I still have that red Bible with the frayed edges.
I found it under my bed. I know, not the best place to keep it. I have no idea how it got there, but one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had with my Bible came the night I found it under my bed.
I was living alone for the first time in my life. A graduate student in a small apartment with a strange roommate, it was probably the most lonely I’ve ever been. I missed my girlfriend. I missed my friends and family. I had some nice co-workers, but the relationships were still at the very superficial level. I was about six weeks into a two-year commitment. When I decided to go to graduate school, I thought two years wouldn’t be too long to try and have a long-distance relationship. On that night though, sitting on my bed feeling sorry for myself, two years seemed like an eternity.
For reasons which I cannot fully explain, I decided to clean my room. I started at side of my bed, picking up clothes and books and whatnot. I looked under my bed and found the red book with gold letters on it surrounded by dust bunnies. I felt a little guilty that my Bible had been pushed that far back under my bed. I picked it up, and held it for a moment and decided that cleaning my room could wait. I crawled back on my bed, and felt compelled to read. I didn’t know what to read. I didn’t know where to start, so I started at the beginning.
I had never really read the Old Testament before. Seminary was still in my distant future, so I knew nothing about JDEP, historical criticism, or a post modern hermeneutic. I simply read the stories. They were confusing. The story of Noah was redundant and seemed to contradict itself. It was boring. Seriously, do I really care about the sons of Ham? It was troubling. Abraham did what to his son? Yet I kept reading. I also found the stories to be direct, and easier to follow then I thought they might be. It all read like a TV drama. As I read I found myself eager to read more. Then I read this line:
“So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” (Genesis 29:20)
The words stopped me. I read them again and again. I drew so much comfort from that little verse. The truth is, Jacob was a pretty unsavory character. In my Pulpit Fiction Podcast, we’ve been blasting Jacob as his story has unfolded through the lectionary. He was pretty much a scoundrel. The story from which this verse emerges is a sordid affair that wouldn’t do very well in modern romantic comedies. Yet at the same time, there was something so pure about this notion. There really isn’t a lot of romantic love in the Bible. There are a lot of property exchanges. There are relationships fraught with deceit and unfaithfulness. There are some strange tails men claiming their wives are their sisters. This particular story finds Jacob marrying Rachel’s sister and Rachel, nevermind the fact that Rachel and Leah are his first cousins.
The fact of the matter was, in that moment, I didn’t care about any of that. I didn’t need to know the cultural context of marriage. I didn’t need to understand the source criticism of Genesis. All I knew was that I was hurting. I was lonely. I missed the woman I loved, and somehow that verse spoke to me. A pain was lifted. It wasn’t erased, but I was able to look at my situation from a new perspective. Call it the Holy Spirit. Call it the power of the Living Word. In that moment, the Bible spoke to me, and I was renewed. Did God move me to clean my room? Did God direct me to look under my bed? I don’t know, but a couple of years later, my sister read that verse at our wedding.
That is the power of the Bible. That isn’t to say that the deeper, more scholarly approaches to the Bible aren’t helpful. I believe in using all of the tools of scholarship, archeology, sociology to dig deeper into the Bible. I love looking at Scriptures from different cultural contexts, and I try to be aware of the lens I bring to the Scripture. I believe that the Word of God is made more fully alive when we bring our own understanding of tradition, reason, and experience into it.
But sometimes, encountering the divine is as simple as opening up the book and reading. Sometimes we can have an encounter with God through the Bible that is free of trappings. On that night it was just me and my Bible, and I was made new. That is an important reminder for me as I surround myself with commentaries and studies. Sometimes God’s grace comes through a scoundrel, and a simple and eternal message of love.
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