By Laura Stephens-Reed
“Ready – draw swords!”
I’m sure my 8-year-old eyes were as big as pancakes the first time I heard this battle cry. After all, I was not at a civil war reenactment or a fencing match. I was in the fellowship hall of the Ringgold First Baptist Church, which I had thought was a place of relative safety.
As it turned out, no one whipped out a blade. But some older children did stand very stiff, holding their Bibles like explosives. And as soon as an adult called out a scripture reference, there was furious page-shuffling among them until the first one to find it leapt forward triumphantly to read the verse.
This is about the extent of my experience with Bible sword drills, because my church was phasing them out as I was coming of age. But I still got a good dose of scripture learning through Sunday School, preschool and kindergarten at Ringgold First Baptist. In fact, I can tell you exactly when my family started looking for a church closer to our house. It was right after Hosea, because I can name the books of the Old Testament in order with no problem up until then. After Hosea, there’s some stalling and flipping when I have to find a verse.
It was a long time between Hosea and my understanding of why it matters that I know where to find passages in the Bible, though. After all, there is a table of contents.
Rote memorization is not the same as wrestling with God to find out what I’m supposed to do and who I’m supposed to be. And I am one of those people who has been pierced with sharp pieces of scripture taken out of context, especially when I began to discern a call to ministry. A narrow knowledge of the Bible can indeed be a weapon.
God worked hard to show me the need to be grounded in the Word when I started to re-read the Bible’s greatest hits with adult eyes.
Take, for example, Exodus 2. Anyone who has grown up in church has heard this story. The Egyptian pharaoh’s daughter goes to the Spa de Nile to take a bath – that’s how it is when there’s no indoor plumbing – and sees a basket floating in the reeds. Thinking that is odd, she sends her entourage to draw it out of the water. She finds an inconsolable 3-month-old, wrapped up like a loaf of warm bread, who cannot understand why his mama is not responding. Pharaoh’s daughter feels a pang of concern, maybe even maternal love, and she’s wondering what to do next when Moses’ sister appears and offers an idea. Thinking the idea is a pretty good one, pharaoh’s daughter sends the baby and some money back to his family, not knowing that it is his family. And when the child is older, she takes him into her home, names him and cares for him like a son.
When I was a child, I loved this story. It’s full of great visuals and has a happy ending. Now I realize how much it has to say to us about caring for others without first weighing all the costs.
When pharaoh’s daughter finds this baby floating in the river in a bread basket, I imagine a ticker of questions running through her mind, like the news and sports updates that scroll across the bottom of television screens. Who has put this baby here? What would have happened if I hadn’t come along?
But instead of stopping to think about all the potential liability issues or to figure out if this is a scam of some sort, she scoops Moses up and is instantly taken. It doesn’t matter that she is a person of privilege and that no one would have called her on it if she had left the baby in the water. It doesn’t matter that this baby is not like her in so many ways. It doesn’t even matter to her that her own father had ordered midwives and mothers to kill newborn Hebrew boys. She sees a child literally set adrift in the world, and she provides for his nurture and nourishment.
There are plenty of people who say that the Bible is old and irrelevant. But what is more modern than the undercurrent of violence we find in this story? The debate over who should care for the least of these? Decisions about the best interests of children?
We are constantly seeking wisdom in these situations, and the Bible oozes with it.
When we are trying to figure out how to live among other people who are also made in the image of God, we can turn to scripture to find out how believers before us have messed up and done it right. And when we do go to the Word, what pops out is an ethic of communal care, embodied by pharaoh’s daughter, that runs from Genesis to Revelation. It begins when God gives humankind stewardship over all creation and continues through John’s vision of the reign of God, a realm of peace and wholeness that we help pray into being by proclaiming holy love in word and action.
As followers of Christ we have the chance to draw – not swords that wound or even defend. We have the scriptural call to draw people closer to us, to each other, and to God. We have the opportunity to draw out hope for a new future, one that is shaped by peace instead of escalating violence. We have the power to draw the reign of God nearer with our prayers and our outstretched hands. If we want to be disciples of the Word made flesh, if we want to be evangelists and carry out our ministries fully, this is what we must do.
Laura Stephens-Reed is Peer Learning Group Regional Director for Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. She also serves as a clergy coach and congregational consultant.