Sunday, September 16, 2012

Bits & Pieces

Over the years, the Bible has come to me in bits & pieces.
As a child, in Sunday School and around the family table, I was given the Bible in bits - digestible, easy-on-the-stomach stories about Noah and the Ark, Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors, Jonah and the Whale.  Oh, and don't let me forget the Loaves and Fishes and Jesus Walking on the Water, The Last Supper, The Cross and The Empty Tomb.
Some of these stories had really colorful flannelgraph to go with them.  (What the heck is flannelgraph?) First Baptist Church of Reseda, where I spent most of my elementary school years going to church, had an amazing Sunday School flannelgraph collection.  There was flannelgraph Abraham, a flannelgraph Moses, a flannelgraph Noah and of course, a flannelgraph ark complete with flannel graph giraffes, monkeys, donkeys and zebras.  I used to love to watch my Sunday School teacher position each animal side by side walking up the flannel-graph ramp toward the flannel-graph ark as the dark, threatening flannel-graph sky hovered at the top of the flannel graph board.
Ah, the good ol' days of bits & pieces.
During my morning run today, I listened to the story of Jacob and Rachel in Genesis 29.  The story was being told by New York City Presbyterian Pastor Timothy J. Keller.  He explained how Jacob works for 7 years so he can marry beautiful Rachel whom he desires more than any other woman.  At the end of his seven years of hard labor, Jacob gets tricked by Rachel's father and ends up with her older, more homely looking sister, Leah.  I've heard this before.  While I don't remember a flannel-graph Rachel or Jacob, I do remember this story. But then I heard Pastor Keller explain how Jacob, once he realized he had been betrayed, probably had this paralyzing thought: "Isn't this exactly what I did years ago to my own father?"  After all, he had tricked his own father into giving him a birthright blessing that should have gone to his brother, Esau. What goes around comes around Jacob! You cheated someone out of something they deserved and now Ha! Right back 'atcha!
And I realized I had not made that connection until then.  All I had was the bit about Jacob and Esau and the piece about Jacob and Rachel. 
What I had was an a la carte Bible. 
Ah, yeah, I'll just have the bits and pieces.
One at a time please.
Oh, and no connection from one story to the next, thank you.
I'd never really seen how all these bits and pieces came together to make an amazing full course meal.
And then I thought: How strange and scary!  To have all this Bible teaching growing up, to know all these stories, to practically have flannel-graph coming out of my ears, but not have ANY of it in a coherent, complete, comprehensive manner between my ears (or in my heart). Just bits and pieces scattered about! 
I think it's these bits and pieces that scare people away from the Bible.  They know a story here and a lesson there - Forbidden fruit, a talking snake, cute little animals walking 2 by 2 up a ramp toward a massive wooden ark, a rainbow, "The LORD" smiting this person or that group of persons, warriors rising up and walls falling down, someone being swallowed whole by a whale, a boat on a stormy sea or full of fisherman casting nets, disciples dividing loaves and fishes, turning cheeks, and then finally Jesus on a donkey, turning over a table, carrying a heavy cross...his pierced hands, the empty tomb and then his disappearance into the clouds.
Each story has different flannelgraph characters and settings.  Each has its own separate flannel board.  Each story has a separate lesson:  Trust God.  Have faith. Be good.  Stop doing this.  Start doing that.  Jesus saves.
And when you get older and stop sucking your thumb and believing everything you're told, these bits & pieces just look so...
And hard to believe.  Even for someone like me, who grew up hearing them, believing them, singing about them.  I got into my twenties and suddenly I thought...
I don't really believe all that Sunday School stuff, do I? Some of these bits and pieces are pretty hard to believe.  Others are pretty harsh.  A few are kind of ridiculous.
So I brushed all the bits and pieces aside into a big, disorganized pile of flannelgraph characters -   Moses, Mary and Jesus and Jonah all jumbled together in one colorful heap.  And I left them there.  Then, starting several years ago, God started pulling the pieces together.  Like this morning on my run.  This NYC pastor I've never met says in so many words, "Hey, see that flannel-graph story you got over there?  Yeah! The one with Jacob & Esau on it where Jacob is dressed up like Esau?"
I look into my pile. Yup.  I see it.
"Well, move it over here by this one where Jacob gets duped into marrying Leah.  It goes with this one."
Wow.  You mean this bit goes with that bit?
And I find other bits and pieces lying around, too. 
In my last blog entry, I relayed a very bloody bit:  The story of Passover.  This is another great Sunday School production.  Bloody doors, Egyptian slave masters, Israelite slaves and lots of icky, creepy, ugly flannel board pieces to make the plagues come to life.  I'll never forget the "river of blood" that ran across the flannelgraph board in Sunday School.  Yuck. Passover is a super memorable "bit" for sure.  A "piece" for the ages.
And you can just leave it that way, like I did -- all the pieces sitting there flat on the flannelboard--doors painted in the blood of lambs and fancy Pharaoh, surrounded by wailing women, dead firstborns and utter darkness, finally saying to Moses and the Israelites "Get out of here! All of you!" 
What a powerful story, right kids?  OK, let's pray and go to big church now.  Help me put away the flannel-graph boys and girls.  Next week, we'll watch as Moses parts the Red Sea! 

I heard a sermon recently that helped me connect the Passover story with the rest of the Bible.  The Israelites are told to kill a spotless lamb and use its blood to paint their door frames so their firstborn will be spared...
Wait a minute.  A spotless lamb is slain.
As the sermon went on, all the bits and pieces started coming together to form a full picture.  One that starts in Genesis 22 with Abraham and Isaac, and lambs being sacrificed as atonement for sin, to Passover and the blood of the lamb smeared on doorposts, to John the Baptist in the New Testament who points at Jesus and says  "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!" (John 1) and then Peter's letter to believers in Asia Minor in which he calls Jesus the Spotless Lamb of God (I Peter 3) then finally, on to the book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, the last "piece", and there is THE LAMB once again. (Revelation 5,7,12,13,21)
Whoa.  That's a big flannelboard.
In Sunday School, "big church" and at Christian schools, I heard all of these stories, memorized some of these verses and would have known what most of them meant.  Individually.  But as a comprehensive whole?  Not so much.  I certainly knew Jesus was the Lamb that John referred to in the Gospels.  But to connect the Lamb all the way through the Bible in a way that makes it an enlightening spiritual pilgrimage, not just a bunch of colorful isolated stories?  Only lately have I started to see these bits and pieces connected together in meaningful ways.

I joined a Bible study a few years ago and was amazed when one of the leading members of the group gave a "timeline of the Bible."  Starting with Genesis and working her way through the epistles, she told the story of the Bible, touching on the major people and events in chronological order.  I was truly impressed.  I couldn't have done that if my life depended on it.  It was probably the first time I heard someone give a brief run-down of the full story of the Bible.  Then, we went book by book through the Bible and discussed what each book was about and the main characters and what happened to them.  Week after week, I was enthralled by the stories and how they all fit together. 
These days I still find quite a few bits and pieces laying around, but God is helping to bring them all together into a full story of who He is and why he sent his only Son to the world for me, for all.  Each story is just a bit or a piece that fits into the bigger story. The hungry whale and the talking snake don't seem so silly when I understand the big picture.  Abraham being asked by God to kill his Son as a sacrifice doesn't seem so barbaric and cruel when I understand ancient culture and how this fits with the stories that came before and the ones that are coming next.  If I look only at the pieces, my faith can fall to pieces.  Instead, God is pulling all the bits & pieces out of my pile and putting them together so I can see the complete, continuing story. So far, I'm amazed at how well the flannel-graph folks all fit together into God's great plan.

Hope A. Horner, 2012
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