For years, I have struggled with the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. I struggle with the stories and people in it, and with the way God is portrayed in it. In fact, I almost lost my faith over reading the Bible. So for a couple of years I have barely read the Bible at all, because I didn't want to upset what felt like a delicate balance of faith.
Yesterday a book arrived in the mail for me. It's called The Practise of the Presence of God, by a 17th century monk, Brother Laurence. It's a very short book, less than 100 pages, but it's one I know I will re-read many, many times. Brother Laurence talks about how he doesn't find the set prayers and times of prayer to be of much importance, instead he focuses his thoughts and heart at all times on God, and in this way he has been constantly aware of the presence of God with him for many decades. As I read his thoughts on not doing what everyone says you should do, but doing what works for you, my thoughts went back to my struggles with the Word… because I miss it.
I have been aware, over the last few weeks, of whispers in my spirit from God - little nudges and promptings back towards Himself. I am more aware of Him as I go through the day and night, and it feels like a re-awakening. It's lovely. It's also sad, because I realise how much I have lost and missed of this communion.
So I woke last night with the clear thought that I should try reading the Bible again, but this time rather than letting my focus be captured by the flawed people who populate the pages, I should focus instead on God in the Bible. Look for Him, and His works and character. The other thing God said to me was that apart from Jesus, He has never had a perfect person to work with. We are all, the whole human race of all times, messy, generous, sinful, kind, stupid and flawed.
As I lay in bed thinking all this over, one thing became clear to me: the teaching I've heard from birth about the Bible from varying denominations has all had something in common. The people in the Bible are placed in gilded cages; ring-fenced with perfection. Either their own perfection, or the perfection of God. Because of this perfection, it is very hard to see them as real people, just like us.
Take Abraham. He is talked about in churches as the father of faith, and the man who would do whatever God asked of him - he was even willing to kill his own son because God asked him to! If we take off the perfection-tinted glasses, we might notice some things that, if they are mentioned in church, tend to be brushed over VERY quickly. Abraham pimped his wife. He pimped his wife to the Egyptian pharaoh, and got so much cash and livestock as a consequence that he became one of the richest men around. Hmmm… that isn't usually mentioned when we're talking about Father Abraham! Then there's the story of the sacrifice. The Jewish take on the story of Isaac's near-sacrifice is very different to the Christian one. They see it as a story of Abraham's failure, rather than the triumph of his faith - in their view Abraham failed because he didn't question that God wanted child sacrifice, just like all the pagan gods did. They say that Abraham should have known God well enough to know that that was not something that He would ever want, and that God was wanting him to have the courage to say so.
I've never ever heard a sermon on any of this from Sarah's perspective. Sarah tends to be looked down on because she doubted God - she laughed, mockingly, at the prophecy, then she lost faith and tried to fix the problem herself instead of waiting for God, creating Ishmael in the process.
So. We've got faith-filled Abraham, and doubting, impatient Sarah. Or, we've got a man who doesn't mind handing his wife over for someone else to use if it makes him rich, and who would rather kill his son than question what he thought God said… and long-suffering, loving, patient Sarah, who follows her man through right and wrong, childlessness, bigamy, deserts, step-children, visits from angels, family break-down, near murder and visions… because her love is as strong as his faith.
See what I mean? Both these versions of the story are true, but only one is ever spoken. And the air-brushed version is the one we get.
I'm starting again, reading through the Bible. I'm reading a new translation that I haven't read before, and I'm going to do my best to see the people I meet in the pages with fresh eyes. I want to let the stories breathe a bit, and let the people be who they are, instead of who we've made them be. And somehow on this journey, I'm hoping to find more of the God who is whispering to me to come looking for Him… because He is the whole point of this.