For When You Have Bible Baggage

quiet timeIn junior high, I sparked on fire for God, and then I read my Teen Life Application Study Bible like it was fresh, wild air, and I’d been suffocating all my life.

I could sit for hours in my bedroom, breathing in those words – reading and underlining and circling. I was starring the margins, circling entire sections, because I didn’t want to forget that Psalm or those words in Ephesians or that metaphor.

I kept my favorite Bible verses on note cards, taped my bedroom walls alongside photos from youth group trips and phrases clipped from Brio magazine, Focus on the Family’s teen alternative, because I wasn’t allowed Seventeen, nor, to be honest, did I want it.

I wanted Scripture cut pure like diamonds from their context. I wanted to hold them in my hands.

When it stormed, the rainwater on Maple Drive would gather at the bottom of the sloped street and against our house, and some nights it would seep into my room. I remember waking frantic and frustrated to the sound of water dripping down the white paneling of my walls.

I’d scramble to save my careful collage of treasures, but inevitably the water had already left my photos streaked and wrinkled. It left the thin paper of those magazine clippings disintegrated and ripped, and the ink on my Bible verse cards ran together like some dark watercolor.

After the rain, everything matted together, a sopping mess. And when it all dried out, it was almost impossible to separate words from photos, glossy magazine textures from photographed faces.

The water was like glue, and when I tried to separate truth from memories, everything tore apart.

*

My cynic voice is quieting, slowly, slowly. I hear more intricate melodies in most things these days: the complexity and hope of a faith that is a journey.

Except for in one place:

The Bible.

If I’m honest, I’ll tell you that I’ve only read it in bits and pieces over these past couple of years. A chapter here. A verse there. I open this book because I know that it is Truth and Beauty. Because I know that it is water and I am thirsty. But I read the words, and they sound like the old days.

The words that I know best as bumper stickers and Band-aids, they are found here first in the tissuey paper of my NIV. That phrase God won’t give you more than you can handle is misquoted from 1 Corinthians. That idea of being not ashamed of your faith that fueled much of my Christian t-shirt wearing, tract-handling, publicly-praying youth is right there in Romans, clear as day.

The rhetoric of Paul’s epistles and the cadence of the passionate voices of my evangelical youth sound the same to my ear, and now when I read them, I have a hard time separating memory from meaning.

Those were the years we stacked carefully-chosen Bible verses into brick walls to deflect arguments. We learned the answers before we ever felt the weight of the Questions. We wrote off the hard passages with simple platitudes and knowing looks.

And then the storm comes and the water gets in and nothing is left untouched.

It’s all a little matted together for me now, and when Jesus says in Matthew 28, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” the message is all mixed up with the Teen Mania missions guide I got in the mail my freshman year of high school. I am picturing loud, anonymous testimonies on foreign streets. I am feeling the shame of my disconnection to the countries I went to, of not being “on fire” to change the world for God.

I read it, and I’m fourteen all over again.

*

This week, the women’s Bible study at my little church started up again.

I go because I love the women at my church and because they have childcare. I go because they serve lemonade out of mason jars, and it feels like a kind of careful, thoughtful love.

We’re going through the book of John, all of us pulled together around a clump of tables in the church foyer. When we read, I find that certain phrases make me anxious. Testify, for example. That Lamb of God metaphor, with all of its bloody, Old Testament implications.

John the Baptist in general with his camel-skin clothes stumbling out of the wilderness like some emblem of the passionate, sold-out life – he is hooking my Bible baggage, and I feel it tight across my chest.

Outside the rain is falling. In front of me is this book, heavy with story and song, full of complexity and mystery and Love. I believe it is strong enough and wide enough to absorb all the baggage accumulated on this long walk of faith. I believe that the God of the Bible is big enough for my Big Questions and my small frustrations and my tainted memories.

And I believe that it matters, this book, and part of the work of disentangling from cynicism is being willing to sit through the discomfort. To feel it, to recognize it.

To stay.

The Bible is open in front of me, and the women around me are open-faced and curious and kind. Someone is reading the passage aloud: “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace,” she reads, and it almost takes my breath away — that phrase grace upon grace.

The rain is falling and the words are too, and slowly, quietly, all things are being made new.

42 thoughts on “For When You Have Bible Baggage

  1. Ah, friend. As I’ve untangled my church issues, I’ve marveled that the Bible is still a safe place for me. I don’t know why or how but it doesn’t trigger anything the way a sanctuary or a sermon does. But still, when I read your line “To stay,” some part of me stilled because I don’t know how to stay anymore. Maybe it’s not time yet. Reading through your process gives me hope, friend.

    1. It goes in streaks for me. Sometimes I get lost in the beauty of the words, and sometime something hooks some memories. Staying. Yes. We will get there.

  2. Wonderful. I think those of us who have been Christians a long time have gone through our fair share of dealing with Bible baggage. I appreciate you writing about the struggle and I love where you end up.

  3. I hear more intricate melodies in most things these days: the complexity and hope of a faith that is a journey.”
    That is a hymn right there, Addie. With the chorus of “grace upon grace.” Just lovely.

    1. I know. That “grace upon grace” line hooked me. Thanks for the kind words, as always, Judy.

  4. this post has so much that resonates with me- so beautifully written. i struggle a bit with scrupulosity- grew up in fundamentalism, ended up in counseling a few years after college. Scripture can be hard for me. I too read in bits and pieces- passages, a psalm. The one translation that has been safe for me has been Eugene Peterson’s Message- there’s a verse in Ephesians in that translation that talks about how God’s Spirit works gently and quietly in our Spirits. I don’t know why but it brought such comfort, possibly because with scrupulosity, you always think God’s extremely mad at you and you always think you need to do something extreme to “please” Him.
    Anyway, thanks so much for sharing your journey.

    1. Just picked up a copy of The Message last week, Julie. I’ve been meaning to get it for years. Yes — there’s something about hearing different translations of the old words that feels hopeful to me.

  5. I love the thoughtful honesty in this post, Addie. My experience is very different to yours but reading past the clichés and disentangling memory from meaning is still a challenge.

  6. Great ending — “grace upon grace.”

    In 2001 I had a personal breakthrough — I understood the Bible is not primarily about me and what I am supposed to do, but about God and what he has done and will do.

  7. This line stopped me cold: “I open this book because I know that it is Truth and Beauty.” It’s good that we talk so much about the Scriptures as Truth–but why don’t we talk about them more as Beauty? They are so very beautiful: the whole raw panoply of humanness and the extravagance of God’s love in one book. Thank you, Addie, for bringing this up.

    1. Thanks so much John. Love this line: “the whole raw panoply of humanness and the extravagance of God’s love in one book.” — yes.

  8. I have heard this story from others, too – and am experiencing some distancing from scripture right now as well. In some ways the reasons are similar, in others not at all. I don’t battle cynicism so much as fatigue. I think overdosing on scripture as you did as a teen (and as I did as a pastor) is a bit like eating way too much rich food for a long, long time and now, you get indigestion unless it’s offered in tiny, tiny bites. I know what I believe about the Bible, I know what it has meant to my own story. And I know that right now, it is not the center of my devotional focus (in terms of study, underlining, note-taking) but more a point of quiet reflection. Of chewing on tiny morsels, digesting more slowly. Those things that I’ve memorized have helped with that, taking a word or two, using it as a focus in centering prayer. I’m glad your Bible study is warm and welcoming and I pray that perhaps it will provide a way for you to be all of you are in front of that Word. We do put ourselves under it if we claim to believe and sometimes that chafes, sometimes it stirs, sometimes it soothes. “Grace upon grace. . . ” yes. Thanks for these goo musings, Addie.

    1. So much wisdom in this Diana. I’ve read it a couple of times now. Yes. Thank you for these good words.

  9. Oh Addie, your honesty in sharing is so helpful, so encouraging. Thank you! I think most of us carry some of this baggage, maybe not for the same reason you do, but maybe because it was used to make us feel guilty for not being “good enough”. I am so grateful God is big enough, loving enough, forgiving enough to understand our struggle and wade through it with us. We will get to the other side! We will!

    1. Yes. God is big enough and loving enough and not, after all, standing there frustrated and impatient, irritated that we haven’t “gotten it.” There’s time to struggle. Time to get there. Thanks Mary.

  10. Prose that reads and impacts like poetry. Amazing how you craft these words out of days full of two little boys (says another mom of two little boys!) but love reading them. You know “Big Enough” by Chris Rice? just came to mind…. i’m reading through John as well… that is, trying!

    1. I’m sure I’ve heard that song, but it’s been a while since I’ve listened to his stuff. Will have to go back and listen again. Thanks Elisabeth.

  11. In my walled-off times, it only John that I was able to read! Something about the last disciple of Jesus left, havingto remind himself andgenerations to come that despite the clues before him, he was still Jesus’ beloved…hmmm.

    I pray that, in reading the words of scripture, the Teen Mania /Brio/youth group voices will fade and that with His Love, God will redefine them for you. For us all!

    Melissa

    1. Love that Melissa. I’d never thought about John that way. It’s a good place to be anyway.

  12. Thank-you for this. Beautiful.

    My favorite part is, “…I believe it is strong enough and wide enough to absorb all the baggage accumulated on this long walk of faith. I believe that the God of the Bible is big enough for my Big Questions and my small frustrations and my tainted memories.”

    Love your blog!!

  13. One thing that has really helped me lately is reading a Bible that doesn’t have individual verse numbers intimately embedded in the text. I really want one where all chapter and verse numbers are mere notes on the side, where my OT scholar friend tells me they started out as reference points for rabbinical discussion. This would be an excellent app for an e-Bible, where you could have all the more modern features, but also make them come and go at will, or use them differently.
    I would love to have one without added punctuation as well.
    I find that not having the modern, artificial numbering helps me to read it as a whole, to see the passages more as they were meant, rather than as isolated verses, or verses grouped by micro-topic (“The Parable of the Perfect Proof Text Grossly Removed from Context”).
    I’ve been reading The Message a lot, partially because I love the translation, and partially because the difference in phrasing along with less intrusive numbering helps me divorce the truth of the text from the baggage I saddled it with long ago.

  14. And I believe that it matters, this book, and part of the work of disentangling from cynicism is being willing to sit through the discomfort. To feel it, to recognize it.
    To stay.

    Addie, this is what i so appreciate about your writing, your processing. I like that you disentangle these balls of yarn (my word picture) instead of just tossing them out. Sometimes the balls of yarn in my bin of left over yarns are worth unraveling. There is still beauty in the threads.

    You are doing good work for all of us and those who read your blog and will soon read your book.

  15. Addie,

    Thank you for this courageous and honest post. I read it weeks ago, and I resonated with it so much that I came back today and read it again. It’s good to be reminded that I am not alone.

  16. Addie,

    Thank you for this courageous and honest post. I read it weeks ago, and I resonated with it so much that I came back today and read it again. It’s good to be reminded that I am not alone.

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