Wednesday, March 26, 2014

John 3:16

When Will and I got married, our pastor friend Nancy gave us a gift, a modern-interpretation of The Bible called The Message.

"Oh, cool. A book on massage," Will said, misreading the title as a handbook for couples who want to play together, not a handbook for couples who want to pray together.

"It's The MESS-age, not The Muh-sage," I explained.

Will looked at me, confused.

"It's from Pastor Nancy. It's an interpretation of The Bible," I said.

"Ooooooh," Will said, finally understanding.

Will grew up in a conservative Assemblies of God church, but he stopped attending as a teenager. Now, whenever Katie or I invite him to our progressive Presbyterian church, Will politely declines with a simple, "No thanks. I've had enough church."

On our first date, as we sat in a bar waiting for our movie to start, I asked Will what he thinks happens to us when we die. Will took a big drink from his Boulevard Wheat beer, licked his upper lip, and said, in his slow, steady manner, "Well, since energy cannot be created nor destroyed, I think our bodies decay in the ground and the atoms form to create something new."

Phew! I was so relieved to hear such a reasonable response from him. A minute ago he'd informed me that he grew up in an Assemblies of God church, a church I didn't know much about other than there was one across the street from our house when I was a teenager, but we never set foot inside it. My dad called it a "holy roller" church in the same tone he used when he bragged about being the first person in his family to not grow up on a farm. My parents were both accountants. White collar, middle-class, white people who, if they bothered going to church at all, attended ones so boring you didn't have to worry about missing out on sleeping in on Sunday morning. You could snooze in the pews. As a teenager, I mostly stayed away from church, fearing I'd either die of boredom or spontaneously combust as my heathen ass waltzed through the door. Either way, I figured I was going to hell.

It sucked believing what jerks like Jerry Falwell and jocks at my school said to me, that I was going to burn in hell for being gay. I wasn't even all-the-way gay. From the time I was about four I recognized that I got crushes on both boys and girls. But no matter. Bisexuals burn in hell just like gay people do. It's not like we get to spend half our time in heaven and half our time in hell. When jocks were screaming, "Dykes!" at my friends and me in the hallways at school, they didn't say, "But we only hate Becky half-way since she sometimes likes guys."

My mom read The Bible pretty much daily. She often read parts to me, or told me about stories she'd recently read. She also told me stories she'd read from her Danielle Steel novels and stories she'd seen on her favorite TV show "Dynasty". Mom made sure my literary, pop culture, and spiritual up-bringing was well balanced.

We had a fancy Bible when I was a kid. As far as I could tell, no one read it. It had empty space in the front where you could write in your family tree. I'd open it from time to time, but I didn't read it. I mostly just fondled the gold leaf edges and flipped the pages fast to release a cloud of dust butterflies.

My mom's favorite translation of The Bible was simply called The Book. She had a paperback copy. One of the few books we owned. My parents are big fans of reading. My dad's also a big fan of not spending money on books when you can get them for free at the public library. Which explains how someone who grew up in a home where we owned few books turned out to be such a prodigious reader.

I never got around to reading Pastor Nancy's gift to us, though. Neither did Will. We weren't churchgoers at the time. We didn't find our morality from within one book but from many, and from living life, and loving our friends and wanting to make this world a better place. The Message sat on our bookshelf unread, until two years later we found it was just the perfect size to prop up the busted sliding gate on baby Katie's hand-me-down crib.

Katie's crib is now in our basement storage room. Katie, now seven, asked if we could go to church last fall. I'm always up for a new adventure, so I said sure, why not. I had no idea I'd like it so much. I had no idea I'd get to the point in my life, at age 43, where I'd have the urge to sit down and actually read the whole Bible. So now that I'm ready to read Pastor Nancy's gift, I can't find it. I'm not speaking metaphorically. I literally can't find the book. It's probably inside a plastic bin full of Katie's toddler clothes. There's no way in hell I have time to go through all that stuff. I'm gonna have to honor my father's ways and go check out a copy from the library.

This is a long ramble to explain that I had no idea my husband speaks Bible Quotese. He gave up church twenty years ago. We don't live in a house where a copy of The Bible can be readily found. We're far from theologians in this house.

I'd long been well aware of Will's gift for speaking Movie Quotese, but it wasn't until yesterday, twelve years into our relationship, that I found out he's not just bilingual but trilingual.

We had twenty minutes before Katie and I had to leave for Gay Christian Fellowship at church. Will doesn't go with us. He loves gay people. He's just "had enough church," especially enough to not go on a Tuesday evening.

It's called "Gay" Christian fellowship, but it's open to all people regardless of sexual orientation. The idea is for people from the congregation to share a meal with LGBT people who have been traditionally shunned from the church. Katie likes to go because I let her drink Sprite.

To kill time before we had to leave, I decided to scoop the litter box. I grabbed a plastic bag out of our bag drawer. The first bag I found was a bright yellow bag from Forever 21. I've never set foot in the store. At 43, I've known for 22 years that I would not be forever 21. My friend Marty sent me home with some of her girls' used books to give to Katie, and that was the bag she sent them in.

I dropped the bag and it landed handle side down. I saw at the bottom of the bag something written in bold black letters.

"John 3:16? Is Forever 21 one of those religious stores like Hobby Lobby or Mardell," I asked.

Will shrugged his shoulders.

"What's Forever 21?" Katie asked.

"It's a store at the mall. I think they sell clothes that young women like to wear," I explained.

"Oooooh, like 21 year old women?" Katie asked.

"And people who want to look like they're 21, " I said. "I wonder what John 3:16 says? Something about fashion? Is that the part that says not to wear polyester? Where's that tiny New Testament that guy gave you last year at the Trunk or Treat party?" I asked Katie.

Before she could answer, Will quietly interrupted:

John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

I was stunned. I stood there speechless for a moment, a true miracle if you ask Will. I looked down and saw Katie's tiny New Testament on top of a pile of her art supplies, library books, and garage sale video tapes. I picked it up and said, "Is that really the Bible quote? Is that really how chapter, what is it--?" I asked, looking back at the bag, "--John 3:16--is that really how it goes?" I asked in disbelief.

I opened up the tiny New Testament  to John 3:16 and read the exact words:

John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

I looked up from the palm-sized book, my mouth agape, my eyes open wide in Will's direction. "How did you know that? I didn't know you know Bible quotes!"

"Nah. It's one of the most famous quotes from the Bible," Will waved his hand at me being impressed. "Everybody knows that one."

"I didn't know it!" I argued.

"Well, everybody who grew up going to church knows it," Will said. "It's famous. So famous, sometimes I feel like John 3:15 and John 3:17 are like 'fuck you, man' to John 3:16."

Oh dear Jesus, thank you for leading me to this hilarious man. A former Assemblies of God goer who is now an Agnostic who quotes Scripture. I love him.

The other day I asked Will if it bothers him that Katie and I are joining this church. He said no, not at all. It's not his thing, but he understands why we want to do it. Will is one of those people who is so comfortable with himself he isn't bothered by other people's differences. I love that about him. He's so steady and firm in his beliefs.

I am unsteady and more open to changing my beliefs. I like to try new things. I like to go on spiritual adventures. I feel bound up if my spirit isn't allowed the freedom to evolve and grow.

I don't feel silly saying such things either because I've got a steady, firm man on my side, no matter which path I take. I might call myself a Christian and Will might call himself an Agnostic, but really, we believe the same thing.

Back at the bar, on our first date, after Will so reasonably explained to me that since energy cannot be created nor destroyed, he thinks our bodies decay in the ground and the atoms form to create something new, I asked him, "What about our souls? Do you believe living things have something beyond their physical bodies?"

"Yes. I believe all people have a spirit. It's all energy. And that energy flows on after we die. It transforms."

I fell in love with Will right then. That exact moment. Everything made sense. I felt so complete. I finally understood the universe, for only a millisecond, and yet somehow that was enough.

"That's what I believe too!" I said. "I never thought of it that way, but that's exactly what I believe!"

Our beliefs remain the same, but how we live them is different. Will likes to work on Sundays. Earn a decent living for his family, for his house, for our security. I love that about him. He makes me feel safe and loved. But I prefer to reach out to the broader world and write and share my beliefs with anyone who will listen. My beliefs reach out and Will's reach in, and both ways are just right for us.