Mind Matters

by the Rev. Robert H. Tucker

Number 426
May 13, 2002


"And Time Stood Still"

"It's now time." That moved the young husband to pack the few necessities, step out the kitchen door with his wife, walk across the neighbor's back yard, and enter the old large house that the small rural community had converted into a hospital. When the physician said that delivery was near, he asked the husband if he wanted to be present during delivery. This surprising out-of-the-blue opportunity (at that time fathers were placed on a sliding scale between being peripheral and being dangerous to the health of the baby) was taken. When my tiny, seemingly fragile daughter was placed in my arms, her perfect little finger transfixed me--'and time stood still.'

To adequately describe my feelings at that moment, I have to use a figure of speech, "intentionally departing from straight-forward, literal use of language" as one definition states it. In other words, I lied--time does not stand, and time does not stand still. I lied, in order to tell my true feeling, because literal, factual language could not adequately do that.

Reflecting on that moment, I discovered what the poets have always known, the only way to adequately and truly talk about the profound experiences of life--whether the joyful or the devastating, the exhilarating or the wrenching--is to tell stories, speak in metaphors, or use figures of speech.

With that understanding in mind, I find I now read the Bible in a much different way. For example, Moses, in describing his profound experience with the Holy, as standing before a 'bush burning, but not consumed,' is not describing a factual happening. Rather, Moses is telling a 'and time stood still' story. For decades, I took the story literally and tried various ways to 'explain' the biblical account rationally. What made most sense to me--although not really convincing--was Moses seeing the hillside bathed in a fiery red sunset so that the bush appeared aflame but, of course, was not burned up.

Now, the matter seems very clear to me. Moses was a tortured soul. We might even assume he was an emotional and moral cripple-abandoned as a child, adopted into a 'foreign' family, probably made fun of by his childhood peers, killing another person in cold blood ("he looked to the left and he looked to the right and then slew the Egyptian"), fleeing his homeland, and spending his days in the loneliness of shepherding. Being a deeply spiritually sensitive person, how could he not be 'burning' with the memories of abandonment, rejection, murder and longing. Yet, he found no relief, not even in death. Then, one day, Moses had a 'time stood still' experience. He felt the past being shed like the skin of a snake. He felt the call of God to return home to Egypt and to give his people what he had received--liberation.
How was he to tell others of his experience--his tortured conscience and his exhilarating freedom? Moses told of his agonizing internal struggle in the story of a bush with flames leaping high and with much crackling and popping, yet, with no end to the burning and burning. (I have known that feeling.) Like many who have been liberated, Moses wanted to share that 'good news' with others, and so, he returned to Egypt.

The use of figurative speech, metaphor and story by biblical authors to tell of the significant events in people's lives makes much sense to me. I now read the Bible as a book of profound, but non-literal, stories, and when understood in this way, I find continual connections with my own life. For example, I have not been exempt from an oppressive guilty conscience, burning desire, passionate longing, and earth-opening-up embarrassment. I, too, stand with Moses at the burning bush. I, too, have found the liberation he found, as well as have felt the compulsion to share my story with others.

For me, the literal Bible was a kind of burning bush, holding so much tantalizing promise yet, when read literally, untouchable in my experience. Learning to read the Bible as I would read any truly superb literature--as metaphor, parable, figure of speech and story--meant that I was able to reach, grasp and taste. 

--Robert H. Tucker
13 May  2002
© Robert H. Tucker, 2002.

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