In the summer when I was nine, we went to visit my mother’s uncles and aunts in Missouri. I slept in a bedroom by myself, on a large feather mattress that threatened to swallow me whole if I didn’t sleep near the edge of the bed (you have to know about feather mattresses to know what I mean: feather mattresses are, as the name says, stuffed with feathers. And if you’re small, and you try to lie in the middle of the mattress, the thing will fold up around you like a huge pea pod. So you have to learn to sleep near the edge of the bed to keep from getting swallowed.) The bedroom had a Bible in it and I decided that I’d read the New Testament while I was there, at least the four Gospels. So that was my project each night when I went to bed: read the four Gospels. As I read I realized that things were terribly wrong, so I rounded up some thin “airmail” paper and a pen (in those days sending a letter by air mail was expensive, so paper makers made very thin, light weight paper specifically for email letters). As I read the Gospels I made notes, writing down what I knew Jesus had said. When I had finished my project I had perhaps six or seven handwritten pages of what I knew were Jesus’ words, and I carried those pages in my wallet until they finally disintegrated when I was about seventeen or eighteen.
What struck me most in reading the Gospels is the major disparity between what Jesus said and how it got interpreted by those around him, the Disciples, Paul, John, etc. The whole New Testament is about going to heaven, avoiding hell, not to mention Armageddon, and accepting Christ and confessing your sins as a way to do that. Heaven is some place “up there,” and hell is some place “down there”. And yet in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to “seek first the kingdom of heaven…”, and someone in the crowd asked him where heaven is, and Jesus said that some people say heaven is here, or there, or whatever, but that in fact the kingdom of heaven is within you. And I could never get what Jesus said, about the kingdom of heaven being within, to jibe with heaven “up there”, or going to heaven, or hell, or whatever. Either I was missing the point, or people weren’t listening to Jesus and were more interested in pushing their own agendas. But I was a nine year old kid, so what did I know.