"Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me." John 15:4
Intimidated. That's the word I'd use to describe my feelings about reading the Bible. For a very long time, I've felt intimidated, uneducated, lesser, even stupid.
I didn't become a Christian until age 24, well into a teaching career and about to be married. By then, I figured it was time to straighten up and "do the right thing." Besides, the man I was dating (now my husband) was a deeply-rooted Christian, and I was just a seeker. I figured I needed to "woman-up."
Do the right thing. Be a good Christian. Woman-up. Get a date. Those were my sole motivations for stumbling into seriously considering the Christian faith, though I had long witnessed, even envied, a peace other Christians seemed to have. Yet, it always appeared just out of reach for me and my chaotic life. Plus, though I owned one, I had only cracked the binding of the Bible a few times, that is, when I could remember where I'd stored it. To me, it looked scary. Thousands of thin, silver-tipped pages with rules, weird names and old stories...Frankly, I didn't know what to do with it. What was it all about? And who really was this Jesus whom I'd only seen on the front of church bulletins at Easter, when I'd dared to wander into church? A twisted figure hanging by his hands, blood dripping from a crown of thorns...it looked more like a preview from a horror flick. Where's the peace in that? I remember thinking.
Though it didn't go well, that first date with my husband changed everything. While I was just getting to know Scott, trying to impress him with a pretty dress and a, "Sure, I'll go with you to church this Sunday," smile, I had no idea that I would come face to face with Jesus that day. Besides, unless He was dressed in a loin cloth and carrying a crown, I wouldn't have known what He looked like.
The organ music passed as quickly as the sermon and collection plate. I'd almost made it to the end of this odd observance. Ten more minutes, and I'd be sitting with my date, in a corner booth at Applebee's, surroundings much more familiar to me. One last song listed in the bulletin promised to end the service, and to free me. Doxology. I looked at the weird word that, unlike the other hymns, was mysteriously without a page number. A quick glance in the front and back of the worn-out hymnal left me in a quiet panic. No Dox-ology listed.
"Praise God from whom all blessings flow..." they all stood and sang together. Scott also belted out the words beside me, as familiar to him as the Happy Birthday song. It wasn't until midway through that he noticed the tears streaming down my face and rolling over frozen lips. Busted.
Stupid. Uneducated. Heathen. Those must have been the words they were all saying, or at least thinking, about me, I imagined. Besides, I was hearing them loudly enough inside my own head. I wanted to disappear. Yet, in a gesture that sealed the marriage deal for me, Scott stopped singing, too, and put a gentle hand on my shoulder. If I didn't know better, I would have thought that man in the loin cloth and bloody crown happened to be sitting near and had touched me as well. I wonder if that's what mercy feels like.
"You should tell them," Scott encouraged, instead of judging me or blowing it off. "They should print the page number in the bulletin..." For pitiful people like me, is how I wanted to finish his sentence. Stupid. Uneduca-- But, something stopped the negative thoughts this time. I wrote a quick note to the pastor instead, and sheepishly signed my name. We couldn't get to Applebee's fast enough.
"You're right, and thank you," were the surprising words I received in return from Pastor Thompson, the man who would marry Scott and I just fifteen months later. "Do you mind if we call on you once in awhile for other suggestions? We could use your perspective around here. And, hey, are you two in a Sunday School class yet? We'd love to have you." Needed. Wanted. Valued. Those faint words began replacing the ugly ones in my head, and a loving relationship of discipleship and Bible study began in the first church I came to call myself a member. Yes, this must be what mercy feels like.
Even sixteen years later, my knowledge of the Bible is still quite incomplete. And, though I sometimes still feel "behind" or "lesser" than those around me who grew up in church and can recite sweet verses of mercy from memory, I still cling to the blue, NIV Study Bible Scott gave me that year, the one where I wrote Jennifer "Johnson" for the first time in the front of those silver-tipped pages. It's the same Bible I read to our 10 and 11-year-olds at breakfast before school each day. Everytime I open it, I still feel a little intimidated, but I'm getting there. In fact, it helps me remember that my walk with Jesus started with a relationship first. Scott Johnson and Corinth Church were Jesus in skin to me that day, and I have never forgotten how that beautiful man on the cross reached down and touched me through them. It makes me want to know everything about Him. It makes me want to reach out and touch others in His name.
"Remain in me, and I will remain in you..." are the words He used to instruct and encourage his disciples just prior to his own death on the cross. What sweet mercy he gave to his confused and anxious disciples that day. He continues to extend the same invitation and ultimate promise to all of us as well. It's a beautiful exchange, an endless marriage of Word and relationship. The Bible is our conversation piece with God, our textbook of all textbooks, and a wonderful place of refuge all at the same time. It's also our brilliant model of how to seek, identify, and bring others into relationship with God, too. It certainly keeps me coming back for more and more, and more, and more...
Thank you, Jesus, for teaching us through your Word and touching us through Your people. Help us to remain in You, Lord, and therefore, receive Your perfect plan for us. Teach us Your truths and squelch the negative lies the enemy may be whispering to us. It is when we remainin You that we are confident, fruitful and genuine. Grant us mercy and grace always, Lord. Keep us coming back for more. Amen.