The first spiritual experience I can recall with any clarity came after I was given an Explorer's Bible as a gift. Honestly, to this day, I don't know where I got it. My family was not a "church going" family. Often, we attended a church service on Christmas and Easter. And, every time we spent time with my father's family in New York, we attended their local Catholic church on Sundays. I am inclined to imagine that my Catholic grandmother gave the Bible to me. But, as I said, I don't know for sure.
As many young people do when they first approach the Bible, I made the mistake of attempting to read the Bible cover-to-cover. I began in Genesis and trudged my way through, even forcing myself to read the "begats," assuming that if they're in the Bible, it must be vitally important that I read them.
The most humorous moment in these early Bible readings was when I asked my stunned father to tell me what "circumcision" was. I can still recall the blank, uncomfortable stare I got for several seconds as he stood in the doorway of his fifth-grade daughter's bedroom, trying to come up with an answer that didn't involve saying the word, "penis."
Nevertheless, my real moment of spiritual clarity came when I reached the sacrificial laws of Leviticus. (Yes, I made it as far as Leviticus. By the time I gave up, I had gotten all the way through Numbers. The name "Emily," does mean industrious, after all!) On the one hand, I was truly appalled that God required the killing of many animals to make him happy. Yet, on the other hand, the sheer number of laws and regulations that my family was ignoring truly overwhelmed me.
When I was confronted with the requirements of the law, I did what just about every fifth-grader would do. I consulted a higher power. I went to my mom. I remember the conversation went something like this:
Me: Hey mom, I was reading in the Bible about the laws that God wants us to keep.
Mom: Oh yeah?
Me: Yeah. Did you know that we're supposed to be sacrificing animals on a gold altar?
Mom: Wow. No, I didn't know that.
Me: Well, the Bible says we are. So... I was thinking...
Me: Can I set up an altar in the backyard and burn something on it for God?
Mom: [Smiling] Um, honey, I don't think we need to do stuff like that anymore.
Me: Why not?
Mom: Well, I don't know, but things are different now.
Maybe this story isn't as funny to you as it is to me, but I find this interchange pretty hilarious. I even remember my train of thought at the time: "God wants animal sacrifices to deal with sin... We're not doing animal sacrifices, which means we're in big trouble with God... But, I don't think I could stand to kill an animal... So, maybe he'll be OK if we don't sacrifice animals... Maybe I could burn some lunch meat instead... Yeah... That will work... Lunch meat... Its an animal... Its just already dead... God will like that a lot better than doing nothing, anyway."
Looking back, I wonder what was going through my mom's head when her fifth-grade daughter proposed burning a pound of smoked turkey on a makeshift altar in the backyard. I'm not sure I would let my daughter continue to read a book that gave her thoughts like that. But, she did. And, I continued to be fascinated by the strange, supernatural stories in the Old Testament.
Interestingly, I never reached the New Testament in these early readings. The terrifying stories of God's judgment and animal sacrifices dominated my thoughts of the Bible from that time forward. Still, I wasn't repulsed, but wanted to know more. That thirst for the knowledge of God and God's Word continued from that time forward.
Later, when my family began to attend services at the local United Methodist Church, I became enamored with the Christ story. My fascination with the story of Jesus always reached its peak around the Easter season, when the Methodist minister would preach from Ash Wednesday to Resurrection morning on the Passion of Christ. All of the church's children were given small wooden crosses, where we could place symbolic stickers, each representing an aspect of the Christ story. I participated with solemnity and devotion.
Once again, though, while I was informed of the facts of the story, I never grasped their ultimate point. And, never did I make the connection between the sacrificial requirements of the Old Testament and the sacrificial death of Jesus. The dots should have led me to Jesus. But, they didn't. Not yet...