I’ve been saving this entry for some day within the forty of Lent when I have little time to write. The time has come, and today there isn’t much of it. So… Mrs. Plymale.

And the reason I need not spend much space here is that I can barely remember what she looked like. I know no more than her last name. And I knew her when I was only 9 or 10. That was way more than half a century ago, so I can be forgiven if I don’t know many details about her.

Here is what I do remember: she was my “released time education” teacher. “Released time” was an hour each mid-week when children were “released”  from school in order to have voluntary religious instruction. Imagine public schools doing such a thing today. (Actually, I believe there may be some residual released time programs somewhere still.)

When I was in third grade or so, my parents had OK’d my participation in that program, and a group of us kids would walk over to a small Baptist church to be led in a song and some Bible teaching by one Mrs. Plymale.

The church happened to be right next door to my house in Vestal, NY. It took over the vacant lot I used to play in, where I remember picking “Indian Paint Brushes” for my Mom, and from which I could hear the high school band practicing in the fall. We were all very disappointed that this somewhat noisy Baptist church was built on that lot, especially because it was so close to our house, and when they met at night, their piano music and singing created quite a racket for little kids next door who had already been put to bed.

Yet, since that released time program was held right next door, and therefore right on my way home anyway, I attended. I recall meeting in the basement of the church, in a small room, with Mrs. Plymale, a big woman. I don’t remember any Bible stories, nor do any songs or hymns come to mind. But here is why I consider her one of the forty who had some influence on my Christian journey. Psalm 19:14. John 3:16.

They are the first (and for the longest time, the only) memory verses I learned “by heart.” Isn’t that an affective term for learning? By heart. From the time Mrs. Plymale repeated the words of those verses with children chanting along, and repeated them yet again and again — from those days so long ago to this very day, I not only know the “address” of the lines, but the very King James Version of the quotations.

We used to say the words of the verse and then the address. Imagine some third grade voices chanting in rhythm…”May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer. Psalm 19, 14.”

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3, 16.”

Did Mrs. Plymale explain what “the meditation of my heart” meant? Or, what it meant to perish? I’m sure she tried. But the main thing is, and this is why I remember her last name all these years later, she taught me those two fundamental verses of scripture, and she taught me the value of learning others, too, “by heart.” Whenever I hear that verse from the Psalms, or find the Lectionary pointing the global church to using Psalm 19 as one of Old Testament readings for a Sunday, I recall not only the verse, but the woman who first taught it to me: a Baptist church volunteer who welcomed children in the middle of her week and told them, in one way or another, that God loves them.

[In junior high school in Endicott, released time education was held at another Baptist church, a block from my home, but all I remember from that ordeal was the pastor leading us in a kind of gospel marching song, singing through his nose, “V is for victory, victory through Christ our Lor-or-ord.”  That turned me off from old time gospel songs forever. In high school, while the Catholic kids were herded in large numbers to catechetical classes either at the Catholic church or its nearby school, a handful of us more pious Protestants were released to a neighborhood Episcopal church where films, discussion, and earnest teaching by the rector held sway — while most of our classmates stayed at school for study hall.]

God bless you, Mrs. Plymale, wherever you are. Jesus loves you, this I know; for the Bible tells me so.