Posts in this series, "The End of My Rope";
First, I apologize that what was intended to be three or four posts in this series (on my re-conversion to Christianity, culminating in my becoming a Catholic) may have begun to drag a bit through my formative years. I promise to be as concise as I can from here on out. I thought it kind of important, though, that readers understand not just my religious background, but some of the cultural background as well, along with my own individual quirks of thought. This is, in my experience, a subject often overlooked (at least in the Evangelical circles in which I ran); that is, the personal baggage and bias we bring to our religious experiences, especially in relation to reading and interpreting the Bible. The problem with "scripture alone" (sola scriptura), is that the scripture is never simply "alone". It's always a matter of scripture + the reader's personal history, natural sympathies, habitual thought patterns, prejudices, imagination, etc... even including, perhaps, their momentary mental state - fatigue, exhilaration, depression... not one of us approaches the pursuit of Truth in a vacuum, which is why this Truth is better pursued together, and the more of us cooperatively engaged in that project, the better.
But to pick up where I left off (in the middle of my Stupid Phase) - I ran away from home one summer at the age of fifteen. I really meant to stay gone, too. My backpack was full and I was bound I knew not where. I remember very vividly hiking out of our little rural neighborhood in the pre-dawn.
I must have been a couple of miles from our house, walking along the highway, when I saw something laying in the grass at the side of the road, almost in the ditch. I bent down to look. It was one of those "living bibles" for teens called The Way, a modern translation... just sitting there, well, in the way. I'm not saying that I got goosebumps, but I did feel (and still feel) that Someone was giving me a nudge. I didn't know exactly what He might be saying, I couldn't understand the words, but the Voice was undeniably real. His presence, in fact, seemed to be the whole of the communication. "I am". A useful reminder for someone as self-absorbed as I was.
I continued on, but with a different outlook. I hitchhiked (I looked older than fifteen). Long story short, my Dad hunted high and low for me all morning and afternoon (what I put my parents through in those hours is still hard to think about) and - in a most unlikely manner - just walked into the diner where I happened to sitting down to a table. Dad was big, 6' 3" and broad shouldered, with a deep voice that was very seldom raised. The gray Stetson only made him look bigger. He sat down, this big John Wayne of an ex-cop, and talked to me like an equal. He gave me the choice to stay or go. He was calm, understanding, and in agony - a marvel of self sacrifice.
In the end, I went home with him. He pulled Mom aside (I learned later) and told her not to mention it to me, never to ask me about it. I needed room, and he seemed to grasp that intuitively. That night I took the bible out of my backpack. I started to read it often, as I felt that God had handed it to me personally, and it would be rude not to.
Inside there were some cool pictures of hip young people being spiritual, and all. I began to read the Gospels. It was interesting, reading all the familiar bible passages cast in different words. After a while, though, the casual grammar and some of modern turns-of-phrase started to, well, bug me. I picked up my old King James and compared passages. Sometimes I would think, "I don't know if this is exactly what Jesus meant, here" or "That's a weird way to say this". There was what seemed to me a good deal of too-self-consciously hip language in this new Bible, like teenagers were uniformly shallow and not too bright. It was like the Gospel According to the Monkees. I don't think I read the whole thing through, but it did get me interested in the Bible again. I read the King James more in earnest, now, and even began to appreciate the archaic language in places, especially Luke's Christmas story, which to my ears has never sounded right except when it begins "And it came to pass in those days..."
Apparently, I had been paying more attention to the Bible than I realized. Over all those years of church, Sunday school and my own, fitful bible reading, a surprising amount of it had worked its way through my thick cranium. In fact, it might have been an excess of familiarity that led to my inability to comprehend the meaning of the words. I had heard these ideas so often that I couldn't hear them with fresh ears anymore. The effect was like listening to Charlie Brown's teacher, "Wah-wah-wah, Wah wah, wah-wah-wah?".
The teeny-bopper Bible had helped open up my understanding again, if in an indirect way. For the next few years I went through phases of trying hard to live a good, Christian life, and then blowing it off for various selfish reasons. Sometimes I just wanted to get away from the struggle, the tension between the two. I didn't want to be bad, exactly, I just wanted to quit worrying about being good. The presence of God eluded me. I believed in Jesus, but the whole "personal relationship with Christ" was beyond my understanding.
I managed to graduate and started junior college at a small Baptist school in our area, mostly because I didn't know what else to do. I stumbled into a couple of scholarships (for art and my ACT scores) and lurched through with pretty abysmal grades - except in my art classes. I even took two Bible courses, but found them so dull that my main focus was trying to stay awake. I don't recall learning much. It was an isolated, sheltered, provincial atmosphere. Mostly nice folks, though a few extremely religious ones creeped me out in a Jim-n-Tammye Faye sort of way.
I began to think of myself (again) as more spiritual than religious, which had two advantages; it allowed me to cobble together a personal moral code that never challenged me to change my behavior (let alone my heart) and it let me imagine that I was superior both to my Baptist friends and to worldly materialists like Greedy Corporations and Yuppies. It was Religion Lite®... all the comfort with none of the bothersome duty.
Next: The Right One Always Changes Your Mind - or - God Sets The Trap.