Monday, May 25, 2015

Doing the Truth

Yesterday, May 24, was celebrated in many Christian churches as Pentecost Sunday. The first Christian celebration of Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, is often, for good reason, called “the birthday of the church.”
Two years ago, on May 19, 2013, I had the privilege of preaching on Pentecost Sunday at the Hirao Baptist Church in Fukuoka, Japan. My blog article posted the following day was about that day and that sermon.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to preach on Pentecost Sunday once again. That was at the Dearborn Christian Church (DCC), in a little town about 40 minutes northwest of where I live. It was a good experience worshipping there again in their well-taken-care-of 19th century sanctuary.
The title of my sermon was “The Spirit of Truth,” based on the Bible reading that morning, which included John 16:13. There Jesus stated that “when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (NIV).
I went from that verse to emphasize that truth is something that is done. That assertion is based on John 3:21, which I read from the new Common English Bible (rather than from the NIV, the pew Bible at DCC): “Whoever does the truth comes to the light.”
Doing the truth: what an important concept!
It may not have been the first time I was impressed with the meaning of those words, but long ago I read “Doing the Truth,” one of Paul Tillich’s sermons included in his 1948 book “The Shaking of the Foundations.”
Tillich began his sermon by referring to the words “does the truth” in John 3:21 as being “a very surprising combination of words.” Consequently, many English versions of the Bible do not translate them that way. The NIV says, “whoever lives by the truth.”
Finally, I talked about “the fruit of the Spirit” as listed in Galatians 5:22-23a, suggesting that those nine products of the Spirit of truth are indicative of what we do, or should do, rather than just feelings or attitudes.
As needs to be recognized always, Christian love is not just a warm feeling toward people we like. Rather, it is seeking to do things that will be most helpful to our neighbors in need, even those we do not like. That was part of MLKing’s point in his powerful book “Strength to Love.”
It is harder to link joy to action, but the third fruit, peace, is easier. The fruit produced by the Spirit of truth is not just an inner feeling of tranquility, although that might be a part of it. Since Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers, the peace that is a fruit of the Spirit is peace made between individuals, families, “tribes,” and nations.
That brings us to think about Memorial Day, which USAmericans celebrate today.
What started soon after the Civil War as Decoration Day, that is, a time to decorate with flowers the graves of those who died in that terrible conflict, and gradually came to known as Memorial Day has now been a federal holiday celebrated on the last Monday of May since 1971.
It is hard to remember the war dead without glorifying war to a certain extent—which is something I do not want to do. So let’s focus on the need to work for peace in order that there will be fewer war dead in the future—in our country and all countries.

I hope you Americans will have a Happy Memorial Day—and that we all will increasingly do the truth, which importantly includes striving to make peace.

11 comments:

  1. Leroy, thanks again for a good blog. i have lived and experienced two wars in my life, the World War II and Korean War. I hate war and never glorify war, but war is a necessary evil. In cases of Hitler, Japanese Imperialism, Kim IlSung of North Korea, Islamic State etc, there is no room for political solution. You have to block their aggression with force, otherwise many innocent and precious lives are cut short. In that sense, we honor the war dead, those who fought and protected precious lives and brought peace. Thanks again.

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    1. Ed, thanks for your comments; you state the just war position well, and that is always something pacifists like me have to take seriously.

      You say there "is no room for political solution," and that when things have gone too far that seems to be true. But there was a time that alternative solutions could have been proposed in the case of Germany and Japan in the 1920 and '30s. And the rise of ISIS is largely because, I'm afraid, of those who fought under the U.S. flag in Afghanistan beginning in 2001 and in Iraq beginning in 2003.

      The U.S. wars of this century, at least, don't seem to have protected many "precious lives," especially in Iraq when more than a hundred thousand civilians were killed, nor have they brought peace. And many in Congress now are calling for more war activity in the Middle East. Is that what we as Christians want to support? Or shouldn't we clamor for the search for alternative solutions to the serious problems of the present?

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  2. Difficult concepts. I have come to appreciate Gov. Pilate's response to Jesus' testimony to truth, and the amazing sequence of events - "What is truth?"; "I find no guilt in him." Then Pilate had Jesus tortured and executed. Beyond that encounter, Jesus had said "I AM the truth." and "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." But the variance of definition within culture, and even within Christendom, lead me back to Pilate's valid question. Is it theological? Is it philosophical? Is it factual? Is it cultural? The same would apply to "peace", I think. The only peace I have found is in friendships (despite the differences), in being rested, and being out in the wonder of creation.

    Regarding the coming the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, I have come to find more appreciation in the coinciding feast of Shavuot - the terror of the Fire (God's presence) in the giving of the Law, and also several other times in the Scriptures. The terror of The LORD is the beginning of wisdom.

    And regarding Memorial Day, I am grateful for the warriors who have served to provide freedom. Many in my family lines have served in the military through the years (including on both sides of the War between the States) I have looked down the barrel of an AK-47 a few times, but not been worried (other than of an accidental slip).

    I have also had a rookie cop pull a gun on me, which was a little disconcerting. I have been mugged at gunpoint - an later called a racist by a member of the ACLU for condemning an innocent man (he had never been charged or convicted in a court of law). And I remember that great Christian president, Mwalimu Nyerere, who had entire villages moved to communes by the military, at gunpoint - hundreds starved to death because they had been dragged off their farms and from their pasture lands, and his citizens who were denied outside medical help because they were registered with the socialist, government health system (which had no resources). Weapons in the hands of an aggressive government is frightening. We have seen it before in this country, and we may well see it again. "Peace"? What is it? Thank you, God, for those who will take up arms to protect the innocent - even if they are called names for doing so, or must pay the price.

    And so "Peace, Justice, and Truth" and the greatest of these is... we can't even find a common definition for them.

    So, where does God fit into this mess? I have seen His amazing goodness and kindness so many times. I will continue to follow. Thank you, God, for making a sacrifice to save us. May your Kingdom come, and Your will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven.

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    1. Yes, peace, justice, and truth are difficult concepts--but I am not sure there needs to be any attempt to rank them. They are all key Christian concepts and very much intertwined. As I have emphasized before, peace is not possible without justice. And perhaps neither peace nor justice are possible without truth.

      The important thing, though, is not trying to find definitions but to enlarge the Kingdom you prayed for where there is peace, justice, and truth. And while we may struggle to define those terms, they must be the opposite of what we see plenty of in the world: warfare and various forms of violence, injustice, and falsehood.

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  3. Thanks Leroy for a reminder that we need to Honor&Appreciate our Veterans more.
    We know that we should strive for peace, but we need to remain vigilant against evil and protect the Truth.
    We need to Love everyone even our enemies, but be strong against whatever evil exists.
    Until ALL have Heard,
    John(Tim) Carr

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  4. John Tim, I think you are right in saying that we need "to remain vigilant against evil and protect the Truth." But the problem is that so many in this country (and probably in most countries, even those that we call enemy countries) think that the evil exists only in other nations and that we are the sole possessors of Truth.

    I am reminded again of the words of Thomas Merton that I last cited in my 1/30/15 blog: "If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another." This is a strong challenge for all of us to examine ourselves and well as the situation in our own nation and not just assume that all the injustice, tyranny, and greed is in other countries.

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  5. Thanks, Leroy, for your thought-evoking comments on such important and difficult ideas.

    In the following thought experiment I hope I do not define the concepts too statically, nor rank them too fixedly (though, in a way, I do). The concepts are intertwined, as you said, and often, I think, we use one or another of them in ways that include the others.

    Mt 6:33 (NRSV) But strive first for the kingdom of God and his (or ‘its’, if Greek is neuter) righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
    Mt 23:23 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
    Micah 6:8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
    Is 32:17 The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.
    James 3:18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

    1. God’s Domain is characterized by righteousness (justice)
    2. The ‘weightier matters’ and ‘what the Lord requires’ are equivalent if ‘walking attendantly/attentively’ is ‘faithfulness’
    3. Leading justly, desiring life-enhancing care (love), and living interdependently (in faithfulness/trustfulness) are the ‘component’ practices (processes) of righteousness/justice
    4. The effect/result of righteousness (right-relationship) is healthfulness/wholeness (not the absence of ‘dis-ease’ but the ability to cure/cope with it, to restore)
    5. Doing righteousness means doing just-leadership, doing love, and doing faithfulness/truth
    6. Doing righteousness/justice is how we do peace

    Remember it is merely an experiment. :-)

    And if John can phrase it “one doing truth,” James can say “ones doing peace.”

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  6. Thanks, Dick, for your thoughtful comments; I appreciate the time you took to think through and to post such meaty comments. I like your emphasis on "doing peace," and previously (following Jim Wallis and the Sojourners) I have talked about waging peace, which is a dynamic form of doing.

    You stated that God's Domain is characterized by righteousness (justice), which I don't particularly disagree with. But I have previously written, in my yet unpublished book, that the main characteristic of God's Kingdom (Realm or Domain, as you call it) is shalom--but shalom certainly is not possible without righteousness/justice.

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  7. Even Paul Tillich was a little uncomfortable with science, so perhaps that is why he found "doing the truth" to be "a very surprising combination of words." Dogmatic religion tends to want to approach science as a competing dogmatic system, when in fact science is a method, and scientists talk about "doing science" regularly. If we posit "doing the truth" as a parallel to "doing science" I believe the phrase lights up with great possibility.

    I just finished reading an article by a young woman who was confessing how thoroughly she tuned out her high school biology teacher when he discussed evolution. Now contrite, she remembers confronting him with "Were your there?" He replied with a review of scientific evidence, which is better than what many biology teachers are reportedly doing. However, I think he would have done even better to have taken her question back into the basic outline of scientific methodology, and shown how that methodology shows evolution as the logical conclusion of what we know, and contrast that with the lack of any method beyond rote memory in creationism. I suppose it is too much to hope that a science teacher would know the Bible well enough to blast young-earthism out of the reading of Genesis. Try reading Psalm 90 while thinking about Genesis 1. If you want it to music, check out what Isaac Watts does with Psalm 90 in "O(ur) God, Our Help in Ages Past." Since he lived from 1674 to 1748, I doubt he was lead astray by Charles Darwin. Note particularly the verse "A thousand ages in Thy sight/Are like an evening gone;/Short as the watch that ends the night/Before the rising sun." See link here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_God,_Our_Help_in_Ages_Past

    For a link to the creationist kid article, see this link: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2015/05/creationism_and_evolution_in_school_religious_students_can_t_learn_natural.html

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    1. Wow, Craig! Your suggestion certainly got me thinking.

      In “Doing the Truth,” Tillich’s rhetorical phrasing [“Theory and practice seem to be two different things, and it is difficult to think of them as united”] sets up an exaggerated contrast in order to amplify his point. As I think Craig suggests, theory is formulated in and tested by a practice [science as a way of doing]. Schoen’s 1983 book "The Reflective Practitioner" comes to mind [‘reflection-in-practice/reflection-on-practice’].

      My own sense is that we hear too readily the abstractness of the Greek 'aletheia' rather than its use by the Septuagint translators for the Hebrew 'emeth'. I think the emphasis of the Hebrew word is on something (someone) established, something reliable, something trustworthy; and more abstractly, faithfulness, truth. So, “the one doing the truth goes toward the light” as a way of ‘testing’, ‘establishing’ one’s practice.

      Scientist Michael Polanyi wrote a lot about our personal involvement in knowing and that truth is a function of commitment (faithfulness/trustworthiness); scientists as a company of the committed, a community of the practice of truth.

      Perhaps we Christians might be considered a community (congregation) of the practice of right-relationship which (along with other actions) includes “doing the truth.” Of course, I might be wrong. Test all things!

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  8. Many readers of this blog will remember the name James A. Pike, the controversial Episcopal Bishop of California who died Judean wilderness in 1969.

    One of Bishop Pike's books is "Doing the Truth: A Summary of Christian Ethics" (1955). In the Foreword he says that the title of his book was "suggested by Professor Paul Tillich's sermon of the same name."

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