ONE FRIDAY NIGHT
Rarely does this father of two find himself available to experience all that is "Friday night" in New York City.
This past Friday the Universe conspired on my behalf, and I found myself in my favorite pub, nursing a Belhaven, sitting across from a new friend of mine. We had gathered to talk about some struggles he was having with his belief system.
Of course, I was happy to oblige. (Heck, I'm in a pub on a Friday night! My kids are home asleep! And here I am, out in the world with real people! I'd have been willing to talk about anything!)
My friend is far more brilliant than I, a respected surgeon in the city with more letters behind his name than can fit on his business card. He is both a person of science and a person of faith. In other words, a perfect conversational-pub-companion for the likes of me.
We began talking about scripture--whether it was static or something that changed with the times.
I get this struggle. I get it deeply. In fact, as a pastor, this comes up in my conversations with people more than just about any other topic.
We talked Bible history. We talked family values built into us by Christian parents. We deconstructed; we reconstructed; and the glorious Belhaven kept flowing.
I was having such a great time in good conversation that I had to remind myself: "Ryan, don't forget--this guy is in pain. He's having a crisis of faith. You're on the clock. Help him out. Give him some direction. Give him some hope."
The major hang up my friend was having was how all that he had been taught to believe about God as a kid by loving, gracious parents was no longer applicable to his current (teetering) belief system.
"I just can't get my head to 'sync' with the idea that the Bible, taken at face value and read literally, is a good guide for the modern-day believer," he said.
"Cheers to that," I said, as our glasses clinked. "Your head is in a good place and so is your heart."
"How's that?!" he said. "I'm unraveling here!"
Just around the corner from this pub is an old-time barber shop. You know the kind--with the spinning candy-cane-looking-thing hanging out front.
I asked him if he knew the reason for the candy-cane-thing.
"Of course," he said, "all doctors do. The red stripes on the 'Barber's Pole' advertised that one of the services they offered was to 'bleed' people who were feeling sick while they got a haircut. The idea at the time was that sickness resided in the blood. Remove some blood. Remove some sickness."
"That's right!" I said. "And why don't we still bleed people now?"
"Because it doesn't work. We have medicine and information we didn't have back then," he responded.
"So why would scripture be any different?" I asked. "Are you open to the possibility that your parents, reflecting the very best wisdom of their time, taught you the scriptures from that perspective?"
He blinked, took a sip of beer, and said, "I think I see what you're getting at. It scares me, but it sounds right."
"Then maybe it is," I said. "You realize the procedures you will use this week to perform surgeries will be labeled as 'primitive' 100 years from now in the medical profession, don't you?"
"Of course," he said, "but that's medicine. We're always learning better methods based on better research and experimentation."
"So why would theological understanding be any different?" I challenged.
"I guess it wouldn't. I see what you're saying. That makes a lot of sense," he responded. "That's really helpful. Man, you're really jacking up my head... and my heart!"
"Blame in on the Belhaven," I said. And the glasses clinked again.
GOD IS BIG ENOUGH
So many have the same hangups with scripture that my friend does. And this is okay. In fact, I'd say it's healthy. If you have everything about God figured out because of words you've read on a page, you are in a very, very dangerous place in your beliefs.
The truth is God never changes. God has always been God and always will be. But our understanding of God is always changing based on our place in history and the collective information available to us right now.
God is, like the old hymn says, "A fountain flowing deep and wide." The Divine will never be too small for our current paradigms unless we choose to reject the deeply important companions of experience, scrutiny, and the growth of human knowledge. If we can allow our beliefs to expand like we allow ourselves to expand in any other area of learning, we may just see the scriptures for what they are: not a static manual for living, but a collection of living words that meet us in the "now" and speak bits of eternal truth that we are ever stumbling over by grace.