FIRE BY NIGHT: FINDING GOD IN THE PAGES OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
April 9, 2019
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
Turn it, and turn it again, for everything is contained in it.
—Mishnah Avot 5:22
On my way to morning prayer at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, I take the long walk across the field, over the bridge, past the Eastern cottonwood trees, and down the walkway to the abbey church. The monks gather three times a day to pray and once for mass. During my week-long stay I’ve accepted the monks’ gracious invitation to join them for daily prayer. On this morning, the flat face of the Bauhaus-era chapel is pink and gray against the sunrise. The bell in the tower begins to clang, summoning worshipers to gather.
I enter the side door, winding down an aisle to the dark benches reserved for community guests. This is my third summer waking early to pray with the monks. I’ve learned after many mornings of repetition how to sort through the row of prayer books, identifying the order for the scattered canticles and hymns. A brother monk, robed in black, comes to the aid of the confused visitors in front of me.
For a moment after one of the brothers lights the candles, the room hums with stillness. I sit with my fellow supplicants as the monks file in, genuflect to the body suspended on the cross, and take their appointed seats. One of the oldest brothers in the community sits in the closest pew, bravely and tentatively scaling the step up to his perch. A thin monk, younger than most, is the soloist this week. He leads us as we chant through the pages of psalms.
When I pray with the Benedictines, I am struck by the pauses, long gaps the monks hold between the phrases. It’s strange to my ear to hear the words drop off in the middle of the sentence. I wait with the pause, listening for the others around us to know when to start praying the words again. I remember the first summer I prayed this way, my impatience to move on, unsure of when we would know it was time to begin the words of prayer again. Now, after several weeks at St. John’s, I’ve learned the gift in this practice of slow, communal recitation. I hear differently. The words have time to sit. There’s time for them to sink down, to work their way through me.
The monks have offered me another surprising gift. Here at prayer I am held before the Scriptures, trapped with the assigned readings. Depending on the season, I find myself set before words I would not choose. Today I want nothing more than to get as far as I can from the epistle of Titus, the New Testament reading designated for this morning.
It is curious to me when Christians sense distance from the Old Testament, citing the life of Jesus as a corrective for what they perceive as a fierce and wrathful God of Israel. For every passage of the Gospels where Jesus is waxing on about birds, or drawing children near in defiance of cultural respectability, there is another Jesus who assigns swaths of rich people to eternal damnation and makes unsettling judgments about what happens inside our minds. Paul’s letters are chock full of frightening passages, scented with holiness and hellfire. I have seen violent readings from these epistles used to bind women to abusive marriages and to give excuse for pastors to refuse communion to whatever brand of impurity is on the market.
The Old Testament offers a different picture of God. The arc of God’s story with the people of Israel is consistent—humans mess up and God is relentless in forgiveness and grace. Over and over Israel makes promises they cannot keep. Over and over again God is faithful. This narrative unfolds within the gritty details of vengeful, murderous, and at times disarmingly beautiful human lives.
By an unfathomable act of divine grace, I have been grafted into God’s fidelity to Israel. Through no merit of my own God holds on to me in the same way God held fast to a people on the brink of their self-imposed devastation. Today at morning prayer I cling to this promise in the maelstrom of my complicated relationship to the New Testament, fidgeting nervously as the monk reads from Titus. It is all I can do to keep myself from audibly announcing my frustration with the words read from the lectern: “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:9-10).
These words pour down like a slow fire, and I can trace the destruction across human history. White slave masters ingrained submission into the lives of black slaves in the Americas with passages like those in Titus. The Federal Writer’s Project records the stories of formerly enslaved women and men after Emancipation and several tell how the Bible, in the hands of coercive power, scaffolded the religious logic of human chattel. In one transcript, Hannah Crasson, a former enslaved woman from North Carolina, recalls how she was prohibited from reading the Bible herself, banned from learning to read at all, but that a few Bible lessons were taught to her by her masters.
Enslaved people like Hannah Crasson record how they were given 1 Timothy 6:2 (“do them service” KJV) and the reading from Titus I heard today (“do not pilfer”) to consume.1 Malinda Berry recalls that “whites unabashedly published volumes like Selections of the Holy Bible for Negro Slaves, but there was no Exodus story in those selections, no story of Ruth and Naomi, lest slaves encounter the linchpins whose removal from slaveholder Christianity would bring white Christianity tumbling down.”
White, slave-holding Christian communities understood the Bible to contain radical and dangerous notions about freedom, a subversive Old Testament narrative of a subjugated people who fled captivity in Egypt and were led by God into a promised land. They were right to be fearful of the blueprint of freedom set down in the Old Testament. Over time a Moses rose up among them, in the form of a petite woman who had escaped from slavery to the north and suffered from injury-induced epilepsy. Her name was Araminta Ross, known to many as Harriet Tubman. Once, when a man was asked if the slaves she brought to freedom were afraid along the way, he answered no, because the “Lord has given Moses power.”
Slaveholders—and their ministers—had to suppress the Old Testament narrative of freedom in order for slavery to flourish in the Americas. They did their best to keep stories of freedom from the minds of Harriet Tubman and those who followed her out of slavery. Handpicked passages from the New Testament, combined with fidelity to the Word of God, did the job.
When we read Titus during morning prayer, I can imagine the lines of wooden benches before a white priest much like the one before me today, reciting these words over rows of black faces. Submission. Fidelity. Dogma. Holiness. All intertwined into a catastrophic misconstrual of the Bible for the sake of turning human bodies into capitalist profit.
I stand before these words, receive them back, and dare not look away. This reading binds me to a past that is never past. With the monks, standing before this reading from Titus, I’ve come to see that the Bible is a reckoning, where we come face to face with what we have done with the Bible or what the Bible has done to us. We cannot escape the interpretive communities we form, and these communities matter for how we will read the Bible today. Whenever we read the Bible, we participate in a history. In that history are those who have turned the good news into both joy and terror.
Indebtedness— this is a discipline I have learned here at prayer among the monks. The Benedictines take time each morning to remember those in their community who have died. Today at morning prayer we pause in memory of Brother Alfred who died in 1866, and Brother John who left this world in 1991. The lives that came before us linger, whether we name them or not. We are indebted to interpretive communities that have formed us to latch on to certain words, ideas, and passages. Other stories we are taught to ignore or repress. Every time we read the Bible we bring with us the generations before us, what they pass down —all of it is within us.
I am grateful for communities and practices that pry me into confrontation with these discomfiting passages like the words of submission from Titus. I’m grateful that the monks do not shy away or hide the difficult parts from me. Without the text this morning, I would miss the occasion for my own reckoning. Titus reminds me of my own willingness to coexist alongside modern-day slavery, even as this epistle remembers a Christian tradition that abetted the enslavement of African people. More often than I care to think, I thoughtlessly shuttle a wedge of Brie cheese from Whole Foods into my cart, a product made cheaply by the labor of incarcerated bodies, people who work without pay. I live undisturbed alongside human beings trafficked for labor in nail salons and restaurants. I have assumed that prison sentences and bail bonds keep me and my people safe. I can go weeks without thinking of asylum-seeking immigrants placed in holding cells at the border for indefinite periods of time. See what horrors we justified, what you justify today, I hear in the echoing space after the epistle is read.
This morning in the Abbey we hear another word, this time a word of judgment. A gentle monk—bent by age, a ring of hair around his bald pate—utters lines from the book of Judith, in the Apocrypha:
Woe to the nations that rise up against my people!
The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment;
he will send fire and worms into their flesh;
they shall weep in pain for ever.
It’s incongruous, the words and the frail body of the monk who says them. We are saying words we do not understand, words on which I cannot get a purchase on this morning full with light and song.
But these words were not written for me on this day. They are words for the enslaved, words of protest, words of judgment that well up from lives terrorized by sexualized violence, torture, kidnapping, and slavery. They are words that express God’s fierce solidarity with the marginalized. This is a record of imprecatory prayers rising up from a Japanese internment camp, a Hopi mission boarding school, from an eviction court. They are words that hold space for those in the presence of terror and hopelessness, a reminder that God burns like fire for them. I suspect that these words are preserved for all of us, should we find that one day we need them, too. And if that time should come, we have a community who has gone before us, who show us the way of fierce survival.
In this way, reading Scripture is an invitation to being undone—a way to a God who invites us into the world of another. Rowan Williams writes that God makes a way to us in a peculiar way through the Bible—“by telling a certain kind of story from a human point of view.”4 These stories told from human perspective carry us toward God, never forcing us there but revealing a God who patiently and slowly helps us work through our images of God and our conceptions of divine anger. We are invited to witness the lives of people in Scripture who struggled with God’s presence and God’s absence.
In my tradition, the Mennonite church, I think of this way of reading the Bible as the spiritual practice of Gelassenheit, or self-surrender. As I receive the words from the monks, words that fall like stones, I remember that Gelassenheit returns me to the root of lassen—“to let or allow.” God lets this story stay here as we make our way through the devastation of history, praying that we would be called to account for our part.
On another morning I walk to the abbey for prayer, my steps heavy with rainwater. My attempts at dodging the flooded lowlands are largely unsuccessful, and now my shoes squeak with embarrassing sharpness against the stone floors of the silent Abbey church. Today we chant the words of Jeremiah 31:12:
They will come and shout for joy on Mount Zion;
They will stream to the blessing of the Lord,
To the corn, the new wine and the oil,
To the lamb and the cattle.
Their life will be like a watered garden.
They will never be weary again.
Everyone I talk to is glad for the rains. “We’ve needed this,” a brother tells me, as we strike up a conversation in line for breakfast waffles. “He covers the heaven with clouds,” we prayed in unison earlier that hour. “He prepares the rain for the earth, making mountains sprout with grass and with plants to serve our needs” (Psalm 146:10).
We say these words, too, remembering that within us—within those who are bound together to read and pray—are Scriptures that wrap themselves around our world and draw it close. This is another seeing, another surprise.