What I Learned From an 86-Year-Old Farmer

November 3, 2010 | 23 comments

He catches me in the back of the sanctuary, where I’m straightening church bulletins, pencils, Quiet Bags.

He shuffles old feet, asks how Bible memory is going. He’s asking about the Sunday School children, but perhaps he’s asking if I’m hiding words in my soul, too?

His name is Helmer. He’s 86, and carries a narrow-tooth comb in his front pocket, a work-worn Bible in farmer hands, and Truth tucked deep into marrow.

Psalm 1 is his favorite. He reminds me of that fact again in the back of the church, even though I already knew that, and even though I once inked his name in the margin of my own Psalms, and even though I have listened to him recite the psalmist’s words a half-dozen times or more.

I smile, listen again. Words take root in repetition.

He starts in shaky bass voice, with wisdom-rimmed eyes burrowing deep into mine:

“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners …

But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.”


I dial the twice-widowed farmer this morning; he answers on the second ring. I tell him I’m calling to get his advice.

“How do you do it, Helmer? How do you memorize the words?” I ask him.

The old farmer tells me: If you plant words over and over again, they will take root and grow on the inside.

It’s not hard, he says. And there’s really no need to complicate it. He doesn’t have a five-step plan, or a series of index cards, or a $300 video series to stimulate brain activity.

Just this: Open heart, open Bible.

And do you still do it, even now, Helmer? Do you still memorize the Words?

And he says he feels compelled to memorize, because you don’t always have the Good Book right beside you when you need a comforting word for someone else … or for yourself.

But isn’t it hard, Helmer, when the brain grows old, weary?

“No, no. I should say not,” his bass voice swelling in the phone receiver. “I memorize just as well now as when I was young.”

I tell him how I’ve been researching techniques for Bible memory, and how I tried memorizing all of Romans 8 last year, and how intimidating it was.

He chuckles.

And I tell him how I should have tried something a little less difficult — and I hear his gentle, knowing “um-hmmm.”

I tell him how I came across a story on the Internet that says a rookie ought to avoid something like Romans 8 the first go-around, and should maybe start somewhere like Psalm 1.

I read him the advice from the online story: “On your first effort at memorizing large chunks of Scriptures, don’t tackle Romans. Build some confidence first by memorizing Psalm 1 or the Sermon on the Mount.”

His laugh stretches hearty and long into the phone. He knows. He knows.

Then he starts in again, on some of his favorite verses, voice waltzing on words. I flip to the verses in my own Bible, following his Word-dance with the Father.

“See now?” he says. “I think I pretty well got it.”

You sure did, Helmer. You sure did.

“His delight is in the law of the LORD …”
— Psalm 1:2


holy experience

Each Wednesday, I join Ann Voskamp in her Walk with Him Wednesday series, where we discuss spiritual practices that draw us closer to the heart of Christ. This week, we are sharing stories of Bible memorization.

by | November 3, 2010 | 23 comments


  1. Julie

    Oh Thank you Jennifer. This is a great post (just like all your other!) That dear man…when you write about him makes the tears well up in my eyes for some reason…I have such a soft spot for the older people in our congregation..perhaps that is why.

    Thank you…I tend to get discouraged when I try to memorize and I get to frustrated and just give up. I am going to start smaller and not be so hard on myself.


    Blessings to you!

  2. Rod and Jean B

    Good post as I well remember of whom you speak. The post brought back memories of a church in Georgia we worked with Mission Builders where the Pastor recited the Sunday Gospel from memory whilst walking up and down the aisle as to me made it real rather than just a reading.

  3. Jennifer @ Getting Down With Jesus

    Hey Julie — Thank you for your kind words. I, too, appreciate people of an older generation. I worship in a church of about 75 people, and we run a broad age spectrum. I love it that my children grow up learning about Jesus from people like Helmer.

    Rod and Jean — Nice to "see" you here! And thanks for sharing your story.

  4. KJ


    It just reminded me why I love talking with "older" people. They have so much wisdom, patience, and a good ol' hearty laugh. Oh, and the appreciate EVERYTHING!


  5. TheSoapSister

    What a lovely post -I love the older Christian folks! So sweet, and you can just see their faith in their eyes, can't you? 🙂

  6. Lyla Lindquist

    So then. You're going to take a crack at Psalm 1? 😉

    I'm back to work on the SotM.

  7. Lea

    So powerful, so inspiring! I can think of so many older folk that have been such a testimony to me over the years and I hope that I can be the same to others as I walk through this life.

    Blessings to you and thanks for sharing a part of your heart with us.

  8. Laura

    Jennifer? I love how you listen. You teach me to listen better.

    And I'm terrible at memorizing. I need Helmer's determination. That' what it takes, doesn't it?

  9. Jennifer @ Studio JRU

    I love it! What a sweet, sweet man. Thank you for sharing his precious advice… "open heart, open bible". How wonderful! 🙂

  10. n. davis rosback

    i like helmer

  11. Daniel

    You, along with others have inspired me of late to memorize a number of scriptures. These Words have left the richest taste upon my lips in the most beautiful places. The Spirit speaks words to your heart at the most perfect moments, making the mundane – Holy. I love the practice. Pray I persevere as long as Helmer.

  12. Melissa Campbell

    Tears. Beautiful post and inspiring message. I need to do what the Farmer does. Psalm 1 is my favorite too. Blessings to you!

  13. Yaya Yarns

    There is a older gentleman in our church that inspires me so much. He just recently decided it would be best for him to stay in the nursing home as he is 97 years old. He did so because of the ability to witness to those who live and work there. Within one week the LORD and used him to bring a lost soul to Christ and she is now attending church on a regular basis.

    It is aw inspiring!

    Through him I have gained more understanding of the Titus 2 command for us ladies to teach the younger.

    How many people do you know who would move themselves to a nursing home for the opportunity of ministry at the age of 97?


  14. emily wierenga

    jennifer… you made me want to hug helmer. he was so alive in this post, so very alive. i read carefully, every word, for i wanted to glean from him. how well you prose, and how beautiful helmer's heart. thank you. xo

  15. Doug Spurling

    "a work-worn Bible in farmer hands, and Truth tucked deep into marrow" – Lord allow me to be like this man.

    "The old farmer tells me: If you plant words over and over again, they will take root and grow on the inside…"

    This is true. I don’t have a great memory but I have memorized all of Proverbs 3. It seems like that one chapter captures all of life. I just read it everyday. Until it was memorized.

    I have offered all of my family members and all of their friends $100.00 if they will memorize the chapter. I made a reward sign that announced $100.00 reward to memorize Proverbs Chapter 3. Live by it and receive much much more.

    I'll offer the same to you my friend if it'll help. But most likely you already have what it takes – desire. Your desire is to hide His word in your heart. "Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desire of your heart."

    sorry, I kinda got carried away here it seems.

  16. Jennifer @ Getting Down With Jesus

    Doug, You carry on here. By all means, carry on! Your words carry LIFE.

    How I appreciate you …

  17. Ann Kroeker

    I've hosted Mega Memory Month in the past, mostly to get my own creaky brain to do more than I think I can. For one month, I encourage readers to sign up and commit to memory a longer-than-usual passage of Scripture (or something else, if they would like to try their hand at a poem or famous speech).

    I think Ann V's got everyone going on big projects already, so perhaps Mega Memory Month can inspire those who are a little slow to dive in. It starts up in January.

    I'm loving all these success stories posted throughout Walk With Him Wednesday, and hoping to be more systematic when I dive in myself. Thanks for introducing us to Helmer. He's an inspiration!


  18. Megan Willome

    Helmer's right. The Psalms are poetry! That make them easier to take to heart (I hate the word memorize).

  19. Emily Suzanne

    This is beautiful! I can just see Helmer…and have such love for so many of the people I've met in church who are like him…people in my own family; my own grandparents. I have such love and gratitude and ADMIRATION. Thank you for reminding me of those I look up to this morning.

  20. Angie Vik

    Good post Jennifer. I love the way you tell stories. I think Helmer is related to my husband on his Dad's side. His first wife and Keith's Dad were cousins and their families were good friends. I only met him a couple times but he seemed like a great guy.

  21. S. Etole

    It's the "Helmers" that bring the word alive …

  22. elaine @ peace for the journey

    I like Helmer's approach… think I'll go practice it now. I am in need.


    PS: Loved catching up with you this morning at your farm; slow start to my morning, but just the fresh cup of coffee I needed to awaken my senses and invite my participation to this new day I've been given. Thank you for writing your heart and life so beautifully, Jennifer. I always leave well-fed.

  23. Elisabeth Rodman

    Helmer reminds me of Grandpa DeBoer – my favorite older Christian friend from a small town church in South Dakota where my dad was the pastor. Not only did we memorize the scripture but the hymns. Both bring comfort and joy. I love your writings. God continue to richly bless you and yours….


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