40 Years Following: Recalling My First Experience with the Bible

I have a reputation as a bit of a Bible geek.  But it wasn’t always that way.  Here is the story of my first experience with scripture, which I relate in order to acknowledge a milestone in my journey this month.

I was an exchange student in Norway in 1972-73–a long and difficult year. (The above picture was taken in the spring of 1973 on the shore of Moss Fjord, by my buddy Marshall Rogers; it’s brooding tone accurately captured my state of mind during much of that year).  Back home, my sister had in the meantime “found Jesus.” One day there’s a big postal package for me, and I’m excited to get something from California. Imagine my disappointment: she had dutifully sent me a Bible.

I soon after embarked on a 12 hour train trip to the western fjord country.  It was winter, dark and cold, so I took along two big tomes to occupy my attention: James Michener’s The Drifters, and, begrudgingly, that Bible.  Michener covered the trip up and half way back, but eventually there I was with hours to go and nothing but that black book.  So I mustered the determination to open it up.  Without a clue where to start (not having grown up in church), I compared the two testaments and decided to start with the shorter one.  It seemed appropriate to begin with Matthew 1:

“An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4 and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon…”
“Seriously?” I thought.  Ugh.  I put the Bible down and went back to read The Drifters a second time, and didn’t pick it up again for 8 months.

When I returned to SoCal, I took a summer job caring form my grandfather in La Jolla, which allowed me afternoons to surf, recover from the year away, and figure out what I was going to do with my life.  One evening my sister dragged me to Calvary Chapel.  It was a new experience for me: the (bad) Christian rock, the folksy but earnest preaching, the hippie-coated fundamentalism, and in the end, the sweaty peer pressure to “come forward.”  Truth was, my year in Norway had been hard, and had undermined most of the psychic underpinnings of my SoCal suburban cosmology.  I was 18, very angsty, and asking hard questions of the universe (and vice versa).  So, somewhat curious and somewhat chagrined, I went forward.  From their perspective, I “accepted Jesus into my heart.”  I don’t think that describes what happened; but something did.  At the very least, I decided to try this Jesus thing.  And for my trouble, I got another free Bible at the altar.

Shortly thereafter I sat in on a Bible study with my sister and her boyfriend, who was a surfing buddy.  The text was the story of Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes–a much better place to start for a novice.   I liked the fact that in the gospel account, the leftover bits of bread were gathered up.  It appealed to my environmentalist concerns (I had participated in the first Earth Day celebrations in 1970).  The group leader quickly disabused me of such a crude interpretation and guided me toward the proper spiritual meaning.  But it was too late: the gospel had called out to me.  And it has been doing so ever since.

That “encounter” was sometime in August, 1973.  It’s been 40 years of following Jesus’ call and trying to be a faithful reader/interpreter of the biblical story.  I’ve got a long way to go.  But it’s good to remember beginnings.