Questioning for the truth

Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” (John 18:34)

Well over a hundred times in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) Jesus asks a question. Jesus, the Teacher, does not give answers as much as he asks the right question.

And the question aims to reveal the truth. Good teachers will ask questions. And those who learn, who follow, will appreciate the importance of understanding the question.

Laurence Freeman tells of a time in his youth when he struggled with math in school. Finally he and some of his friends went to a bookstore in London, England, and found a copy of the math textbook they were using in class. The teacher’s edition had all the answers in the back.

Overnight, his marks shot up. Succeeding in math was no longer a problem. But the problem was that even though he had all the right answers, he still didn’t understand the questions. He was no better off in learning anything.

As people of faith living in this time of history, are we not so preoccupied with finding the right answers? We want answers to questions about ordinary life as much as the biggies — life after death, the nature of God, the final judgement, the end times, who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. We want answers. And, we will be satisfied only with right answers.

And yet, the point of the Christian life is to understand what is behind the question. Jesus uncovers the truth by helping others understand what the questions mean. We ought to appreciate this, since Jesus often “answered” a question by asking another question, as is the case in this trail scene with Pilate.

What is Jesus getting at with Pilate? In truth, as many have indicated, this scene might better be called “Pilate on trial”. Pilate, though supposedly in control, is completely trapped in fear. Pilate’s line of questioning betrays his his true goals. And his captivity.

These days it is common to speak of defining one’s values and clarifying one’s goals in life. Othersie we drift, rudderless. Without setting goals we become guilty of living LBWA (Life By Wandering Around). Or, without taking the effort and time to articulate values and goals, we become subject to “the tyranny of the immediate” and react to events rather than doing that which is most meaningful to us. Being honest and open with our values and deepest desires is not an easy task. Yet honestly living out of our deepest held values makes us more authentic and real. (1)

Pilate’s true goals? Being honest could not be the true goal of Pilate. Rather, staying in power had to be his aim. Authenticity would have to be thrown out the window. He questioned Jesus to find a technicality on which to condemn Jesus — in order to appease the crowd and religious leaders. “So, you are a king?” is a question designed to catch Jesus in a capital offense.

“Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Jesus asks. Is Pilate not bound in his effort to stay in control? Is that not Pilate’s real goal, regardless of the cost — to stay in control of his life ‘as is’? Pilate is trapped. I have the feeling Pilate has to hide his true convictions, his honest questions, and his haunting fears. Jesus sees right through the smoke and mirrors.

There, before Pilate, Jesus seeks to encounter the real Pilate, the one who in truth is utterly trapped in his desperate effort to stay in control. There, Jesus gives himself to be with the true person who is Pilate. There, Jesus invites Pilate to be vulnerable, transparent, to share how it is with him, to utter the truth of his own life. (2)

My uncle living in Poland tells of a time at the end of the Second World War when the Soviets established control over Eastern Europe. My uncle, a German by origin, felt trapped. Caring for his wife and two young girls in an economically depressed part of Europe, he faced a significant decision to ‘prove’ himself: He could either reject the offer to become a card-holding member of the Communist party — which would be consistent with his beliefs — but face the potentially dire consequences. Or, as it turned out to be, he ‘paid his dues’ and became officially a Communist.

I remember he spoke to me years ago about how difficult that was. On Sundays he would sneak in and out of church through a back door to avoid scrutiny by the authorities. He and his family enjoyed the security and material benefits of his decision. Yet, on a deeper level he never felt entirely at ease with his decision, living a double life.

I share this not to condemn my uncle. In the same breath I sympathize with Pilate. I would struggle with and probably make similar decisions if I were in their shoes. My point is that living the truth is not an easy, simplistic reality in our world.

In our encounter with the living Lord and King, Jesus Christ, we are invited nevertheless to strive for the truth. We are invited to be authentic, transparent, vulnerable. We are invited to share the utter truth of our lives with one another in the church — the Body of Christ. We are called to face the truth about our lives, the truth Jesus holds up before us. We must look at what is right and what is wrong in our actions and attitudes towards others and within ourselves. As Emilie Townes puts it, we must “look deeply into who we are and what we have become, to try to live into what we can and should be.” (3)

I agree with those who say that people are leaving the church today not because they reject the teaching of Jesus. They are leaving the church because of the actions of those in the church. The problem is not what we say we believe. Truth is not simply born out of an intellectual discourse and debate. The problem is the actions — or lack thereof — that are supposed to flow from what we say we believe, into every dark corner of our lives.

Is not the truth Jesus wants us to see, what we are doing with our lives? Our behaviour? What we say to others? Our decisions? Is it possible to speak of truth as something that is done, rather than something that is merely believed or thought of?

We therefore challenge ourselves to look beyond what we think, to the truth found in God, as represented by Jesus. Jesus encounters us daily to help uncover the deeper truth of our lives, and invites us to speak and act authentically out of that truth which is larger than any of us individually. Our encounter with Jesus pulls us out of our self-centredness into that expansive, eternal realm that is the kingdom of God. And we act, beginning in our lives on earth according to the values of the Reign of Christ.

“Everyone who belongs to truth listens to my voice,” says Jesus to Pilate. Even to Pilate Jesus offers to be the good shepherd – the good shepherding king – who, when his sheep listen to his voice, are led into abundant life. (John 10)

God the creator is love and grace. The truth of God comes from beyond our hypocrisy and failures. The truth of God comes from outside of our sordid and mis-guided attempts to act accordingly. The truth of God comes from a divine heart that is willing to put Jesus’ life on the line, for us. Jesus giving of his whole life for our sake speaks of an ultimate action, despite ours, that is all love, forgiveness and grace.

This truth can help us sort through all that competes in life for our attention and energy. We may encounter truth as a challenge from God. But it is also a gift God gives to us through infinite love and grace.

(1) Paul R. Trimm, “Successful Self-Management; Increasing Your Personal Effectiveness” Revised Edition, Logical Operations, 2015, p.14-19

(2) Pete Peery in David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word” Year B Volume 4, WJK Press, 2009, p.333-337

(3) ibid., p.336

New Year’s Goals

It seems to me that so much “success” in our lives is based on setting goals. We set goals in our business ventures; we set goals for our personal self-care — exercise, diet and relationships; we set goals for acquiring the toys and things we want in life. Setting goals motivates us to act!

A person who does not have any goals, we believe, is a person without backbone, floating untethered through life, unprincipled, and usually lazy and poor. A person without any goals, we believe, is rudderless and not making the most of what life can offer. A person without any goals, we believe, are the very people who end up in therapy, counselling, or on the street. They just need to get their life back on track by setting some goals, we believe.

There are some traditions of this time of year that stand out for me. Making New Year’s resolutions is one of them. And I like to ponder what this means, because I need to get back on track with so many things — year after year! And since I do a lot of driving, I like what blogger Jeff Boss has to say about New Year’s resolutions:

“New Year’s resolutions are like traffic. As the driver, your focus is intent while trying to ‘get there;’ you see others pass you by; you get held up at a red light that slows down progress. Distractions such as the radio, crazy drivers, cellphones, preclude you from focusing on the one thing you should: the road ahead. In other words, New Year’s resolutions come and go, ebb and flow, only to be revisited the following year …

“It has been said that the only certainty in life is uncertainty; change is the one ‘thing’ we can all count on to always be there—and that guy Murphy always seems to be leading the charge.” (Jeff Boss, contributor, “4 Simple Goal-Setting Ideas for 2015”, Forbes http://buff.ly/1A6rx47)

As important as goal-setting is, we also have somehow to account for the unexpected, on-the-ground realities that come our way on the journey towards that goal.

What will we do when we encounter those who ‘pass us by’ on the road? What will we do when we have to ‘stop at a red light’? And, what will we do when we are distracted from our goals?

First, what do you do when you see others pass you by on the road of life and faith? Our culture is based on the value of competition — whether we’re talking about sibling rivalry, sports or our economy. Competition can be a motivator.

But it can also deflate one’s spirit, creativity and passion. Because competition can discourage you from focusing on the grace in your unique life, the gifts of your own life, family, job, and the blessing you are to others. You are beloved by God, created in the image of the Divine, endowed with a special gift to share with the world.

And it doesn’t matter that someone is passing you on the road; it doesn’t matter what other people are doing. It only matters what you are doing. How has our cultural obsession with competition and comparison stifled your growth and held you back?

Second, what do you do when you get held up at a red light that slows down progress? The red lights in our lives are usually those unfortunate events that are unexpected, stressful and require the loving support of others. No amount of goal setting can turn this around: a family member suddenly turns ill, you receive a discouraging diagnosis, a friend dies, tragedy strikes, the bottom falls out on your personal life, you lose your job. If you’ve set some lofty goals before any of this happens, you’re into a major reset on life. After all, “Life happens,” they say.

Finally, what do you do when you are distracted by the radio, crazy drivers, or your cellphone? These are issues we probably have the most control over, whether we like it or not, whether we take responsibility for them or not.

Most of the ‘distractions’ of life are self-imposed. We do it unto ourselves — lifestyle choices that are really counter-productive, habits that immediately gratify but are ultimately self-destructive. We enter here the realm of addictive behaviours that can de-rail any idealistic goals for self-improvement. So, they say, instead of watching that show, go for a walk; instead of staying up late on social media or surfing the net, get some sleep; instead of indulging in that second helping, pack away leftovers for lunch the next day.

This inner struggle can drive us over the curb and into the ditch! The passers-by, the red lights and the distractions on the road of life throughout the year often cause us to abandon those goals altogether.

I wonder what some of those first desert wanderers did to cope with the reality of the terrain over which they travelled. I wonder how the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) following a star in the sky, coped with seeing others pass them by on the caravan routes whenever the star appeared to stop in the sky? I wonder how the Magi, following that star over what must have been a long period of time, dealt with the red lights of set backs that surely must have occurred on the trail? I wonder how the Magi kept their spirits up when the desert creatures, sand storms and bandits threatened their safety and resolve on the journey? I wonder what would have happened if they said, “Let’s just give this until January 11th, or December 21, or December 31 at midnight — and if that star hasn’t brought us to the Christ-child by then, let’s go home!”?

Perhaps the wisdom of the ancient story of the Epiphany has something to say to us about how we traverse the terrain of our lives today. As we set goals and resolve to do certain things in 2015, perhaps it would be wise to pay attention to how we travel over the long haul of our lives, and not just fixate on the specific goals themselves.

Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — not just at Christmas and Easter — to worship, pray and give thanks? Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — not just when times are good, but especially when they are bad — to reflect on the Word and the meaning of our faith in Jesus? Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — regardless of our ‘goals’ — to remember the One who walks with us, who is always by our side, who is ever faithful to us and steadfast in love for the whole world?

And thank God, that we always have a second chance to press the ‘reset button’ on our lives, reflect again, and start anew! Year after year! It is a miracle and grace that we even consider a fresh brand of New Year’s resolutions every January 1st. Despite the failures, we still go back to the drawing board every New Year.

In 2015, perhaps our goals need to be a little more open-ended and less prescriptive. The magi had a goal, to be sure: to follow the star to where the newborn king was born. But that goal could lead them anywhere! They didn’t presume it had to be Jerusalem. They didn’t presume it had to be in a palace. They didn’t presume it had to be in their own home country.

When the goals are set with this kind of openness, Murphy may still lead the charge, uncertainty can still be the only certain thing, and change be the only constant on the journey of life. But we still trust that God’s promises are true and that eventually our yearning and longings are resolved somewhere in God’s unconditional, and never-ending love.

Happy New Year!