So here’s what you do. You take a phrase or a word or a short teaching out of the Bible. Something like “The book of life,” or “The Son of Man,” or “The Light of the World,” or “No one comes to the Father but by me.” These phrases could mean anything. They meant something in their day, surely, but the deepest and most scholarly study in the world cannot unravel exactly what they meant.
But you. You somehow know the truth. You take these phrases with no study at all, and you fill them with your theology, like someone filling helium balloons at a carnival. Then you hang a little basket below your balloons and float away, so delighted in the complex theological construct that you’ve put together. And from your elevated position you lay burdens on people that you could never keep yourself. Lightening bolts thrown down from the sky. Zeus never wielded as much power.
You are going to hell for your lack of faith or for your participation in a religious life or non-religious life that I don’t understand and therefore don’t approve of.
You may not be a sexual person, but must live in strict, celibate loneliness. You will fall in love many times over the years, but you must deny your love and break your own heart over and over and over again, all the days of your life. (And this from a preacher who can’t say no to a second bowl of ice cream.)
You must believe the things I tell you about the world, the earth, the sky, the stars, and God. You must give intellectual consent to all parts of my message. And if you cannot believe what I say, SHAME on you! Shame on you even if you tried very hard to believe but could not.
Give me your life; give me your money; give me your mind; give me your time. Give me all of these things, and I shall take them from you and use them to fill up more balloons so that I can fly higher and throw my lightening bolts down on more people.
And the hard thing for me is that you think this is the right way to treat the Bible and the mysterious phrases found within it. In your mind, you are the great Bible scholar, while I am a little weak in this regard. Weak and liberal and not very serious about the Bible.
For I, in my weakness, can hardly stand before the mystery of the ancient scriptures. I am hurt by them, filled with joy by them, angered by them, and sometimes inspired by them. And I often can do nothing more than confess my own confusion and brokenness.
You shake your head at me and say, “What kind of a minister are you? Don’t you believe the Bible?”
And I look back at you, just as puzzled. “Believe the Bible?” What does that even mean? I say it over and over to myself.
“Believe the Bible. Believe the Bible. Believe the Bible. Believe the Bible.”
Eventually the word “believe” starts to sound like something you do with your hands. Like punching something or pushing a vacuum cleaner around. Like you could believe the Bible all over the house and then out into the front yard, where you could believe it around in little circles while waving to the neighbors. Then you could believe the Bible back into your house and store it in the closet, where you keep it until you feel like believing it out in public again.
Do I believe the Bible? I’m trying to know the Bible. And by knowing, I mean the way that Adam knew Eve, and the way that the Creator knows us. I mean the kind of knowing that is like falling in love. I’m trying to love/know the Bible. And I will always struggle with how I can love/know the scriptures when some parts are so hard and mean and awful that you feel bad for even reading them. And then some parts are so beautiful that you can’t stop crying when they whisper little hints of truth and mystery to you.
So that’s all I’ve got. Whatever that says about me is what I am. I’m less sophisticated and more unsure than when I began years ago as a young minister. I’m tired and fairly broken myself. I just turned 47, so I’m half dead if I live to be an old man, and more than half dead if I don’t. So there’s just no time left, really. No time for talking or fighting or judging.
It seems like it is the time for listening and loving and accepting all who seek truth in peace and are open-minded enough to confess that they are simply not up to the task.