The Gift of Marginalia

Pews creaked as people shifted their weight and fanned themselves with the church bulletin. Wooden floorboards popped, and the wheezing window unit beat irregularly from the back of the tiny sanctuary. The place held a litany of distractions, especially to an 8-year-old girl who could see a fine Illinois spring day happening just beyond the windows. But I was deaf to it all when James—my great-uncle and namesake—opened his Bible to Acts 27 and started to preach.

“Do you really think it’s worthwhile to serve God?” he asked. “Paul and Luke sure did.” For the next 45 minutes, I sat enthralled by the story he told of a ship tossed in brutal winds and broken up on a rocky island reef. As Uncle James talked about the apostles’ journey to Rome, his platform became the ship’s deck. He huddled against the wind, hoisted up rigging, and threw tackle into the sea. And as for that viper on Malta in chapter 28? He acted that story out too, his right arm the snake biting the meaty palm of his left hand—a performance that would have made Charlton Heston proud.

Uncle James died four years ago after going a third valiant round with prostate cancer. I miss him something fierce, but thankfully, unlike others in his generation who believed making notes in a Bible was tantamount to vandalism, he liberally peppered his with annotations and colorful comments. By reading his dog-eared copy, I’ve learned not only about the importance of certain words and connections between verses, but also about the man himself. Pesky to the core, James couldn’t read about a character without adding his two cents. Jezebel’s father, Ethbaal, was “nothing but a mean heathen” in Uncle James’s mind. And Ahab? Well, he was “the worst skunk of them all.”

By reading his dog-eared copy, I’ve learned not only about the importance of certain words and connections between verses, but also about the man himself.

He records moments of childlike wonder, too, like the time he circled Acts 12:10 and added the note (in all caps, no less): “God just told that big ol’ gate to swing right outta Peter’s way!!!” And in James 1, right next to the sentence, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials,” he observed, “Makes no sense. But God don’t make sense. He makes miracles.”

His Bible also tells me Uncle James’s relationship with the Lord was honest. Alongside Philippians 1:29 where Paul discusses suffering for Christ’s sake, there’s a precious gift—a confession that reads, “The deppression [sic] does get so heavy. But I sought the Lord’s face and He spoke to me. Really, He did! Very plainly to my insides.” Growing up, I knew Uncle James struggled with bouts of doubt and depression that he dragged behind him the way Jacob Marley did his chains, but that page is proof positive that he was comforted and his suffering eased.

I also know he believed in the hope that God promises, because the word is circled throughout the Old and New Testaments—sometimes in black ink, other times in red, green, or blue. Once, I went through the Bible to see exactly how many he’d marked and found a delightful surprise waiting with Romans 5—a bookmark bearing a few lines from Emily Dickinson: “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul / And sings the tune without the words / And never stops at all.”

You think you know a guy, and then he goes and drops poetry on you.

Every time I open Uncle James’s Bible, I sit beside him the way I did as a little girl. We hold hands, and he tells me stories of giants slaughtered with pebbles, a sword-severed ear reattached to a slave’s head, and, best of all, a Savior who loves me more than life. The way I see it, my great- uncle’s thoughts in no way deface God’s Word. They grace it. Like monks who painted flourishes in illuminated manuscripts, he added a bit of himself, a bit of his story, to God’s great narrative. In the margins, God’s promises and proof of their truth overlap. That is a gift he unwittingly left behind, and it has enriched my life beyond measure. It’s one of the many things I can’t wait to tell him one day. I know I’ll see him again, because John 14:3 says so. And because Uncle James underlined it … three times.


Photograph by Ryan Hayslip
Related Topics:  Reading Bible

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