building. But the other day—when she was teaching a class that ended at seven in the evening, that ended when the gloomy nights of October blanketed the city, and that ended past the time she normally texted to let me know she was coming home—I realized I couldn’t recall her location.

The gloomy nights of October blanketed the city...
The gloomy nights of October blanketed the city…

A half-hour before I hadn’t cared about the school’s name. Now, she was late and getting later. Now, because she hadn’t sent a reassuring text, I was worried. The grim what-ifs started to swirl in my brain’s worry center.

Several moments later, her text arrived: “Coming home.”

Ah . . . a sigh of relief!

Later, she told me she’d lingered in the classroom, answering questions from a student. Of course! One student, or several students, needed to talk about past homework or future projects.

But it was dark outside. It was getting late.

How many times had my lovely wife told me where she was teaching? More than six times! In the long, uneasy minutes between the beginning of my fretting and the arrival of her text, you could’ve quizzed me about the location of her class, and I would’ve failed miserably. Other than being “in Fresno” (the fifth largest city in California), I was clueless about cross streets and school names.

Why do we listen and not hear?

How can we read and not learn?

My father, by his early 70s, was going deaf. He resisted using hearing aids. In the years leading to his death at 95, we had to raise our voices around him. We had to repeat things. Even after reluctantly acquiring hearing aids, they weren’t effective (especially when he “forgot” to wear them). Dad lived in a silent world. The television became louder. Conversations were as short as they were frustrating. Stories weren’t shared.

How different am I from Dad? I can hear! And yet, I can be so deaf! We can joke about being “selectively deaf,” but when a loved one is out there “somewhere,” and maybe something bad could happen, nothing seems funny.

It’s no surprise the Bible repeated itself. The humans who wrote it knew forgetful humans were going to read it. One example: I bet I could randomly open the Bible and be near a direct or indirect reference to the exodus story. It’s all over the place. “We’ll tell the next generation all about the praise due the Lord and his strength—the wondrous works God has done,” the Psalmist wrote. Tell that next generation, over and over and over again, about the exodus, about the movement from slavery to freedom, about entering into the real or metaphoric wilderness and trusting (and sometimes not trusting) the God who is calling you to the new promise.

We forget. We become complacent. We selectively hear. Of course the Biblical stories were told, again. Of course, the “riddles” were shared, again. Of course the names of old—those heroes with their flaws—were referred to, again.

My wife teaches at Scandinavian Middle School this semester. What an odd name. What a memorable name. How could I forget that?

Of course, we can’t remember everything. Of course, we moderns are numbed by a tsunami of data and stimuli. Of course, we—the deaf and never deaf—selectively listen. And so the stories of faith were and are repeated.

Some day, maybe we’ll even listen.

(Kid image from here. Dark street image from here.)

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