Reflections by Jerry Webber

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Stones and Serpents, Bread and Fish

Matthew 7:7 - 11

Ask, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened for you. Everyone who asks will receive. Everyone who searches will find. And the door will be opened for everyone who knocks. Would any of you give your hungry child a stone, if the child asked for some bread? Would you give your child a snake if the child asked for a fish? As bad as you are, you still know how to give good gifts to your children. But your heavenly Father is even more ready to give good things to people who ask.

Prayer is mostly envisioned as asking for things from God. That's the view of prayer most of us have grown up with and accepted.

Jesus affirmed that asking is a part of prayer. He included searching and knocking as well. In each image, a person must acknowledge his or her lack, and then be open to receiving whatever comes.

The analogy Jesus used for this asking/searching/knocking is a strange one. I typically read it and hear it as a description of how God responds to the person who asks/searches/knocks. And I think that level of understanding is appropriate. If a child asks for something nourishing, a responsible parent is not going to give the child something dangerous or unhealthy. God is likened to the responsible parent, giving spiritual bread and fish to spiritual children, helping them grow up into fully developed adults.

So the passage is about how God gives. Left unsaid, I believe, is that many of us -- "spiritual children" -- spend much of our prayer asking for stones and serpents. Maybe I should just speak for myself here. Prayer, as generally practiced, is a kind of holy asking for whatever would bring me benefit . . . for my health, my comfort, my general well-being. Prayer is the remedy that smooths out the rough spots in my life. In many cases, it is my asking for the things I think would make life "better" or "easier" or "more pleasant" . . . for me or for others.

It becomes hard to see -- because all those things seem like good things to me -- that I'm probably asking for stones and serpents much of the time. In fact, when I get into an asking-mode in my prayer, the majority of my prayer becomes stones-and-serpents-asking.

So step back for a wider view for a second. What are the larger questions in which we live and pray . . . the larger contexts for our lives, specifically for our life with God? Spiritually speaking, is the goal of life to be as comfortable as possible? to be without problems? to be well-heeled?

No, the aim of life is to become fully human, as completely connected to God as possible. This kind of spiritual union does not come from acquiring all we can get from life, but usually happens in relinquishing and letting go of the things that can only give a kind of pseudo-life.

We do not become fully human, fully ourselves apart from God. Thus, in this project of growing up to maturity, becoming fully ourselves, and most deeply connected to God, we don't see what we need. We may see what we'd like to have, but our seeing is always finite, boundaried, limited. God, on the other hand, sees beyond our sight to what actually can get us to the goal for which we were created.

[There is a sub-issue here related to what our goals for life are . . . ours goals for ourselves are almost always quite different from God's intention or design for us. We can feel like we're making grand progress in the spiritual realm when we lean on God or the Church to help us achieve the aims we have for life. In fact, it is quite common in the contemporary religious scene for persons to use God or Church as a way of getting where they want to be. It may feel "spiritual" or "religious" to us, and still be self-serving all the same. God and Church, then, become ways to get ahead or to get where we want to be. We ask for stones. We ask for serpents.]

The nourishment God wants to give you and me is the food that will help us grow up into spiritual maturity, into a developmental-adulthood. This is true bread and fish, not stones and serpents. But it is bread and fish we don't often ask for, because it is sometimes difficult for us to swallow. And it can be bread and fish we don't want in our lives because it is not consistent with where we want to be.

As persons growing in God, we are invited to an evolving life of prayer, where our asking is refined. That is, we cross a threshold where our asking is not so much stones and serpents, but bread and fish.

And sometimes in this evolving life of prayer, we cross another threshold where prayer is not so much asking for anything at all, as it is a posture of openness and a stance of receptivity . . . sitting quiet and still with heart and hand open to receive from God whatever God wants to give, trusting that God knows what we need to become fully human, fully ourselves, fully connected to the One who creates and sustains us.

In a sense, our open heart and hands become our asking, our willingness to receive.

This, to me, is the posture of ultimate trust . . . that we would not have to ask, but rather live so connected to God's heart that, as we live in a stance of openness toward God, we trust that God will not give us stones and serpents.

Rather, God will give us what we most need . . . bread and fish.

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