Archive for the 'Truth' Category

Telling the Truth, Being the Truth

Before the truth can set you freeYou are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”–Jesus, John 8:31-32 CEB

I tried to start this piece by being cool, calm, objective, even-handed. That approach generated only multiple “deletes” and an annoyingly blank screen. So I’ll just say it:

Donald Trump’s rise is a nightmare perilously close to coming true. The super-slick salesman, self-proclaimed consummate deal-maker, and reality-TV star has insulted, bullied, and bigoted his way to the inside track for the Republican presidential nomination. He’s skillfully amplified popular frustration, anger, and prejudice to unprecedented intensity. He might actually become the forty-fifth President of the United States!

I’ve watched what I knew could never happen, and increasingly asked God and myself, “How shall we who follow Jesus respond? What’s our place in this struggle?” We could get down in the mud with him the way Mr. Trump’s opponents have following last week’s debate. We could proclaim, “Trump’s not a [real] Christian.” When Pope Francis tried that, folks told him to mind his own business. We could engage in endless nitpicking and Bible-quoting to make our case, at least to ourselves. But we’d likely also confirm in many minds the popular stereotype of Christians as narrow, judgmental, unloving grinches. So let’s not wade into the muddy morass where Mr. Trump and his opponents have chosen to wallow. Let’s not attack or “go negative”. Let’s focus on issues and substance rather than insults and half-truths.

I believe the distinctive contribution followers of Jesus can make is simply  to tell the truth about the transforming impact of faith in Christ. I suggest that our witness [telling the truth we have seen, heard, and experienced] embrace the strategy popularly attributed to St. Francis—“Preach the Gospel at all times; use words when necessary.” [While scholars now doubt that those are Francis’ words, that doesn’t diminish their wisdom. ] Let us simply “tell the truth and be the truth” that is Christ.   

The following biblical passages sketch the shape that message takes in our lives:

  • Jesus describes the upside-down blessedness of living his way: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope…when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you…when you’re content with just who you are…when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God…when you care…when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right…when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight…when your commitment to God provokes persecution” (Matthew 5:1-12 MSG)
  • A scholar asks Jesus which one of the 613 commandments in Hebrew scripture matters most: “Jesus replied, ‘The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.’” (Mark 12:28-34 CEB))
  • Jesus redefines greatness when his disciples argue among themselves: “Kings like to throw their weight around and people in authority like to give themselves fancy titles. It’s not going to be that way with you. Let the senior among you become like the junior; let the leader act the part of the servant. Who would you rather be: the one who eats the dinner or the one who serves the dinner? You’d rather eat and be served, right? But I’ve taken my place among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:24-27 MSG)
  • “…the fruit of the [Holy] Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23 NRSV)
  • Paul tells Christians seeking to be faithful in the midst of a pagan culture: “I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse”. (Philippians 4:8 MSG)
  • “…religion does make your life rich, by making you content with what you have. We didn’t bring anything into this world, and we won’t take anything with us when we leave. So we should be satisfied just to have food and clothes. People who want to be rich fall into all sorts of temptations and traps. They are caught by foolish and harmful desires that drag them down and destroy them. The love of money causes all kinds of trouble. Some people want money so much that they have given up their faith and caused themselves a lot of pain.” (1 Timothy 6:6-10 CEV)
  • “If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister…he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.” (1 John 4:20-21 MSG)
  • Jesus tells a story about the Last Judgment. People are evaluated according to how they’ve treated their neighbors in desperate need—poor, sick, homeless, prisoners, etc. “Whenever you did [or failed to do] one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:31-46 MSG)

Wow! Who set the bar so high? Not me. Jesus and his early followers knew that’s how much God loved them and wanted to do in and through them–and every one of his precious children. Our most compelling witness among our neighbors is just being ourselves in Christ–“co-operating, not competing or fighting”; caring for the “overlooked or ignored”; focusing on “the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly”; cultivating a bumper crop of “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control “. The Truth that is Christ sets us free from living life against one another as our hyper-polarized society insists we must. The Truth sets us free to live life with and for others so that all God’s children may know the “abundant life” God wills for all of us.

The truth that is Christ is the ultimate antidote to toxic hate-and fear-based politics. Incarnation continues to be the most effective way to communicate transforming, liberating Truth. The best vehicles available for this mission are–you and me. Our neighbors get the message through the lives we live with them day by day. Let’s try something together. Pick one of the Bible passages above. Try to embody it in your life each day. Be sure to fasten your seat belt. God’s Spirit will grow us into people who tell Truth by being Truth–not perfectly, of course, but far better than we imagined on good days. Our incarnational witness will reach and change more people and   situations than we dare to dream–even in this bizarre and sometimes scary political climate.

Truth will set you free

Unarmed Truth and Unconditional Love

Sometimes a phrase grabs me and won’t let go–like last Tuesday as I listened to President Obama’s State of the Union message. I was listening with about one-and-a-half ears when I heard “…unarmed truth and unconditional love…” “Never heard that before,” I thought to myself. “Unconditional love” isn’t new. Granted, it’s talked about far more than practiced. But “unarmed truth”? That phrase took me completely by surprise. And the more I reflect, the more I discover that the two together have a synergy far greater than their individual parts.

Toward the end of his speech, the President challenged  us—all 300+ million of us–to participate actively in public life by voting, volunteering, and adding our diverse voices to the conversation. “That’s the country we love,” he said. ”Clear-eyed, big-hearted, undaunted by challenge, optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” A few minutes later, He said that when his term ended, I’ll be right there with you as a citizen—inspired by those voices…that have helped America travel so far…Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word—voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.” He said it again! The phrase comes from Martin Luther King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” 

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I hear a ringing Christian affirmation in Dr. King’s words. True, he doesn’t explicitly mention God or Jesus. But he affirms the servant lifestyle of “unarmed truth and unconditional love” that we see in Jesus and all who follow him. He proclaims Easter faith—“…right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”—and ultimate hope—“…unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word…” Our President embedded in his message a strong mini-sermon for “all who have ears to hear…”, including persons of other faiths and no religious affiliation who share our practice of “…unarmed truth and unconditional love…”

 “Unarmed truth” is assertive, not aggressive. It speaks up for itself, meets challenges to itself and challenges untruth. It attacks issues rather than persons. “Unarmed truth” respects individuals and their freedom. It does not manipulate or coerce. It speaks passionately and persuasively, shares its message freely but not invasively, and its “talk” is consistent with the talkers’ daily “walk”. “Unarmed truth” does not “sell” or “market” itself. It simply, clearly, unapologetically offers itself to “all who have ears to hear”. It welcomes dialog and listens actively to other views. “Armed truth”, on the other hand, doesn’t do dialog well. It tells all within reach that it is the only real truth. Its relentless conviction of its own absolute rightness runs roughshod over everything and everyone in its path. Religiously, “armed truth” claims exclusive access to the “correct” vision of God, the way to salvation, etc. Such exclusiveness rejects the validity of any other opinion or approach. Politically, “armed truth” continually constricts freedom in order to systematically and self-righteously eliminate all opposition. Dictatorships throughout history have used “armed truth” to claim and consolidate their power. Today terrorists like Al Quaeda and Isis seek to achieve power through the violent propagation of their own “armed truth”. Their efforts are ultimately doomed just as those of the present and past dictators of Iran, Libya and other African states, assorted Central and South American regimes, Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany—and others you may name.

I hear a very specific definition of “truth” beneath Dr. King’s words: “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life’.” (John 14:6 NRSV) Christians believe that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection embodies God’s Truth about God, humanity, and our relationships with God and each other: “…the Word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth… grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:14, 17 NRSV)

Grace and truth go together. Unconditional love is one definition of grace. The Creator loves each and every one of the 7 billion+ of us who occupy this planet. Every human alive, previously alive, or who will live in the future, bears “the image of God”(Genesis 1:26-27). Just as all humanity has in common 98% or so of our DNA, so we share the spiritual DNA of the Creator of all that is. Tragically, human history can be read as the story of the family of God fracturing and re-combining over time into families, tribes, nations, religions, and various assorted ingroups and outgroups. Those groups offer their members and allies conditional love that’s not really love at all. They (we)play nice when it suits them. But their (our) ultimate goal remains to impose their “armed truth” on others, usually at a frightful human cost.

Yet every so often one of us, a few of us, or a whole host of us rise up to say, “NO! We can live differently.” Dr. King led one such movement in this country beginning in 1955. When he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Gunnar Jahn, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, described him as“…the first person in the Western world to have shown us that a struggle can be waged without violence…the man who has never abandoned his faith in the unarmed struggle he is waging, who has suffered for his faith, who has been imprisoned on many occasions, whose home has been subject to bomb attacks, whose life and the lives of his family have been threatened, and who nevertheless has never faltered.”

In his acceptance speech, Dr. King shared the vision that energized him: “I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and ‘every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.’”(Micah 4:4)

I hadn’t planned to write a piece for Martin Luther King Day. But sometimes the material (and the Spirit?) lead in another direction. Will you join me in renewed commitment to “unarmed truth and unconditional love”? Take some time somewhere this holiday weekend to reflect on the shape of those qualities in your life, your family, your church, your workplace, your neighborhood, wherever you live your life. Who else might share your commitment?  What transforming difference can you make together?

Above all, never doubt that “…unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”


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