Was Your Life Changed By A Book?

Last week, a friend wrote on Facebook about a challenge from the New York Times. The Times is asking for entries to answer the query: Was your life changed by a book?  Readers are encouraged to submit an entry of 200 words or less about a book that has influenced your outlook.  I’ve been thinking about this question. What one book would I choose?

On my bookshelf there are many books that helped shape my way of thinking. I thought about Rich Thinking about the World’s Poor by Peter Meadows which helped shape my views on poverty and missions.  I considered a humorous book of short stories by Bailey White, Mama Makes Up Her Mind. Or, perhaps I would select a book from my childhood enticing me to enjoy novels. I particularly recall my delight at ten years old reading The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas.

My mind kept returning though to the obvious book: The Bible, the book of books. I could write paragraph after paragraph about the dramatic, inspirational, and practical dynamics of the sacred book of books. The Bible has inspired multitudes of persons in its uniqueness among books. But let’s keep it short.

My first true encounter with the Bible was almost absurd. I was probably eleven years old at the time that I read excerpts from another book, a bestseller at the time, The Exorcist. My oldest sister had a copy, and I glanced a bit too long at it.  I was scared, maybe even scarred,  by the story of the demonic possession of Regan, an eleven year old girl. I had trouble sleeping for fear that I would share the fate of Regan.

At this time, in the early 1970s, the movie was released, too. I felt like I even resembled the actress, Linda Blair, who portrayed the demon-possessed girl. I was doomed.

My sister assured me that it all was a story, make-believe if you will. However, I knew just a smidgeon about the Gospels mentioning demons. So, I looked up instances in the Gospels of demonic possessions.  Not only did they exist, but they had the power to possess the body and mind. I was terrified even more than before I read the Bible’s accounts.

Demons existed!

So my first forays into reading Biblical texts made me a believer, not of the love of God, but in the power of the devil. If the Bible had accounts of demonic possession, then I could not idly dismiss the existence of such evil personified. I felt terribly hopeless.

My heightened fear of potential demonic possession eased, but a general malaise stayed with me. I had no hope. All life seemed purposeless. It wasn’t just the specter of Linda Blair that frightened me. It was just life in general. What meaning did my life have?

Then, I heard something when I was around 12 years old.  I heard a man speak at my  church who seemed to have an unmistakable sense of the divine about him. It was as if he spoke from a different perspective, not his perspective but from God’s.

I was convinced that the man in the front of the church had something more powerful than words with him that night. He offered me Hope. And I, like John Wesley, felt my heart strangely warmed. I reached out and took hold of Hope.

After that day, the Bible was no longer a book that just offered evidence of the power of the demonic. It offered a story of the One who was more powerful than any demon. I read the Gospels with new clarity. How had I overlooked it before? You see, Jesus did indeed confront demons but he had power over them. People were liberated from the power of the devil.

Since then, I see the Bible in so many ways. It’s not a book to condemn but to set free. It’s about light, not darkness. It’s a book of hidden treasures, with new insights to be gained daily from its reading.

I am certain that the New York Times is not looking for essays on the efficacy of the Bible in influencing a preteen girl both towards fear, and later, freedom. We, in the United States, live in a post Christian world. That great and glorious best-seller, the Bible, has been relegated to a place where it’s influence can be explained as a history lesson, a cultural milestone of years gone by. Current Bible enthusiasts are regarded as oddities, stuck in cultural backwaters that is being swept away by the modern cynical age we live in.

I remain, though, convinced of my convictions. The book that has changed my outlook more than any book I’ve ever read is the Bible. No matter how trite or how inane it sounds, the Bible remains my bedrock and foundation as the most powerful book in my life.  It’s words are like my daily bread, new every morning.

See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? 

Isaiah 43:19

If you want to submit your entry about a book that has shaped your life to the New York Times, you must do it now. Entries must be submtted  by 10:00 a.m on January 15. 

Christmas Eve In Jail

I have been thinking about helping women in jail as part of my church’s outreach. I have done it before, over twenty years ago. Here’s a story from a Christmas Eve visit to the local jail. I hope you enjoy the story as much as I enjoyed being part of this experience.

The buzzer sounded. The doors opened. I stepped into the confines of a women’s jail. It was Christmas Eve. I might have been late, but here I was, about to encounter thirty women prisoners. I thought about the conversation I had a few hours ago.

“Laurie,” Tina said, “I’m not going to the jail tonight. My sister and her family surprised me with a visit. They came all the way from Pennsylvania. I’m sorry.”

I still remember my thoughts as I hung up the phone twenty-five years ago. I had never led the Bible study with the lady prisoners, and I had never gone into the jail alone. In the few short months that I had been accompanying Tina at the jail in Houma, Louisiana, Tina had been the one leading the lessons, praying for the ladies, and generally taking charge of everything. I went along mainly to learn and give support to Tina.

What good could I do alone? And, would anybody truly expect me to come on Christmas Eve? I sat down on the couch next to the telephone. Maybe I should call the jail and tell them I wasn’t coming. After all, it was Christmas Eve, and I had family gathering that night. With a sigh, I decided to go to the jail even though I didn’t have a lesson or a plan. I would undoubtedly just be there for emotional support for the lonely women in jail.

After entering the jail’s doors a few minutes late, I walked into the commons area of the women’s jail. I expected to see a few stragglers with notebooks and Bibles at the tables. Instead, I was greeted loudly by a group of eager women.

“You’re here!” someone shouted.

“Sit down!” another lady said.

Most of the women were talking excitedly among themselves. Others were pulling bedsheets off the bunks. The ladies started wrapping themselves in bedsheets.

What was going on? None of this made any sense until Jenny,* a tall, commanding dark woman, stepped forward to tell me the plan. They didn’t want a Bible study. They planned to put on a Christmas play they had produced among themselves. The one thing they lacked for the drama was an audience. With my arrival, the one hindrance was eliminated. Now, the show could go on.

Mary and Joseph were wrapped in white sheets. A pillow subbed for the baby Jesus. Women standing in for shepherds and wisemen draped sheets over their orange jumpsuits, too.

One lady stood to the side, Bible in her hand. As she read from portions of the Christmas story from the gospels, different actors did their parts. First, Mary and Joseph, along with pillow-turned-Jesus, made their way to the front of the room. They put Jesus on a chair as they gazed adoringly at him. Then, the shepherds came, guided by angels robed in more white sheets. Next, the Three Kings came and presented their gifts of ramen noodles and bottles of toiletries, which I understood to be stand-ins for the more traditional gifts of the Magi.

Interspersed throughout the presentation, the ladies sang Away in A Manger, Silent Night and We Three Kings. At the end of the presentation, the narrator invited everyone in the dorm to kneel before the baby Jesus. The participants of the play readily kneeled on cue. Other women were cajoled, and some were threatened with harm if they didn’t kneel before pillow-turned-Jesus. One way or another, all the women in the jail that night knelt before the solitary pillow representing Jesus.

After a short but blissful moment of silence, I applauded. It was a fabulous, heart-felt performance. After the drama, the ladies were eager to hear my reaction.

“Did you like the play?” one lady asked.

“How were the songs? Did we get the tune right?” another said.

They had spent the entire day rehearsing, and then, waiting for an audience for their re-enactment. No one wanted prayer or counsel that night. No one talked about loneliness,  sadness, or bitterness about missing Christmas with family and friends. That night, they were singular in their purpose to celebrate the birth of Jesus in their own way.

As I left the jail, I thought about how happy the women had been. I expected sadness and loneliness to be the theme of the evening. Instead, the night was defined by a sense of purpose. The ladies seemed content and happy.

What happened that night? I went with the idea that the women needed me to bring inspiration and hope. Instead, they inspired me, and most of all, themselves, in their re-enactment of the first Christmas. The power of the good news of the birth of Jesus was on display that night as the ancient story was retold.

I’ll always remember that Christmas play performed in shades of orange and white on Christmas Eve twenty-five year ago. I’m glad I decided to go to jail on Christmas Eve. Jesus’ birth may have occurred over 2,000 years ago, but in places great and small,  whether it be in palaces or small town jails, his birth and life still influences our world today

For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

Isaiah 9:6

* The name has been changed.