Telling the Truth

Apparently, Jesus thinks that lying, or breaking your word, is a big deal.

In our gospel reading for last Sunday we read these words:

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfil to the Lord the vows you have made’. But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:33-37 NIV 2011).

Here’s what I said about this passage on Sunday (my sermon was covering the entire gospel reading, Matthew 5:20-37, so the amount of time spent on each individual section was quite small):

Once again, Jesus is going to the heart of the issue. Why do we have to make promises? Why do we have to use oaths or sign contracts? Surely, it’s because people can’t trust our bare word! What are we actually saying if we feel we have to swear an oath? Are we saying, “Well, normally, you can’t trust what I say, but now I’ve made an oath calling on God to punish me if I’m not telling the truth, and I do fear God, so now you can finally trust me”?

Jesus is encouraging us to imagine a different level of honesty. Imagine a situation where I’ve been called on to be a witness in a court of law. So I take the stand, and the clerk approaches me with the Bible so I can swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God. But suddenly the judge stops the proceedings. “Wait a minute”, he says, “that’s Tim Chesterton up there. The whole world knows that he’s a man of absolute integrity and honesty. There’s never been a known occasion when he’s told a lie, or when he’s said he’s going to do something and failed to do it. It would be an absolute insult for me to ask him to take an oath and swear to tell the truth, because that’s what he always does”.

Is that me? No, I’m afraid it’s not, but I have to say that I would love to be that person. Jesus is telling me that this is God’s dream for me: a life of absolute honesty and integrity. So aim for this, Jesus is saying. Don’t settle for a life of controlled dishonesty; aim to be known as a person who lives truthfully and speaks truthfully.

(You can read the rest of my sermon here).

I pondered this gospel reading a little more afterwards, and I asked myself a couple of questions about it. First of all, what are the common situations in which I will tell a lie, or exaggerate or promise more than I can deliver, or fail to keep my word?

Sometimes it’s because I want to impress people. I’ll tell a story and exaggerate certain aspects of it, because it makes it a better story and I get more of a response from the hearers. Or I’ll commit myself to something that I know I don’t have time for, because I want people to think I’m a good guy.

Sometimes it’s because I’m afraid. I’ve done something I shouldn’t have done, and I’m afraid that I’m on the verge of being found out. So I’ll lie about it, or find some fictional reason why it’s not my fault.

Sometimes it’s because I’m lazy. I say I’m going to do something, but it’s not something I particularly want to do; it’s too much like hard work, or I’m not really interested in it. So as the deadline gets closer, I’ll put it off and put if off, and eventually the deadline passes and the job just doesn’t get done, and I’ve just provided the world with one more reason not to trust my word.

What do these three situations have in common? They’re all about self-absorption, rather than loving others and caring for their needs.  want to impress people with my dramatic story. I want people to think I’m a good guy, so I try to pull the wool over their eyes about my misdeeds. I want to have an easy time and not exert myself doing things I don’t want to do, so I don’t follow through with my commitments.

Clearly, selfishness and self-centredness are the root causes here. If I want to be more truthful and reliable, I’ve got to work on being less selfish and more loving.

The second question I asked myself is this: how could the Christian world become more truthful? Surely we ought to be known as people who tell the truth and keep our word?

When I was a young Christian, I learned a song that went like this:

At the cross! At the cross where I first saw the light
and the burden of my heart rolled away;
It was there by faith I received my sight,
and now I am happy all the day.

‘Now I am happy all the day’? What sort of a lie is that? At no point in my life has that ever been true for me. Every day, at some point, I have found something to be sad about. So when I used to sing this song I would find myself thinking, “Is there something wrong with me? Have I not really given my life to Jesus properly? Have I not really been filled with the Holy Spirit?’ And so I would try to do it all over again: confess every possible sin I could think of again, give my life to Jesus again, pray that the Holy Spirit would fill me again. It never worked. I was happy some of the time (usually when i wasn’t thinking about being trying to be happy), but I was never ‘happy all the day’.

This song did real pastoral damage to me as a young Christian. I suspect songs like that do the same today. They give impressionable Christians a false idea of what the Christian life is really like. When they can’t pretend any more, they do one of two things: they give up on Christianity (“It’s just not true”) or they give up on themselves (“I’m obviously some kind of schmuck – that’s why I’m not experiencing everything God has promised”).

Sometimes our liturgies require us to make these false claims or unrealistic promises, too. How many times, during a baptism service, after the parents have made their promises, have I turned to a congregation and said, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” and the congregation replies, “We will”. Really? ‘All in your power‘? But how many people in the congregation don’t even bother to introduce themselves to the baptismal candidates or their families? If they see that the baptismal family haven’t been in church for a while, how many people in the congregation try to contact them and see if things are okay?

Or how about this one, from Eucharistic Prayer #3 in the Book of Alternative Services:

In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.

Now I understand that theologically, things can be true of us ‘in him’ (i.e. in Christ) that have not yet actually come about in practice. But most members of our congregations are not trained theologians. Most people, hearing the priest pray this prayer, will get the impression that we are making a huge claim: that when we became Christians, we made a complete break with error, sin, and death. And since most sensible people know that this is an utterly false claim, it will be difficult for them (if they are listening, that is) to take the rest of the prayer seriously.

We need to be really careful about this. We need to make sure that we aren’t making unrealistic promises to people about what Christianity is like. And we also need to be willing to tell the truth about our own sins and failures. Not to everyone, of course, but we do need venues in the Christian world where we can be honest about ourselves. Really, this isn’t encouraged. I’m already beginning to imagine the reaction to what I’ve said earlier in this post. “He tells lies? What sort of pastor is he?” Well, yes, I’m not proud of the fact, but I have to admit that sometimes I do tell lies. I’m trying to do it less often, but I’m not all the way there yet.

Most pastors have had people sit in their offices at some point, telling sad stories about the mess they’ve gotten themselves in, and then saying, “I wish I had my life together like the other people in this church!” And we pastors smile to ourselves, because we know that if we stay long enough in our congregation, we’ll hear that same line from dozens of people, including highly respected members of the congregation. Highly respected members, that is, who have given the false impression that they have everything together in their lives. Highly respected members, in other words, who are lying.

William Barclay tells the story in one of his commentaries about the origin of the English word ‘sincere’. It comes from a Latin phrase that means ‘without wax’. It comes from the world of sculpture. Sometimes in years gone by, a sculptor would make an error and gouge out a hole in a statue that wasn’t meant to be there. A dishonest sculptor would fill in the hole with wax and then paint it so that it looked just like the stonework. A statue that had no such coverup jobs was ‘sin cere’ – ‘without wax’.

I want to be a person of integrity, a sincere person, a person who is honest, open and unpretentious. I want to be a person who does not exaggerate to make a good impression or promise more than I can deliver. I’m not there yet, but hopefully I’m moving closer to that goal. And I believe that we would all find it easier to move toward that goal if our church communities rated honesty and truthfulness as highly as Jesus obviously does.

Some things I’ve learned over the years about marriage

For Valentine’s Day, here’s a repost of something I wrote a few years ago. I’ve made lots of mistakes over the years when it comes to marriage and love, but hopefully I’ve learned a few lessons on the way that might be helpful to a few other people. For the record, this coming October Marci and I will celebrate our 35th anniversary. She is a very patient woman.

So, in no particular order, here we go:

  • You will have to choose between (a) making enough money to have the same lifestyle as your neighbours, or (b) having enough time to love your spouse and children. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll have time to do both.
  • Don’t live common-law before you get married. Statistics show that this dramatically increases the risk of your marriage ending in divorce.
  • Be skeptical about 75% of what the media tells you about love and marriage. Most of the people who write those movies and songs haven’t been able to hold down a relationship for more than four or five years.
  • Similarly, be skeptical about how ‘normal sex’ is described in popular novels, movies etc. If you take that as the norm you’ll be setting yourselves up for dissatisfaction and failure. Technique is fine, but love is far, far more important.
  • Remember – love is a choice, not a feeling. If feelings lasted forever we wouldn’t need marriage vows. When the feelings start to wane in intensity, don’t be scared: this is normal. Do what you promised to do anyway, no matter what you feel, and eventually something deeper and stronger will start to grow. This is the most important secret of a lasting marriage.
  • Go out for coffee together regularly, and leave your cell phones at home when you do. The object is to get away from distractions and focus on talking.
  • Conventional wisdom tells us ‘lovers look at each other, friends look together at something else’. This may be true, but it hides a deeper truth: your love is more likely to last if it also includes friendship – if, in fact, your spouse is your best friend. And friends aren’t absorbed in each other, they’re absorbed together in something else. So find something you can both get absorbed in, and do it together. This leads to the next point…
  • A marriage needs a mission. Marriages in which the couple are totally focussed on each other, rather than on some form of service to others, are narcissistic marriages. For many couples, the major mission is raising their children to become happy and healthy adults. Don’t see the attention you give to this as competition for your marriage; it’s part of making your marriage less selfish and more loving.
  • Remember that when you learn to love God more than you love your spouse, you will then find that you are loving your spouse far, far more than you did before. It’s a paradox, but it’s true all the same.
  • Put the teaching of Jesus and the apostles into practice in your marriage. Make reconciliation with each other a priority, and if you have a problem with your spouse, speak to them about it first. You’re not perfect, so don’t expect your spouse to be perfect either; be quick to apologise and quick to forgive. Don’t let resentments fester; talk them through as soon as possible. Choose to stay together and work on your problems rather than getting a divorce. Don’t commit adultery with your eyes and your heart, and you probably won’t commit it with your body either. Tell the truth to each other. Live a simple life focussed on God and your neighbour, not on storing up earthly treasure. In other words, being a better follower of Jesus will make you a better marriage partner.
  • Don’t be passive about your marriage; don’t, for instance, take the attitude, “I hope it works out”. Instead, the two of you together take responsibility for making it work out. Expect this to be difficult, and don’t be intimidated by the difficulty.
  • Finally, a word for the guys from the character played by Dennis Quaid in the movie In Good Company. When asked by a younger man what his secret of a lasting marriage is, Quaid’s character replies, ‘You find the right person to get into the foxhole with, and when you’re out of the foxhole, you keep your dick in your pants’. Every time I’ve shared that story in mixed company, the women have shaken their heads about how offensive it is, and the men have nodded their heads, knowing that ‘lowest common denominator’ wisdom is often a good place to start…!!!
(Credits: The first idea, about not having time for both getting rich and loving your family, is adapted from a statement by Mary Pipher in her fine book The Shelter of Each Other. And the idea about loving your spouse more if you love God first is something I first ran across in one of C.S. Lewis’ letters.)

Joe Walker’s birthday

20130816-091828.jpgThis is a repost, slightly adapted, from two years ago.

Today would have been Joe’s 50th birthday.

I suspect that many of us who love and miss him will spend a bit of time today reading and reflecting on Felix Hominum. Ideally, this should be combined with a cup of strong coffee – or, perhaps, a pint of good beer or a glass of single malt.

Or, if you want to get really intoxicated in Joe’s memory, how about a draught of St. Augustine or Dante?

God bless you, Joe. Rest in peace and rise in glory. I will especially miss your presence in the back pew of the chapel at clergy retreat at the end of this month.