Do you write in your bible? I don't. I don't highlight verses in different colored inks. I don't put exclamation marks in the margins or pencil in comments. Lots of other people do, but I never have. My hesitation comes from knowing that what is so real and pertinent today will be incomprehensible in two years or ten. I don't want to lock in one meaning and not have the opportunity to see differently the next time I encounter the text.
I want to lay myself open to the new possibilities.
Having said that, I'm always curious to go through the bibles that have gotten recycled back to my office. Some come back in pristine condition. Probably the requestor left the jail before the bible made it to him. Or maybe she had good intentions, but that fifth grade reading level wasn't enough to make the Book speak.
Some bibles come back with careful notations. Inside this one is a list of important passages: "Do not be afraid." "Love one another." "Of course I want to heal you."
Inside another is a list of memorable characters: Jacob the trickster, Rachel and Leah, Naomi and Ruth, Paul and Silas.
There are dates when the back-sliders slid back into the arms of the Prodigal God. On the title page of one, "With much love, from the Author of Life."
I opened a Good News Translation of the bible last week. This is version seen rarely, but every now and then it comes through. Do you remember its old title? Good News for Modern Man and do you remember the line drawings? You can see them here. Good News images
I got a note from an offender a month ago asking for this specific translation and I'd sent a response explaining the scarcity of copies. Now, here was that Good News Bible. The original requestor was gone, but there was a another request in the stack on my desk. I slipped that note inside the bible and then set about checking the book itself. Sometimes people leave important numbers in their bible: phone numbers, booking numbers, Social Security numbers. Sometimes it's a name or a birthdate. I take out all the identifying information and clean it up before I send it upstairs.
This Good News Bible is clean, just a little banged up. No markings on the pages, only one corner and about twenty pages curled. I check the inside of the front cover. Nothing. I look at the inside of the back cover.
"I am homicidal," the note says. A full name and a birthdate follow. There are dates of admission to Western State Hospital "for being homicidal." A court date, a day in April.
It's all in pencil and as I carefully erase the name, the dates, the notes, I think about the man who had this bible last spring. I wonder what has happened to him in the last three months. Is he still in jail? Did he get sent to prison? Has he gone to the mental hospital for the help he needs?
I write a note to the man who will receive this bible. "Your request and this bible arrived on my desk together today. You can see it has been used by at least one person before you. When you read God's Word, pray for the person who read this bible before you and for the one who will read it after you. May you find strength and hope here."
I went on to the other requests.
Several hours later, on the bus headed home, I realized that the note-maker had said, "I am homicidal." Homicidal. Not suicidal. Wanting to harm others, not himself. I prayed for the intended victims and for the man who had written the words.