All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
-Isaiah 53:6, ESV
I know Isaiah 53:6. I can quote it to you backwards and forwards. Unlike nearly every other Bible verse I’ve ever memorized, I can pinpoint the exact moment in history when I sat down to memorize it.
The church I went to when I was growing up had an AWANA program from pre-kindergarten to sixth grade. If you don’t know, AWANA is a systematized evangelism and discipleship curriculum that moves children through a series of subgroups based on age (and once you hit third grade, gender).
In most churches, you’d have three or four different stations you went through every Wednesday night:
- The opening ceremony, complete with a pledge of allegiance to the Christian flag (yes, it was weird)
- A Bible lesson in your AWANA subgroup
- Bible verse recitation time, where you’d share with your leader all the Bible verses you learned that week
- And lastly (my favorite) game time — don’t think sports; think unathletic, team-building, games of skill which usually involved a series of colored bowling pins.
I’ll never forget the night I learned Isaiah 53:6. I was in an all-guys group for fifth and sixth graders called “Pioneers.” A man named Bill Short was the leader of the group. Despite his name, he was toweringly tall and spoke directly, with a sense of purpose, in a deep, intimidating baritone.
As a fifth grader, I was kind of scared of Bill Short, to be honest. He was so big and direct. Far as I knew, he barely even noticed me. I was not exactly a model AWANA student. In fact, I had actually set my uniform on fire trying to iron the group patch onto the sleeve. So, nothing about me really stood out. I certainly didn’t take time each week to memorize the Bible verses in each section of the handbook, like everyone else seemed to prioritize. All I wanted to do was show up, goof off and make it to game time.
On the night I learned Isaiah 53:6, the lesson on God-only-knows-what had gone a little too long, and I had managed to endure through the Bible verse recitation time without having to speak to anyone. Finally, Bill Short stood up and told us it was time to head out to the fellowship hall for game time. We all hurried to gather our things and made for the doorway.
“Not you,” he said to me. “We’re going to stay here and go over this section in your hand book.”
I thought I was afraid of Bill Short before, but now we were in uncharted territory, and no one could save me.
I sat down across the table from Bill Short. He didn’t give me a lecture on why Bible memorization was important or tell me that game time was for good boys who memorized their Bible verses. If I remember that night correctly, he said something like this: “I want to show you that you can do this. Repeat after me.”
For the next half hour Bill Short went word by word through Isaiah 53:6 and made me repeat the whole thing back to him over and over and over again. I thought this must have been some form of torture he learned in AWANA bootcamp or whatever they made leaders go through to teach the kids.
The thing is, at ten or eleven years old, I had no idea what I was saying. It was something to do with sheep and there was something called “iniquity” that I wasn’t exactly sure about. Now, sitting here writing this nearly 18 years later, those words that were once void and meaningless to me, strike deep, rich chords within my soul. I know the sheep in that verse. I know the “him” in that verse. And I know the iniquity in that verse.
You see, sheep are kind of dumb; they’ve got that in common with ten-year-old boys. They tend to wander off and go their own way. What I think Bill Short knew that night is that one sheep in particular needed some guidance and special attention. Despite every defense I threw back at him in all my ten-year-old stubbornness and sass, he succeeded. His patience and intentionality were stronger than my desire to continue in my own willful, rebellion.
I’m so grateful that I know Isaiah 53:6 and that Bill Short wouldn’t let me leave that night without memorizing it. As we worked on the verse, he got frustrated with me, and he didn’t try to hide it. And throughout that whole experience, I felt loved by him because he was investing something in me he could never get back: his time.