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The Truth

Most Sundays, at around 11:30 am, I get up behind a sturdy wooden pulpit, take a deep breath, and speak the first of the two thousand words or so that comprise my sermon.  Every time I do this, the irony that a big part of my vocation involves speaking—out loud!—strikes me.  As someone who has always been shy, always struggled with stuttering and speaking too quickly, it is a strange and exhilarating and terrifying indeed to speak in front of other human beings on a regular basis.  Jeremiah’s words of protest to God have always rung true for me: “Ah Lord God!  Truly, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (Jer 1:6).  And yet, I speak. 

So, what do I speak?  Well, I suppose in some sense, I aim to speak the truth.  The truth about God, about human beings, about the world.  At least the truth as I see it, the truth according to the tradition I am a part of—the truth that I believe the Spirit of God has helped me/us to understand or see or process or synthesize or uncover or transmit or whatever.  The truth.  Yes, this is what I am pleased to think that I speak when I stand behind this pulpit.  Two thousand words of truth.

And yet who could ever claim to even know, much less speak, “the truth” about such immense and mysterious things as God and faith and the spiritual realm and meaning and hope and beauty and pain and suffering and forgiveness and grace?  Even if we believe the truth has been revealed and written down by others, who could claim to understand and interpret “the truth” correctly or comprehensively enough?  It’s one thing to talk about “the truth” of the matter when it comes to automotive parts or engineering or architecture or agriculture or mathematics, but God?  Or what God wants from us?  Or what, if anything, human life is for?  “The truth” about these things?  God help me.

Lately, I have been struck by how noisy the world is.  So many words flying around, so many different opinions, so much disagreement, so many ideas, so much sloganeering, so many sales pitches, all masquerading as, in some sense, “the truth.”  The truth about what I need, what I ought to need, what I should support or donate to, whom I should correct or rebuke, what I should watch or buy or sell, what my kids will be incomplete without, what I should invest in, what I should listen to or read, how I should pray, etc, etc.  So many “truths” jostling for position, for airtime, for space on the screen, for even the smallest of inroads into our hearts and minds and wallets.

This morning, I was reading a passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  In Ephesians 1:9-10, it says that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ

has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things, things in heaven and things on earth.

Yes, if ever there was something our cacophonous and cluttered and distracted and deceived world was in desperate need of it would be this: for all of our untruths, partial-truths, and almost-truths to be gathered up—collected and lifted—into the will and the pleasure and the fullness of God.  For the truth to swallow up and incorporate and judge and relativize all of our little truths—the fruit of all of our mixed motives, best intentions, honest mistakes, grandest hopes, most misguided ambitions, and flat-out lies.  A kind of grand sorting and sifting process.  Yes, this is what we need.  For truth  to make way for Truth.

Most Sundays, at around 8:30 am, on my drive to church, I pray.  I pray that the Author of truth, the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, will take my two thousand words and use them—even a few of them, a sentence or two—for good.  Or, at the very least, that they wouldn’t get in the way.  I pray that there will be a few words worth gathering up into “the truth” that will make all of our words, all of our ideas and slogans and sales pitches look shabby and partial, certainly, but perhaps beautiful nonetheless because of what they were, at their best, straining towards.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. I have likely shared this before. The best quote on preaching I’ve encountered comes from Kathleen Norris. “Preaching is an oral art form, more a work in process than a finished product. And always, it is the listener who completes the work.” More than anything else, this quote freed me to worry less about my preaching. Whatever truth or truths seep down and take root in the hearts of listeners (or my heart!), it is something beyond my control. It is the Spirit taking my words, planting them in the life of a listener who ‘completes the work.’

    In a noisy, wordy world, I never fail to find something valuable in your words. Peace.

    February 28, 2012
    • Thank you, Chris—for the kind words and for the reminder about the work of preaching. I underlined this passage in Norris’s book when I was theoretically doing more completing than initiating of the work. Now that I am on the other side, I find myself even more convinced of its truth.

      February 28, 2012
  2. Currently I’m an occasional preacher but have prayed the same prayer. Sometimes I see how God uses me, other times I wonder. Without being trite, I cling to Isaiah 55:11 as my own personal proof-text, “so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty,
    but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” I have to believe that God blesses my best efforts, paltry as they are, when I have tried to demonstrate fidelity to him and the Word.

    February 28, 2012
    • It’s not trite at all—it’s a profoundly hopeful conviction about the nature of God and of his word. Thank you.

      February 29, 2012
  3. I am so glad for your committment to the truth. It’s often uncomfortable. it often divides a congregation or keeps people from coming back. But as a congregant, I am yearning for truth. My ears don’t have a tickle anymore. Preach it brother! Thank you for speaking up and out….

    February 29, 2012
    • Thank you, David.

      February 29, 2012
  4. Paul Johnston #

    For me the question is, do we live truth? For that I think we need a faith that trusts in God and in what we already know.

    May God continue to bless you in your ministry, Ryan. You are a good man who helps me with my ongoing formation in Christ. Thank you.

    February 29, 2012
    • Good reminder, Paul. From a Christian perspective, what we know and what we live cannot be separated. And, in some mysterious way, living the truth leads to knowing the truth, in Christ’s economy. So often, we put it exactly the other way around—we want to “know” the truth before we apply it to our lives. This option, where beliefs and behaviour are neatly separated, doesn’t seem to be on the table, as I read the New Testament. The book of James comes to mind… If what we know is not lived, we are like someone who looks in the mirror and immediately forgets what they look like. The truth of the matter cannot stay in our heads.

      I thank you also, for your very kind words.

      March 1, 2012
      • Paul Johnston #

        Thanks for this, Ryan. Your comment regarding self image is a powerful one. Going forward, I think it will be very helpful when confronted by difficult choices, to remember what I “look like”.

        March 2, 2012
  5. Ken #

    Re: “Yes, if ever there was something our cacophonous and cluttered and distracted and deceived world was in desperate need of it would be this: for all of our untruths, partial-truths, and almost-truths to be gathered up—collected and lifted—into the will and the pleasure and the fullness of God. For the truth to swallow up and incorporate and judge and relativize all of our little truths—the fruit of all of our mixed motives, best intentions, honest mistakes, grandest hopes, most misguided ambitions, and flat-out lies. A kind of grand sorting and sifting process. Yes, this is what we need. For truth to make way for Truth.”

    In “Truth without Correspondence to Reality,” Richard Rorty addressed this idea. For Truth to exist he argued or agreed, that a tribunal is required, either God or Reason, or as Putnam put it, a tribunal with a “God’s Eye View,” or I think as you have written, “a kind of grand sorting and sifting process.” Rorty wrote, “If Darwin is right, we can no more make sense of the idea of such a tribunal than we can make sense of the idea that biological evolution has an aim.”

    I think this is why Truth is so elusive in our day.

    When I preached I had different aim. My sermons were not expository. I would create through narrative a crisis that my listeners would know from experience, and then lead them to an encounter with Jesus as he is presented in narrative that is the Bible. The encounter was the aim. In the Bible, of course, Jesus is The Truth and the judge, or the tribunal (in Rorty’s words.) But I think that more than either of those, Jesus is the messiah and in him God and Israel were one, or in him God and humanity touched. In the encounters that I set up in sermons, the aim was to deliver the listener close enough to touch the Christ or to be touched.

    Darwinian creature that I am, I never gave truth or Truth a thought.

    March 5, 2012
    • I think our preaching styles might have some similarities. My sermons are not expository in the traditional sense, either. I tend to begin with human experience, and then come around to how the gospel addresses this. I often start with our stories and then somehow locate them within the narrative of God’s work in the world. I don’t have a template or anything, but some version of the above seems to be where I usually end up.

      Darwinian creature that I am, I never gave truth or Truth a thought.

      Perhaps unsurprisingly, I wonder about this statement. I don’t know if it’s even possible to never give truth (large or small “t”) a thought (in preaching or in life in general). Presumably, there was a reason you sought to bring your listeners to an encounter with Jesus and not someone or something else. It wasn’t an arbitrary choice, surely. Presumably, you thought that touching or being touched by Christ was in some sense true or approaching truth. Or perhaps there is a “Darwinian” reason for delivering the listener close to Christ? I don’t know. For me, it’s hard to imagine going to the effort of preaching if I didn’t think that my efforts were at least in the same area code as what was real and true about the world.

      I would have liked to hear some of your sermons :).

      March 6, 2012
  6. Ken #

    Rorty wrote that language users cannot avoid “justifying their beliefs and desires to one another.” (That is surely what happens in blog entries and comments.)

    At the end of the essay, he wrote, “the only point in contrasting the true with the merely justified is to contrast a possible future with the actual present.”

    I think that is what happens in an eschatological theology: we “contrast a possible future with the actual present.” Or we contrast two ways of looking at the present, to the extent that our eschatology is realized.

    In my case, in the days of my sermons, I saw a kingdom of God future in the Bible that contrasted with an existentialist belief about the present, a future in which the painful stings of death and meaninglessness and guilt would be overcome. My sermons reflected a theology something like that of Tillich.

    Although existentialism is quite real to me still, I contrast it now, I think, with a different vision of the future, or perhaps, one that is more realized than future eschatology, one realized in nature. Kingdom of God language still fits, in a correlative way like Tillich used.

    In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche wrote that tragic art, “wishes to convince us of the eternal joy of existence,” and when we experience such art “we are for a brief moment Primodial Being itself, feeling its raging desire for existence and joy in existence; the struggle, the pain, the destruction of phenomena, now appear to us as a necessary thing, in view of the surplus of countless forms of existence which force and push one another into life, in view of the exuberant fertility of the universal will.”

    In NIetzsche’s expression is the connection between existentialism, Darwin’s Nature, the passion of Christ, and the desire of God for Israel. The latter two are connected with the former two, that is, if one reads the Bible as tragic art, as tragic myth, as I do.

    Even if the two of us articulate our beliefs and theologies in somewhat different terms and with somewhat different emphases, conflicting at points, we are yet connected in a vital way by our common appreciation for the narrative that is the Bible.

    March 6, 2012
    • Even if the two of us articulate our beliefs and theologies in somewhat different terms and with somewhat different emphases, conflicting at points, we are yet connected in a vital way by our common appreciation for the narrative that is the Bible.

      Yes, I agree. And I like Rorty’s language of “contrasting a possible future with the actual present.” I might wish to substitute “promised” for “possible”—for many things are possible, but how reliable are these possibilities? How likely, these outcomes to which our “actual presents” stretch? But then we’re back into matters of truth and Truth, I suppose…

      A friend of mine died this week and I have found myself thinking often over the last few days about the overcoming of death and meaninglessness and guilt… How we need the possibility of better futures—futures which will reveal present pain and struggle as, if not necessary, then at least capable of being incorporated or redeemed or somehow gathered up into the “eternal joy of existence.”

      March 6, 2012
      • Ken #

        I like Rorty’s language too. I thought it was close enough to an eschatological expression to be very interesting theologically and very interesting way to look at Truth. And, as you note, it is promise rather than possibility in the Bible. I think for Rorty the possibility seemed within reach as in a Kingdom at hand, as in a promise on the verge of realization.

        I think of death almost every day, perhaps every day, and I think with you about the same things you have described. This week it was your friend. We all live on the front line, at least eventually. And a pastoral ministry is a frontline vocation for sure.

        I know that Nietzsche may not be your mentor as he has been mine, but still, there is another line from The Birth of Tragedy that captures what this is like to me, and what it was like for the Christ on the cross (seen at least through my existentialist eyes,) at least in the Gospel of John: “We are pierced by the maddening sting of these pains just when we have become, as it were, one with the infinite primordial joy in existence, and when we anticipate, in Dionysian ecstasy, the indestructibility and eternity of this joy.”

        I just came down from an almost daily climb to the top of a mountain where there is a panoramic view of the heavens and the earth. I go there to be gathered up into the eternal joy of existence.

        March 6, 2012
      • It sounds like quite a view. Such places and the possibilities they reveal are a gift.

        March 7, 2012

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