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The Bible and Me

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When I was three years old, my church awarded me with a bible for perfect attendance. It was a grown-up, King James Version, honest-to-God bible with only a couple pictures and with a place in the front to record births and marriages and deaths and with maps in the back. I was proud of it and carried it to church with me every Sunday. It said “Holy Bible” on the cover in gilt lettering, and the words of Jesus in the gospels were in red.

I couldn’t read.

I was no prodigy when it came to reading. My parents encouraged me, however, and I had a strong inner drive. I wanted to know things. I wanted to read folktales and encyclopedias and poems and newspapers and cereal boxes and recipes and catalogs and road signs and deodorant cans and essays and novels and magazines. I also wanted to read the bible. My parents bought me a collection of “I Can Read” books that went from The Cat in the Hat and Go, Dog, Go! to Cowboy Sam and The Whales Go By. They purchased a set of Collier encyclopedias, not just for me, of course, but for all of us children. I became an avid reader of books I could barely understand. When I was in third grade, I read Tarzan of the Apes. One of the characters, Professor Porter, kept exclaiming “Remarkable!” all the time. I remember trying to puzzle out what it meant. I knew what a mark was, and I decided that if something could be marked on, it must be markable. I also knew that “re-” signified repetition, so I concluded that “remarkable” referred to something that could be marked again and again. This bit of decoding work, as insightful and reasonable as it was, did not help. I asked my mom.

All these books came and went, but the bible was an absolute constant. We went to church every Sunday, and every Sunday there were stories from the bible, sermons based on the bible, people quoting the bible, and bible verses written on everything from the church bulletin to posters in the hallways. The bible must be a very important book. I tried my best to read it. I became as fluent in King James English as I was in American English. (I also consistently misspelled words that occurred frequently in King James English with the British spelling, words like “favor” and “Savior.” I spelled them with a superfluous “u.”) Over time, I found I could read and understand a good deal, although I had some peculiar misapprehensions. For example, I thought that when Jesus talked about “earthquakes in divers places” (Mark 13:8), it referred to underwater earthquakes.

Having been steeped in the King James Version bible for so long, I had much less difficulty than my peers in understanding Shakespeare. I was untroubled by the thees and thous and knew that “wherefore” meant “why” and not “where.” In high school I became a favorite with teachers because I evinced an interest in the philosophical ideas found in literature and history. Unlike most of my peers, I had a moral vocabulary, and I was articulate. When we read books like Lord of the Flies, besides being one of the few who actually read the book, I was also moved and engaged by it, so I contributed to class discussions not from any sense of duty or to get a good grade but because I was genuinely interested. Nothing warms a teacher’s heart more. My interest in moral philosophy stemmed directly from my nascent Christian faith and the time I spent reading and trying to understand the bible.

During my upper years in high school, more modern translations came into my purview. Some had been around for years, but the churches my family attended had regarded only the King James Version as authoritative. Two especially, however, the Amplified Bible and the New International Version, bore the imprimatur of evangelical scholars and began to be used in evangelical churches. The Amplified Bible helped me understand hard passages with in-text alternate renderings. What it lost in lyricism, it gained in a richness of meaning. The New International Version sought to render the text in present day vernacular English, incorporating years of scholarly research about ancient middle eastern cultures and people groups. Both translations deepened and broadened my understanding and appreciation of the bible. The Jesus Movement of the 1970s found even the NIV too staid and formal. Though many started with the Good News Translation, they quickly adopted the Living Bible Paraphrase when it came out. These sought to make the text as easy to understand and accessible as possible, a task at which they largely succeeded. The Living Bible has since been rewritten as a straight translation, bringing to bear the same kind of scholarly research that went into the NIV.

All of these translations and many more have gone into my reading, contemplation, and study of the bible over many years. Yet I am no bible scholar. I am just an ordinary man fascinated by a God whose limitless goodness and love I can barely grasp. I find traces of this God in the bible, but the genuine trust I have in him comes also from my experience of a relationship with him. The bedrock of this relationship is the knowledge that he loves me. Inconceivable as it seems, the God who dreamed up the universe with its myriad galaxies and unimaginably vast interstellar emptinesses takes a loving interest in me and how I live my life and behave toward others.

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

Psalm 8:4 KJV

This God, whose very nature is love, is central to my understanding of the world and life itself. Therefore, the claims of those who deny his existence are as ludicrous to me as would be the claims of hypothetical persons who would seek to deny the existence of my wife. It is true that I can point to my wife and say, “Look! She’s right there.” I cannot do that with God. In fact, that is something he has specifically prohibited. What I can do is something far more terrifying. I can point to myself and say, “Look! He’s right here.” For he lives in me. This terrifies me because it entails a responsibility to act in the world as his ambassador, bearing his message of peace and reconciliation to anyone who will listen. He requires me to love as he loves. His love drove him to incarnation and the cross. Where might it drive me? So I live before him in fear and trembling, not at his wrath, for the sacrifice of Jesus has already turned that away, but at the terrible weight of the glory of bearing his image in my own broken being. Yet this is a weight he himself helps me to bear. So I press on as well as I can, declaring God’s goodness to an angry and rebellious world. To anyone who listens he promises life, but though he grieves for those who refuse him, he lets them exercise their freedom to go their own way.

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about me family fighting war

Once a Marine

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My dad had no choice about enlisting in the Marines. When he responded to his draft notice and presented himself at the induction center at Fort Hayes in Columbus, he found out that everyone who showed up that day would be going to the Marines. He and my mom were both young. They had been married about four years when he was drafted. My dad worked at a factory that made plastic tableware. The Korean War had started recently, and the country, as it too often does, needed young men to go to the other side of the world and fight. Dad traveled by train to Camp Pendleton near San Diego, California. He arrived on New Years Day 1952. My mom followed after he finished boot camp.

My mom, still very young at the time, told her kids about waiting for my dad in a parked car outside one of the barracks one day. It was early morning, and she could see through the windows into the barracks. One young man, plainly just arisen, stood up and stretched and yawned in front of the window, stark naked.

My dad’s first deployment was to Japan. After he got orders but before he left, my mom discovered she was pregnant with their first child, my sister, Marsha. My mom returned to her family in Ohio for the birth. My dad headed to Japan. While he was on the way aboard a troop transport, an armistice was signed, and the conflict was over. No one was sure it would last, so the US kept troops at ready in Japan in case the war started up again. My dad joined a church in Japan and watched at least one atomic bomb test on some remote island in the South Pacific. He brought back a children’s hymn in Japanese which we all learned growing up. Whether any actual Japanese speakers would recognize the words, I do not know.

Dad was also stationed in Hawaii for three years shortly after I was born. His original tour was shorter, but on arrival he learned that his posting had been made permanent, and his tour was automatically extended to two years. He urged my mom to use any means necessary to join him, and she did, making the trip when I was just a few weeks old. My next two sisters, Lani and Kathy, were born in Hawaii. Lani has a Hawaiian name, and Kathy was born a minute after midnight on January first, so she got mentioned in the local paper as the first baby of the new year. Just weeks after Kathy came along, we all moved back to California. My brother Mark was born in Ohio one year and one day after Kathy, and Robin was born in California. She was an infant when my dad left the Marines and returned with my mom and his six kids to Ohio. Two more children, Michelle and Lane, both born in Ohio, completed our family.

I was proud of my dad’s Marine duty. He had awards for sharpshooting and lots of ribbons and medals whose meaning I never knew or have long since forgotten. He had slides of the atomic bomb test he supported. I remember visiting him on post one time in California and being allowed to clamber up on a tank. He worked on heavy road machinery. Maybe he worked on tanks, too.

As I grew older, however, I found that the public image of the Marines did not jibe well with what I knew of my dad. He was certainly tough enough, and he had a never-say-die stubbornness which I believe is a heritable hillbilly trait. But he avoided conflict whenever possible, and he never exhibited that gung-ho ooh-rah commitment to honor and righteousness so characteristic of the popular image of the Marines. He did not have the starched, ramrod-straight bearing. He was stoic enough, but it was a laid-back stoicism that accepted misery with patient endurance rather confronting and overcoming it. He was not a fighter except in the most metaphorical senses. I have never in my life heard him use any of the seven vulgar words George Carlin made famous. I also have never heard him say anything disrespectful of women, which is amazing considering his history and generation.

I do not mean to imply that the Marines are made up of profane misogynists. Rather, there is a certain type of hypermasculine man, given to profanity and misogyny, who fits easily into Marine culture, despite official claims to the contrary. My dad was and is the antithesis of that kind of man. He spent nine years in the Marines, but the Marines were not for him. He realized that he could be deployed anywhere in the world at any time leaving behind a wife and six kids who would not know when or even if he was coming back. He did not want to raise a family that way. So he got out. Had he stayed in, he would have almost certainly gone to Vietnam. Despite wanting to stay in California, he did not see any job prospects there. Ohio did not look especially promising either, but he and my mom both had family there, so they moved back to Ohio.

They moved into a tiny house in Five Points, Ohio, with no hot water, a hand pump in the kitchen, and an outhouse. It was little more than a shack. My dad, despite his military experience (or perhaps because of it), had a hard time finding work. His first job was door-to-door salesman for Filter Queen, a position for which he was in almost every way unsuited. I still remember him demonstrating the vacuum for us. He put a few drops of some essential oil on the exhaust filter and filled our tiny living space with a pleasant scent while the vacuum ran. He also connected the hose to the exhaust side of the vacuum, turning it into a blower, and suspended a ping-pong ball in the flow of air from the crevice attachment. I was too young to know about the Bernoulli principle. The higher air pressure surrounding the air stream kept the ping-pong ball from leaving the stream. The floating ball looked like magic. It still does.

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about me Christians culture faith hell self spiritual life suffering

You’re Still Not Special

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If you remember middle school and even high school at all, you remember wanting to fit in. Being different from about 6th grade to 10th is a terrible curse fraught with repeated attempts to be yourself—whoever that is—while being like everyone else. Most kids don’t want to be special. Yet our culture constantly tells them that they are. The media we aim at our youth (What a loaded metaphor that is!) continually reinforces the message that mere uniqueness is good. But there is no virtue in being different, nor is there anything wrong with being ordinary.

When you first begin, you are the center of the world. Even in impoverished countries, children begin life being cared for and protected from most of life’s vicissitudes. Some, pampered too long or by nature resistant to learning about themselves, never outgrow that infantile sense of entitlement. I find evidence of it still in myself.

Alain de Botton notes that anger comes from frustrated expectations. His solution? Lower your expectations. This is harder than it may appear. I find myself getting angry about the paltriest events. I drop a tool while I’m working. “Damn it!” I exclaim, usually under my breath. Why? I find that I expect perfection of myself. Other people may fail but not me. Others might fumble; their tools might succumb to gravity, but I am better than that. If I drop a tool, it is supposed to remain suspended in air until I grasp it again. Why isn’t the cosmos organized to suit me? What the hell1Hell may well be thought of as a place for people to whom God says, “Thy will be done.” kind of world is this where things obey impersonal rules instead of obeying me?

One would think that my experience of life in this world would have cured me of such foolishness long ago. Yet here I am still cursing when things don’t go my way, still frustrated by a cosmos that refuses to yield to my whims.

Having grown up as a Pentecostal Christian and a hillbilly, I inherited the moral superiority of the one and the recalcitrant independence of the other. Not only am I better than you, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let you tell me what to think or do. Like the Jews of Jesus day, I had an absolute certainty about my own righteousness and contempt for those who didn’t measure up. I was insufferable. My journey toward freedom and perhaps a little humility has been long and arduous. It took me a long time to realize that God’s acceptance is not based on my goodness but on his mercy. That is why he is able to accept anyone who comes to him without showing favoritism. Yes, he expects us to give up our sin, but the most common sin we all commit is in grading ourselves on a curve while flunking everyone around us. We want special treatment. Our situation deserves special consideration. Yes, we’ve done some bad things, but there were extenuating circumstances. Our parents! Our race! Our class! Our culture! Pity us, O God! It is you who made us as we are! Amazingly, he forgives even such transparent attempts to manipulate his mercy.

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