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    Read Your Bible Every Day?

    How Haitian Christians helped me rethink a mantra.

    By Alex Kirk

    November 7, 2021
    • Rhonda Smtih

      Thank you for your insights and thoughtfulness and for sharing this experience. I'm going to pass it along to pastors that partner with our organization and four rural churches in Southern Haiti.

    • Jacquie Serebrani-Kesner

      “…the truth lodged in your heart could be lived in your life.” So wise.

    • Rowena Fenstermacher

      Memorized words are with you forever and guard your heart and mind. This morning I copied John 14: 1-7 (by hand, on an index card, to carry with me) to memorize this week. Then I read this article. The text of Psalm 8 is posted over the sink where dishes are washed: O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

    As the temperature slouched past 33 degrees Celsius, I sat waiting in shirt, tie, and jacket under a carport for my ride. It was nine o’clock on an August Sunday morning in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Clutching a sixteen-ounce water bottle, I double-checked that I had two more stashed in my backpack. I felt guilty because this was at least six times as much water as any Haitian would drink, but I had been asked to preach and was worried about heat exhaustion.

    When my ride arrived, we set out on pitted, buzzing, dust roads to drive fifty minutes to a village church. There were five adults in the midsize SUV, all dressed in our Sunday best. Since there was no AC, the choice was between riding with the windows down and arriving with a film of dust from head to toe and down our throats or riding with the windows up and sweating through our shirts. To the Haitians there was nothing to be deliberated. We rode with the windows up. I downed a whole bottle of water on the way, sheepishly aware that no one else drank anything.

    As we neared the church we turned onto a dirt track. We wound our way through scrubby woods and back in time. Flocks and herds crossed in front of us. Women balanced water jugs on their heads, walking with a slow, steady sway. Cinder block huts and corrugated shacks emerged from the brush. Out here there was no running water, little electricity.

    The church was a low cement block rectangle with a pitched corrugated roof over metal beams. A generator hummed out back to power an array of amps, keyboards, and mics so hot a distorted fuzz hung over everything. Parishioners welcomed us and informed us that Sunday school would soon begin. The one-room church building was divided into four corners: girls, boys, women, and men. Everyone sorted themselves and took their seats. I sat in the back row of the men’s section on a wood pew made of thickly painted two-by-fours and plywood joined at a punishing ninety-degree angle.

    I don’t speak French or Creole, so I settled in for a long thirty- or forty-minute wait before the main service started. A man with salty-gray stubble from crown to chin took his position at the head of the dozen or so men gathered that morning. He clutched a mighty Bible and his boxy jacket, two sizes too big for him, reduced his frame to scarecrow status. He began: “Jean, chapitre un, verset vingt-neuf. ‘Le lendemain, il vit Jésus venant à lui, et il dit: Voici l'Agneau de Dieu, qui ôte le péché du monde.’”

    people singing and praying in a small rough church in Haiti

    Image courtesy of Haiti Lifeline

    He said it again. After a few repetitions I was able to put together “John, chapter one, verse twenty-nine.” Then came, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” He continued to repeat the verse. I thought it was a rhetorical ploy and he was laying the emphasis on a bit thick. He stopped and discoursed for about sixty seconds, then began to repeat the verse again, phrase by phrase, and all the men in the group repeated it after him. They went on like this for about ten minutes.

    It dawned on me slowly. These men cannot read. There were only one or two Bibles among them. According to data from The World Bank, the literacy rate for adults in Haiti doesn’t quite reach 62 percent. In a rural village like this, the rates would be much lower. This was their Sunday school class. They were memorizing John 1:29 together in real time. After some time, the teacher discoursed again for four or five minutes – perhaps he was offering a short exposition. Then they began to repeat again and continued for the rest of the class. At the end of class, for accountability, the men stood up one by one and repeated the verse alone.

    As I leaned forward in that rigid pew, the humble simplicity and power of this method of discipleship landed on me. These men were determined to have a relationship with Christ through his word even though they couldn’t read. How many erudite sermons are lost to the mental fog of a Sunday afternoon football game? How much brilliant commentary work in the Greek and Hebrew cannot be recalled over lunch at Panera one hour later? More importantly, in the squeeze of persecution or a season of suffering are we more likely to cling to careful theological reasoning or the living words of the Lord? Communicators know that, if they’re lucky, a day or a week later their listeners might recall their one big idea. But that day, the whole Sunday school class departed with a central truth about Christ locked in their hearts.

    I was in Haiti to teach pastors who had received decent educations by Haitian standards. They could read and speak French fluently and many had college degrees. But my experience in Sunday school that morning helped me understand that the pastoral realities of their context were worlds apart from mine. In fact, their reality was closer to the experience of a pastor in the early church, the Middle Ages, or Reformation Europe.

    In Nehemiah 8 all the people of the reconstituted Jerusalem gather “as one man into the square before the Water Gate.” Ezra the scribe reads to them from the book of the law for seven days. We’re given a list of names – Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah – individuals who were scattered throughout the standing crowd. These men were Levites who “helped the people to understand the Law” and “gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:7–8). Ezra reads from the scroll because he is a scribe and teacher of the law. Like the Levites who assist him, he is trained to explicate the law and explain its significance. No doubt scrolls are expensive and duplicate copies are not just floating around. But it is also nearly certain that the people gathered in the square before the Water Gate cannot read. This is their only access to the law. As Ezra reads, the people are formed into a body shaped by the word of God.

    It dawned on me slowly. These men cannot read. There were only one or two Bibles among them.

    In the same way, these Haitian men came to church not just for worship and fellowship but to hear God speak. This was their point of access to God’s word. Here in that cement block rectangle, God spoke French and Creole through the hum and fuzz of generators. His words were expounded by men with special access – men who could read and had been trained to pass on God’s words.

    That evening my Haitian colleague, Pastor Garry, met me for dinner. I had questions for him. Was I right? Were these men illiterate? Was this a common practice in Sunday schools in Haiti? As I relayed my experience, Pastor Garry looked crestfallen. Yes, he reported, sadly it was true. Because of socio-economic realities, pastors are reduced to practices like what I had seen. He seemed ashamed, as if to say, “I’m sorry, we’re doing the best we can.”

    But I was reflecting on what Christians in the developed world might have lost with our ubiquitous, cheap, and beautifully printed Bibles. Modern advancements have blessed followers of Christ with unprecedented access to God’s word. But high literacy rates and the ready availability of printed books eventually resulted in the evangelical mantra that good Christians must read their Bible every day.

    But the experience of people all over the world, not to mention throughout the history of the church, shows that it is possible to follow Christ without reading your Bible every day. Or is it rather that there are ways of “reading the Bible” that don’t require reading? Clearly, we need to broaden and deepen our understanding of what it means to engage with God through scripture.

    In the ancient Christian practice of lectio divina, or spiritual reading, meditating on scripture was compared to chewing food to extract every bit of flavor and nutrition. St. Bernard exhorted his monks, “Be pure ruminants.” Mull over the words of scripture constantly in your minds and hearts. The most renowned practitioners of this discipline – such as St. Anthony and St. Francis – were celebrated for their memories. St. Athanasius wrote of Anthony, “His memory took the place of the book.” As these ancient saints memorized scripture they were able to meditate on it throughout their day. By doing this they drove God’s words deeper and deeper into their hearts and the Holy Spirit spoke it back to them. Meditating was not understood as a passive experience, but rather as one where the truth lodged in your heart could be lived in your life.

    In one of St. Jerome’s letters there’s a vignette where the farmers of Bethlehem chant psalms as they plow their fields, harvest their grain, and prune their vineyards. In the same way, monastic traditions have integrated rhythms of work and worship that facilitate meditation. When those Haitian men engage in their Sunday school class with a week of manual labor ahead, surely their experience falls into the same realm. This sort of spiritual reading isn’t something you do in the morning before rushing out the door. Instead, the simple practice of memorizing scripture thoroughly can shape one’s whole week and one’s whole life before God.

    This doesn’t make these Haitian Christians into saints. And I am wary of romanticizing their poverty. I doubt they would turn down the opportunity to read and own their own Bibles, nor should we stop working to lift people from illiteracy and make the Bible available in every language. But I am challenged by the recognition that some of my brothers and sisters who don’t read likely have more scripture memorized than I do. Perhaps there is an aspect of the faith they have tapped into that I am missing out on. Perhaps there is a greater benefit in having a few profound truths locked into our hearts than in having the whole of scripture lying dusty on our bedside tables. After all, it would be better to live one verse deeply than to read the whole of scripture and embody none of it (James 1:22–25).

    Contributed By

    Alex Kirk is visiting professor of Old Testament at William Tennent School of Theology and a PhD candidate in theology and religion at Durham University. He has been married to Meghan for more than a decade, and together they have three daughters.

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