Monday, November 27, 2006

Truths that Aren’t Truthy

John 18:33-38
Revelation 1: 4b-8

“Truthiness refers to the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”—The American Dialect Society

On late night TV, there are sometimes shows that are significant for various reasons. When I am up late enough, I like to watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The show that comes after it is one I am not such a great fan of, but it does have its moments. It’s called The Colbert Report, and it is “hosted” by a former “correspondent” on The Daily Show, named Steven Colbert. If you’ve seen the most recent cover of the Rolling Stone magazine, these are the two guys I am talking about.

Colbert discovered a word that has caught fire in some circles, a world that he used the night his show premiered. The word is “truthiness”. The American Dialect Society defines it like this: “Truthiness refers to the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”

We live in a time when people sometimes choose to trust their beliefs rather than discover or acknowledge what the truth is. A lifetime of belief, or a course of action based on that belief can sometimes turn out to be less than what is actually true.

Beliefs like the one that if you work hard, educate yourself, you can become whatever it is you want to be.

This is part and parcel of the American dream, the basic credo of who we are as a nation. When we list the qualities we most admire about ourselves, becoming who we dream we want to be is pretty high on the list. Our grandfathers and grandmothers, perhaps even our mothers and fathers, perhaps even we, came here to the US with this promise in our minds.

We can control our own destiny, if we learn how to rely only on ourselves and the gifts we have. This is very truthy. Most of the time, it is even true. From all I hear these days, we are still the beacon nation, the nation where people go to improve their lives, to have the possibility of improving ourselves and our children—a place to escape from the castes of the homeland, the brutality of a government, the ironclad cultural roles we long to break out of. From the Pilgrims to the landed gentry of Virginia, the indentured servants to the miners from many countries in Europe who populated this valley and these mountains, all came to improve their material status. We have become a great nation because we are the mix of the talents of everyone who came to our shores.

It’s truthy, it is even partly true. But only partly. Many people have dreams that circumstances will not allow them to realize. Their dreams may not match their talents. Their circumstances may not allow them to achieve everything they planned for.

But as Christians, we believe in more than just the American Dream of material success. When I say “material success”, I do not mean the kind of material success that allows us to buy the Playstation III as soon as it is released. Most of us, frankly, aren’t in that place. We want to provide food, housing, education and some measure of comfort to our families and ourselves. We live in a culture where we are told that if we work hard, live right and be patient, we will succeed in these matters. Many people in many countries do not even have this possibility, and that is why we are still so attractive to so many people, imperfect as we are as a country.

But as a Christian, success has a different definition. As Christians, we are not rewarded for the strength of our backs, the quickness of our minds, the power of our portfolios. We are rewarded for our obedience, expected to do all in our power to let the other succeed with our help, even when it affects our material success. Ultimately, to use some midieval terms, we are called to surrender ourselves, body and soul, willingly, to someone else. We have talents, gifts and graces, and our willingness to offer them for the benefit of someone else is the measure of our success.

It’s a truth that doesn’t sound very truthy. It doesn’t feel right to us, raised as we are to be self-reliant, independent and wary. In an era of democracy, we Christians are to use the language of kings and subjects. Christ is our King, we are his subjects. You’re probably thinking that that sounds rather distasteful, and I agree with you. I like to feel as if I became a minister by the virtue of my own labor and the support of Donna and our parents, that I somehow “earned” it. And truthfully, all of that helped. But the truth is that if God didn’t want me to be a minister, I wouldn’t have become one. That’s the non-truthy bit.

Pilate was a man who probably believed he had earned the right to be the Roman leader of Jerusalem and the area round it. He was Roman, he believed in whatever the culture believed created him as a successful leader. Jesus, to him, must be a threat, because he claims that he is a king, but he is confused about what sort of King that is. He hears the truth in the statement “if my Kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But my Kingdom is not from here”. He understands, perhaps even feels the leadership or the divinity of Jesus.

Pilate’s been around leaders, and this sorry, beat up specimen of a man feels like a king. But he is not acting like a king should. Whoever his people may be, there is no organized uprising of Jesus-backers in the city. “For this I was born”, Jesus says, “and for this I came into the world.” For this? For trial? For execution? A King? For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice”.

What is the truth?
The truth is that because we are Christians, Jesus Christ is our King.
The truth is that because we are Christians, we are his subjects.

What is Truthy?
If the American Dialect Society is right about the definition of truthy, that truthiness refers to preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true, then it is very truthy that we somehow are Christians by right.

We are Christians by the grace of God, not by right. And there is no truthiness there!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Baby Eyes

Newsletter Article for Shavertown United Methodist Church, Dec. 2006

In the Prayer book Celtic Daily Prayer, there is a short essay about Advent. One line in it struck me. It says that “the door to the stable where the Christ Child has been born is very low—and only those who kneel find access.”

Great. Another time when I’m being told that I need to be humble to find God. Another instance when I am told that I need to get over myself in order to grow in Christ. We’re called to serve. We’re called to be kind to those who aggravate us. Oh, bla bla bla. Can’t I just once get mad, follow through on it, and it be God’s plan? Jesus got to turn the moneychanger’s tables over in the temple, I bet that felt really good. Can’t I just once?

There are times when we just know we are right. Problem is, we human types will take what is right and run way too far with it, making what was right into a sin, through pride, prejudice, insecurity or any of the other ways in which we are imperfect when compared to our brother Jesus Christ. So, yes, we need to be reminded more than one six week period a year that we must be humble in the face of the one God who created the world and loves us perfectly.

So, no, I don’t get to cut loose. None of us do, because no matter how much we may believe it, we are just not close enough to God to do it God’s way. Jesus is our model, and he only got to do it once!

Maybe that’s why he sent Jesus as a baby. We want to be our best selves around a baby, for some reason, especially for parents. It’s true for almost everyone, though.

So, as a way of keeping ourselves grounded and humble, whenever we get steamed or aggravated, maybe it would do us some good to think about how we look to a baby. Do we really want a child to see what we’re doing and learn from us that this is how to function in the world?

That may be the best lesson of Advent: to act as if a baby is watching and learning.

Merry Christmas!!

Pastor Drew

Monday, November 13, 2006

Love from the Center of Who You Are, Don't Fake it!

Wyoming Conference Youth Alive 2006
Camp Ladore, Waymart, PA

Love From the Center of who you are, don’t fake it!-Romans 12:9a, The Message

So, I have finally caught up with popular culture and have seen Napoleon Dynamite. I’ve been able to recognize the lines for a while. “Get your own tots!” “It’s a liger.” “Vote for Pedro” shirts. I’d read enough reviews to get the themes of the movie, but I’d never actually seen the thing. And here’s what I saw. I saw a guy that looks a lot like I felt at times in middle school and high school. The girl bailing on him at the dance brought back especially bad memories!

I saw a guy who was a lot like I felt, though I didn’t look much like him. And I’d expect that there are a lot of us here who have also seen the movie and something resonates.

Guys like Napoleon are socially difficult. Family situations are different; we have honest interests that aren’t part of the mainstream, we may have a lack of physical coordination, or we’re short, or round, or thin. We may have a laugh that is too loud. We may have an accent. There are a million ways in which culture marks us as different and “other”. And for those of us who are here, we also have this problem of being Christian, and some of the choices we make also set us apart. The culture makes us instinctively ashamed.

But who we are on the outside is very rarely who we really are. When I went to my 10 year high school reunion, I was voted most changed. In high school, I was nice enough, I guess. My freshman year picture, as my youth group will testify, had me with hair parted in the middle and feathered back. The part in my hair had gone over to the side by the time I graduated. I was in drama and choir, didn’t do sports, and got average grades. I was VERY interested in girls. Ten years later, I was round, bald, and had become a minister. More than one person didn’t recognize me.

How we look changes. How we look is not who we are. Hopefully not, anyway, because that is not what God intends. God intends our lives to be journeys to the center of ourselves.

Who we are is a bunch of layers. And the work of growing up is a process of digging through those layers, down to the place where we find out who we really are, who God designed us to be.

Here’s the top layer, the layer that people see first—the ominous “first impression”. Important to some, but not to us, not to God. For Napoleon, it’s the layer of glasses, hair, and jeans.

Here’s the next layer, the layer of who you are when no one is looking. Here’s our nose-picking, dancing-in-the-mirror, secret-dream selves that only a few people know about. This is Napoleon’s dancing in his room to the old videotape. It’s the Liger level. It’s your favorite food, your secret enjoyment of disco music. This is where some folks place the expression of their faith.

The movie stops there, but there are deeper levels. He and Kip live with their grandmother. Where are their parents? Why is Kip so much older? Why is grandma so grumpy? We never hear that story, but we know it is there, because every one comes from somewhere.

How did your parents raise you? Where was it? How do you remember that place? Does it show in what you do? Does it show in how you talk?

Then you descend through deeper layers. How you were loved, how you love, the stuff that happened to you that makes you angry, sad, depressed fall down to here. The way you act when you’re pushed, or provoked, or set off comes from here. The needs and addictions we have also sprout from here.

Then there is this layer of how we love, and who we love. It’s almost to the center, because this layer is the cover for the center of who we are. It’s the layer that shines like a light bulb, glowing but the light comes from a source inside us.

And then, at the very center, there it is. A small, glowing element. That small bright light. Remember the movie Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? That scene next to the lake in the woods when Sirius and Harry are being attacked by the Dementors, and a small white light floats out of Sirius’ mouth, then is sucked back in? It’s like that.

That small white light is love. That is the center of who we are. The center of all of us is love. That’s the place where God is, and our lives are the journey to the place where we find it. As Christians, we have the advantage of a better map than most, and names for where we’re going.

Now that we’re there, and we’ve named it, what do we do with it? What is love? What does our road map say it is?
“Love never gives up,
Love cares more for others than for self,
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.”
(1 Corinthians 13:4-7, The Message)

That is the little tiny piece of God that is at our very center. Sirius is dead without it. Harry’s love keeps him alive.

And that’s the funny thing about this little spark of God. It burns much brighter when it is in contact with other ones with as little block as possible. It works like a magnet. It cannot be blocked from other sparks, no matter how many layers there are around it, but the less junk there is, the brighter it is.

Each of us here, each of you, truly do have this spark in side of us. And we can tell that we’re getting closer to it when we feel more like that list of what love is. We all have that potential. We all have that spark.

So when we really “love from the center of who we are”, we’re looking like God. We’re looking like Jesus.

Now I know that none of us are going to look like that all the time. But the closer we get, the more we look like God. And that is what he asks. Because we are his face on earth.

Harry sent out his Patronus spell from his center. Napoleon danced for Pedro’s skit out of that center. God is in our center. God is in your center. Each of you. And your life journey, your walk with Christ, is to get to that center. That’s where His heart is. That’s where He is.

Love from the Center of who you are. Don’t fake it. But drive for it. Strive for it. Get to it. That is our call as Christians.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Banquet of Glory

John 11:32-40
Isaiah 25: 6-9

Last Tuesday night was Halloween. My wife and I took our son to trick or treat with his best friend and his family. It was a very good time—we got to know some new friends, and the boys had an out of their minds great time. They zipped from house to house as Batman, Anakin Skywalker, Obi Wan Kenobi, and the guy from the Scream movies all banded together to save the universe.

I think the Scream guy even had Jedi powers at one point, but I'm not sure. Sometimes they even forgot to trick or treat. But when they did remember, they were very enthusiastic. They would hide, and when the door opened they would jump out and holler "Trick or Treat!". The boys certainly honored the feast of all Saints in the most enthusiastic ways young boys can.

And when they got home, boy, was the haul great! Candy of every kind and flavor, and the trading began. The boy who had the peanut allergy gave away all of the Reese's Peanut Butter cups and the Snickers, and got more bags of chips in trade. There's a new candy that I am sure is made just for young boys—gummi-type candies that are modeled after some of the things people have to eat on the TV show Fear Factor. Each boy had to try one of those.

Halloween, for young boys, and I would imagine young girls, too, is a feast of fun and all of the foods they don't get every other day of the year. They would like nothing more than to plow through the whole bag as soon as possible, eating candy for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks until it is all gone. It's a childhood version of a heavenly feast. And it isn't even so much about the candy itself as just the freedom to do stuff they normally can't do.

That feeling of freedom, that feeling of unlimited joy that the boys showed on Tuesday night is, I think a foreshadowing of the joy that we will feel when we move from this world into the next. I had occasion this week to also meditate on our ultimate destination because on Halloween morning, I was privileged to celebrate the life of one of our parishioners. She was 92, survived by her three sons and one grandson; she lived a long life, and died rather suddenly. She was a long-time member of the church I serve, and knew that she was loved by God, and believed in Jesus. She was also loved here, and it was my saying "If you think you are loved here, you just wait!" that gave her sons the greatest comfort. They, as at times we all are, were unsure about where she was headed—is there a heaven? Is there a hell? Is there just a lightening of a physical body by thirteen grams and then a burial, with nothing to come after?

Well, we don't know for sure. Despite all the stories of going into and coming back from the light, we don't have documentary evidence of what happens next. We believe what we believe on faith. We believe, as Christians, that there is a heaven. Most of us believe that there is some sort of place other than heaven. Some of us Christians spend more time thinking about that other place, and the Bible calls it hell. But you know what? The word hell only appears in the Protestant Bible 13 times. Only twice is fire associated with Hell, once in Matthew, once in James. Heaven appears over 800 times. Which do you think God wants us to concentrate on?

If the evidence of Scripture is to be accepted, our face is to be turned toward heaven, because that is where God is. And of course, where your face is turned, there your travel goes. We acknowledge that there is a place where there is not God, and that is the place Scripture calls hell. But it doesn't help us or anyone else to fixate on what we shouldn't do in life. We are much more strongly guided, and in tune with God, when we concentrate on what we should be doing. Sure, a warning very now and again is useful. But a steady diet of threats and frights is not guidance. It is intimidation. This isn't how God works. We can be guided by Jesus to see God in a clearer way, the deeper we become God's people. Our goal, God's goal for us, is not to avoid hell but to achieve heaven. We fall short, but we behave much better when we are assured of God's love and forgiveness than if we are threatened by God's withdrawal from our lives. God is not a bad parent. God is not stingy with His love for us. He does not withdraw it from us when we fail. He reaches out even more, because we are his children, He loves us, and wants us to come to Him.

He wants us to come to Him freely, and by our own choice. He wants to be with us in a place that he has created, in a place where it is so good, so joyful that John writes about it in Revelation as a city of gold and precious gems. Isaiah writes about it as a banquet with rich food and well aged wine, where there is no hatred or death. And to get there, as Jesus says to Martha, if you believe, you will see the glory of God.

If you believe that Jesus came to save you, you will see the glory of God.
If you believe that God can work changes in you, you will see the glory of God.
If you believe that the Holy Spirit can lead you to greater and richer relationship with God, you will see the glory of God.

If you believe. That's a very sweet thing to say. Our believing depends on the day, doesn't it? If the morning coffee was good, no one made us angry this morning, and we feel competent in what we do during the day, saying we believe is easy enough. But there are times where we want to echo the words "I believe; help my unbelief!" There are times in our lives when it is exceedingly difficult to believe in God. God knows that, and the solution is to reach out to God more then. I know how hard it is to remember that in the middle of the problem, I've forgotten more than once, too. But there is no greater proof of your belief that to remember that belief in the midst of our trials. And that proof is just for us. God knows our true hearts, and is just waiting for us to figure it out.

If you believe, your faith will grow, your joy will increase, and when the time comes, you will feel joy like a seven year old boy trick or treating. You will be in the glory of the banquet, where the food is rich, the wines are clear, and all the candy is yummy, even the Fear Factor gummi-worms.