Joining the Eternal Song
If the Baptists who raised me in rural North Carolina taught me anything, they taught me to love Jesus and the Bible. Hard-working farmers and factory employees, my people had high hopes for me. They stressed education and sent me with care packages to go out and see the world. But however far I might go, they made sure I knew that Jesus and the Bible were at the center of everything. Jesus was our Lord and Savior, the ultimate answer to life's biggest questions and my heart's deepest longings. In Sunday school, I learned that you find Jesus through the Bible. The Good Book was our constant companion. We memorized it chapter and verse.
As others showed me more than 2,000 verses about the poor, my people's passion for Scripture moved me to connect discipleship with justice. Jesus had clearly invited his followers into a new relationship with God: "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). What's more, Jesus made clear that this new relationship entails personal transformation: "No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again" (John 3:3). These realizations interrupted my assumptions about how I relate to other people. The more I paid attention to the Bible, the more it seemed my relationship with Jesus was inseparable from my relationship to those rejected and overlooked by society. "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat," Jesus said. "I was a stranger and you invited me in …. [W]hatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me" (Matt. 25:35, 40).
So I followed Jesus to Rutba House, a new monastic community in Durham, North Carolina. Communities like ours take root in cities, open our homes to the homeless, visit prisons, garden abandoned lots, and cook big pots of soup to share with neighbors—because we want to welcome Jesus. The Bible I was taught to treasure prepared me to find Jesus in a place like this. But when Jesus comes knocking around here, he brings friends crushed by poverty, racism, drugs, abuse, prostitution, and exploitation. We welcome them in, figuring God has brought us together, but we are never quite sure how to make it work.
This leads us to pray, because we need help. We've tried to fix our friends, just as we've tried to fix ourselves, but we've seen enough to know this is a dead-end street. Jesus saves, but he doesn't wave a magic wand and make everything all right. Before long, we realized our prayer resources were inadequate. We needed deeper wells to drink from. We found them in the ancient Christian practice of liturgical prayer.
Turning to Liturgy
A couple years after starting the Rutba House community, I received a letter from a Benedictine community in Minnesota. They were encouraged to hear about Christians like us living together and working for peace and justice. But they knew from over 1,500 years of experience that living in community can be difficult. They invited me up to their place, offering to pay my way. Someone had been listening to our prayers.
A brother at the monastery handed me a copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict, which has given order to many monastic communities since the sixth century. Not six sentences into the first page, I recognized the voice of a fellow Bible lover: "Let us arise then, at last, for the Scriptures stir us up …." What followed was a call to community that echoed at every turn the words I'd hidden in my heart. Here at the monastery, too, the Bible pointed to Jesus.
And to prayer. The Benedictines also had a set of common practices—a tradition of spiritual disciplines—that shaped and disciplined their love of God and Scripture. A bell rang from the church at the center of the monastery, and I followed men in black robes to midday prayer. "O God, come to my assistance," a solemn voice intoned. "O Lord, make haste to help me." I was caught up in the liturgy, its rhythms soothing my weary and anxious soul.