A Requiem for Truth?

Every pastor has had one or more difficult funerals to preach where it is hard to find something good to say about the deceased. As we bury 2016 that’s how I’m feeling. So many celebrity deaths, so much death in Aleppo and the Sudan, in Orlando and Brussels and Berlin that we are in danger of becoming numb to grief as a survival mechanism. While Prince and Princess Leia made the headlines, there was another casualty last year of greater magnitude than all of the other losses combined, and we are in grave danger of that death causing a plague that could bring about the demise of democracy in the U.S.

I’m talking about “truth.” The date of death is unclear because truth died a slow death by inches as 2016 progressed (or regressed). It may have been on November 8 or early on the 9th, or maybe Truth was taken off life support on December 19 by the Electoral College.

Saturday Night Live was one of first to recognize it on November 12 with a brilliant tribute to Leonard Cohen who died that week with Kate McKinnon’s mournful singing of “Hallelujah.” There’s a multitude of things the exegesis of that song could include, but the phrase that refuses to let go of me is “Love is not a victory march; it’s a cold and broken Hallelujah.” At the end of the song McKinnon, speaking both for herself and the character she portrayed during the election campaign, looked into the camera and said, “I’m not done fighting and neither should you.”

Perhaps like Mark Twain the reports of Truth’s demise are greatly exaggerated. As a pastor I said all the right words during the Advent season about hope, and light shining in the darkness, even as my heart was breaking for my country and for those who were so blinded by their fear and anger that they watched Truth die and didn’t raise a finger to help.

The Gospel of John (8:31-32) addresses Truth this way: “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Truth will set you free? Free from what, sin? Free from false religiosity? If we read further in that chapter we find that Jesus leaves the temple at the end of John 8 – not just physically but spiritually. He shakes the dust off his feet and walks away from liars who cannot handle the truth of his Messiahship.

There’s been a lot of talk in the political arena about conflict of interests, and it’s a bipartisan issue. It includes not only the President Elect and his cabinet nominees, questions about the Clinton Foundation, and a Democratic Governor Elect, Jim Justice, the richest man in the state with deep investments in the coal and gas industry just to name a few. But there is also a huge issue of conflicts of interest for clergy and other faith leaders. We are called to perform both priestly and pastoral functions, to do the impossible job of simultaneously comforting the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable with words and actions that speak truth to ecclesiastical and secular power in the name of God’s reign of justice. In some situations speaking truth may set a faith leader free from a paycheck, a parsonage, and a pension or even from life itself. The reason that calls to ministry require such courage and faith are seen comfortably from a distance in the early Christian martyrs, but when more recent prophets like Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer come to mind the cost of discipleship and truth become much more challenging. We don’t like to be reminded that the same word in Greek is translated as both “witness” and “martyr.” As we celebrate his birthday this weekend there is no more fitting or powerful tribute to the power of Truth than Dr. King’s “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.”

I also find hope for Truth in the young. We often hear Isaiah’s words at Christmas that “a little child shall lead them” and apply them to Jesus. But there’s another child in the Christmas story, and without her courage and faith the story would be drastically different. Mary the mother of Jesus was just a teen when she accepted God’s outlandish news about her impending pregnancy. And once the unbelievable news is confirmed by the witness of her kinswoman Elizabeth, it is in the mouth of this innocent youth that Luke puts the powerful words of truth we have come to know as the Magnificat: “God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:51-55)

That is Truth, and it is ignored at great peril by those in power who fail to heed its warning. It is ignored at great peril by Christians who focus their attention only on the cross and resurrection and ignore the prophetic teachings and actions of Jesus that got him crucified.

Everyone knows churches are packed on Christmas and Easter and much less so the other 50 Sundays of the year. That is unfortunate for many reasons, but the one that bothers me the most is that C & E Christians miss out on the whole truth of the Gospel that can truly set us free from the idolatries of worldly materialism and the refusal to face the truth of our individual and corporate sins. People who hear only the stories of Easter and Christmas either consciously or not skip the passion and just show up for the resurrection – celebrate the birth of sweet little Jesus boy, and then drop out for the rest of the story about the slaughter of innocents, and the flight into Egypt to avoid the assassins of truth. (Read or reread the rest of the Christmas story in Matthew 2:7-18.)
And it’s not just an old story but one that is as relevant as today’s headlines. The Magi today would show up at Trump Tower, and God knows we don’t need more gold there. We worship false gods of power like those of King Herod when we threaten to restart the nuclear arms race. Sure making more weapons of death is good for Wall Street, but at what cost? Over 50 years ago a Republican President and World War II hero warned us about the death-dealing military-industrial complex: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Dwight D. Eisenhower.

It’s not easy but we must search hard for hope in the ashes of Truth’s funeral pyre. When I look hard enough I see a few embers still glowing in the rubble – young colleagues and elders still willing to fight for truth at all costs. Too often it seems to me that liberal Christians are hamstrung by our sense of ethics. The religious right has no scruples about broadcasting a false prosperity gospel of hate and fear, but when truth tellers walk the fine line of non-partisanship we contribute by omission to the death of Truth itself. We are not free. Perhaps it’s time to give up our tax-free status as non-profits in order to be prophets of truth?

I am still hopeful that a renewed and stronger prophetic voice will be awakened by the rattling of nukes and the building of divisive walls. The great hymn’s words are truer than ever, “O young and fearless prophet, we need your presence here.” And some old prophets too that are set free by no longer having conflicts of interests that silence our voices.

Cohen’s lyrics about a “cold and broken hallelujah” sound forlorn if we focus only on the “cold and brokenness” around us, but they are not the final word. Even as we acknowledge the brokenness of our lives and our world, the final word, the refrain is still HALLELUJAH, praise to God from the depths to give us wisdom and courage for the living of these days. Truth will survive if those who can handle it dare to proclaim it even when and especially when we feel cold and broken.

Good riddance 2016, and praise God for a new year full of promise to those who refuse to bow the knee to Herod.

Maturing Faith

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” (I Corinthians 13:11)

Those words of St. Paul came to mind as I was reflecting on changes in my life. I do that a lot these days as I look back on my 67 years of life experience. One particular reflection was sparked by a friend’s post on Facebook about the great hymn, “O Young and Fearless Prophet,” which is one of my favorites. The prophetic words by S. Ralph Harlow are as relevant today, if not more so, than when written in the early days of the great depression (1931). It’s not a popular hymn with most congregations because it hits too close to home when it says things like, “we betray so quickly and leave thee there alone;” or “help us stand unswerving against war’s bloody way, where hate and lust and falsehood hold back Christ’s holy sway.”

And it gets better. Verse three concludes with “forbid false love of country that blinds us to his call, who lifts above the nations the unity of all.” And verse four says, “Stir up in us a protest against our greed for wealth, while others starve and hunger and plead for work and health; where homes with little children cry out for lack of bread, who live their years sore burdened beneath a gloomy dread.” Those are words that would make both the Hebrew prophets and contemporary ones proud.

What’s that have to do with I Corinthians and thinking like a child? You see I never heard about the prophets or the social gospel in the churches where I grew up. My favorite hymn as a child was at the other end of the theological spectrum, “Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war.” It pains me to admit that, but it also gives me a sense of hope that change and conversion are possible. I believe Paul is reflecting on his own amazing conversion in that verse about childish and adult faith.

I know some people would call it back sliding rather than a conversion, but I am constantly amazed and grateful when I remember where I came from and where I am now on my faith journey. My entire high school received propaganda from the John Birch Society, and I had been taught no critical skills to even question the truth of such a hate-filled world view. If you aren’t familiar with the Birchers they were, as a friend of mine describes them, “somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan.” Think of them as the Tea Party on steroids. For me, to travel from that place to a more liberal and universal understanding of God and the world, thanks to many mentors, is one of the richest blessings of my life. My former self was fearful like a child, and while I have a long way yet to go in my faith walk, my current trust in a tolerant and merciful God is a more adult faith that I thank God for daily.

What that says to me is that a God who took a childish Christian killer named Saul and transformed him into the greatest missionary the church has ever known can also take a small-town kid like me with a narrow view of the world and of the Gospel and broaden my horizons. A great God who can do that can also bridge the seemingly hopeless divisions between the political and theological factions in our divided nation and world today.

To “put an end to childish things” means to mature in our faith, a life-long task for all of God’s people, individually and collectively. It means growing beyond a self-focused concern for my own personal salvation to a universal faith that demands justice and mercy for all of God’s children, not just people who look and think like me. That’s not a new thing. Deutero Isaiah described it 500 years before Christ when he said, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isa. 49:6)

The Hebrew people loved thinking they were God’s chosen people, and they were; but the prophets and Jesus challenge them and us to re-interpret what it means to be chosen. God’s people are not chosen for special privilege. We are chosen to be God’s servants and messengers of a grown-up Gospel that is inclusive, not exclusive; that cannot rest in material or spiritual comfort as long as there is suffering and injustice for any of God’s creation.

My own faith journey is perhaps best captured by the contrast between the militaristic imagery of my childhood theme song, “Onward Christian Soldiers” and another great hymn, “Lead On, O King Eternal.” The latter by Ernest W. Shurtleff includes these powerful words: “For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums; with deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.”

As we, let’s hope, near the end of the longest war in American history, my prayer is for an adult faith that will ask hard questions about what we have gained in the war on terror and at what cost. To ask such questions is in no way to dishonor the sacrifices made by the men and women who have served in that war. I would argue that the greatest honor we can bestow on those who have suffered and died in the service of our country is to rededicate ourselves to the peaceful ways of Christ. Harlow’s prayer is our prayer today, as the hymn concludes this way: “O young and fearless Prophet, we need thy presence here, amid our pride and glory to see thy face appear; once more to hear thy challenge above our noisy day, again to lead us forward along God’s holy way.” May it be so.