Friday, July 17, 2009

All or Nothing

Jesus said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
Luke 11:5-8

When it comes to the Bible, literalism seems to be the default position. By that I mean that many people believe that the Bible ought to be taken literally, and they feel guilty when they can’t or don’t see it that way. They see literalism as a higher form of belief.

More than one person has said to Carol Reale, our Christian Education Director, that it’s all or nothing. Either they will believe it all, literally, or they won’t believe any of it. It is an on-going struggle to help people live into the biblical witness authentically without getting caught in the “all or nothing” trap of literalism.

The Bible calls us to explore a meaning that is deeper than the words on the page. Literalism is not a higher form of belief; it is a mistaken way of encountering the Bible. We don’t reject literalism because we are modern rational and scientific people who will not bend our minds to the ancient biblical world view. We want to read the Bible the way it was written, as a witness of faith, as a narrative of the experiences of faithful people. They were not trying to write a scientific textbook, or a history book in the way that we think of history. They were telling the story of their experience of God, so that we could live into that same experience.

The goal is not for us to believe that we are reading about something that REALLY HAPPENED to some ancient person or persons, but to let God speak to us through those experiences. The question is not whether I can believe that it really happened in just this way, but whether I can hear what God is saying to me.

After Jesus taught his disciples what we now call “The Lord’s Prayer,” in Luke’s account he told them a story about a friend arriving at midnight, and the host finding himself without anything to offer. The point, of course, is not that sometimes God is already in bed for the night, but that we should be persistent in prayer. It is a beautiful story because we can all see ourselves in each of the roles, as weary travelers, or unprepared hosts, or even as the reluctant neighbor asleep with his family. But what touches me in the story is the simple description of the host’s situation, “a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.”

“I have nothing.”

By ourselves we have nothing. (Back to the question of “all or nothing.”) All is not an option. Nothing is our human condition. We come before God with nothing. And we trust God to provide.

I have nothing.

And by the grace of God, that is enough.

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