Friday, May 29, 2009

Telling the Truth

I made these notes several weeks ago, but am feeling prompted to reflect further on how and when we tell the truth in a church. Rather than just hit and run preaching, how do we tell or live the truth, or open the door for the truth? When Jesus said "I am the way, the truth, the life," what does that truth look like lived out in a community of believers? When I was an adolescent, one of the philosophical questions I wrestled with was whether it was better to tell the truth or to be kind—the assumption being that one precludes the other.

In Back Talk! Women Leaders Changing the Church, Susan Willhauck reports on five areas for change in churches that she uncovered in a qualitative study, really a long series of conversations along with some surveys, with people involved in churches. Those five areas are:
• Honest ways of talking to ourselves and to the world: truth telling
• Affirm women's leadership, especially of women of color
• New organization/open structure: alternative ways of being and doing church
• New lay leadership
• Biblical and theological reflection
So this is what she says about Truth Telling:
"The lack of honesty sometimes takes the form of backstabbing or competition or out-and-out lying."
"Dishonesty can be a means of protecting the hierarchy." (p. 36)
"Sometimes the dishonesty takes the form of not telling someone the truth they need to hear simply because it is easer and more politically advantageous to keep quiet."
"The church often postures itself as being unconditionally accepting, but it is not."
"Being honest means that sometimes we express anger. Yet anger has been forbidden to women, who are supposed to be nice and suppress it." (p. 37)
"Many of those I have talked with say we must uphold honesty and in so doing find more ways to heal conflict."
"We have to call people to be Christ-like. We have a moral obligation as Christians to tell the truth, to love one another and to tell the truth." (p. 38)

I had a conversation yesterday with the denominational representative for placement and when he asked what I'm looking for, one of the things I mentioned was a healthy church. Now, exactly how I will define or know that is a question for further discussion, but the capacity and propensity for truth telling is certainly a part of being a healthy church. Willhauck has noted some of the things that get in the way of telling the truth. What else would you add?

In Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Frederick Buechner writes this about Truth:
When Jesus says that he has come to bear witness to the truth, Pilate asks, "What is truth?" (John 18: 38) Contrary to the traditional view that his question is cynical, it is possible that he asks it with a lump in his throat. Instead of Truth, Pilate has only expedience. His decision to throw Jesus to the wolves is expedient. Pilate views man as alone in the universe with nothing but his own courage and ingenuity to see him through. It is enough to choke up anybody.
Pilate asks What is truth? And for years there have been politicians, scientists, theologians, philosophers, poets, and so on to tell him. The sound they make is like the sound of empty pails falling down the cellar stairs.
Jesus doesn't answer Pilate's question. He just stands there. Stands, and stands there.

How do we stand for truth? This past weekend we decided to play a board game on Sunday evening and I rummaged in the bin and pulled out Scruples—which surely must date from the eighties, if not seventies. The questions are various ethical dilemmas: someone gives you the wrong change, do you tell them or return the change; you hit a car in the parking lot, do you leave your name. You read the question and try to direct it toward the person whose answer will match the Yes, No or Depends card that you hold.

One of the difficulties in playing this game with a group of people with good ethical values was matching the question with the answer—I knew which way they would answer, but that wasn't the answer card in my hand. I remember playing this game with a group of people when I first got the game, and it was not as clear that people would answer truthfully or ethically. Frankly, as a parent, I was delighted at my daughter's answers, and at the resulting conversation we had about some of the gray areas in making decisions and the pressures that people might feel.

Having worked in situations where not telling the truth might be "easier," I think that I have finally come to realize that most often the truth told with compassion is also kinder than not telling the truth, certainly in the long run. Not confronting the issues only comes back to bite me later. What is truth? I think that Buechner's example is apt. It is not so much in what we say, but as where and perhaps how we stand. It is walking the talk, and walking the walk too.

May we each be open to the truths of the day, with compassionate hearts. May we be able to hear and tell the truths that we see and know with kindness and courage.

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