When I was a young ordinand’s wife helping out in the library of his theological college, I looked up from my desk one day to find the Archbishop of Canterbury standing in front of me. He enquired where he could find books about St Paul. Flustered by such an illustrious visitor, I said the first thing which came into my head, and told him, ‘Paul wrote letters!’ He replied drily, ‘I know,’ but it just goes to show that something went in during those early years of being fed the Bible morning, noon and night.
I got so full up with the Bible when I was growing up that eventually I couldn’t fit any more in, and I stopped trying and just pushed it around my plate, so to speak, and let it go cold. Everything on the plate was all crushed up together – the gravy bled into the mash and the cabbage and the carrots and the peas were all a jumbled mess, and I couldn’t make sense of any of it. And the meat – well that was so tough I couldn’t even cut it up, never mind swallow it.
So over years and years and years I starved myself of the Bible which meant that I didn’t grow very much but at least I wasn’t sick.
Now the thing about joining a religious order is that there is an expectation that you will do certain things. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but as a novice in the TSSF, I think praying and reading the Bible are fairly high on my to-do list. I’m not arguing with that and I want it to be so much a part of my life that I can’t live without it. Just like every breath I take. (sorry Sting).
And prayer has become that. I wouldn’t say I’ve cracked prayer or anything, because who has? But in contrast to my younger self, I now pray because I want to and not because I ought to, or because I think that the vengeful God with the pointy finger will annihilate me if I don’t.
But reading the Bible is harder. I grew up with various Bible texts shouting at the me from the walls of our house, ‘AS FOR ME AND MY HOUSE WE WILL SERVE THE LORD’ (Joshua 24:15 since you’re asking), and ‘JESUS IS LORD’ perched on the top of the TV just in case a flash of flesh or bit of blue came on. I really didn’t like the Bible and showed my ineffectual defiance when I was thirteen by refusing to revise for a Bible test which all the teenagers in the church were compelled to sit. For once in my life I did very very badly on a test which hurt considerably even though I got a certificate for joining in when I never wanted to in the first place.
Anyway – I am reading the Bible now and just taking bite-size baby morsels so I don’t choke or send it down the wrong way. I’ve started with the New Testament because that’s a lot less shouty than the Old and doesn’t have quite so many battles and plagues in it.
I’m liking Paul’s letters, especially after helping out the Archbishop all those years ago. I do fall out with Paul at times though, especially when he talks about women in the church and stuff like that, but he writes a good letter and I’d have been very pleased to get one of his through the post. He can be very encouraging and tells his readers to do things like ‘chase after justice, faith, love and peace’ which you can’t fall out with really and which is what I want to do. (My Biblical exegesis is available gratis to all you preachers out there. You’re welcome.)
But – do you know the feeling when you read something – and this doesn’t have to be the Bible, when it touches you right down to the tips of your toes and you just know that the writer has seen and heard you in that most vulnerable and dark place where you so long to be noticed? And although I amaze myself by saying this, the Bible, the big bogey of a book I avoided all my life is beginning to do that for me.
The one sentence in the Bible which always makes me hold my breath is John 20:16. It’s when Mary thinks she is speaking to the gardener after the resurrection and when he says her name, she realises that it’s Jesus. That fills me with absolute joy every time I read it. The person you most want in the world and you thought was dead is standing right in front of you. Can you imagine? And Jesus does the same thing again (maybe he quite enjoyed it) on the road to Emmaus when he spoke to the two disciples who didn’t recognize him until he sat at table with them. (Luke 24:31 by the way).
I just love those two stories. They both tell me that Jesus is alive. It’s my version of seeing the marks of the nails in his hands and placing mine in his side. It bypasses my intellectual wranglings and touches me right where I need to be held. Jesus is alive and that’s all that matters.
Praying, reading the Bible – the two things I was rubbish at all my life are becoming my anchors and my rocks.
They are becoming the most delicious tasting dishes on the menu.
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