Awana and the Art of Memorization

Awana: A para-church organization founded in the 1950s, still popular in evangelical churches across the nation today. Their mission is to raise children who know and love Christ. Their main tool for this is an evening program that is built around the memorization of Scripture.

When you are an Awana Spark in the 1980s, you wear a red vest pinned with plastic crowns: bronze, silver, gold.

You have a spiral Sparks book filled with verses to learn by heart.  When you can say a certain number of these verses satisfactorily to your Sparks table leader, you get a jewel, a shiny brad in red or blue or green or gold, and you stick it into one of those holes in your crown.

You can tell from these glimmering crowns who is smart, driven, motivated. You can tell who is not by the threadbare look of their red, undecorated vests.

You will repeat dozens (hundreds?) of verses in your Awana years, but you will actually remember very few of them. John 3:16 – that quintessential salvation verse. The Sparks theme song and the Books-of-the-Bible songs, which you sing every night in a room of raucous elementary school kids. (To this day, when you want to find the book of Hosea, you have to sing through the whole song to remember where it is.)

Mostly you’ll remember winning Crazy Hat Night – that King Sized Hershey bar prize and all the accompanying glory. You’ll remember your sweet table leader, Barb, who loved you, who smiled big whenever you came in.

Years from now, what will remain are not the verses, but that sinking you felt when the girl across the table was an entire book ahead of you, and there was no way you could ever catch up.

When you are an Awana Spark in the 80s, you are repeating Scripture every week. Certainly those truths, those words, are forming the soft clay of your heart. Creating a backdrop for your life.

But so are the crowns, the rewards. The jewels. The lack of jewels.

*

In high school, I fell in love with the Bible: the words, the beauty. It was the beginning of the On Fire days. I was underlining and circling and starring words. They were sparking new things in me, and I was writing them out in curly cursive.

I collected these verses like found treasure. I kept them everywhere: pinned to my walls, stuck in my textbooks, scattered on my desk. They’d gather at the bottom of my backpack, worn and crumpled.

Then I went to Christian College, and it got weird. We were a thousand Christian kids, many of us used to being the most spiritual. The leader of the Bible study, lead vocal on the worship team.

It was like the Sparks vests were back on, and we were comparing crowns. Who has the most jewels? The most patches? The most awards? Who loves God best?

And somewhere in there, I quit playing. I stopped comparing and started judging those who did. I grew a little cynical, a little bitter. I threw away my notecards.

*

These days, my mind is a black hole.

No matter how detailed a grocery list I make, I’m always running back to the store in the middle of my dinner preparations for avocados (because I swear they were not in the recipe the first time I read it) or a block of cheese (because I know I just bought one and it cannot possibly be gone already).

I walk to another floor of the house and forget why I’m there. I leave the load of wet clothes sitting in the washer overnight.

When I got pregnant with Dane, my doctor assured me that there was a medical reason for all of my forgetting. That “Pregnancy Brain” was a proven phenomenon, that the mind was actually pulling back, withdrawing, totally reorganizing. I shouldn’t worry – it would come back stronger when the baby was born.

But the other day my husband found the bag of soggy frozen French fries that I’d stuffed in the fridge. So there’s that.

My mother-mind is always whirring. So much time is spent remembering forward – did I remember to grab the diapers? The wipes? The sunscreen? My brain is racing through the day, down rabbit-trails of potential disasters, cutting them off. Remember the fruit snacks to bribe the tantruming child back into the car; remember the extra set of clothes for the inevitable poop blowout. Think, think, think. Remember, remember, remember.

Sometimes I feel like I cannot possibly stuff another thing into my brain. Like the whole thing might just shut down mid-email.

I’ve started, tentatively, with the notecards again. I’ve started with the verses.

There are only a couple, written carefully, propped in my kitchen where I can see them. Short ones; beautiful ones. Ones that remind me to breathe. Ones that remind me of the beautiful, ocean-depth of God.

I’ve read them over and over again for weeks now. At the kitchen sink, scrubbing the pans. Sitting at the kitchen table, answering emails. I’ve read them hundreds of times, and I still couldn’t say them back to you, could not earn a jewel.

My mind is a black hole; the words disappear almost as soon as I read them.

And it’s okay.

It has taken me this long to understand that there are no crowns in this learning; no jewels. Only God, only my own heart, my whirring mind, the quiet morning.

It has taken me this long to understand that memorization and learning by heart are two completely different things, and that there is value in this reading and forgetting, reading and forgetting.

It’s like walking the same invisible path again and again, wearing it deep into the earth. Teaching my feet to move toward Living Water; teaching my heart to remember the way.

36 thoughts on “Awana and the Art of Memorization

  1. I was never in Awana, but I was a preacher’s kid, so I was the holiest by default. 🙂 I especially know what you mean about going off to Christian college. Ironically, it was probably one of my worst spiritual times in life. The vest and jewels and crowns all on display, and I felt like Holden Caulfield quietly rebelling and calling everyone a bunch of “phonies.” It wasn’t healthy for me. I actually did a lot better at a state school that wasn’t just full of a bunch of bored Christians in competition with each other.

    1. Christian college wasn’t a great place for me spiritually either. But I met my husband there, so I suppose it wasn’t all bad. 😉

  2. To be written on the heart is so much more worthwhile than to be written on the brain.

  3. I never did Awana, because the church I was connected with at that time didn’t do non-Bible literature, period. I would have been really good at it, probably, but my brain can barely remember where the reference for John 3:16, nowadays.

    I’m a little baffled by people who know the Bible inside and out but can’t grasp “Love your neighbor”.

    1. I think “love your neighbor” is one of those things it takes a lifetime to learn and relearn. Knowing is easier than doing.

  4. While AWANA represents both the best and the worst of how 21st Century North American Evangelicalism is currently expressing itself, the real heart of your words for us lie in the hope of true freedom from performance-based value to God. Thank you Addie.

  5. What a beautiful post, Addie! You have a such a great way of capturing moments from your (and my) childhood and saying the exact words I’d like to say. It’s nice to know that there’s at least one other person out there with the same feelings 🙂

    My favorite part of your post is “It has taken me this long to understand that memorization and learning by heart are two completely different things, and that there is value in this reading and forgetting, reading and forgetting.” How true is that! The best part of reading and forgetting is that you discover something new each time, and God can touch your heart over and over again.

  6. “but that sinking you felt when the girl across the table was an entire book ahead of you, and there was no way you could ever catch up.” I’m sorry.

    My Bible trophies are the only things I’ve ever won……and I don’t know that Bible and trophies should go together.

    “memorization and learning by heart are two completely different things, and that there is value in this reading and forgetting, reading and forgetting.” This is really good. For a long time I thought memorizing was the best way to go….I still do in some ways. But now that I have kids, I’m realizing that some people just memorize easier than others. That’s how my brain is wired. When I was little it’s because I thought I was more awesome than other people…but really I just got lucky at that form of learning. And way less lucky when it comes to being physically athletic! But now that I have kids, one of them has a brain like I do and can memorize everything instantly, and my other one can read it 10 times and still barely be able to recall it exactly. But she’s just as smart, her brain just works differently.

    So I do think it’s a shame that memorizing is set up to be the be-all-end-all of knowing the Bible, and it does teach you to easily proof-text. I know hundreds of verses, and can locate most of them fairly easily still….but it hasn’t been until the last couple of years that I’ve really grasped the story of the Bible, and realized that the OT is actually necessary to understand the story of Jesus. It’s sad that all those trophies didn’t teach that to me.

    And, another downside, is that I find it really hard to read the Bible now. Because I know it all..(not know it, know it,) but factually, I’ve read it so many times and know where all the stories are located and know all the trivia and the who’s who….it’s really hard to read it as the big story that it is. I have a lot of trouble reading it and not just automatically seeing it through the conservative, literal eyes that I learned so much of it with.

    So I think there is a lot of value in not memorizing it, and just falling in love with it in bits and pieces instead.

    And pregnancy brain? SO TRUE! I was mortified when the ATM ate my bank card b/c I couldn’t remember the number, and I blanked out on my soc. security number at the bank and had to leave without filling out a form, because I just couldn’t remember. For someone who has a memory to be proud of, that was so humbling, haha.

    1. Oh, I hear you. I cringe a little when looking back at my years of Awanas, because while memorizing came easy to me, I know it was so hard for so many kids. I can’t imagine how discouraging it must have been for them.

      And yes, it’s easy to miss the big story of the Bible when you’re working hard to learn it verse by verse, fact by fact. I went to a Christian high school AND a Christian college, and yet do you know what book has been one of the most influential on my relationship with God? My little girl’s “Jesus Storybook Bible”! It does a beautiful job of weaving all the Bible stories together into the Big Story of how God loves us and sent Jesus to rescue us. I highly recommend it. Word of warning…it totally makes me cry (but in a good way!).

    2. This is such a profound statement: “My Bible trophies are the only things I’ve ever won……and I don’t know that Bible and trophies should go together.” It does seem a little weird that we’ve made it into a competition.

  7. What a beautiful reflection on what it really means to learn “by heart.” Thank you. I’ve popped over here today on the recommendation of a mutual FB friend. So glad I did.

    ~ Jennifer Dukes Lee

  8. AWANA = approved workmen are not ashamed.

    (yeah. i went there.)

    i was in AWANA for almost five years. straight through the awkward middle school years and the beginning of high school – i memorized, wrote notes, blazed through those books and promptly forgot almost every single verse i knew by heart except for “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked – who could know it?” and those He calls being the ones He justifies.

    that being said, i find myself writing verses down on notecards or slips of paper or on the wall of my prayer room. i think bits of those words get stuck somewhere in my memory, because there are moments (when i need them most) where they come from nowhere – reminders of His faint whispers (job 26:14) and His words in my bones like fire (jeremiah 20:9).

    i love this, addie. thank you for the reminder.

    1. I feel the same way about the bits and pieces getting stuck in my memory. Which is so cool because it takes the pressure off of me to “perform.” I just read them and give myself permission to forget, and still, it’s there somewhere. Beautiful how you said it: “His faint whispers.”

  9. Beauty I am going to share with my Covenant Love whom condemns himself often for not being able to “memorize” yet I see a heart that has grown immensely over the last two years. I am glad God made us to be forgetful. If we remembered everything I don’t think we’d return to those waters that flow so beautifully. Love you Addie…

    1. Thanks Jennifer. I love what you said about how “God made us to be forgetful.” Sometimes I think we beat ourselves so much for our weaknesses in the name of spiritual discipline; we forget that he made us weak. He made us to need him.

  10. This brings back memories! I did Awana through a friend’s church for a year or two. I still have my crowns somewhere. I’m not sure why I hold on to them, other than the nostalgia factor. I don’t remember many of the verses I memorized through Sunday School or Awana or Pioneers or Missionettes or any of the other churchy activities I participated in. I remember quite a few of the songs, many of which are based on verses. If I’m trying to recall a verse, I usually think of the melody first and it comes to me.

    Memorization does not come easily to me. The last few years I’ve kept soul-stirring verses by my bed that I flip through as needed. For awhile, I kept Romans 8:28 in my car so I could meditate, no matter what was going on that day. This helps them stick, at least for a moment. I’m completely on board with your present approach, Addie. And I don’t even have to accommodate Pregnancy Brain or Kid Brain.

    1. Love that, Leigh. Yes, I’m fairly sure I still have my Sparks plaque somewhere. First thing I ever won.

  11. oh addie, this broke my heart in two! sometimes i feel like you are a translator into a strange and horrible culture that i cannot recognize, but you always bring it around to something so achingly beautiful and true that i rejoice in the great grace of God.

    [pregnancy brain is the worst misnomer, because it truly ruins you far longer than nine months. i cannot begin to count the loads of wash that i have washed 2–and 3!-times this summer. also? there are clothes on my line right now that i totally hung there yesterday, so there’s that.]

    1. Thanks Suzannah. Glad to know I’m not alone on the whole leaving-the-clothes-in-the-washer thing. TOTAL misnomer.

  12. I can’t comment on pregnancy brain, really, but I think it may be more accurately called “trauma brain”. I’ve not been pregnant, but I HAVE had open heart surgery, and I am basically a complete idiot compared to my mental capacity prior to the surgery. I have to REALLY work to remember even the most basic things, sometimes. I can’t even do multiplication and division like I once could. So, while I don’t know squat about the pain / etc. of childbearing, I do know the thing you’re talking about here…

    1. That’s so interesting. I wonder if there’s research about this sort of phenomenon. I’m totally intrigued.

      1. I am SO totally different from what I was before 2007 that it’s ridiculous. I feel different, I act different, I can’t think sharp, etc. etc. Of course, open heart surgery actually stops the heart, and there’s speculation that the body KNOWS the heart is “dead” and starts the process of shutting down, as well as the highly debated “pump head” phenomenon, so it would be tough to connect it to just “trauma”, but childbirth is very intense, too, and I wonder if some of the things that happen in both kinds of situation don’t trigger some chemicals in the body to help us forget the pain, thus leading to memory issues? Personal theory, nothing that I can prove.

  13. Awana is a completely foreign concept to this United Methodist-raised girl, but I completely get what you mean when you said “Then I went to Christian College, and it got weird.” !!

    And I love where you are now, with this wisdom:

    “It has taken me this long to understand that memorization and learning by heart are two completely different things, and that there is value in this reading and forgetting, reading and forgetting.”

    Yes. The depth of our need is so obvious in those moments, and the verses are so much more refreshing and full of grace.

  14. I never did Awana, but parts of this I can relate to with the frustration of not being able to memorize or forgetting later. Love the idea of the beauty in the forgetting and re-reading.

    Your post reminds me a bit of that Max Lucado children’s story with the stars and dots and how when we don’t let the stars stick to us, the “bad dots” won’t either.

  15. This is so brilliant, Addie. I’m a PK who went to a Christian school and AWANA. And Sunday night church. Talk about jewels in the crown. I’m a people pleaser who likes to check things off my list. AWANA was made for girls like me.

    Ironically, none of those things helped me know God. My journey has been a process of peeling away the trappings of evangelicalism to find the real Jesus. Like you, I have verses propped up around my house now. (Although, like you, my post-baby brain is a black hole for information. What happened to the girl who used to memorize pages of dialogue?!?) But like you, I’m trying to keep the focus on working the words into my heart like yeast into dough. Slapping them on as decoration won’t do a thing.

  16. Addie, it’s the diet Coke! Aspartame is a real brain-killer, and some people are more sensitive to it than others. Forgetfulness is one well-documented symptom!

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