(Here’s the chapter entitled “Ugly Emily” from Paul Masek’s book “Stirring It Up” on the topic of Reading the Bible!
Emily thought she was an ugly teenager. She was going through an especially difficult time in her life because everything was changing. She didn’t like her hair, her face, her teeth, or the shape of her body. She didn’t think her personality was all that great either. The boys in her class seemed much more interested in talking to and hanging out with the “prettier” girls than with her. Even though Emily’s parents really loved her and constantly reminded her of her beauty, she didn’t believe it. The world and her friends had convinced her otherwise. Yes, Emily thought she was ugly.
Emily’s mom could tell that something was wrong and was unsure what more she could do to help her struggling daughter. In a moment of inspiration, she wrote some words on a slip of paper, which she taped onto Emily’s mirror. Emily saw the words but shrugged them off, thinking, “There goes mom again!” Even so, Emily didn’t take the paper off of her mirror. She kept it there and continued to read those words each day for several days, which turned into several months, which became several years. As time passed and she read those words every time she looked in the mirror, they started to sink in; Emily started to believe them. Those words eventually took root, and she is now utterly convinced that those words are absolutely true. Here are the words Emily’s mom wrote down for her – “You are made in the image and likeness of God and you are good.” You see, those words were not only her mother’s words – they were also God’s message to Emily, based upon a passage in the Bible. The truth that changed Emily’s life and convinced her of her beauty was God’s truth!
I love Emily’s story because it reminds me how powerful the Bible is, and that is something I can sometimes forget.
There is this great joke that I really hate; I’ll tell you why I hate it after I tell you the joke. Here it is –
Three people – a Pentecostal, a Baptist, and a Catholic – were discussing the passage from the Bible where Jesus says, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The Pentecostal said, “Oh, yeah, that passage is somewhere in the Gospel of John, in chapter 8, I do believe.” The Baptist said, “To be precise, that passage is in the Gospel of John, Chapter 8, verse 32.” And the Catholic responded, “What page is that on?”
Someone once told me that a joke isn’t really funny unless it contains some truth, and that is why I really hate that great joke! Christians in other churches generally know their Bibles quite well, but sadly most of us Catholics are often unfamiliar with our Bibles and lack a deep appreciation of God’s Word. But the good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way.
I want to be completely honest with you. When I was a young teenager, I wasn’t very interested in reading the Bible. Oh, I knew deep down in my heart it was a good book – THE Good Book, as a matter of fact! And I knew that it contained some great stories like the Christmas story, Jonah and the whale, Noah’s ark, the 10 commandments, Jesus’ resurrection, and some other pretty mind-blowing miracles. The miracle that inspired me the most was when Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding reception. Even so, I still felt like the Bible was mostly a bunch of big religious words, outdated rules, and restrictive regulations; and that’s just not a party waiting to happen when you’re trying really hard to be a hip and trendy teenager. So, what changed for me?
What changed, believe it or not, was not the Bible; what changed was my attitude toward the Bible. Here is how that attitude changed. When I was in college, I met some friends who didn’t wear masks – they were not only some of the most amazing people and truest friends I had ever met up to that point, but they were deeply committed to Jesus Christ as their best friend. Through a series of events that would take too long to explain here, these friends showed me (through their actions and their words) who Jesus is. Through the faithful influence of these awesome people, Jesus gradually became my best friend, and I eventually decided that I would be better off asking Him to take charge of my life – since I was doing a pretty crummy job as lord of my own life. In a nutshell, that’s what happened! Having Jesus in my life is what changed my attitude toward the Bible; and as I have tried to get to know Him better, the Bible has proven to be the best and most trustworthy source of information about Him.
I hope that you are interested in getting to know Jesus better. I can tell you with absolute confidence that getting to know Him better is the best decision I ever made in my life. And here’s the deal. As you certainly know, a big part of getting to know someone is to listen to them or read their words, right? Think about it. We get to know our friends through conversation, whether in person, on the phone, or online. We can also get to know them by reading their emails, letters, and online journals. It may sound kind of crazy; but what if you decided today to start looking at the Bible as God’s website, blog, Facebook or MySpace page? Seriously. If you knew for real that the Creator of the Universe had a place like that online where you could find out His thoughts, get advice from Him, and learn about His plan for your life, wouldn’t you at least check it out? I would, without hesitation. The honest to God truth is that the Bible is exactly that kind of place – and you can even read it online, if you prefer! It is a place where you can really get to know the one who loves you more than you will ever know.
A big reason that I read the Bible is because of what this guy named Jerry once said to me. Actually, his name is St. Jerome, but I love calling saints by their nicknames, since they are real people just like you and me. Anyway, Jerry once said this, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” Whoa! Dude! I don’t know about you, but that is one thing I don’t want to be – ignorant of Jesus Christ! He is my best friend, and I want to know as much as possible about Him. As I’ve said, one of the best ways to know Him is through the Bible, especially the Gospels, which are four different versions of His life and His teachings.
I want to share with you some really practical tips that might help you with your Bible reading; they certainly have helped me. Here they are, in no particular order –
+ If you really have no desire to read the Bible, ask God to give you that desire. I think God would really dig it if you would ask Him to increase your desire to read His Word.Pick it up. Sorry to insult your intelligence, but far too many people never pick up their Bible. It can help to put your Bible in a place where it will look at you and remind you on a regular basis to pick it up. Consider placing your Bible wherever you normally pray, or somewhere you visit every day – on your nightstand, or in your underwear drawer, or by your toothbrush – hey, whatever works!
+ Ask the Holy Spirit to inspire you when you read it; that is something the Holy Spirit just loves to do!
+ Read it when you’re bored. Come on, you know you get bored sometimes, right? Instead of always hopping online, turning on the TV, listening to music, or whatever – the next time you’re bored, open up God’s Word. And, don’t just take my encouragement to do it. St. Ambrose put it this way, “Why do you not use the time when you have nothing to do for reading or for prayer? Why do you not go and visit Christ our Lord and speak with Him and listen to Him? For when we pray we speak with God, and when we read, we listen to God.”
+ Kiss it. For real. The next time you go to Mass, you will notice that the priest or deacon always kisses the Bible after reading the Gospel. Kissing is a powerful sign of love, intimacy, passion, and respect. Kissing the Bible is a great way to show God your love for Him and His Word. I dare you to try it either before you read it, after you read it, or both.
+ Get a good one. OK, OK, so any Bible is a good one. (I can almost hear some people saying that to me right now.) What I am trying to say, though, is that you need to find one that meets your needs. There are many translations out there. I once heard a wise person say that the best translation of the Bible is the one you will read! Most of you probably do not need a version of the Bible in the original Greek or Hebrew languages. Some versions have a lot of words that we don’t use too often in our daily conversations these days, either – like thee and thou and art and saith. As far as picking out a good Bible, I would recommend shopping around for a good Catholic youth Bible; you could just Google for “Catholic Youth Bible”. Make sure it’s Catholic, though, because Catholic Bibles contain 7 extra books that some Protestant Bibles don’t; those books are really cool, too; and I wouldn’t want you to miss out on them. And make sure it is a youth Bible because a good youth Bible will help you to apply the Scriptures to your daily life as a teenager. If you currently don’t have a good Catholic youth Bible, and if you can’t afford to buy one right now, start saving your money; it is an investment you won’t regret. In the meantime, you could probably borrow one from your priest or youth minister or someone like that. If you have no regular source of income, or if you decide to spend your hard-earned income or allowance some other way, here is a crazy idea – ask your parents to buy you a Bible. You might need to wait for Christmas, your birthday, or some other special occasion, but I have never known a parent unwilling to buy a Bible for their son or daughter. If they are hesitant, tell them it will make you a better and more respectful teenager!
+ Consider the Bible a love letter from God. Who doesn’t enjoy a good love letter? You can even insert your name in key places to make it personal. Instead of John 3:16 simply being “God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten son…” why not read it as “God so loved …” That is pretty powerful, and makes it far more personal, which it is.
+ Pick a time. Just like daily prayer time, it is good to have a consistent Bible reading time every day. Some people read the Bible as a part of their personal prayer time. Some people talk to God in the morning, and read the Bible at night. Or, vice versa. Some people even bring their Bible to school and read it during free time – after completing an assignment, during study hall, or on the bus. It might sound kind of crazy, but it would be a powerful way to witness to your faith, wouldn’t it? Some people bring their Bible to work and read a little bit during their lunch hour. Regardless, it is a good idea to try to have some time set aside every day to read the Bible. Someone once said, “A Bible that is falling apart is usually owned by someone who isn’t.” I like that quote so much, I actually wrote it in the front of my Bible. Will you?
+ Get a study guide or devotional book. There are great study guides out there that help you to apply the Bible to every day situations.
+ Read it online. Even if you don’t have Internet access at home, you can always get on the Internet at your local public library.
+ Check out the topical index; most Bibles have one at the end, with Scriptures for you to look up that can apply to any mood or situation you might be in – happy, sad, grateful, angry, scared, tired, etc. If you check out a topical index, you will be blown away by all of the ways that the Bible speaks to our everyday lives.
+ Mark it up. I promise, it is not sacrilegious. Some of the holiest people I know have used highlighters (just make sure it doesn’t ‘bleed through’ the pages) to mark their favorite passages, and write comments in the margins of their Bibles.
+ Memorize. I once had a friend who knew every line of the movie “Tommy Boy” by heart; she loved that movie and had seen it so many times that she could actually recite every line from memory. If people can do that with movies, why not with God’s Word? Memorizing parts of Scripture is actually far more significant, life-changing, and eternally beneficial than knowing movie quotes. When you read the Bible and a passage seems to leap off of the page and really speaks to your heart, try to commit it to memory. Put it on a post-it note on your mirror; encourage a friend to memorize it with you. Test one another. If you memorize Bible passages, then those passages will come back to your mind later in life when you really need them. One of my favorites that I recall when I am feeling weak or overwhelmed is, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phillippians 4:13) One of my wife’s favorites is, “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33) I cannot tell you how much these verses have comforted and encouraged us through difficult times.
+ Check out the Daily Mass Readings. There are several places online where you can find them, and many parishes print them in their weekly bulletin. What is awesome about reading and praying about the Daily Mass Readings is that (with some minor exceptions) Catholics throughout the entire world hear and read the very same readings each day. Therefore, it would be fair to say that these Scripture passages from Daily Mass are God’s Word to the Catholic world, and that is pretty powerful. How cool is it that people in Africa, Australia, South America, and even Rome hear the same message from God every day? This is one thing I totally love about being Catholic, which literally means “Universal”. I wonder if yet undiscovered life forms in other solar systems and galaxies have the same daily Mass readings…
Now that I have given you some tips for reading the Bible, I also want to share with you a couple of traps to avoid –
+ Beware of reading from beginning to end. Shortly after I made a new commitment to Christ, I asked my parents for a Bible for Christmas. This totally surprised them, by the way; but they did buy me one. I was totally on fire to learn as much about God as I could by reading His Word, and so I decided to read the Bible from the beginning to the end. I started with Genesis and hoped to finish the Book of Revelation within a couple of months. Now this way of reading the Bible may work for some people, but it didn’t work for me. Here’s why. First of all, I was reading it wrong. The Bible is not a task to be accomplished, like completing a science project or running a marathon – it is a means of developing a relationship with a friend. There is no need to be in a hurry when reading the Bible. We should take our time and savor what God is saying to us, even if we only read one line or one word each day. It is supposed to be about listening, learning, meditating, and incorporating what we learn into our lives and relationships. I have heard it said (and I tend to agree) that it could be more beneficial to spend a month reflecting on one paragraph of the Bible than reading the whole thing in one year. You see, when I tried reading it from beginning to end, I got bogged down and pretty discouraged in the Book of Exodus. Sadly, I gave up. It is not a bad idea to read the entire Bible; it just needs to be done carefully. There are actually even some great guides out there to help people to read the entire Bible in a year. If you check them out, you’ll see that most of them mix it up with Old and New Testament passages in a way that helps to keep one’s attention, and very few of these guides (if any) ask us read the Bible from beginning to end.
+ Don’t only do “Bible Roulette”. Bible Roulette is what I call the practice of just picking up a Bible and randomly flipping to a page and hoping for some inspiration. I know that this is a favorite way for some people to read the Bible, and I certainly am not totally against this way of reading God’s Word. I know for sure that God can speak (and has spoken) to many people in this way. This kind of Bible reading even converted St. Augustine (his story is told in the chapter called “Shut Up!”), so I know it can be awesome sometimes. However, I believe that this should not be the only way to read the Bible. We will get more out of it if we put more into it by studying it, perhaps even a chapter or a book at a time. And, Bible Roulette can potentially misfire, which I will illustrate with my favorite Bible joke –
+ A man was playing Bible Roulette one day. He asked God to speak to his heart, and then he randomly flipped to a page where he randomly dropped his finger to a passage that read, “…he (Judas) departed and went off and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27:5) The man thought to himself, “God, I know that wasn’t you. I am going to give you another chance!” So, again, he randomly flipped to a page where he randomly dropped his finger to a passage that read, “Jesus said…’Go and do likewise.'” (Luke 10:37)
+ Don’t think you know it all. There is a danger in thinking that any one of us can completely understand the entire Bible by ourselves. Although we can (and should!) read the Bible by ourselves for wisdom and inspiration, we also need guidance in understanding God’s Word. There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, some passages can be confusing at first glance. For another, the Bible was written by people who, though under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, lived in a certain time and place in history which influenced them. Also, there are certain types of literature in the Bible, and it is important to know the difference between a book that is poetry, parable, or historically factual information. We don’t even need to know it all, and this is one of the gifts of being Catholic. We not only have the Bible, but right alongside God’s Word we have over 2000 years of pastoral wisdom to help us apply the Bible to our daily lives. For these reasons, I encourage you to check out the footnotes in your Bible. And, if you want to take your understanding of the Bible to a deeper level, find reliable Catholic Scripture study guides; there are even online Catholic Bible study guides. Consider joining a Bible study group, or start a Bible study of your own. Checking out the wisdom God has given to us through others will help you to understand God’s Word more fully.
I think I will stop here. I encourage you to do the same. Take a break from my book and read God’s book. I encourage you to begin with the Gospel of Mark. It is the shortest Gospel and has a lot to reveal to us about Jesus! Be sure to ask the Holy Spirit to speak to your heart as you read, and take your time. There is no hurry at all. I hope that you, like Emily, can discover how God sees you – and that you are never ugly to the One whose opinion matters most.