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

Wise speech is a prayer

My parents, now retired pastors, have been ordained many years in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and the Polish Lutheran Church. My mother told me that not once in her long years of work did she choose to preach on the second lesson for this Sunday in Ordinary Time — the 18th Sunday after Pentecost — James 5:13-20. 

So, curious, I went back in my online archive of sermons to see if had. And to my surprise, I discovered that I now have preached two sermons in a row based on this text. The last time in the lectionary these texts appeared was three years ago in September 2012; and here we are three years later focusing on it again!

Why so? I asked myself. Many possible reasons likely. Not to mention the lectionary group here at Faith chose to reflect on James — yet again! Could it be, underlying this desire to look at James is the church’s need today for some practical advice about how to live the Christian life? Could it be, that the church today needs basic guidance about how to live as a Christian would in today’s world?

When we think of all that we say, all the airtime we populate with our words, how much of it would we consider ‘wise’? It is important to ask this, since one of the major concerns in the Book of James is our speech (Mark Douglas, Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 4, eds. Barbara Brown Taylor & David L Bartlett, WJK Press, 2009, p.112). And, it’s not so much what we say but how we say it — in the context of the relationships involved. This, indeed, requires great wisdom. So, I ask again, how much of what we say would we consider wise?

My guess is, not much. When we think of all that we say that is hypocrisy — that doesn’t really coincide with the choices we make, the lifestyles we lead. When we think of all that we say that only ends up hurting others …

When wise speech happens, it is truly a holy event. This is speech that communicates truth and honesty. This is speech that reveals vulnerability, expresses compassion, tenderness and authenticity. This is speech that is wise. And wise speech is then a prayer in God, with God, to God.

And, it is not only spoken to the ceiling. Because prayer is fundamentally a public act, not a private affair. One of the unfortunate victims of the Reformation period  — which launched the Enlightenment and Industrial and Scientific Revolutions of the modern era — was that Confession was relegated to a lower place in the value systems of religion. As a result of these modernizing developments which heightened the importance of the individual in religion, prayer was reduced and confined to words spoken to the air in our private lives.

In contrast, Confession is about speaking honestly the truth of our lives to another and with another. Confession is wise speech which brings healing and wholeness, when another ‘in the flesh’ can hear the truth and respond with guidance and in love, mercy and forgiveness.

And what we do every time we gather to worship, is pray. We pray in all the parts of the liturgy. Whether we are celebrating the sacrament of the table, whether we are listening to the sermon, whether we are singing a hymn or ‘saying’ a prayer — we are praying! Including the Confession of sins, and the pronouncement of forgiveness.

It is true — the church needs basic guidance about how to live as a Christian would in today’s world. I emphasize in today’s world because sometimes I don’t think we realize how decidedly unChristian this culture of ours is. And I don’t just mean the fact that we live in a multicultural, ethnically and religiously diverse society. But also, even in the institutional church, in our own lives, our lifestyles, our common sense assumptions about how to live our lives and the values we espouse: our attitudes towards competition, financial security, self-defence, self-righteousness, financial-material selfish gain, etc.

Perhaps it is time for the Reformation church (including Lutherans) to let go of the split we have created between grace and ‘works righteousness’. It is not all ‘cheap’ grace on the one hand; nor is it all work, on the other. In truth, it is a lot of work and practice to remain fully open to underserved and unmerited grace (Philippians 2:12-13). Because we will rush, if unawares, to make it all about our hard work. Just work harder!

At the same time, as Cynthia Bourgeault writes (in The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart, Jossey Bass Publishing, 2003, p.10), “those willing to bear the wounds of intimacy, the knowledge of that underlying coherence – in which all things hold together – is possible.” To let go of the compulsions that keep us captive and stuck in patterns of life that are ungracious, untrue, unhealthy. To commit to the work and sacrifice of being true to self, true to neighbour and true to God. To practice confession and honesty with another. To accept the forgiveness, mercy and love of God and to receive it fully and know peace.

Could it be deep down we know it but are afraid to address and embrace it: the values of God in Christ Jesus are meaningful — they make for great, wordy and pious statements in church groups — yet clash with what we do and what we actually say to one another?

The Furious 7 movie which was Paul Walker’s last before he died shortly after filming the movie, ironically, in a car crash, highlighted for me this hypocrisy. In the extended version which I assume was edited after his death, there is a beautiful scene on the beach where Paul Walker’s character and family are gathered. His friends watch on as he plays with his young child and pregnant wife at the water’s edge. One of them remarks how what is truly important in life is not the thrill-seeking, high-octane, ego-satisfying selfish pursuits, but his relational world of love and family which endures forever. In contrast to the explosive, sensational content of the film up to that point, this affirmation of family living in love is rich in meaning and truth.

I commented in my slightly cynical mood after the movie that I didn’t think the Fast & the Furious franchise would have grossed the hundreds of millions it did if it made movies solely about family and love. It seems we want to acknowledge what is true and right, but only after we first can serve our own fixations and compulsions ‘for the thrill’.

Another TV example: Did you notice how the Amazing Race Canada presented the final words of the father and daughter from Africa — newly arrived immigrants, when they were eliminated before the final round? They were the victims of unfair play in that second-to-last leg of the race; other teams cheated on them by stealing their taxi not once but twice, if I remember correctly. 

And then, as the host John invited them for some closing remarks on the elimination mat, all of them spoke beautiful tear-wrenching words about the fair, generous nature of Canadians. It seems only the losers have something meaningful to say. Only when we suffer loss do we discover the truth of our lives. Now, we are getting uncomfortably closer to the whole point of our Christian faith and what it means to follow Jesus.

As I wrote three years ago, in James’ concluding chapter we encounter vivid images of prayer involving the laying on of hands and the anointing with oil. Prayer is a public act that invades the space of individuals and pulls us to be in the space of one another. Prayer is inherently relational. It gets down and dirty in the bodily reality of our lives, one with another. It is about touch and sensation as much as about the mere words we speak. Prayer is not my time, it is our time for the sake of the other.

Maybe I chose to preach on James 5 two times in a row because the Gospel associated with this text is about Jesus instructing us to cut out our eyes or chop off our hands if they caused us to sin (Mark 9:38-50). And I just didn’t want to go there! These are difficult words to ponder. Jesus concludes by using the image of salt to define the Christian life: something with an edge, that adds flavour. God forbid you lose your edge, your flavour! Jesus counsels us to have saltiness in our lives as a way to “be at peace with one another” (v.50).

Perhaps the way of Jesus will be tough and difficult building bridges of reconciliation. And yet, his last word to us today is a blessing of peace. The Book of James began with an address to those who are “dispersed” (1:1). James continues his letter to address the divisive consequences of an “unbridled tongue” (3:6ff) and considers the reasons for the “conflicts and disputes” among the people of God (3:4). James’ letter acknowledges the inherent splintering of our lives.

His letter in chapter 5, however, ends rather abruptly. Perhaps to indicate that there is no easy answer to the disconnections of our lives. Perhaps also to remind us that though wise speech is indeed a gift from God in the world so full of sin and death, we will still pray. And through prayer that is public, we will continue to engage the world in hope for a time when what has splintered can be reunited.