An acquaintance and I were talking about our Christian faith. We agreed that it was all about humility before God and service to one another.
“And taking care of yourself first,” she added.
“Where does it say that in the Bible?” I asked.
“I’m sure it says it somewhere,” she replied.
Actually, it doesn’t. I’ve read the Bible cover-to-cover three or four times and not once do I recall a single place that says you should take care of yourself first, which brings us to a major problem: self-identified Christians who don’t read the Bible.
I was one of them. I was a member of Christian churches for thirty years without ever reading the Bible. I read parts of it; I read the assigned lessons—about half a page out of an entire book. I sat in church every Sunday and listened to the pastor read the biblical passages selected from the lectionary.
“A Lectionary is a book or listing that contains a collection of scripture readings appointed for Christian or Judaic worship on a given day or occasion.” (Wikipedia) Lectionaries have been in use since before the invention of the printing press. Most of them repeat on an annual basis, which is why you keep hearing the same things in church over and over again.
When I was a kid I thought that the pastor picked up his Bible, read it, and was guided to preach on some passage. Doesn’t happen. He picks up the lectionary and reads the three or four choices it offers him, then writes his Sunday sermon. So what you’re getting in church is basically the Reader’s Digest of the Bible: short, pithy selections that speak to major, common concerns.
So I was a tepid Christian, lukewarm on all subjects. I attended worship; I engaged in good acts and worked for social justice. I also took antidepressants every day for almost three decades. Antidepressants mess up your brain so that you only think you’re thinking.
There is a field of study called neurotheology which asks the question “Where in the brain does God live?” It correlates objective measures of brain function with subjective experiences of spirituality and tries to understand what’s happening in your brain when you’re in spiritual mode. Antidepressants mess up neurotheology. God can’t get through when your brain is gunked up with psych meds.
In 2001, after twenty-six years, I stopped taking antidepressants. I also stopped taking everything else, which—unbeknownst to me—included a narcotic sleeping pill. I went through cold turkey drug withdrawal and didn’t sleep well for many years thereafter. Having very few options of things to do at three o’clock in the morning, I started reading my Bible.
I began at the beginning with Genesis and worked my way forward. After while that began to grate on my nerves and I felt that something was missing—something like the New Testament. I was a Christian but I was reading the Torah and missing the Gospel, so I started to read two pages of the Old Testament and one page of the New Testament every day.
And it got really, really interesting.
I had no idea the stuff that was in the Bible! For example, in Matthew 25 there’s that passage we’ve all heard about being thirsty and not getting any drink, being hungry and not being given any food, “naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
But here’s the shocker: if you read what comes before and after that passage—the parts left out by the lectionary—it says that if you don’t feed, clothe and visit people who are hungry, naked and lonely then you go to hell! Jesus didn’t hand this out as just a good suggestion for how to behave; he said God will kick your butt if you don’t take care!
When I read this, I was in a hospital bed in an assisted living geriatric center. The federal government categorized my income level as “severely impoverished.” I had three sisters, including two ordained Methodist ministers. They did not call or visit or send money. They made it clear to me that I wasn’t worth it, I was too much trouble, I was asking too much, I wasn’t cooperating with them, I didn’t understand how hard their lives were, etc.
Well! According to the Son of God, they were supposed to be visiting me! I wasn’t supposed to have to beg for a phone call or a visit. They were going to hell for not caring. The Bible says so. Geez! What that did for my self-esteem was amazing! A quarter of a century on antidepressants sure never taught me that I was worth a friendly home visit. The Bible did; Jesus did.
So I kept reading. Sometimes I only would read a couple of verses before I would have to sit and think for half an hour. What gradually began to emerge was the conviction that God had a straight path for me and that I’d gotten way off the path and into the weeds wherein lay broken beer bottles, used condoms, cigarette butts and drug paraphernalia. I had to think about God’s rules for the good life, and how I’d broken those rules, and how that had ended me up poor, sick and alone at the age of 52.
I think the preacher-types call this “confession.” So often we make decisions without looking forward to where they’ll lead—or looking sideways to the list of rules God has given—and we end up in very bad places. But if you look backward, you can trace your current circumstances to certain decisions you made. The two biggest mistakes I made were having an affair with a married man when I was eighteen, and turning to drugs (antidepressants) instead of God when my fiancé died when we were twenty-seven. They were choices I made and they were wrong; they led to a long succession of bad things.
God didn’t hand out commandments and laws and orders just to prove he’s boss and you’re a piece of shit. He did it because he created you and he knows what you need to be happy and healthy. He also knows you’re not smart enough to figure it out—at least, not until you’re too old for it to do any good. God is just trying to help you! He’s trying to show you where you fit into the universe and how you should behave—not so that you’ll get straight A’s when he grades your final exam, but so that you can have a good, happy, healthy life.
Read the Bible. Life is the course; the Bible is the textbook.