My grandfather gave me my first Bible. I was four. He called me into the small office he had just off the kitchen and sat me down like I’d done something wrong (which I had, in fact—many, many somethings, and I didn’t know which one I’d been caught doing or how), then removed a small, wrapped rectangle from his desk drawer. “Yours,” he told me. “I want you to have it.”
It was one of those small New Testaments with the Psalms and Proverbs in the back, the kind you still see passed out by the Gideons, of which my grandfather was one. I remember carrying that bible around with me everywhere. I’d sit and leaf through the pages, run my fingers over the words. I even underlined a few verses here and there, like I’d seen my grandmother do in her worn King James. I couldn’t read a word of it, of course. But I liked to pretend I could, and I couldn’t wait until I could for real.
I still have that old Bible. The back cover is gone and the pages are thinning and yellowed, but you can still see my name in pencil on the first page and “Love, Granddaddy” written beneath. I don’t use it anymore. It stays atop one of my bookcases, there more as a relic to admire than something to take down and handle. The one I use daily and haul back and forth to church is not unlike the one my grandmother owned, old and worn. I like it, though. Someone once told me a Bible in tatters is indicative of a life that is not.
Still like to write in my Bible, too. And underline. Leaf through the pages of mine and you’ll find marks and notes many years old, all of which form a kind of spiritual timeline for my life. I’ll read a note scrawled in the margin or find a circled verse, and I can tell you exactly what was happening in my life at the time. I can tell you what I was going through or wrestling with. I can tell you if I was stumbling or flying.
I have one verse that’s been highlighted and underlined and noted more than any other. So much, in fact, that I now have to squint and raise the page close to be able to read it.
Romans 8: 38-39:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In the thirty years I’ve owned that Bible, I’ve circled and commented on nearly every one of those forty-nine words. Because I needed them, you see. There was a time when I needed to know that nothing could separate me from God’s love. There was another time when I needed to know it didn’t matter how high I was or how low, another when I needed to know I didn’t need to mourn my past, fear my present. Not even death was an end—there was a time when I needed to know that as well.
It’s the one verse I’ve gone to again and again. It has sustained me. It sustains me still.
I came across that verse this morning and paused to read it again. And I noticed something that had escaped me all this while, something I believe only time and experience has allowed me to see. One word in those two verses had been left unmarked, almost as if I’d never needed it or really understood why it was there.
That word was “life.”
Life can’t keep me from God’s love, either.
I’d never really considered that, never really understood what it meant. Until this morning, at any rate. Like I said—time and experience.
I’d presume you and I aren’t all that different. We’ve both been around enough. Done enough. Lived enough. We know to a certain degree what’s waiting when we get up every morning—the slog to work, the slog back home, the bills waiting in the mail and the people screaming on the TV that the world’s going to hell and we’d all better hang on. There are kids to worry about and retirement, and there’s that bum knee or the lump we feel or the arthritis settling in that lets us know we’re fast approaching the downward slope of life. There’s busted pipes and the clunking sound in the car and the dog to take to the vet. There’s dreams we once had and maybe still do, and there’s a sense of guilt and anger that maybe—maybe—what we are now is all we’ll ever be.
And you know what? All that stuff I just wrote can be as tiring and stressful and soul-crushing as any tragedy. I know people who have lost their faith through war or divorce or the death of a loved one. I know far more who have lost their faith by simply living day after day and year after year, trudging through the muck and the mire of life.
I underlined that word in my Bible this morning. Drew a box around it. To me, it’s the most important part of that verse now. Because God is determined not to keep death and the past and the future between Him and me. He won’t let life do it, either.