The Truth and The Life

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The Raising of Lazarus by Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet, 1706

Today’s readings:
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Jeremiah 11:18-20; 12:1-16 (17), Philippians 3:1-14, John 12:9-19


Poor Lazarus.

One might think being brought back from the dead by Jesus would set a person upon a joyous path, but the consequences were not all good. As Jesus’s friend, surely Lazarus must have felt conflicted that the miracle performed on him was the one that finally gave the Pharisees resolve to carry out their murderous intent. Furthermore, though his eventual fate is unknown, Lazarus also became a target of their evil designs; as long as he lived (again), he was a testament to Jesus’s true divinity, so they plotted to kill him, too.

People in power, especially when their grip on that power is tenuous, would often rather destroy the truth than let it change things. Ironically, that very inclination ultimately contributes to the demise of their influence. Sometimes it’s not even power that makes us hate truth, but fear – fear that we might be wrong. We fear that if we tug out one thread of our belief system, the whole might unravel. But God is bigger than a belief system.

The church condemned Galileo for promoting the truth of heliocentrism, yet God survived our travels to space. The church took evolution to court and despite the overwhelming evidence of the fossil record, God survived. The church as expressed in all denominations has been involved in enough cover-ups, scandals, and hypocrisies that it’s a miracle anyone darkens her doors, yet God survives.

When people like Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, or Berta Cáceres speak truth to the powerful, the fearful, or both … truth is assassinated, yet God survives.

God will outlast our beliefs, doctrines, and denials. This isn’t to say we can’t learn or know the truth, but that those who insist only they do – and who would force us to agree – are showing the weakness of their position. Truth-telling may require persistence, but it does not require force.

Christ himself does not force us to believe, but being his friend may put us in precarious circumstances. Whether being a friend to the truth means becoming a target or facing change, let’s remember that because Christ survives, we will too.

Comfort: God endures.

Challenge: Read about the life, work, and death of Berta Cáceres.

Prayer: I welcome your Truth, O Lord, whatever it may be. Amen.

Discussion: What truth have you discovered that has changed your life?

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Discredit Check

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 34; 146, Jeremiah 25:8-17, Romans 10:1-13, John 9:18-41


After Jesus gave sight to a man who had been blind since birth, the Pharisees didn’t want to believe it happened. They called Jesus a sinner (because only sinners worked on the Sabbath) and claimed no sinner could have performed a miracle. They tried to deny the man had been born blind, but his parents, though too afraid to offer any explanations as to how he could see, testified he had indeed. They mocked and belittled him to try shaming him into recanting his story, but when he stuck to it they drove him out.

We don’t like it when the facts undermine our beliefs, so we’ll work very hard to discredit inconvenient truths.

Perhaps we want to believe the world has less bigotry than it does, so when we are confronted by it our first reaction is to explain it away, or to derail the conversation by attacking the messenger or the way the message is delivered. Many people will complain about a protest that turns violent or merely “disrespectful” without ever having complained about (or simply considered) the decades of injustices that precipitated it (and persist afterward).

Sometimes we dismiss someone’s story because it makes us uncomfortable: “oh no, our pastor wouldn’t do that” or “learn to take a joke” or “that’s just how men are.” We are gullible when we like a story and skeptical when we do not, but we should try to be inquisitive regardless.

Countless conflicts and injuries occur and reoccur because we are not willing to face facts we don’t like. Almost daily we can read news items about multiple people who had been silent (or silenced) coming forward to report a crime or injustice when one person is finally brave enough to speak up and another brave enough to listen.

Other people’s stories can be frightening because they contain the power to change our understanding of ourselves and our world. If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, doesn’t that include listening as we’d like to be listened to? Entering a difficult truth is like entering a dark room: it’s only scary until we turn on the Light.

Comfort: When you listen for someone’s truth, you help set them free.

Challenge: Whether you like or dislike a story, its most important element is the truth it contains.

Prayer: Lord of truth and light, teach me to be discerning and fair. Amen.

Discussion: How do you react when you feel like someone isn’t listening to you?

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Truth will set you free

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Jeremiah 10:11-24, Romans 5:12-21, John 8:21-32


Where do we find truth? Do we know it when we hear it?

We’d like to believe most people are truthful, but from earliest recorded history through up-to-the-minute reporting, deception runs rampant. Journalism has become propaganda. History has been revised and textbooks politicized. Facts are reduced to opinions then dismissed. Opinions and conjecture are elevated to facts and published as news. No ideology seems immune to these distortions. Information is more widely available than ever, yet it is notoriously faulty. If, as Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “the truth will make you free”… what is the state of our freedom?

In this age of moral relativism and political correctness, it is important to know what we believe and why. Our own memory and understanding are possibly the sources we rely on most for truth, and while for most of us they are thoroughly convincing, they can be surprisingly deceptive. We need reliable sources of truth, but they can seem few and far between.

Luckily – or perhaps providentially – some truths are eternal and immutable. Chief among them is God’s love for his creation. As we sift through the information overload that threatens to bury us, that love can be our barometer for evaluating many kinds of truth, such as matters of justice or compassion. Truth will move people toward freedom, love, and inclusion, not away from it.

Sometimes truth is not something that can be expressed directly. We may need poets and composers and other artists to point us toward it. Rationalism and materialism, while vital for revealing truths about the physical world, are not the only paths to truth. What is right and good may not make empirical sense. Sacrificing ourselves for others is quite counter-intuitive, yet the person who spoke the most important truths to us believed in it with all his being. The truth of the cross and resurrection exist somewhere beyond facts and historical accuracy, somewhere within our hearts. Truth is never manufactured, but unearthed by those with ears to hear and eyes to see. It makes us free when it is free.

Comfort: The truth is on your side.

Challenge: Be on the side of truth.

Prayer: God of truth and love, I seek you and your ways. Guide me to freedom. Amen.

Discussion: Has accepting a difficult truth ever set you free in some way?

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Bibliophilia

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 34; 146, Jeremiah 7:21-34, Romans 4:13-25, John 7:37-52


Here’s a question loaded with potential paradox: can the Bible, which warns us against idolatry, itself become an object of idolatry?

Let’s consider the Pharisees in today’s reading from John. As they tried to determine who this Jesus person was and what he meant to the Jews, they consulted their scriptures. We tend to peg the Pharisees as villains, but in truth they resembled some of today’s Christians, struggling to obey every jot and tittle of their sacred texts. The Pharisees knew Jesus as a Galilean, and therefore dismissed him as a messianic candidate since their sources said the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. No prophet at all was expected from Galilee. Yes, they were ignorant of the facts surrounding Jesus’ birth, but weren’t they also guilty of ignoring the evidence in front of them, evidence the less pious correctly accepted? The Pharisees idolized their scriptures over the Truth before them. Those same scriptures we revere today.

Ever seen the bumper sticker that reads: “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it”? We like to believe we would have seen things differently than the Pharisees, but our bumper stickers say otherwise. Perhaps it’s not the Bible itself we idolize, but our confidence in our own understanding of it. This tendency is not limited to either conservative or liberal readers of the Bible. While the former may forego nuance and context, the latter can deconstruct it to the point of meaninglessness. Exaggerated self-confidence wears no particular political stripe. Sometimes we all prefer certainty to mystery.

If we close our minds to new understanding of scripture, we may miss the Truth in front of us. We do not trust God because the Bible says to—we trust the Bible because we trust God. Many life experiences will not fit our understanding of scripture. At these times we do not abandon scripture for ease or convenience, but would be wise to humbly heed the advice of Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”

Comfort: We are meant to wrestle with scripture.

Challenge: Meditate on how experience defies your expectations.

Prayer: God of holy mystery, I trust you above anything. Amen.

Discussion: How has your relationship with the Bible evolved over time?

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Words Matter

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Today’s reading:
Psalms 84; 150, Jeremiah 1:1-10, 1 Corinthians 3:11-23, Mark 3:31-4:9


Consider these words from the Lord to the young prophet Jeremiah:

Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.

Words, especially those inspired by (or attributed to) the Lord, are powerful. The right words can bring down nations and establish new ones. Jesus was crucified because Jewish leadership and the Roman empire both knew words are sparks that can ignite a revolution from seemingly nowhere; institutions that hide behind false words are tinder waiting to burn.

Healthy institutions welcome exchanges of words and ideas. Good ideas and true words do not need defending; they can withstand scrutiny and welcome constructive criticism. When governments and religions fear their people, they try to silence those people. Authoritarian governments and legalistic religions enforce silence through threats, imprisonment, and even death. Institutions which are less authoritarian (or wish us to believe they are not) may act more subtly yet still silence people through lies, legal action, and propaganda. The most malevolently skilled institutions get us to silence each other.

To the corrupt and fearful, the most truthful words are the most threatening. When Galileo persisted in advancing heliocentrism – the now undisputed theory that the earth revolves around the sun – the Catholic church put him under house arrest for the heresy of contradicting scripture. Under the Third Reich and the Cultural Revolution, artists and writers who expressed “unacceptable” ideas were arrested and executed. The words we hear – or are permitted to hear – shape our understanding of the world. Truth is often not in the best interest of the powerful, so they suppress it.

Don’t fear words and ideas. Don’t trust leaders who fear them. Instead, learn to listen critically so you can discern the good from the bad, the true from the false. If someone answers a question by saying you shouldn’t have asked it … ask again. Speak plainly and truthfully, and expect the same of others.

Jesus was the Word made flesh. All true words lead back to him.

Comfort: Truth is always from God.

Challenge: Not everything we think is true really is.

Prayer: God of truth, grant me the words to share your truth with others, and grant me ears to discern the good word from the bad. Amen.

Discussion: When is the last time someone spoke a truth that changed your worldview?

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Willful Ignorance

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Deuteronomy 9:13-21, Hebrews 3:12-19, John 2:23-3:15


In legal terms, “willful ignorance” describes an intention to remain unaware of facts to avoid prosecution for them (like not asking a friend why he suddenly has a Rolex to sell you). The term has expanded into more general use to describe anyone who refuses to learn something because they want to remain comfortable or blameless. As a defense it doesn’t hold up well in court, and as a choice it isn’t morally defensible.

When Jesus tried to explain being “born again” to the Pharisee Nicodemus, Nick kept claiming not to understand. Eventually Jesus grew exasperated and said: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.” It wasn’t a lack of testimony that vexed Jesus: it was a listener’s refusal to receive it.

In his letter to the Hebrews, Paul reminded them how their ancestors abandoned the God who led them out of Egypt and made an idol of a golden calf. When Moses didn’t return quickly enough for them from meeting the Lord on Mount Sinai, the people justified their actions by saying: “this Moses […], we do not know what has become of him.” Not “let us learn more” but “let us do what we already wanted to.” It only cost them forty years.

We practice willful ignorance when we stereotype. When we dismiss solid science. When we make excuses for unethical acts of a politician we happen to favor. Many harmful environmental and economic choices are made with willful ignorance so we can enjoy the present without being accountable for the future. We are susceptible whenever we don’t want to surrender the worldview we prefer.

Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” If we aren’t willing to make friends with the truth, what kind of friend could Jesus have in us? God and faith survive facts, even unpleasant ones. If we’re going to be convicted of something, let it be the truth.

Comfort: Facts are not the enemy of faith.

Challenge: If you don’t like the facts, it’s not the facts that have to change.

Prayer: God of Truth, open my eyes. Amen.

Discussion: What facts do you have trouble accepting?

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Whistle Blower

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 108; 150
, Isaiah 51:9-16, Hebrews 11:8-16, John 7:14-31


The term “whistle-blower” is in the news a lot these days. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: “a person who informs on a person or organization engaged in an illicit activity.” How one feels about whistle-blowers and their activities can depend very much on which side of the event one falls. For example, whistle-blowers who expose health care fraud to the government can earn quite a bit of money depending on how much is exposed and recovered. On the other hand, government employees who become whistle-blowers are often subject to harassment and persecution the government prohibits in other entities. And then there are people who leak information for malicious reasons while trying to shelter under the cover of whistle-blower.

Among his many roles, Jesus was a sort of whistle-blower. He frequently and publicly exposed the hypocrisy of the religious leadership. In first century Palestine, the religious leadership was the equivalent of the local government, though they operated within the constraints of their Roman occupiers. Because their authority was grantedgbtly Rome, his disregard for such authority was also a direct affront to the empire. As is the case with many whistle-blowers, confronting his accusations would have led to confirming them. Unable to discredit Jeus on the facts, the authorities began retaliating against him through a whisper campaign among the Pharisees, who plotted to kill him.

Whistle-blowers are almost never the only people who know corruption is occurring. They are simply the first – and often only – people with the courage to bring it to light. If we are to follow Christ, we also need to call out corruption and injustice – in our churches, workplaces, homes, and governments – when we know about it. There will probably be consequences and retaliation, but an inauthentic relationship with God and one another is the much worse consequence of keeping silent.

Truth, even hard truth, is freeing. Deception requires increasing amounts of energy to maintain, and in the end leaves resources for little else. If telling the truth ostracizes us from one community, it joins us with the greater community of saints joined in the body of Christ.

Comfort: The truth sets your soul free.

Challenge: Speak truth to power.

Prayer: God of truth and love, give me the courage to be your witness. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever had the need or opportunity to come clean? How did it feel?

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Evangelize vs. Evange-lies

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 42; 146, Isaiah 40:25-31, Ephesians 1:15-23, Mark 1:14-28


Evangelists have an image problem.

For many people, both inside and outside the church, the word “evangelist” evokes revival tents packed with fake healings and snake oil salesmen. The world of televangelism, with its shiny suits, big hair, and pledge drives for private jets, hasn’t done them any favors. The stereotype of the modern evangelist doesn’t have much in common with John the Baptist and his camel hair tunic. For as long as we’ve had religion we’ve had people trying to make a buck off faith and fear. That’s not evangelism.

When Jesus recruited his disciples, he did so with an eye toward the future and the evangelizing they would be called to do. Even in his day, people were wary of the clergy. Jesus didn’t start his search among religious leaders: he chose fishermen. These fishermen – Peter, Andrew, James, and John – were men of the world, hard-working businessmen who could get dirty when necessary and be salesmen when needed. If they had good news to spread – news good enough to make them leave their old lives behind – people would listen.

We are all called to evangelize, to spread the good news of the Gospels. Few of us are called to do it from the pulpit. Members of the New Monastic movement do it by becoming part of inner city communities. Jay Bakker – son of infamous televangelists Jim and Tammy – started Revolution Church in a bar where many patrons had fewer addictions, tattoos, and piercings than he did. Some people spread the good news through volunteering to help the elderly prepare income tax statements and others take youth to rebuild after disasters.

Real evangelists exist everywhere; you can recognize them because it’s obvious they’ve dropped their nets to find new lives following Christ.

Saint Francis allegedly said: “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Less famously he also said:  “If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.” Each of us is equipped to evangelize the moment we have a story to tell.  Whether we share it through words or actions, it is a recognizably true story. The truth eventually withstands all image problems.

Comfort: Thanks to God, you have important truths to share.

Challenge: Ask friends how they’ve seen you share the Gospel; their answers may surprise you.

Prayer: God of the Good News, I will spread your word through the gifts you have given me. Amen.

Discussion: What’s your preferred way to share your faith?

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Epiphanies

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 72; 148, Isaiah 52:7-10, Revelation 21:22-27, Matthew 12:14-21
Epiphany readings:
Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12


Happy Epiphany! Today is the last day of the Christmas season. Our traditional reading is about the Magi: wise men who – led by a prophecy and a star – traveled from far lands to honor the infant Christ with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Some people wait until today to add the Magi to complete their nativity scenes and continue to display it until February 2nd, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord.

If you haven’t yet listened to “We Three Kings” this season, today’s your day!

But the story of the Magi has a darker side. On their way to Bethlehem, the Magi visited King Herod to ask where the newborn King of the Jews might be found. Herod, jealous and fearful, met with the chief priests and scribes to learn all he could about the prophesied messiah, and tried to pump the Magi for information. He told them “when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” In truth, he was less interested in homage than homicide. The Magi, warned in a dream not to return to Herod, went home by another route.

In our daily readings, the same crowd– still fearful of Jesus and all he represents – is conspiring to destroy the adult Jesus. For a time he goes underground, but continues his ministry of healing and justice. Jesus always is who he says he is; his enemies (and some of them claim to serve him) are not.

What exactly does “epiphany” mean? It is a moment of insight or revelation. One of the most important epiphanies in this story is when the Magi realize Herod’s intent differs from his words. We would be wise to follow their example. Often those who govern – religiously or civilly – publicly promote one agenda but follow another. From slapping misleading titles on legislation, to unnecessarily “protecting” a powerful group in order to suppress another more vulnerable one, to rewriting history that judges them unfavorably, people tell us what they think we want to hear in order to lull us into going along with something else. In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell called it doublethink, and it empowered tyranny.

Some epiphanies are spontaneous. Others are the product of critical thinking. As followers of Christ, let’s strive to be like the Magi and stay ready for both.

Comfort: Jesus is always who he claims to be.

Challenge: Maintain a healthy skepticism of those in power, especially those who tell you what you want to hear.

Prayer: God of truth and light, I will seek to follow you always! Amen.

Discussion: What’s the last epiphany you had?

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Don’t Shoot the Messenger

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 96; 147:12-20, Isaiah 12:1-6, Revelation 1:1-8, John 7:37-52


When we receive a message, we evaluate it from different angles. We consider the source, the delivery style, and the content. We may ask ourselves: Is the source reliable? Is the delivery sincere, sarcastic, or something else? Is the content believable? Because we are used to handling communications efficiently, we may also mistakenly assume we handle them competently. In most cases this may be true, but if we’re not paying attention we can be manipulated – or unwittingly manipulate the message ourselves.

In John 7 Jesus delivers a message meant for both the uneducated crowds and the highly educated Pharisees, to varying effects. The crowd loves him; the Pharisees want to find a reason to arrest him. At the very least they want to dismiss him because he comes from the backwater town of Galilee. When their fellow Pharisee Nicodemus points out that Jewish “law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing,” they suggest Nicodemus must be also be from Galilee to discredit him. While the Pharisees fume and fuss, they have no legitimate reason to reject the message other than “I don’t like it.”

How do we react to messages we don’t like? Does that reaction depend on the source? If we are told at work we have performed poorly, does our reaction depend on whether it comes from a co-worker, superior, or subordinate? Should it? Certainly we should be critical of messages we hear, but first we need to be willing to hear the content, regardless of the source. If our first response to a negative message or criticism is: “Who do you think you are?” … there’s a good chance we are unfairly negating a source to avoid unpleasant content. It is a human and understandable reaction, but leaving it unexamined diminishes our integrity.

This effect pervades all levels of society – families, businesses, government, religion, etc. Like Nicodemus, when faced with it we should challenge it. In a just society, valid content is considered fairly regardless of the source. Let’s welcome truth wherever it is found.

Comfort: Truth will serve you well.

Challenge: Pick a story in the news, and read different perspectives about it – particularly from sources you’re not prone to agree with. Do they reveal any truths?

Prayer: Loving God, help me to discern your truth amid all the noise. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever had to grudgingly agree with someone about information you didn’t like but was true?

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