Saturday, August 15, 2015

Putting Away Falsehood

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Franklin, Tennessee
August 9, 2015
Chris O’Rear, M.Div., M.M.F.T.

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,[a] as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.[b] Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us[c] and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.


My grandfather was a sales manager at Broadway Chevrolet in Louisville, Kentucky.  When I was a teenager, he told me once that other sales people would sometimes stretch the truth to get a sale, but he said that he never told a lie to anyone to get someone to buy a car because he never wanted to have to remember which lie he told to which person.  He said it was just easier to adopt a policy of honesty even if that sometime meant he didn’t get a sale.   
My grandaddy, Herman Butler
 I don’t have excessive memories of conversations with my grandfather, but that was one of the few things that I remember from conversations with him.  Our reading from Ephesians this morning would certainly seem to advocate for us to be honest with one another. …Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors.

Speaking the truth to our neighbors has another connotation, however.  This passage does not say “Tell the Truth to our neighbors”.  I don’t know about you, but for me, “Speaking the truth” has both a positive and negative connotation.  In both the positive and the negative, the phrase seems to talk about speaking plainly about how we see things or declaring the truth as we understand it. 

On the positive side, we have people who speak to those in power about the abuse of power or about the systemic discrimination that can creep into our culture.  We see those that take personal risk to blow the whistle on corruption or abuse in business or government.  We hear those that chant “Black Lives Matter” and while it is true that ALL lives matter, we would not need to chant about black lives unless there were at least the perception that black lives are less valuable and, therefore, more readily taken.  When we speak to such things, we believe that we are speaking truth and it takes courage to speak out about such things. 

But “Speaking the truth” also has a negative connotation.  In our culture today where people are sorted into various groups based on their beliefs or thoughts and discourse is reduced to a sound bite that we hope to get into the media, speaking the truth has almost become synonymous with saying whatever we want to say about another person in the name of “just being honest”.  Politicians seem more interested in labeling or insulting their rivals than talking about the issues because it gets them more media coverage, but the insults are wrapped in a veneer of false truth and overly emotional opinions are declared as if they are scientific truth.  In the end, a lot of hurtful things get said and not much ever gets done.  

If we had to guess, the passage from Ephesians is probably advocating something more like the former way of speaking truth than the latter.  We could have a wonderful discussion about what Truth is if we wanted too… and we would be here until next Sunday and would still not be able to have definitive answer.  With the rise of postmodern thought, it has become more difficult to find a definition of “Truth” (with a capital “T”) that everyone can agree on.  Truth has become more subjective and defined within a particular context and does not usually have universal implications. 

The writer of Ephesians is believed to be the Apostle Paul (or a protégé of his).  While addressed to the church at Ephesus, it is generally accepted as a writing that was circulated among many churches.  So, this message was not just for a particular people, but for all, including us. 

Paul is not trying to answer the existential question of what Truth is, but is speaking more to a quality of life and way of community.  In the verses before our reading this morning, Paul argues that being a follower of Christ should distinguish a person in some way.  A person who is a follower of Christ should be transformed in their way of thinking and behaving.  Paul says that as a follower of Christ and a believer, we should be renewed in our minds and our spirits and we should be noticeably different because we are re-made in the likeness and holiness of God. 

Then Paul transitions to our reading today which begins with, “So then”.  If we are to be transformed in our mind, we should put away all falsehood.  The idea of falsehood, then, seems to be more about who we are than about who others are.  I don’t know when it happened, but probably a long time ago, but church became a place where people dressed up and went to church to lie to each other about how good their lives are.  Instead of being a place where we talk about our struggles, we act as if we have it all together.  Instead of a place where we encourage others who are having a difficult time, church has become a place where we sometime talk about each other behind our backs.  (I am saying this today here because I know these things never happen here and we can talk about THOSE people in the churches down the street.)

If, as Paul suggests, we are to have a renewing of heart and spirit, then to put away all falsehood is to be realistic about who we have been.  It is to be open about our desire and struggle to live into the calling we have from God.  Church should be a place where we find acceptance and encouragement; where we pray for one another and support one another.  We should encourage one another to drop the falsehood and celebrate openness and honesty about the reality of our lives. 

Paul does suggest that we should speak the truth to our neighbors, however.  And there may be some times when this is necessary.  When a brother or sister has hurt us with their words or actions.  When we see another person on a path of self-destruction.  When people ask us for help in their spiritual walk and development, there is a place for honesty. 

This does not mean that we can just go around telling people what is wrong with them or how we think they need to change.  In order to have the conversations I think Paul is suggesting that we need to have a relationship.  We need to remember to put aside any of our own falsehood.  NONE of us (not one) can enter into a conversation with another about their struggles in a meaningful way unless we keep in mind that we are also someone who struggles. We have all received the same grace and we have all been in need of the same salvation.  If we keep that in mind, the nature of our conversation is much different than when we assume that we are somehow better than the person with whom we are speaking. 

If we have love for our neighbor and do not think of ourselves as better than them, then we can, with love, say to someone that they hurt our feelings.  You can tell another person that you are concerned about their drinking.  You can even give honest feedback to others about how you experience them:

·       Lauryn Lax was a 23yo graduate student at Belmont
·       Struggled with anorexia.
·       She ate very little food and worked our hours a day.
·       She had been hospitalized previously, but had fallen again into her old ways.
·       She weighed 79lbs. 
·       Some friends and others who knew her at the Green Hills YMCA decided something had to be done. 
·       They contacted her father through social media and then this group of friends and strangers surrounded Lauryn when she came to the Y and forced her to go the hospital.
·       She spent 3 days in the ICU and was in the cardiac care unit for 3 weeks because her heart had slowed so much.
·       She was hospitalized for her anorexia and at last report was a healthy weight, graduated school and had plans to help others who struggled with body-image issues.

Though Lauryn had prayed that very morning that God would help her change her ways, she was on her way back to the Y for the same workout she had been doing.  She needed something to help her break that cycle.  She needed someone to provide care for her when she was not able to care for herself.  Ultimately, she would learn how to be responsible for herself and her own care. She had to be honest about her situation and honest about what she needed.  She needed some people who would not just be honest with her, but who would take the time to show care for her.  Owning our own personality and how that affects those around us is also a part of “putting aside” falsehood.  We cannot pretend that we are something we are not.  We have to learn to deal with life and ourselves as they are. 

When we live life this way, there is sometimes an opportunity for conflict.  Our honest feelings or beliefs about something may be different from someone else’s.  In the early church, there were conflicts – and not just about the color of the carpet.  They had big disagreements about the nature God and the person of Jesus and whether or not you had be circumcised to be in the church.  Different groups had different ideas of the Truth about who God is and who Jesus is – Not easy things to resolve.  So, speaking honestly means that there is an opportunity for conflict. 

Paul says sometimes you will be angry, but do not let that anger lead you to place of hatred.  He suggests that evil can creep in when anger is allowed to fester inside us.  We see this illustrated so well in the Star Wars movies.  As Anakin Skywalker is on his path to become Darth Vader, he becomes more and more overcome with fear and anger, the anger festers into hatred, and ultimately the evil lord teaches Anakin to use his anger to tap into the “dark side” of the force.  Later Luke will face the same invitation to give into anger and accept the dark side.  We face that same struggle on a regular basis.  If we let our anger go without trying to work things out.  If we let it fester in us, it destroys our ability to live our own lives to the fullest, it destroys our relationships with others, and it erodes our community.  It leads us on path to the cold and dark side of life.  

For this reason, Paul says don’t let the Sun go down on your anger.  Some couples I have known have tried to take this literally, by trying to talk things out before they go to bed when they are angry.  I really think that Paul is just suggesting that we not let time pass on our anger.  We need to seek to work things out.  Working things out means that we need to be honest about own part in how things went wrong.  It means being honest about how we understood (or misunderstood) what the other was saying.  It means that we seek the truth of what is trying to be communicated.  These kinds of conversations seem to more and more rare as people post up on opposite sides of significant issues and throw insults and barbed quips at those on the other side of the issue. 

Paul says that the things we say to each other and about each other should be free of wrath and anger.  In our dealings with one another, we should seek to be kind, tenderhearted and forgiving.  Paul says that the things that come out of mouths should be intended to build up one another and not tear down others. 

This is not a commandment to be sugary and fake, but the opening sentence is that we put away all falsehood.  We cannot be sugary sweet and bless each other’s hearts if we are trying to be honest with one another. 

In the 12-step traditions, they have an encouragement for “Rigorous Honesty”.  Rigorous honesty means delving deeply into understanding ourselves and dealing honestly with what we find there.  It means being vulnerable enough to share that with another person.  It also means that when the time is appropriate and with love, we speak the truth to others.  One of our newest employees, Clint Hamm,wrote recently in a blog post:

If I can’t be honest about my shortcomings, my mistakes, my dark tendencies and thoughts, or, equally, my hopes, dreams, and desires, I cannot
expect to make progress toward greater mental, emotional, relational, or spiritual health.

Rigorous honesty is required for our personal growth and the health of our community – not just in our church community, but in the larger community.  It starts with you. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

What Do We Deserve?

“What’s comin’ will come an’ we’ll meet it when it does.” ~Hagrid (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)

I have written earlier posts about the loss of our house in 2010 and the lessons learned then.  You can read that here.

After the gracious generosity of friends and my mom allowed us a place to live for almost nine months after we lost our home in 2010, we moved into the condominium that we have been in for the past 4 ½ years.  Life after homeownership has not been bad.  Our landlords have been friendly and helpful.  We have plenty of space.  We learned through the loss of our house that home is where we are and not a place.  We never thought we would own another home and so we continued to be a family in the place that we were. 

We recently became aware that it might be possible for us to own another home.  We were also aware that our landlords eventually wanted to sell the condo we lived in and so we looked at our options.  We were shocked to learn that there was a way for us to own another home and the process moved more quickly than we first expected.  Now, we have a contract on a house that we like and if all goes well, we expect to be moved in by the end of September. 

What has been interesting to us is our own reaction when we have heard friends and family that know us and our story say, “You all deserve this”.   We certainly understand what they mean and the comment is in no way offensive, but we are very much aware that this not how we feel.  We know that there are those that feel so bad about themselves that when good opportunities come along they can miss them because they don’t feel like they “deserve” such things.  That is not really how we feel (maybe a little.)  What we have talked about is that our belief about such things is not built on the mentality that we deserve…anything. 

Through the loss of our house, we learned a number of lessons about God’s provision.  We learned that God is with us in hardship and often takes the form of friends, neighbors, and family.  We learned that in the midst of difficulty there are blessings to be had.  We do not, however, believe that God damaged our house beyond repair SO THAT we would learn these things.  We discovered these things in the midst of difficulty as God was at work in the midst of the difficulty. 

We, as humans, have a desire to make meaning of suffering and we have a desire for there to be justice.  We want the bad things we go through to have some purpose.  We also seem to have a desire that the cosmic scales are balanced.  When someone shoots up a movie theater or a church, there is often a call for that person to receive the death penalty.  Someone must pay.  Likewise, we may wonder why a good person we know or a hard-working person we know does not have more “luck” or prosperity.  We feel like bad things should happen to bad people and good things should happen to good people. The lament about why this is not true is as old as the Psalms.  

There are those who see the difficulty around them and say that God is doing this to them so that they can be refined into the person that God desires.  There are those that shake their fists at God because the difficulty they have does not seem fair and they question “Why?”  There are those that experience difficulty and wonder what they did to deserve God’s punishment (or correction). 

As I read the Bible, what I see is that bad things happen in life.  The rains fall on the righteous and the unrighteous and the sun shines on the same (Matthew 5:45).  In a recent study of Job, I was reminded that Job and his friends looked for a cause for Job’s suffering.  Job cried out to God and was angry with God.  In the end, God demonstrates patience with Job's questions and responds to Job and God works to accomplish all that God can accomplish for Job.  When Job accepts his place before God, his attitude is changed. 

I should say that sometimes I have suffered greatly because I have made poor decisions and bad choices.  God has allowed me to do that and God has allowed the consequences.  Sometimes I learn from those experiences, but I do not feel I should blame God that I suffer the natural consequences of my poor decisions.  However, there are times when I “should” suffer consequences and there is a reprieve.  In those rare moments I am grateful for a taste of grace. 

In the years of doing counseling, what I have seen is that those that do better in life are those that are able to accept life as it comes.  Those who cannot grieve and adapt to change continue to struggle and suffer.  Those who continue to expect life to be different than it is or are frustrated that life has not turned out as they planned are often tortured.  There is peace in accepting the consequences of our choices, grieving what will not be, and accepting the changes life brings.  Likewise, when we enter into life without strong expectations of what should be, then we can more appreciate what is. 

None of us is all good and none of us is all bad.  We are all imperfect (Romans 3:23), but we are all chosen by God (Ephesians1:4).  Suffering is not because of our evil nature, but because the world is an imperfect place.   Life is suffering (John 16:33) but our confidence comes in knowing that God is at work always to do as much good as can be done.  If our confidence lies in God’s presence and love, then we can face what life brings knowing that while life may not be what we hoped, we will always find God’s care.  For we know that all things work together for good for those who love God and called according to God’s purpose (Romans 8:28).  All things are not good.  All people don’t find good, but God is at work always to help us find good when we seek God in the midst of struggles. 

So, I may pray for God to be at work in my friend’s life, but I trust God already is.  My prayer is that I can see God at work in the world, but more so that I might be an instrument of God’s work in the world.  We did not lose our house because of something we did.  We did not lose our house SO THAT God might teach a lesson, but we learned that in the midst of struggle God was there in ways that we could not imagine and ways we probably didn’t deserve.  Likewise, we are blessed when we are able to have a new home.  Not that we deserve that either, but we are grateful for the blessings that come in each new day and God’s faithful love for us in all circumstances. 

…for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11b-13)