Monday, April 4, 2011

My Little Red Book

Accompanying me when I reported aboard the oceanographic survey ship Bartlett was a slender new volume which Miss Patty had given to me while I was on vacation.  I had once or twice expressed an interest in owning a copy of the New Testament.  Without the Old Testament, I reasoned, the New Testament would fit in a small book and would be easy to carry with me when I was traveling.  I was very glad to receive this book from her, and I brought it with me when I went back to sea.  I planned to read it in its entirety in my off duty hours aboard ship.

I came across a few additional items of reading material aboard the Bartlett.  Most of this was light weight stuff, though, which at this distance of time I can scarcely remember.  But I cannot forget my New Testament. I was proud of this little volume.  It quickly became my favorite.  Wherever it was put down, it stood out with its bright red cover and gold lettering.  It was the Saint Joseph Pocket Edition of the New American Bible translation of the New Testament.  After I had become settled in aboard the Bartlett, I started reading.

            I soon discovered that unlike many other books, this one contained no wasted words.  Every chapter and every verse said something significant.  I found a wealth of outstanding material on its pages, and it was a lot to absorb.  So I did not read it quickly.  Instead, I proceeded slowly and reread many passages in order to extract all I could from them.  This took time, of course, but I had all the time in the world with no place to go.  I savored what I read, and it was a very pleasant and uplifting experience.  The time I spent reading my New Testament quickly became the highlight of each day.

I started at the beginning of Matthew, which of course, is a masterpiece.  By first narrating the birth of the Lord, Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, and the family’s flight to and safe return from Egypt, and secondly presenting the baptism of the Lord and following it with Satan’s temptations in the desert, Matthew demonstrates that the forces of evil were intent on stopping the Lord’s work on the Earth even before it had begun.  Matthew alternates good events and bad events, maintaining what initially appears to be an equilibrium.  But then, following the success of the Lord’s fast in the desert and his victory over Satan’s temptations is the glorious Sermon on the Mount.  A magnificent triumph of good over evil, the preaching of the Sermon on the Mount stands as an early climax in Matthew’s narrative, one of several climactic moments in Matthew, and a forerunner of the ultimate triumph of good over evil that concludes the story.  The Sermon on the Mount itself stands supreme in literature as containing many of the most beautiful thoughts ever expressed.  A new and better way of life; in essence, a plan of happiness—this is what the Lord teaches the multitude.  Little wonder that Matthew finishes this section by saying that the Lord “left the crowds spellbound at his teaching” (Matt. 7:28).1  Reading it in translation after nearly twenty centuries is spellbinding enough; imagine what it was like to actually be there!

In the subsequent chapters, as Matthew relates the teachings of the Lord and the events that took place during his ministry, I found myself being drawn into each event, each parable, each conversation with his Apostles, and wanting not only to remember every detail, but also to know more.  I read and reread passages, taking everything in, but at the same time regretting my ignorance of the Old Testament as, for example, when Matthew quotes Isaiah and Jeremiah.  I made a mental note that I must someday read up on the ancient prophets.  On one of Isaiah’s points, though, I was very clear:

A people living in darkness has seen a great light.  On those who inhabit a land overshadowed by death, light has arisen (Matt. 4:16).

A lifelong Christian, I never considered myself as living in darkness, and I recognized light when I saw it.  Reading Matthew and the subsequent Gospels end to end, however, gave me more light that yielded greater knowledge, increased understanding, and a certain feeling of inner peacefulness and contentedness that was difficult to describe.  I’ve since come to realize that what I felt then was the Holy Spirit.

I did not spend all my leisure time waxing philosophical, however.  Mostly I just enjoyed reading, recognizing the inherent and unique beauty in Matthew’s version of the life of Christ.  Even at the end, where the tale turns tragic, there is beauty to be seen in the ultimate triumph of good over evil and the victory of life over death.  As he does in the beginning, Matthew alternates good events and bad events, but not in an equilibrium this time.  Instead, he presents us with a series of bad events beginning with the Lord’s prediction of his betrayal and ending in his crucifixion.  Finally, when these terrible events are concluded but the sorrow of the women visiting the tomb continues, Matthew records the greatest news the world has ever received:

Suddenly there was a mighty earthquake, as the angel of the Lord descended from heaven.  He came to the stone, rolled it back, and sat on it.  In appearance he resembled a flash of lightning while his garments were as dazzling as snow.  Then the angel spoke, addressing the women: “Do not be frightened.  I know you are looking for Jesus the crucified, but he is not here.  He has been raised, exactly as he promised.  Come and see the place where he was laid.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has been raised from the dead and now goes ahead of you to Galilee, where you will see him.’  That is the message I have for you” (Matt. 28:2-3, 5-7).

What a note on which to conclude!  By this singular event, mankind’s uncertainties and fears are overcome and its hopes and dreams are realized.  In the entire history of the world, the resurrection of Christ stands as unique.  Reading this climactic conclusion to Matthew’s life of Christ cannot compare to reading any secular work.  There is simply nothing to surpass it.

I thought about this as I gazed out to sea from the bridge of the Bartlett.  In reading this account of the news of the Lord’s resurrection, I experienced once again the feeling of inner peacefulness and contentedness, but more strongly.  In those days I did not think in terms of “feeling the Spirit,” but in retrospect I understand that that was exactly what happened.  Finishing Matthew on such a note made me anxious to start reading Mark.

A mere sixteen chapters compared to Matthew’s twenty-eight, Mark initially impressed me as a capsule summary, a condensed version.  But that was all right.  It still contained plenty of overlap, and since repetition yields learning, I was happy to have a repeated reading of much of the material I had just covered.  Some of my favorite verses of scripture come from Mark; more accurately, Mark is the source from which I best remember them.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that since I was on a ship one of my favorite events in the life of Christ is his calming of the wind and waves on the water.  As Mark relates it:

It happened that a bad squall blew up.  The waves were breaking over the boat and it began to ship water badly.  Jesus was in the stern through it all, sound asleep on a cushion.  They finally woke him and said to him, “Teacher, does it not matter to you that we are going to drown?  He awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea: “Quiet!  Be still!”  The wind fell off and everything grew calm (Mark 4:37-39).

As a seaman, I could understand the disciples’ fear at what appeared to be their impending doom in an open boat on an angry sea.  They did not as yet have a very clear idea of who Jesus was, as their reaction would indicate:

A great awe overcame them at this.  They kept saying to one another, “Who can this be that the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41).

I love this response.  In time, of course, the Apostles did gain a testimony of their Master, as did others.  My favorite statement of belief is a simple and straightforward one from an unlikely source.  Immediately following the death of the Lord not by the forces of nature by at the hands of men comes this brief account:

The centurion who stood guard over him, on seeing the manner of his death, declared, “Clearly this man was the son of God!” (Mark 15:39).

I wish I knew more about this Roman soldier.  What became of him after the crucifixion?  Did he become a Christian?  Did what he had just witnessed change his life?  Certainly it should have, just as the comparatively uneventful reading of it should change our lives.

There was ample time and opportunity aboard the Bartlett to contemplate this and other points.  The little vessel was conducting survey work in the placid waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  This consisted in large degree of towing instruments in repeated back-and-forth course patterns for days and weeks on end.  It was not exciting or adventurous, but the weather remained calm during the winter months.  That’s always an advantage that cannot be overstated.  This made for a comfortable ride and a stress-free atmosphere, conditions clearly conducive to studying the scriptures in one’s off duty hours.

Moving on to Luke, then, I started of course with the famous infancy narrative.  I discovered quickly that it was fun to flip back and forth between Luke and Matthew and mentally piece together their versions of the Lord’s birth.  Luke has more characters, like Zechariah, Elizabeth, the angel, and the shepherds, whereas Matthew has the three wise men.  Luke also tells us more of the circumstances that preceded the birth, such as the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary and Mary’s subsequent visit to Elizabeth.  By twentieth century biographical standards, however, very little is recorded of the Lord’s birth.  That makes the information that we do have all the more precious.

It became a stimulating intellectual exercise to compare Luke with both Matthew and Mark.  While there were variations, the purpose remained to read their accounts of the life of Christ and be edified by them.  Despite their differences, their three Gospels all tell the same story, spread the same good news, and make the same point.  In reviewing this material from three separate authors, it became impossible to not be edified by the teachings, the works, and the values of Christ.

In his final chapter, Luke tells us that the Lord “opened their minds to the understanding of the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45).  As I finished reading Luke on the heels of Matthew and Mark, I felt that my mind also was being opened to this understanding.  

I would often think about what I had read when on duty and gazing seaward from the bridge of the Bartlett.  Of course, there was actual work to do, too, but overall this ship was a fairly easy job, especially when on station in the survey area.  There were a few interruptions along the way that broke up the monotony.  One night we rescued someone from a disabled small boat.  Another time, instead of returning to Port Everglades to refuel, the Bartlett was ordered to Key West.  That was an interesting place—very bohemian.  Much of my time, though, whether on or off duty, was unhurried.  There was certainly ample opportunity to “read, ponder, and pray,” and I took advantage of it.

Next I started reading John.  I took a very special liking to John, and his Gospel quickly became my favorite of the four.  The most striking feature of John is the sheer beauty of his writing.  He writes so differently about our Lord from the others and in the most poetic prose I’ve ever seen.  The thoughts he expresses, the pictures he paints, and the turns of expression he uses express abstract concepts in readily understandable prose, yet it is prose that reads like poetry.  This characteristic of John’s writing distinguishes him from the other evangelists and makes him unique.  His opening lines set the tone for the entire work:

In the beginning was the Word;
The Word was in God’s presence,
and the Word was God (John 1:1).

One could spend hours contemplating the metaphorical imagery that John employs.  Describing the Lord as the word, the light, the truth, the way, the lamb of God, the true vine, the good shepherd, and so on is certainly beautiful imagery; moreover, it embodies abstract concepts in the person of Christ, thereby elevating them to the highest possible level, and it raises the tangible but commonplace, including the common man, the shepherd, from the ground level to the divine.  But:

To his own he came,
yet his own did not accept him.
Any who did accept him
he empowered to become children of God (John 1:11-12).

Why would anyone decline the offer to become a child of God?  Why would anyone want to settle for second best?  And yet, there were many who did turn him down and settle for far less than what he would have made them.

To a world that suffers from such negative aspects of human nature as greed, selfishness, apathy, prejudice, crime, and so forth, John unequivocally presents the God of love.  This he makes clear early on:

God so loved the world
that he gave his only Son
that whoever believes in him may not die
but have eternal life (John 3:16).

John builds on this in a later chapter, and has the Lord issuing a new commandment, not a “thou shalt not,” but something much more proactive:

I give you a new commandment:
Love one another.
Such as been my love has been for you,
so must your love be for each other (John 13:34).

In between these remarks on love, and in fact interspersed throughout John, are assurances that despite the perennially imperfect condition of the secular world,  all will turn out well in the end if we simply follow the Lord’s teachings:

I solemnly assure you,
the man who hears my word
and has faith in him who sent me
possess eternal life (John 5:24).

I solemnly assure you,
if a man is true to my word
he shall never see death (John 8:51).

I am the resurrection and the life:
whoever believes in me,
though he should die, will come to life;
and whoever is alive and believes in me
will never die (John 11:26).

I love these lines and many others like them.  They are truthful and timeless.  They build faith and they resound with reassurance.  They are exactly what an often skeptical world needs to hear.  No matter how many times I read them, whether aboard the Bartlett in the Gulf of Mexico or ashore in the years since then, they never grow tiresome.  On the contrary, they have a certain steadfastness about them.  If John is my favorite Gospel, then these rank among my favorite verses.  My all time favorite verse from John, however, is that beautiful statement of our Lord:

I am the way, and the truth, and the life;
no one comes to the Father but through me (John 14:6).

Shortly after I finished reading John, my time on the Bartlett drew to a close.  This was unexpected.  I had planned to remain aboard through a shipyard overhaul and then go back to sea with the vessel.  I was signed on as second mate, and before reporting aboard I had passed the examinations and received my license as chief mate.  My career plan, of course, had been to accumulate more time and experience at sea so that one day I could sit for the license as Master.  My reading plan had been to continue with the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles.  But fate intervened and prevented this.

Soon after the Bartlett went into the shipyard in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I was able to take a few days off and fly home for a brief visit.  During this interval I went for a routine medical checkup.  This consultation took place in the late afternoon of an otherwise enjoyable day.  The next morning, with all plans of returning to the Bartlett and going back to sea abruptly cancelled, I reported to the Nashua Memorial Hospital and underwent cancer surgery.  I was 27 years old.

I was not worried.  What I had just read in my little red book was fresh in my mind.  The four messengers who had conveyed the Lord’s promises of a better life to follow this one had effectively removed any fears of death that I might otherwise have entertained.    Furthermore, during the time of my hospitalization, I often had the thought come to me that I was not finished in this life just yet.  I repeatedly received the impression that there were more things that I still needed to do in this world—important things, too.  I had a vague notion that these thoughts were coming to me unbidden from a higher realm, and I took them seriously.  So I was not worried.  Instead, I expected to survive the cancer, and I did.

Over the years since then, I wondered what these important things were that I still needed to do.  When the children came along, I assumed that taking care of them and raising them to become responsible adults was my important work.  It was very important, of course, but I often felt that there was still something more that I needed to do.  Then I became involved in genealogy.

To make a long story short, I researched my genealogy and Miss Patty researched hers.  We learned the names and basic life stories and burial information of many ancestors and relatives.  Then we joined the Church.  We attended the temple many times, and we started the great chain of ordinances that would accomplish all that was needed for all the people we had researched to receive the blessings the Lord wanted them to have.  With twenty-twenty hindsight, I am now satisfied that the genealogical research and the subsequent temple ordinances were the important things that I still needed to do.

I like to think that it all started with my little red New Testament at sea aboard the Bartlett.  This magnificent book enabled me to be in the spiritual state necessary first, to not fear the possibility of death at a young age, and second, to receive the revelation that the Lord had a plan for me which I must fulfill.  I still maintain a special fondness for this little volume, and since my illness I have read it in its entirety and reread and highlighted many parts of it.   Perhaps this was too much for it, though.  In time the pages started working loose from the spine, and the book eventually fell apart.  Even disintegrated, however, the little red book remains a masterpiece.

1 All quotations taken from the New Testament, Saint Joseph Pocket Edition of The New American Bible, New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1970.

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