It all started with Leviticus. Leviticus was the gateway book for me. Leviticus made me fall in love with Scripture, and Scripture made me fall in love with God. So, in a very real sense, the book of Leviticus freed my soul.
We’ll come back to Leviticus, but I’m gonna need to take you through some other stuff, first.
My name is Amy.
I’m 42 years old at the moment. I have been a Christian all of my life, but if we’re going to be honest with each other here, and I think we ought to be if we possibly can, I should tell you that, for a lot of years, I was a Christian in much the same way that non-observant Jews are Jewish. There is no ethnic component to my Christianity, of course, but there is unquestionably a cultural piece to it, an identity piece. I have always had that part.
I was raised by divorced parents in a situation that our culture has sanitized with the title, “blended family.” It sounds nice, and my parents were all very good about it, but it sucked. A huge part of the suckage…was church.
My religious life was an exercise in diplomacy between two poles. My father and stepmother are devout Missionary Baptists. My mother and stepfather are devout Tridentine Roman Catholics. I grew up feeling like a strange hybrid creature of both. Both faiths were beautiful and both taught me about Jesus. Like I said, my parents were very good about it. There was always a measure of doctrinal confusion, of course, and both sets of parents were adamant that their way was the correct way. They were also adamant that the other way was wrong. I walked many tightropes as a blended kid–all blended kids do–so this was just one more issue that I had to remember different rules for in different homes.
It honestly didn’t bother me all that much at the time, but it contributed to my lack of certainty later in life. The way I saw it was: I got to have parish fish fries and fellowship hall potlucks. I didn’t reflect on the negative side of having two religions until much later, but there were problems percolating in all of those growing up years that would come to a crisis down the road.
Imagine growing up in two homes where all of the following are fundamentally and passionately-held beliefs. They are lectured from the pro side in one house and the con side in the other. By your parents. With whom you are not allowed to argue.
- Saint Paul in one house and plain Paul in the other and getting lectured if you use the wrong title in the wrong house.
- Veneration of the Blessed Virgin that cannot be questioned in one house and accusations of idolatrous Mary worship in the other house that also cannot be questioned.
- The Sacrament of the Eucharist was received every Sunday in one house. I had my first confession and communion in the second grade, and I knew instinctively not to even mention it in the other house. I had symbolism-only Lord’s Supper there and a grandmother who railed against transubstantiation (the only time I remember hearing her raised voice in my presence). I listened to more diametrically-opposed lectures on communion in my two homes than on any other religious topic, and they all made me deeply uncomfortable.
- Sprinkle the baby in one house and dunk the adolescent in the other.
- The Apocrypha as canon Scripture in one house and heresy in the other.
- Tradition plus Scripture in one house and sola scriptura in the other.
- So, so many more, but you get the idea.
Guys? It was rough. Don’t do this to your kids. You’re not going to “win” your kid to your doctrine this way, and you certainly won’t win him to Christ. He will flee screaming from the church as soon as he’s out from under your control. Trust me on this because it’s precisely what I did.
The Devastation of Disbelief
My primary residence in childhood was with my mother and stepfather, so I spent many more Sundays in the Catholic church than I did in the Baptist one. I professed myself as a Catholic but I also enjoyed being a part-time Baptist. I preferred Baptist hymns, and I loved the Protestant dedication to Scripture. Catholics taught me to pray and Baptists taught me to read the Bible. Catholics taught me to worship and Baptists taught me to make a joyful noise to the Lord.
I understood how the Church worked. I found comfort in the rituals and in liturgical prayer. I even taught catechism classes to the younger children when I was old enough. I did it with enthusiasm and a grave awareness of the responsibility that had been entrusted to me. I wanted the children in my charge to believe in God and to know Him.
Because I didn’t.
Not really. Not deep down where it counts. The people around me were believers, and I had grown up thinking I was a believer, too. At some point, though, I started to recognize that my belief was not like what these other people had. These people had confidence; they knew God. They felt God and had an understanding of God. I knew the catechism. I knew the Bible’s stories and I understood the Ten Commandments. My Baptist upbringing had a role in this, as well. I had been to Vacation Bible School every summer of my childhood. To this day, I still hum some of the songs, and the few Bible verses I know by rote are those I learned during VBS. Nobody failed to teach me the Bible. Nobody failed to teach me about Jesus. But somehow, some way, it never sank in the way it was supposed to. I believed that I was supposed to believe, but I didn’t, and when I realized that, I was devastated.
Trying to Study Myself into Belief
I determined to remedy my unbelief in the only way that self-recriminating nerds like me know how: I needed books. Books were my port in every storm and I was going to read a lot of them in my search for faith. I bought a study Bible in a translation that was easier to read than my KJV. I read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I read about all of the major world religions and basically just tried to find a spot where I could camp out for a while and keep God in my line of sight. I bought my first book on apologetics when I was 16, and it helped tremendously. I credit that little orange book, which I still treasure, with helping me hold on to God even when I tossed out everything else.
Once I had finally admitted to myself that there was a problem, I stopped pretending that everything was okay, and I got very still. I took stock and confronted the state of my faith. Looking back, it was actually a really mature thing to do at that age, but the picture was pretty bleak.
I realized that I had no actual belief in Jesus. I didn’t believe in a messianic concept or in the Holy Spirit. I wanted to, but I didn’t.
I realized that I found the rituals of corporate worship emotionally uplifting, but I didn’t believe God had anything to do with it. The scariest part was facing the deep and bubbling cauldron of disdain I had developed for religion in general. I’d been “saved” and confirmed in two churches, but I had no belief.
I wrestled with confession, the saints, the veneration of Mary, transubstantiation, the clerical hierarchy, inerrancy, dispensationalism, Calvinism, angels, Hell, and the existence of an afterlife. It was exhausting, and one by one they all fell down. Rejecting some of these things made me feel lighter. Others, I actually grieved over. Mostly, I was just bewildered because I had never really looked at any of it before.
I was a blended kid. I never processed what I felt about faith or doctrine because my entire church life was consumed with tending to my parents’ feelings about faith and doctrine. I really hadn’t ever been told that I had permission to have my own feelings about religious things. I just obeyed. I obeyed one religion in one home and another in the other. I pretended a set of beliefs in one house and pretended another in the other.
By the time I finally faced it all, the feelings I had stuffed down and subjugated all my life had grown very ugly, indeed.
Rage. It was adolescent hatred and a more abiding rage.
My parents would be horrified if they read that. They would blame themselves and be absolutely stricken with guilt. But you have to understand (and so do they) that none of this is about them. If it ever was, it certainly isn’t anymore. It took me until my mid-30’s to fully grasp what my anger at religion was about and why I transferred that anger into a total lack of belief. There’s no way they could have seen any of this stuff brewing with me as a teen because I didn’t say a word about it to any of them. Not everything has to be blamed on a parent. We can explain and understand something without having to blame somebody for it.
“Beware the leaven of the Pharisees” – Mark 15a
“Remind everyone about these things, and command them in God’s presence to stop fighting over words. Such arguments are useless, and they can ruin those who hear them.” – 2 Timothy 3:14
“But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, arguments, and quarrels about the Law, because these things are pointless and worthless.” – Titus 3:9
I was 19 or 20 years old by the time I really metabolized that I was an agnostic at best. I was gutted by that. I was terrified. I was not smug or happy about any of it. I didn’t feel intellectually superior. I wasn’t happy to be free of my religion. I didn’t feel like a rebel sticking it to my parents. It wasn’t about that. My faith crisis didn’t take that form at all. I wanted to get it back (but I never actually had it), and I scrambled for it. I didn’t choose not to believe. I felt adrift. I felt abandoned. I saw people with peaceful, confident faith everywhere I looked, and I resented them and envied them and blamed God for forgetting about me. I was angry in that special way that only young adults can be angry, and I didn’t know what to do with it.
The good news is that we can’t be angry with God if we don’t believe he exists, so that was something. I still believed in a personal creator God, but I lost my religion. All of it. A Roman Catholic apologist with his little orange book helped me keep a tiny sliver of belief, and that carried me. To the Right Reverend Monsignor Glenn, wherever you are, tibi gratias ago in nomine patris, et filii, et spiritus sancti. Our Father stayed with me, and that was going to have to be enough for awhile.
The Next 20 Years in a Nutshell
I prayed a lot and read the Bible from time to time between the ages of 18 and 40, and it was always focused on a plea for faith. I would pray for just a piece of it. Anything. I lived in constant envy of those who had what I call “easy faith.” There have always been people all around me who never questioned, never doubted. They were light. They were confident. They were at peace. I mean they were humans, so they got angry and sad and indignant and depressed and a little too big for their britches, sometimes, just like everyone else. But at the end of the day, when they went to sleep at night, they knew that God loved them. They knew that Jesus died for them. They knew the Holy Spirit was always with them. They knew that after death, there would be more.
I wanted that. And I worked for that. And I begged God for it. “If I can’t have what they have, then can I please just have a piece of it.” But I was destined to wrestle with God, it would seem. The faith didn’t come. Not even a piece of it. I had the Father, and that was all he was going to give me until the appointed time.
A Lutheran Church and a New Bible
My husband and I settled on Lutheranism years ago as the denomination we were most comfortable with. I loved Martin Luther’s faith story because it was so incredibly similar to mine in several ways. He was a deeply flawed man, but the faith statements he produced resonated with me. My husband felt the same way, so whenever we attended church, which was rare, we went to a Lutheran one. Our daughter loved going to church from as early as toddlerhood, and if that ain’t just a God breeze, I don’t know what is. We felt guilty for not taking her, so when she asked…we went. In that way, I stayed connected to the idea of a church community, and as I had always done, I went through fits and starts of prayer and attempts at Bible study.
One night in late summer or early autumn of last year (2016), I picked up my Bible (the same one I bought as a teenager) and something different happened. I wasn’t bored. I wasn’t desperately searching it for something to spark faith. I was actually eager to just read it. At some point, I decided that I should read the whole thing. I had never done that before, so I found an app and set to work. It would be four months before I hit Leviticus, but in the meantime, we found a church and started going every week as a family. I was also struck with the idea that I should seek out a home Bible study group, so I posted on the neighborhood Facebook page on a whim. My new neighbor and friend has been doing Bible study with me ever since.
The Spirit was starting to move, and it all happened so slowly that I didn’t notice for a while.
I was still pretending at church, but it didn’t feel awful this time. It actually felt good. I liked going, and so did my family. I wasn’t pretending in the Bible, though. I was enjoying it tremendously, but the intensity with which I needed to read it was getting frankly disturbing. I used the word “creepy” to describe it many times. My long faith drought was about to end, but I had never felt any of these things before. I had never consciously experienced the Holy Spirit pushing me around, and so–I won’t lie–it was freaking me out.
I am a note taker, and I take notes in the margins of books whenever I study anything. It was a habit I picked up in college, and I need it for retaining knowledge. It’s the way I learn, and it’s the way I process thought. I had no room to write in my old Bible, so I bought a new one with ruled margins in it right before Christmas. It is the Bible you’ll see in many of the photos here. I love it and I rarely go anywhere without it. I’ve purchased two more since, and I’ll show them all to you and explain how I use them another day.
In February of 2017, my Bible app sent me to the book of Leviticus.
It Was the Yeast What Done It
The Sunday before I was set to begin reading Leviticus, our pastor made a joke before his sermon. It went like this: “Most New Year’s Resolutions end in February, and most resolutions to read the Bible from cover to cover end in Leviticus.” Everyone chuckled, but it made me nervous. I didn’t want to stop reading the Bible. Scripture study was a freaky sort of compulsion for me at this point, remember, and the idea that I might stop scared me.
I went home and faced the first chapter of Leviticus. It made no sense to me on that first go, and my pastor’s joke started to haunt me. I was absolutely determined to get through it. I would not allow my decision to read the entire Bible get defeated in Leviticus. I was way too far into it, now. Honestly, looking back, there was no way the Holy Spirit would have allowed me to stop. Just no way.
I plunged into it again. Tabernacle, killing the cows and sheep, stuff about blood sprinkled on the altar. Crushing birds in half without splitting them. It was gross. It made no sense. It was like some kind of pagan ritual freak show. But I had to carry on reading. I got to the bit about the Grain Offering. Flour. Olive Oil. Yeast. You couldn’t use yeast. Yeast is bad. Don’t even have yeast in your house. I remembered something about that from Exodus. There had been something in the New Testament books I’d been reading about yeast, as well. I looked over at my husband (who was trying to go to sleep) and said, “Why is the Bible so obsessed with yeast?” He made no reply, so I patted his shoulder and went to visit my friend Google. I had to know. You have to understand that my need to know was intense. I was driven, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep until I got the answer.
The symbolism of yeast carrying sin from loaf to loaf fascinated me, and it was exactly what I needed to get through the rest of Leviticus. I went to Facebook and excitedly scrawled out more than 1,000 words to my friends and family about the yeast/leaven symbols in the Bible. I had to share what I had learned, and it was the first time I’d posted anything about the Bible in public. It probably shocked the shoes off of a lot of my friends because they all knew that I struggled with belief. They all knew I had “issues” with the Bible and with Church and with God.
Leviticus is Love (if you don’t believe me, that’s okay for now)
Now, you had best believe that I will talk about Leviticus in this blog. I will talk to you about Leviticus until you no longer want to hear about it. For now, however, suffice it to say that I spent the next several days greedily reading Leviticus every night. I was looking for another yeast-like experience of discovery. I got several. But the miracle happened when I reached chapter 17, verse 11. Everything froze. Everything went silent. It went so quiet that I actually got a really loud ringing in my ears. Everything else blacked out, and Leviticus 17:11 was all there was. I read the verse over and over, and it was a goodly while before I closed my Bible and went to sleep that night.
“The life of the body is in the blood. I have given you the blood on the altar to purify you, making you right with the Lord. It is the blood given in exchange for a life that makes purification possible.” – Leviticus 17:11, NLT
Do you see it? If you don’t, don’t worry. I’ll explain it to you at length in a many-part series at some point in the near future. It required context and all the previous months of reading for me to see it…but I saw it. All the disbelief evaporated. All of the doubt about messiah theology lifted. The resentment and anger and doubt of the last 20-plus years left me. Totally. Entirely. Gone.
I got Jesus back in an instant. Or, probably more accurately, I got Jesus for the first time in an instant. I went from zero belief in Christ to all-in in a split second.
Do you have any idea what that meant? I know that some of you will. Did you ever have a moment when you first believed? If you did, then maybe you can relate. Did you ever have a moment when you first believed after spending two decades in despondent disbelief? If you did, then you definitely can relate. I was a Christian again, and it wasn’t just the cultural identity Christianity. I had Jesus. Everything I knew about the Gospel and Trinity and all of the creeds just slammed into place like tumblers in a really big lock. The door swung open and it swung wide. No more slivers. No more tiny pieces. No more occasional God breezes. No, y’all, I got the entire pie. I’ve been eating on that thing all day long ever since, and do you know what? I still have the whole pie. It’s the freakiest thing, but there you have it.
The prayer got answered. It was just one verse, but the rushing flood of understanding crashed in on me all at once. Fellow Christians like to say it was the moment that the “scales fell from my eyes,” and that’s an excellent (and biblical) way to put it.
I didn’t shut up about Leviticus for more than a month, and I am still studying Leviticus daily. I’ve read six commentaries on Leviticus and a really brilliant theology (pictured left). I’ve listened to three sermon series, several individual sermons, and a brilliant podcast series from Michael Heiser’s Naked Bible Podcast. At some point, I decided I needed more context, so I studied Hebrews and the entire Pentateuch, abandoning my study app for a while in pursuit of more Leviticus time. I’m up to my eyeballs in Ancient Near East history books. And I’m not done. I’m starting to think I might never be done with Leviticus, but it’s finally loosened its grip enough to let me resume reading other Scripture. Ha ha.
For me, it was the yeast what done it. The yeast symbol took hold of me and led me straight to the blood on the altar that washes people clean so they can be with God. And there it was. And there it is. And there it will still be tomorrow.
So that’s how I found Jesus in Leviticus. That’s how I got a love for the Bible. That’s why I can’t shut up about it and that’s why I had to make a blog so I could stop wearing people out with my constant need to talk about it. It was the yeast. There is a whole lot of yeast in the Bible, y’all, and it spreads out into everything it touches.
It gave me Christ. It gave me faith. And now I’m here.