I recently made the decision to read the Bible cover to cover. There are a few reasons for this.
1. I read a lot of Christian authors, and I spend time with some really intelligent, well-read, well-educated, Christian people. As a result, I often feel a little out of my depth in conversations. So, what better way to keep up with these spiritual giants than to go ahead and just read the whole Bible, knowing full well that competition might not be the best reason for engaging with this book (despite what you may have learned in Awana).
2. I've never read the entire Bible, the book that nearly my entire faith and career is based upon. It seems like an accurate assumption for the people I work with and lead at church to make in believing that I have some working knowledge of the Bible, especially since I haven't been to seminary. Even self-taught chefs open restaurants, but not without reading a cookbook or a hundred.
3. Two of the funerals I've attended in the last few years were filled with stories about how the deceased left behind a Bible that was well worn and filled with notes and what a great legacy that is to leave for their sons/daughters. I own several bibles, most of which are sitting in boxes with a bunch of other books I haven't read, but I've never been good about marking them up. I've highlighted some verses I like (mostly having to do with worship and singing), but nothing I can imagine the pastor at my funeral making note of, let alone anything that would give my kids any insight in to my spiritual life. So, I'm reading, underlining, making notes of things that don't make sense to me, things I find interesting or impactful, and so on. I still don't know if it will give anyone any insight as to the depth of my faith or my walk with Jesus, but at least those I leave behind will have a Bible with my handwriting in it...a monument to my spiritual immaturity and inability to understand why the book of Numbers exists.
4. Over the years, a lot has shifted in the way I think about God and the Bible. So, I thought it would be a good idea to read the whole thing with new eyes and an open mind, trying to forget (or at least momentarily set aside) what I've been told I should believe and think about this book, and come at it with a fresh perspective and with a greater emphasis on context.
Hopefully, I'll be able to write more about what I'm learning about myself and God and the Bible as I chip away at the pages. I just started at the end of April, so I'm right at the beginning of the Old Testament. As I write this, I just finished the book of Numbers, trying to just take it a chapter at a time.
In these first few books there are several things that have stuck out out to me as being odd or significant, but none more so than the utter messiness of the lives these people must have led. I'm not even talking about the spiritual mess they made of themselves. I didn't count, but I would guess there are over a dozen different kinds of sacrifices they needed to make to God, utilizing different kinds of animals, different preparations, instructions on what to do with different parts of the animals, what to do with the fluids, how to handle it all, and how to burn it. Then there are instructions on what to do with the ashes, sometimes mixing them with water for "cleansing."
Throughout Exodus and Numbers, there are MILLIONS of Hebrew people roaming around the desert, complete with livestock. And, while I'm sure there are some things that have changed physiologically in humans between then and now, I know that one thing has remained as certain as death and taxes--everybody poops. Let's just say that if I was a nomad traveling the desert on the Sinai Penninsula during that time, I'd do everything I could to steer clear of wherever the Israelites camped.
The sacrifices, however, are what struck me as creating the biggest mess. The human body contiains, on average, between 4 and 5.5 liters of blood. That's just over a gallon of blood. A bull, one of the most common animals mentioned needing to be sacrificed, contains about 39 liters, or 10.9 gallons, of blood. A lot of people carry around water bottles these days, so imagine 39 Nalgene bottles filled with cow blood. Now, imagine nearly 11 gallons of blood being poured out at the entrance to a huge tent in stifling heat of the desert. Now, imagine that happening over and over and over, sometimes several times a day. In Numbers 23, Balaam asks Balak to set up seven altars, to bring seven bulls AND seven rams, and they sacrifice all fourteen of these animals...three different times! That's a lot of blood. Not to mention the entrails, the skin, the fat. What a mess.
The word "messy" has become somewhat fashionable for churches these days. People are invited to come as they are, mess and all, and they'll be welcomed with open arms. This is admirable, and I'm grateful that there are churches who are opening their doors and making a conscious effort to engage with everyone's mess. And, obviously this is a different kind of mess than the rather untidy practice of animal sacrifice. The messes we make of our lives these days are largely struggled with in private, behind closed doors or within closed hearts, easier to conceal than slitting the throat of an animal and burning its carcass on an altar in full public view.
But the spirit behind it all is the same. In some way, blood has been spilled. A mess has been made. We all have blood on our hands, either from wounds we've inflicted upon ourselves or others, or from trying to stop the bleeding from a wound that someone else has bestowed upon us. This brings a couple of questions to my mind:
1) Are you ready to see the messiness revealed in others?
2) Do you have a safe place to reveal your mess to the world?
Putting the word "messy" in a mission statement is all well and good, but are we really ready when someone comes to us as individuals or into our faith communities who has sacrificed themselves on the altar of a lesser god—the altars of success or money or relationship or sex or work or whatever—and is standing at our front door, bleeding out? When that happens, messy is more than just a pithy catch phrase: it's an invitation to people who are really hurting and feel like they have no where else to go. What will you do when someone accepts this unintentional invitation?
Personally, are we ready to put our own mess on display and fall into the gracious arms of our communities? Are our communities and relationships safe enough for that? Sadly, many of us have found that they aren't. We opened ourselves up and had salt poured in our wounds in the form of Christian cliches and out-of-context Bible verses. We admitted our weakness and our doubt and were cast out as unclean. Our mess was too much, and we've been wandering in the desert looking for an altar or a god that will accept our sacrifice. Or we learned to hide it better, found a way to present a sacrifice that isn't as bloody. Throughout the Old Testament, God inflicts serious punishment on those who bring an incomplete or displeasing sacrifice. And, while the system of animal sacrifice is no longer in place or needed, while that system of punishment and reward is over, there is a sense of emptiness that develops in us when we hide our hurts and failures, when we can't let ourselves be fully known and embraced by God and our communities.
Being known in our messiness is scary business. Knowing others in their messiness is, frankly, messy. But it's an important part of living in community...real, authentic, messy community.