I love Heather Caliri’s heart and words, and am so glad to welcome her back to the blog today with this post.
I read the Bible all the way through for the first time when I was thirteen.
I picked it up every Sunday after the first service at our new church in San Diego, waiting for my parents to finish with choir. I’d pull the volume off the shelf in the church library, get a chunk of leftover communion bread, and curl up in one of the grey plastic chairs, eager to read where I left off.
I read every Sunday for weeks, hardly breathing. The story was a page-turner.
After about a half hour, the sanctuary door would open; choir members filed in. Quick, so no one would see, I’d slip the book back onto the shelf, brush off a few crumbs and go find my parents.
We’d just started coming to the church after a five-year hiatus. I almost didn’t remember life with church, but everything spiritual and Christian fascinated me. I felt drawn church and the Bible as if by a magnetic force.
Our family was torn apart during the years we didn’t attend church.
I wanted to know about faith because God was rumored to make everything better. He would stop my pain, and put me back together with all my insides intact.
Months before, I’d figured out how to become a Christian by reading a book my born-again sister gave me. I prayed the sinner’s prayer with a terrible urgency and relief.
Alone in my room, I finally thought God could hear my prayers.
Not long after, without knowing of my conversion, my dad suggested we start going back to church.
And now I was reading the Bible: God’s story of redemption.
Surely God, church and the Bible would fix everything wrong with me.
The last Sunday of reading, I met John on Patmos. When he finished chanting, I set the book down and breathed out.
It was the Greatest Story Ever Told.
See, I didn’t actually read the Bible. I’d read Fulton Oursler’s three-book retelling: The Greatest Book Ever Written, The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Greatest Faith Ever Known.
Let’s just say Oursler’s plotting was more straightforward than Scripture’s.
That year, I gobbled up a narrative clear as a screenplay, with all the darkness, perplexity and mystery edited out.
Don’t get me wrong—Oursler’s story wasn’t a terrible introduction for someone who’d missed most of Sunday school.
But was also unrealistic.
That first encounter with God’s Word made me think the Bible was unambiguous. That it was something I’d read like an Agatha Christie mystery. That nothing in it could ever be used against me.
That moment in my church’s library was the last time I felt that way about God’s Word.
To be sure, the real thing is better than the storified version I gobbled up as a kid. It’s more human and bewildering, and thus more life-giving and real.
The other gifts I got that year, church and faith in Christ? They were more bewildering and wonderful too.
Oh, Christianity wasn’t at all what I’d expected. It was a different gift altogether.
Oursler’s book was easy. Jesus was not.
In the past year, I’ve finally gotten honest with myself about my childhood. I’m finally coming to terms with the horrible muddle of my family and taking a fierce accounting of everything we lost. I’m rejoicing about all the ways that faith saved me when my insides were falling apart.
But I’m also grieving what faith wasn’t. What the Bible wasn’t.
Because I was so desperate to be saved right then. I did not understand that inhabiting God’s Kingdom is a long journey.
Back in that church library, I didn’t want a book that made me the slightest bit uneasy or doubtful or unsure. No, I wanted to read about people made so whole they no longer felt pain.
I wanted a Swiss Army knife, and instead I got a lion with sharp claws and no leash.
I would not want the knife now. But I still mourn the bewilderment I experienced as I tried to live with a wildcat.
I’m trying to come to terms, finally, with what the Bible actually is, what church actually is, and how much more awesome and unknowable God is than the petite deity I longed for as an adolescent.
It’s a difficult joy to accept God’s Word whole and unedited. It is a wild feeling to jump on its back, heart thumping, and let it run with my fingers twined through its mane.
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego. She started saying yes to joy in her faith and was surprised to find that joy led straight to Jesus. Her new journal for people anxious about the Bible is called Unquiet Time: A devotional for the rest of us. She blogs at heathercaliri.com, or you can find her on Twitter (@heathercaliri) or on Facebook.