The Bible on my desk is nothing to look at. It’s black leather, with gilt edges and a black ribbon to mark your place. If you were looking for a generic idea of what a Bible should look like, it would look like this one.
No, this Bible is nothing special on its own, but it is very important to me. Thoreau said the value of a things lies in what of ourselves we have to give up to obtain it. By that measure, it is one of the more valuable things I own.
It’s the King James Version – a no longer fashionable version first published in 1611, with archaic language that uses thee and thou as pronouns. In my experience, two kinds of people still use the King James Version. The first is people who grew up using it, who find the language comfortable and soothing, who relish the poetic notes as the language of devotion. The second is people who are fundamentalists, who desire a scripture that is fixed in time, an immutable authority that does not change.
I am the first sort of person. Matt was the second.
He first came in my office perhaps six years ago, just off the bus from Virginia, where his marriage had ended because of his chemical addiction. He had an ex-wife and a daughter, neither of who would talk to him, and he had been raised by a grandmother, now dead. She had given him the Bible he carried everywhere, with his name embossed in gilt on the front.
Matt would come to church and lead us in hymns he knew, which were the most strict sort, involving lots of blood atonement and proclamations of our unworthiness. He believed in a wrathful, powerful God in a way I have never believed in anything. He could cite obscure scriptures to “prove” his points, and when he was sober – which came and went – he was a kind and caring guy.
He would go away (several times) for a while in rehab, and he would write me letters filled with Biblical citations and affirmations of his complete recovery when he was released. Sadly, his aspirations always exceeded his abilities, for Matt never lasted more than a month outside of rehab before he was using again.
One day he walked into my office. He looked like hell, and had his Bible in his hand.
“Preacher, this is my Bible. My granny gave it to me when I got saved at a revival when I was a teenager. I don’t want to lose it – will you hold onto it for me?”
Of course I would.
Matt began a steady descent after that day. I wonder sometimes if the responsibility of keeping track of his one prized possession hadn’t been good for him. I don’t know – I just know that after that, he spiraled down quickly.
One day he came in, relatively sober, and asked if I still had his Bible. I told him I did, and asked if he wanted it back.
“Not yet,” he said. “You keep it for me until I am ready for it.”
That was the last time I saw Matt. He disappeared, and I later learned he had died one night in a storm, drowning in a drainage ditch while high on paint fumes.
Matt didn’t make it, but I still have his Bible. It is the Bible I use to read from daily. It serves to remind me of truths I know, but that we humans are prone to forget.
The page at the front of the book where marriages are to be recorded, that has Matt and his wife’s names written in, but her name marked through and obliterated, reminds me that things don’t always go like we wish they would. The underlined verses about the wrath of God and the power of God (but never about the love of God) remind me that people like Matt, who in this life was powerless but loving, needed a God who was what he wasn’t. The embossed cover with his name on it, a gift from his Granny, reminds me that as broken as Matt was when I knew him, he was once loved and prized by his family, and that all of us have a back story – none of us are the worst thing we have done.
But mostly, this old Bible reminds me that you don’t always win. When I read from it, I am reminded that no one ever wanted to be sober as much as Matt, and that just wanting it isn’t enough.
But I really wish it was.