Can We Handle the Truth?

I have always been a cheap date … literally.  When Amy and I went on our first date, I did not take her to a fancy restaurant and movie theater.  No, our first date was over a bag of Oreos watching a rented copy of the movie “A Few Good Men.”  (I’ll stop here for a moment and again thank God that He convinced this woman to marry me).  Even if you have never seen the movie, I imagine that most people can at least recite one line from memory.  It is the moment when Jack Nicholson screams into the camera “You can’t handle the truth!”

That scene has flashed through my mind again and again in the last 24 hours as I have flipped back and forth between stories of Lance Armstrong’s admission of using steroids after years of denial and stories of Mantai Te’o’s fictitious dead girlfriend.  Both of these stories have captured the country’s imagination, and I am left wondering if, in the midst of the media hysteria, someone shouldn’t be screaming in all of our faces “You can’t handle the truth!”

Lance Armstrong was a hero to many, a man who battled cancer and went on to win multiple cycling titles when it seemed a miracle he was even alive.  People were so inspired by Armstrong’s story that they gobbled up one “Live Strong” bracelet after another and donated millions to Armstrong’s charity for cancer research.

Te’o was a Heisman Trophy runner-up as a defensive player, an almost unheard of accomplishment.  He led Notre Dame on a magical and unexpected perfect run through the regular season and a spot in the national title game.  The story of how his grandmother and girlfriend died in the same 24-hour period and brought tears and admiration for a young man who had struggled through such loss.

Now we know that Armstrong cheated and Te’o’s girlfriend not only never died but never existed.  A host of other questions follow both of these men and remain unanswered, and a lot of people feel unsatisfied by the truth we now have.

And perhaps that is something we have to admit to as a society as we point fingers of blame and speculation at these two men:  sometimes we just can’t handle the truth.

Sometimes the truth is just not as good or as touching a story as the lie.  Sometimes the truth is routine.  Sometimes the truth is condemning.  Sometimes the truth does bring us to tears, and sometimes the truth is (to quote another Hollywood hit) “just the facts, ma’am.”  As I have listened to people express disappointment about both these news stories in the last 24 hours, it’s hard to tell if they are disappointed about the lies or disappointed that the truth is not as good a story as the lie.

We look for inspiration and motivation from our leaders, our athletes, our stars, our authors, and our spiritual leaders.  Unfortunately, sometimes we are willing to sacrifice the truth along the way.  That is why it is so interesting to read the Old Testament prophets.  These guys would never have had television ministries or best-selling books.  As a matter of fact, these now well-known preachers would probably have pastored the smallest congregations in town.  They were not concerned with style or popularity.  As a matter of fact, they were consistently “successful failures” in terms of drawing people to repentance or changing the worship life of Israel.  Most people didn’t want to listen to them.  All they did was speak the truth, and often it was truth that Israel found less satisfying than the lies they were chasing after.  Ultimately, though, it was the truth the prophets proclaimed that was remembered and passed on for generations down the line.  Today, we read the prophets’ words and say, “If only they had listened.”  But are we any more receptive to truth today, especially truth that confronts us with our own failings and sins?

Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).  God has a greater purpose in our world than entertainment or motivation; He wants to set creation free from the evil and sin that holds it in the bondage of darkness.  Even though truth can be hard and can sometimes hurt, it always sets us free to receive God’s grace, accept God’s salvation, and share God’s love.

In the last 24 hours, we have seen that sometimes the lies make a great story, but they ultimately will become the chains that bind us and demean us and lessen us.  There is no better time to remember that it is truth that produces lasting change in history, in society, and in the hearts of mankind.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.  This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Worship Wars

In the last few decades, many churches have found themselves in the midst of the dreaded “worship wars”.  Will we sing traditional hymns or contemporary choruses?  Will we have a choir or a praise band?  Is a screen a tool or a giant TV set?  Is a tie mandatory, optional, or forbidden?

Books have been written about the “worship wars”; and, as a pastor, I have heard a lot of stories of pain, conflict and loss – members leaving and entire churches splitting – over these very questions.

When you read Amos and Hosea, you see worship at the center of controversy yet again.  I want to spend a moment reflecting on each prophet and the “worship war” they are waging.

Amos is concerned that the worship of the people is becoming “infected” by the same lack of righteousness and justice that has come to define the culture of Israel.

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!” … Come to Bethel – and transgress; to Gilgal – and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days; bring a thank offering of leavened bread, and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, O people of Israel! says the Lord God. (Amos 4:1, 4-5)

God later says through Amos that he will no longer accept their offerings or listen to the “noise” of their songs.  The problem is not the performance of the rituals; the problem is that the men and women of Israel are not changing their lives to reflect the virtues taught by the rituals.

As Christians, we have fought with one another to determine what should happen in worship.  However, have we given as much attention to whether what happens in worship is leading to transformation outside of worship?

Hosea is concerned about what takes place outside of worship, but he is more concerned with exactly what – or who – it is that the people are worshiping in the first place.

When Ephraim multiplied altars to expiate sin, they became to him altars for sinning.(Hosea 8:11)

Hosea sees Israel mixing the sexuality and debauchery of Baal worship with the worship of God, to the point where worship is not focused on honoring God but gaining personal pleasure.  It is not God or Baal that is being worshiped, but themselves.

God can be worshiped in so many ways and with so many instruments and tools.  However, it is always God who should be worshiped.  Sometimes, it is easy to forget to worship God and instead worship a pastor or a building or an accomplishment.  It is easy to focus more on personal pleasure than offering a sacrifice of praise.  Hosea reminds that however we worship, we should always insure that it is God who is worshiped.

I don’t know which trench you may find yourself in because of the “worship wars”.  I am sorry that anybody has ever been hurt arguing about worship.  I wonder if the “worship wars” would be wars at all if we started with the questions Amos and Hosea ask us to consider.  Let us all ask for forgiveness and for healing not only from our battles but from our selfishness and hard-heartedness that too often gets in the way of our ability to worship God.

Pay Attention to the Ripple Effect

The following is an article that was written for week 14 of The Story.  It is reprinted by permission.

The decisions you make and the actions you take affect those around you.

Rehoboam learned that lesson the hard way.  Rehoboam followed his father Solomon to the throne of Israel.  Solomon had exacted harsh labor on the people.  A delegation, led by Jeroboam, went to the new king and asked him to take away the harshness.

In private, Rehoboam asked his elder council what he should do.  They advised that he become a servant to the people, lighten their load, and the people would always be faithful servants to the king.

His circle of younger friends gave him just the opposite advice.  They told him to work the people harder.  He liked that idea, told the delegation his plans, and wound up with a divided kingdom.

At one time or another all of us are impacted by someone else’s decisions or actions.  When we suffer the negative consequences of another’s wrongheaded decision, God can redeem the situation.  Although Rehoboam wound up ruling only two tribes—Judah and Benjamin (as opposed to Jeroboam’s rule over ten tribes)—it was through Judah that Jesus came to us.  God can work, and often does what seems to us as his best work, in situations that seem the most difficult.

We should always consider how our decisions and actions affect those around us.  In “systems thinking” it is said that “you are the highest leverage point in any system you are in.”  More simply stated, you can make a difference. You are more “powerful” than you think you are––no matter your station in life.

Clint Eastwood’s film Invictus tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s use of the South African rugby team to help heal a nation divided by apartheid.  In one scene of the movie he explains to a team member, “Reconciliation starts here.  Forgiveness starts here.”  He knew his actions would have a ripple effect on those around him.  Eventually the blessing of that “ripple” washed across the nation.

Rehoboam made a bad decision, but it was really his father Solomon’s actions that divided the kingdom.  He forsook the one true God and chased after other “gods,” he neglected to serve the people and instead forced them to work harder, and he was focused on himself, as reflected in his accumulation of wives, gold, and horses in direct disobedience to God’s counsel.  His son Rehoboam was merely living out consequence of those decisions and actions.

Learn from Solomon’s mistake.  Love God first.  Love others second.  And serve those that do not yet know God.  You will be surprised to see how far your ripple will travel.

“Reality” TV

My wife recorded an episode of a new TV show called “I Forgive You.”  The show tells the true stories of men and women practicing forgiveness in all kinds of instances:  bullying, abuse, stealing, murder, etc.  She was watching the episode this morning while I was getting ready to go to work.  The first story was about a woman who, as a teenager, was bullied, picked on, and insulted on a regular basis by other students in her school.  For years, she carried the shame and hurt of their abuse.  In this episode, the woman invites her former classmates to meet her at their former school so that she can tell them face to face that she forgives them.  Of the 30 some former classmates that were invited, only 2 showed up.

At this point, I have to confess my skepticism and frustration with “reality” television.  I am not sure that “reality” exists when there is a camera filming your every word and action for broadcast across national television.  And so it was, this morning, that I expressed out loud with sarcasm, “And these two showed up probably because they were more interested in getting on TV than being forgiven!”  Maybe I am right, but I do hope I am wrong.

However, I have found myself thinking the rest of the day about those folks who didn’t come.  The host of the show assumed by her attitude that their absence reflected some kind of belief on their part that they didn’t need to be there.  And maybe that is so.  Maybe they didn’t feel they needed to be forgiven.  Maybe they weren’t interested in talking about events of so long ago.  But then another thought came to mind:  I wonder how many didn’t show up because they didn’t want people today to know that they were the kid who used to bully another student?  They didn’t want that label pinned to them.

We live in a world that will define people by one day, one act, one word.  One moment can become all anybody remembers about a person.  In such a world, how can the church talk about the importance of confessing our sins?  Isn’t there a danger that by confessing our sins, all anybody will ever be able to think about is our sins?  Most of us would probably just assume keep our sins to ourselves, tucked away in private, rather than risk having them define us.

David has an affair with Bathsheba that leads to David ordering his general Joab to abandon Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, in the midst of battle so that he will be killed.  Adultery, treason, conspiracy to commit murder – David was the guy on “Law and Order” that you cheered for him to get what he deserved.  But David’s sin doesn’t remain hidden.  The prophet Nathan walks right into David’s palace and exposes his sin before David’s very eyes.

We would expect this to be the moment that would forever define David.  Forget about Goliath, forget about Jerusalem, forget about the expansion of Israelite territory, forget about his friendship with Jonathan.

But we don’t forget those things.  We remember this moment, but it is not all that we remember about David.  Perhaps that is because, when Nathan confronts him, David doesn’t deny his behavior or try to excuse it or place the blame somewhere else.  When his sin is revealed, he stands up and says, “I have sinned against the LORD.”  He owns it, he confesses it.  He takes a risk that he will always be the king who had an affair and ordered his own soldier killed.

Nathan replies, “Now the LORD has put away your sin”.  Nathan lets David know that there will still be consequences for his actions, consequences that cannot be avoided.  However, Nathan also tells David that God will not define David by this event, by this sin.  When David is willing to confess his sin, God is willing to put it away.

Confession is something that scares us because we believe we will be labeled as our sin. As a result, we usually end up carrying the sin within us, allowing it to own us.  Instead, confession should be what allows us to let go of sin’s hold on us so that we can find our true identity through Christ.  By owning up to our sin, sin no longer can own us.

What do we need to confess to God today?  Go to him in prayer.  As you pour your heart out to him, know that He puts away everything you turn over to him.  That sin no longer owns you, no longer defines you.

Turning the Mountain into a Molehill

The confrontation between David & Goliath is a story that resonates beyond the faith community.  The story of a weaker, overmatched hero rising up to defeat a stronger, better equipped enemy is invoked in the world of sports, politics, and entertainment.  It’s a story so many know so well, that when we actually take time to read the story again, it is amazing some of the stuff that we actually learn for the first time.

When David tells King Saul that he will take on the Philistine warrior, Saul responds, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.”  I love David’s response:

Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it.

Saul and the Israelite army saw Goliath as a strong, imposing warrior that could not be defeated.  Interestingly enough, we don’t actually ever see him prove his mettle on the battlefield (the only battle we see him fight he loses!).  But Goliath sure knows how to talk trash and sound big.  And the Israelites fall for every word of it!  Based just on what they see and what they hear, everybody cowers in fear.  For David?  Goliath is no different from a lion or a bear he fights on a regular basis.

I am reminded that so many times we look at problems and conflicts in our lives the same way that the Israelites looked at Goliath.  They look imposing, they sound difficult, and so we cower in fear of facing the problem or confronting the conflict.  In doing so, we can sometimes make a mountain out of a molehill.  You know, a mole hill may only stick up a few inches above the ground, but they can run as deep as 12-18 inches, according to Wikipedia.  That is still a noticeable obstacle.  The difference is, we would walk across a molehill without thinking twice.  There are problems and conflicts that our fear and dread cause us to walk away from as if they were impossible mountains to climb when, if we confronted them, as David confronted Goliath, we might find they are really molehills that we can easily pass over and move on.

In Philippians 4, Paul writes,

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.

Through faith, we are invited to approach every problem not in fear of marching to certain destruction but with the confidence that, with Christ, we will find our way over the molehill, even if the molehill is pretty deep.  We are invited to not make problems and conflicts bigger than they actually are.  We are invited to experience the world not with ears of hype but eyes of truth.  When we set free the truth of Christ in our lives, the molehills stay just that, molehills.

Reading About the Day Before on the Day After

Well, it’s all over but the shouting … but I guess we have gotten used to the shouting by now.

I thought it was interesting timing to be reading the story of Samuel and Saul on the week of a Presidential election here in the United States.  Especially intriguing was to read Samuel’s description (perhaps better described as a warning) of a king in 1 Samuel 8:11-17.

He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.  He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and courtiers.  He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work.  He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.

All we need now is for the next verse to read, “I’m the prophet Samuel, and I approved this message”.

Samuel was not talking about a particular party or a particular king.  He was talking about any king, every king.  Israel was looking at a king as the solution to all their problems.  Samuel used “negative campaigning” to try to show Israel that a king would bring a whole new set of problems.

Then, on the day before Samuel anoints Saul as king, God says to Samuel, “He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines; for I have seen the suffering of my people, because their outcry has come to me.”  Guess what?  The king can do some good!

A lot of Biblical interpreters talk about how the Bible preserves the historical tension of whether kings in Israel were the cause of their problems or the promise of salvation.  Maybe part of the reason for preserving the tension was to challenge everyone’s expectations about the king.

We live in times right now where we tend to talk about our leaders in broad brush strokes.  “Our guy” is the nation’s only hope, while “their guy” will put us on the path to ruin.  All Republicans are old, white, rich militants and all Democrats are atheist communists.  We won, and everybody else is wrong.  We lost, and everybody else is stupid.  Does this sound like your Facebook and Twitter feed?

Reading these stories today, I feel challenged to consider that our government leaders are people just like you and me.  There is not a one of them that is perfect.  Each and every one of them can do something that someone can justifiably yell and shout about; but each and every one of them is just as capable to do something that can make a positive difference in somebody’s life.  Maybe part of what the story of Samuel and Saul should do is temper both our celebration and critique of all of our leaders.  Yes, they carry big responsibilities as well as big expectations.  But, and this is the point that 1 Samuel makes abundantly clear, they are not God.

Let’s put down the broad brushes of deification and demonizing.  Let’s pray for the men and women, all of them, who have been chosen to lead at every level of government.  Let’s pray that they will do more good than harm, more right than wrong.  Let’s pray for wisdom, for unity, and for peace.  Most importantly, let’s pray that we would never lose sight of Who is truly in control of the Universe.  May He be our King of Kings!

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:8)