Frog and Toad Are Friends.
That’s the first book I remember reading from start to finish. I picked up on reading quickly, training myself on the backs of cereal boxes at age 4. But I remember feeling a deep sense of satisfaction about this book. For the first time, I could immerse myself in an entire story, by myself. (With assistance from Mom, Dad, and Arnold Lobel.) I read it out loud, of course—the only way a child knows. I remember reaching the final word of the book: together. I didn’t recognize the word, so I ended the book with my own triumphant pronunciation: “TOGG-e-ther!”
I never stopped loving books. As a child, I enjoyed learning and reading about all sorts of subjects: dinosaurs, space, the Titanic, the human body, how stuff worked. I spent hours staring at the pages and diagrams. And of course, stories. I graduated to novels such as The Chronicles of Narnia. Michael Crichton thrillers. And then, anything with a story: comic strips, video games, TV shows, movies.
It’s easy to disappear into a good story.
Several years ago, I was seated in the Phoenix airport, waiting for a flight to begin boarding. This airport is officially known as the “Phoenix Sky Harbor”—filling my head with absurd visions of a gleaming airborne structure drifting above the desert, to which are moored a dozen giant Zeppelins. The reality is mundane: it was a large but ordinary airport, and my departure gate was undergoing renovation. So I had to sit a couple gates farther down that day. I began reading a Stanislaw Lem book (good sci-fi!), and I was engrossed. I “woke up” from my intense focus and looked at my watch. I was bewildered to see that my departure time had come and gone. What! I hurried to the gate counter, where the unimpressed staff told me they had paged me on the P.A. system several times. Then they finally gave up and let the flight depart. In my defence, that P.A. system was blaring out so much incessant, irrelevant information that I had mentally tuned it out. But in so doing, I had tuned out my own name. I had withdrawn from our world of bland airports with their pretentious names and irritating P.A. systems, and into a realm of scientific and philosophical wonder.
I’m told I was often lost in a book as a child. I sometimes wonder whether this explains why I don’t have many clear, precise memories from my childhood. My mind devoted itself to other worlds revealed in books and stories. From the vantage point of an adult, I don’t know whether this was always a good thing. I think one reason I have withdrawn over the years has been to avoid difficult relationships and situations that I didn’t know how to handle. Put those difficult things in a room in your mind, close the door behind them, then withdraw into another room where a better story is being told. Sometimes I told my own stories: my brothers and I built a vast world of Lego sets, less interested in engineering new creations, and more interested in telling new stories. By the time we stopped buying Lego, we had nearly 200 mini-figures. They all had different names, personalities, backstories. All absurd and outlandish, of course. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I even wrote down a few stories about them.
Then there were the stories I heard again and again. I knew the stories of scripture—not only in Sunday School, but in family worship as Mom invited us to read them. In high school, I read the Bible all the way through for the first time. I’d like to say I understood it all—I certainly thought I did. I always loved the Bible, enough that I gave away my well-worn NIV as a gift once, because it was the most meaningful thing I owned.
The Bible has been different from any other story I’ve ever read. A truly engrossing story would pull me in for a while. I would binge on stories long before Netflix made it cool. Then the story would be over, and the time would come to leave the universe of the author (or auteur) and re-enter the real world. The real world—with its overbearing people, overwhelming situations, its confusion and complexities. The refuge of a good, simple story never lasted long. It couldn’t hold the real world at bay forever.
The Bible did something different. It led me back into the real world.
I didn’t recognize this as a child, because I didn’t understand the Bible well then. But in university, I started reading it and comprehending what I was reading. Through the help of faithful teachers, the Holy Spirit began putting the pieces together for me. I understood the gospel, the central message of the Christian faith. I began reading it with new eyes. And I found that the Bible didn’t speak of an imaginary religious world; it speaks of the real world I had been avoiding all those years. It speaks of people who were a lot like the people I knew—and a lot like me. It speaks of the problems of sin, shame, and suffering. It speaks of God and all he has done to create, redeem, and one day restore the real world. He is not a God of the illusory, but of the real. He is not the God of another world, but of our world. So the Bible has slowly led me back into the real world.
More than that, the Bible led me to Jesus Christ. I didn’t fully appreciate this when I was younger. I affirmed all the things Christians are supposed to believe about Jesus Christ, but I didn’t find myself enthralled by him as a person. That’s something that has changed. The older I get, and the more I know people, the more I marvel at the holy, wise, loving person of Jesus Christ. (More about that in a couple weeks.)
What’s obvious to me is that, during his earthly ministry, Jesus Christ treasured the Bible he had (the Old Testament) even more than I do. When you cut Jesus, he bled Bible. He would critique his enemies with challenges such as “have you never read…?” (Mark 2:25) or “you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Mark 12:24). He was quoting it constantly, and not simply for instructional or polemical purposes, but as the Word of God, the words of his own life and faith. Jesus trusted the Bible, and he loved it. In fact, I have never encountered a person who loves the scriptures more than Jesus did.
If the Bible was an anchor for Jesus when everyone around him was falling away, why would I not want the same for myself? God’s Word is my anchor, too. Lies may have more power for a time than the truth, but this Story is truth that outlasts every lie. My faith, hope, and love are built on God’s promises, and I find them in the Bible.
Of all the stories I watched and read, of all the stories I told and wrote, this is the only one that has ever been True.
This God—his way is perfect;Psalm 18:30 (ESV)
the word of the LORD proves true;
he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.