Friday, July 3, 2009

"The Ring of Truth"

I like the saying: it just had "the ring of truth." The ring of truth is the word behind the words, the sense in the statement that what is said partakes of the truth. And, over the years we all develop our own sense of "the truth." We listen to a person tell a story, or a preacher preach a sermon, or a politician give a speech, or a witness testify in court, or one our own family members give an explanation of his or her conduct; and, we get a sense often that we have either touched truth or falsehood. There are times, of course, when we feel like we've gotten a dose of both mixed together and it takes some time to sort that out. And, no matter how often I have been wrong with my sense of what "rings true" and what doesn't "ring true" I cannot be convinced that my ability to distinguish truth from falsehood is not better than average. Of course, everybody thinks that his or her sense of what is true is better than average!

Of course, if there was no deception and the truth was always told, that wouldn't be such a problem, because then discernment of truth from falsehood wouldn't be so important. But, deception does occur regularly, and lies are told regularly. And, as the prophet Jeremiah says: "The human heart is deceitful above all things." Which gets to an even more difficult problem: we can't even seem to tell the truth to ourselves. That being the case, it is hard to get it told to others!

This worrying about truth and falsehood both in our world and in my self has been a real worry for me. This, to me, is the existential situation that drives me, disturbs me, inspires me, and out of which I cry out for the saving help of the One who is true, who is not deceived, who does not deceive, and who speaks truth into our worlds of falsehood and who creates truth out of the ground of falsehood.

My Dad used say: "you can't make apple pie out of horse shit." And, that saying covered a lot of ground, and made sense of a lot of things for me. And, Dad was applying that to what we humans could do and couldn't do within the limitations of this earth.

But, as Jesus said to his disciples: "what is impossible for human beings is possible for God." And, I have really come to believe that God can take the "horse shit of our lying and deceiving and deluded selves" and somehow plant truth in the middle of it and grow something really worthwhile. If we realize our lying and identify it as "horse shit," then perhaps we can use it to fertilize the truth God has planted in our hearts. And, as Dad might have said: "there are a couple of good uses of horse shit, but one of them is not as an ingredient of apple pie." The example of deception and lying can be a helpful example if it is a warning of what not to do, but if it is sold as an ingredient of a way to live, well - just remember the saying my Dad taught me: "you can't make apple pie out of horse shit!"

Praise, Celebration, and the Struggle to Find Our Way to Rejoicing

The part of the Bible I turn to more than any other part is the Book of Psalms. These Psalms are the songs of thanksgiving, praise and lament of the Jewish people. They are traditionally attributed to King David of Israel. And, certainly, he could have written some of them. It is doubtful that he wrote most of them. But, what is really important is not exactly who in Israel wrote these prayers/songs, but who he or she wrote them to and what experience of the Holy One gave rise to these writings, and how these holy words were recited in synagogue and temple and later in church in a way that has literally saved human life again and again as the people continue to experience the Holy through making these holy words their own.

I am always amazed by the movement of the spirit that can be found in so many of these Psalms if you read them with an open heart. For example, Psalm 73 begins reciting a pious phrase: "Surely God is good to Israel and to those who are upright," and then turns to how the Psalmist has personally struggled with believing that in this world. "But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong . . . " So, this faithful Jew is seeking to give voice to what it is to praise God and trust in God's goodness in a world where goodness often seems defeated. And, this Psalm goes on looking back to a time of lament and complaining about it all. And, then, the writer says: "If I had gone on talking like this (the complaining), I would have betrayed this generation of your children. When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me . . . until . . . UNTIL I ENTERED THE SANCTUARY OF GOD. It wasn't that the Psalmist went and took a self-help class on positive thinking or changed his diet and exercise routine. No, he went to worship and right there in the praising of God, he experienced God's presence and saw that the wicked and the arrogant do not rule over the universe. He discovered in the praising that there really is One who is worth praising. And, so the Psalmist writes: "When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a brute beast before you. Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And, whom do I have on earth but you? My heart and my flesh may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever."

And, so ends this powerful movement of the human spirit from a heart turned in on itself in grief and suffering to a heart turned outward to God in praise. That's why I turn to these Psalms all the time. They trace the real and holy movements of how human beings struggle to find their way to the Holy One, and how again and again this seemingly hopeless struggle is pierced through and opened up to rejoicing in the presence of our Creator whose existence is the ground of our being and the cause of our celebration.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday Afternoon

Its Sunday afternoon. I'm thinking about the worship service this morning, the things that happened this past week, and a little about what is to come in the next couple of weeks. And, I have been reading "The Righteous Empire," a historical book about Protestants in the U.S. by Martin Marty written in 1969. It details the ideas of Protestant Christians in the U.S. that had such a profound influence over the development of the country. In general my thoughts turn in one direction: Christianity has so often been such a distortion of the truth of God in Jesus that I think a lot of people in history who haven't been Christians have been closer to God's will than Christians have been. Of course there has always been a more faithful and less faithful way in the Church, but, clearly among the powerful and influential, it has been consistently a distortion and even a downright rebellion against the way of Jesus. We read this morning the passage in which Jesus is amazed at the faith of the centurior (Roman soldier/non-believer) who is trying to find help for his sick servant (see Matthew 8:5-13). Jesus noticed the goodness and genuine faith of those who were not part of the Jewish religion in which he was raised.

It would have been easier for me to have kept up the belief that Christians are better than other people if I didn't know anything about history and didn't know so many Christians, and also if I hadn't met so many non-Christians as well. Having had these experiences, my advice is that we Christians need to get our house in order before we ever, ever try to judge anybody else. All this about being "saved" when we treat other people badly - it will not stand in the final day. And, I'm not saying I should stand in the final day. I really don't know about that. I think that is God's business, not mine. There are and have been wonderful people in this world, people who have suffered so horribly, but somehow carried on so gracefully. And, there have been people who have been broken in their spirit by their suffering - some of these people ending up hurting others. I try to learn from the examples of both groups of people, so that in my own life my experience in life leads me closer to loving God and neighbor and not further away. Religion has clearly been a powerful and a positive force in helping people in that struggle to deal with life's struggles in a decent and gracious way. Unfortunately, religion has also been a powerful force in helping people deal with life's struggles in a very indecent and very ungracious way as well.

To understand the Bible and the way of Jesus demonstrated in the Bible is to understand that the way of faith is a thorough-going criticism of religion. People often don't understand why somebody who is religious like me would spend so much time criticizing the manifestations of my own religious group. But, as I read the Bible, I see that Jesus didn't criticize the irreligious, but the religious. He turned the prophetic attacks towards the religious Jews, not towards the unbelieving people. Why? Well, I'll move on to one other thing before I close. When Jesus attacked the religious of his day, he stood there ready to show them a real holy alternative. When I attack the religious of my day, I stand there with the religious of my day, and it is only a matter of time until it becomes apparent that the criticism I have made against "them" applies to me as well. So, where is the holy alternative, that true path? It is where Jesus is.

So, part of the reason I attack the distortions of Christianity is that I am part of that tradition that comes from the Biblical witness. And, part of it is also that we often attack most strongly those things in others that we don't want to acknowledge in ourselves.